An actual review – in audio form!

I know, I can’t believe it either! It’s an old review of mine from this blog but it still counts, OK? OK.

Yorick Radio Productions is the brainchild of one of my dear friends, Rosie. Bringing listeners ‘radio plays, documentaries, short stories, and whatever else happened to float through our brains at the time’, the podcast features readings of short stories, interviews with their authors, documentary style episodes about different forms of theatre and loads more! With such a wide variety of topics and styles you’ll definitely find something to take your fancy – especially now the podcast’s on its second series, with over sixty episodes to choose from. That, and Rosie illustrates each episode on xer Instagram – @beechhedgewitch – and look, I’m an actual book wyrm!

I’ve worked with Yorick Radio Productions a number of times – I’ve read one of my short stories, lent my voice to a variety of characters in different scripts (from the Greek playwright Aeschylus to a Biblical angel) , and been interviewed about one of my favourite nerdy hobbies, Live Action Role Play (or LARP). Last week I was asked to kick off their latest segment, Cozy Critiques, and did so with a reading of my review of Normal People by Sally Rooney. It was such fun to actually read that review aloud, and I hope you all enjoy it too! Here’s a link to the episode on Buzzsprout, though Yorick Radio Productions can be found on your preferred podcast platform, from Audible to Spotify, Apple Podcasts to Castbox. Listen out for updates on Thursdays – and thanks again to Rosie for having me on the show once again!

https://yorickradio.buzzsprout.com/1084415/9207653

Highsmith and Thompson – A Thriller Think-Piece

‘…and hopefully it won’t be months before I’m back, with a proper review this time.’

Oh, Past Me. We like to joke here on this blog, we like to have fun. In all seriousness, what with working from home and being on my laptop all day, writing my script (on my laptop) and writing posts for three online play-by-post RPGs I’m part of as a hobby (also on my laptop), the thought of sitting in front of my screen for even longer to write up book reviews has been daunting, to say the least. Hence why I last posted here in March. I felt inspired, however, to make a post today because of a book I recently finished – although I’m afraid this isn’t a proper review. Rather, this is more of a think-piece on a couple of crime/thriller classics. These books are as follows:

Everyone in the small town of Central City, Texas loves Lou Ford. A deputy sheriff, Lou’s known to the small-time criminals, the real-estate entrepreneurs, and all of his coworkers–the low-lifes, the big-timers, and everyone in-between–as the nicest guy around. He may not be the brightest or the most interesting man in town, but nevertheless, he’s the kind of officer you’re happy to have keeping your streets safe. The sort of man you might even wish your daughter would end up with someday.

But behind the platitudes and glad-handing lurks a monster the likes of which few have seen. An urge that has already claimed multiple lives, and cost Lou his brother Mike, a self-sacrificing construction worker who fell to his death on the job in what was anything but an accident. A murder that Lou is determined to avenge–and if innocent people have to die in the process, well, that’s perfectly all right with him.

In The Killer Inside Me, Thompson goes where few novelists have dared to go, giving us a pitch-black glimpse into the mind of the American Serial Killer years before Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, and Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, in the novel that will forever be known as the master performance of one of the greatest crime novelists of all time.

The psychologists would call it folie á deux

‘Bruno slammed his palms together. “Hey! Cheeses, what an idea! We murder for each other, see? I kill your wife and you kill my father! We meet on a train see, and nobody knows we know each other! Perfect alibis! Catch?”‘

From this moment, almost against his conscious will, Guy Haines is trapped in a nightmare of shared guilt and an insidious merging of personalities.

***

Strangers on a Train was first published in 1950, and The Killer Inside Me was published two years later. They’re both classics of the thriller and crime genres, especially Highsmith’s novel which was adapted into one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous films. I’m a huge fan of the film, and still remember when I first watched it years ago at school as part of a film module – although watching Psycho, with some people needing to close their eyes or even leave the room during the infamous shower scene, was admittedly more memorable. If I remember rightly, there’s a film adaptation of Thompson’s novel out there somewhere, but I won’t be looking to watch it in a hurry – and to be completely honest, if I’d read the book first instead of watching the film, I wouldn’t have been eager to look out Strangers on a Train either. What could have caused me to say such blasphemous things? These books, with their secrets, lies, oh and don’t forget the multiple murders! – were boring.

OK, OK, before you come at me with the torches and pitchforks, allow me to explain.

I’ll start with Highsmith’s novel first, since it was the first of the two I read. I’d been meaning to read it for awhile – I loved the film adaptation, the novel is a classic of the genre, and I’ve never actually read any of Highsmith’s books before. High time to rectify that, if nothing else. I knew the novel would be different to the film in some respects, but I hadn’t realised quite how different – Guy Haines is an architect in the book, rather than a amateur tennis star, for example, and as for whether or not he goes through with Bruno’s plan… well, you’d have to watch the book or read the film to find out, I don’t want to spoil either! Another big change came at the end, in the manner of a particular character’s death. The scene in which this character dies in the film was, in fact, taken from the climax of another novel! I wasn’t disappointed in these changes, as I knew to expect some differences between the original novel and its adaptation, but what I was disappointed in was how the premise felt squandered. It’s a gripping premise – two strangers meet and agree to swap murders, but what if only one of them actually goes through with it? It makes for a thrilling film, but as a book it was slow – one review I came across stated that it felt like a gripping short story, squeezed into 280 pages.

I completely agree with that statement – several times I considered putting the book down and not picking it back up again. The focus would often stray from the main plot to Bruno and Guy’s various meditations on life and their place in it which, while relevant to what was happening, rather took me out of the action. Take this passage, for example:

‘If he believed in the full complement of evil in himself, he had to believe also in a natural compulsion to express it. He found himself wondering, therefore, from time to time, if he might have enjoyed his crime in some way, derived some primal satisfaction from it – how else could one really explain in mankind the continued toleration of wars, the perennial enthusiasm for wars when they came, if not for some primal pleasure in killing? – and because the capacity to wonder came so often, he accepted it as true that he had.’

Highsmith’s style was so difficult to decipher at times that, at one crucial moment, I didn’t realise that a particular character had been killed! Whether that was just her way of writing, or the way the death had to be described because of the time in which the book was published, I can’t say – all I can say is that I had to re-read that particular page several times before I realised that yes, that man had in fact been shot – and his death was crucial to the plot. Crucial plot elements being so difficult to miss didn’t do the book any favours, nor did its frequent wanderings from the main plot for long passages of introspection, or the dual protagonists doing things like travelling to Mexico or making martinis which didn’t serve the main action in any clearly discernible way.

I’m finding it difficult to put into words just how slow and dull the book was without making my own words slow and dull – I hope! – but suffice to say that it was, and if I were ever to revisit the story again it would be through Hitchcock’s film. At least the book introduced me to the concept of the caviar sandwich – maybe I’ll make one of those when I do my rewatch.

I had so dearly wanted to love Strangers on a Train and I hadn’t, so I hoped my experience with The Killer Inside Me would be better. I hadn’t actually heard of the book before, but when purchasing another Stephen King book to add to my collection it was recommended alongside his work. On the back of my copy of the book, King himself is quoted as saying: ‘My favourite crime novelist – often imitated but never duplicated – is Jim Thompson’, while on the front cover Stanley Kubrick describes the book as ‘chilling and believable’. I found the book to be neither, and I can’t help but wonder why. Was it the writing style again?

‘We’re living in a funny world kid, a peculiar civilization. The police are playing crooks in it, and the crooks are doing police duty. The politicians are preachers, and the preachers are politicians. The tax collectors collect for themselves. The Bad People want us to have more dough, and the good people are fighting to keep it from us. It’s not good for us, know what I mean? If we had all we wanted to eat, we’d eat too much. We’d have inflation in the toilet paper industry. That’s the way I understand it. That’s about the size of some of the arguments I’ve heard.’

Thompson’s book felt a little more fast-paced than Highsmith’s, but not by much. Like Highsmith, Thompson made some excellent points about human nature, and the underbelly of America in particular, especially relevant today considering the fact the protagonist is a murderous police officer… But I felt nothing. Lou didn’t feel monstrous, he felt flat. As the book was written from his perspective, it made sense that there would be a lot of introspection, that it wouldn’t be all action, a murder a minute – and that’s a good thing, don’t get me wrong. But as with Strangers on a Train, The Killer Inside Me dragged – and again, on multiple occasions I considered putting it down and not picking it back up, no matter what King and Kubrick said.

All of this is to say, it feels as though I’m missing something. King is one of my favourite authors and he loves Thompson’s work. Surely I should have loved it too? I enjoyed the film adaptation of Highsmith’s novel, why did I struggle my way through the original? Both are right up my alley – true crime, mystery, thriller type books – so why was I not thrilled? Why was I bored? Was it because I was reading them in 2021, not the early 1950s when they would have been more shocking? Was it to do with the writing styles of both authors? Did I go into both of these books with exceedingly high expectations, hence why they were so spectacularly dashed? Maybe it was all of these reasons and more, I can’t say for certain. I’ve written this entire post trying to riddle it out, and I’m still no closer to the answer – I suppose it’s a good thing I’m not a mystery writer myself. Unfortunately, all of these confused feelings about these books I thought I would love means I won’t be having a stab at another of Thompson or Highsmith’s anytime soon.

Guess who’s back?

What can I say, that last ‘Come At Me, Books!’ dare really took it out of me. Well, that and surgery back in January where they took my gallbladder out of me too. Yes, I’ve had surgery twice during a global pandemic – that must be some sort of a record. I’ve also been very busy with working on my script for the Playwrights’ Studio Scotland Mentored Playwrights programme – starting work on Act II today, and that’s daunting. Am I procrastinating by writing this blog post? Possibly. All of that being said, I realise I said awhile ago that I’d have to just accept that my posts here will be sporadic at best, but really… my last post was in November and it’s now the last week of March. Get it together, me.

Anyway, I’m afraid I’m not here with a review, but I do have a small update in the form of a list of books I’ve recently read that I’ve enjoyed but haven’t reviewed – I should have at the time but now I’d need to re-read them again to give them the review they deserve.

A less complicated explanation for this list: Good books. Would give four or five stars in review. Haven’t actually written review. Whoops. Please read these books anyway – trust me, they’re good.

All blurbs are from Goodreads.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

In 2014, Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes was widely seen as the female Steve Jobs: a brilliant Stanford dropout whose startup “unicorn” promised to revolutionize the medical industry with a machine that would make blood tests significantly faster and easier. Backed by investors such as Larry Ellison and Tim Draper, Theranos sold shares in a fundraising round that valued the company at $9 billion, putting Holmes’s worth at an estimated $4.7 billion. There was just one problem: The technology didn’t work.

For years, Holmes had been misleading investors, FDA officials, and her own employees. When Carreyrou, working at The Wall Street Journal, got a tip from a former Theranos employee and started asking questions, both Carreyrou and the Journal were threatened with lawsuits. Undaunted, the newspaper ran the first of dozens of Theranos articles in late 2015. By early 2017, the company’s value was zero and Holmes faced potential legal action from the government and her investors. Here is the riveting story of the biggest corporate fraud since Enron, a disturbing cautionary tale set amid the bold promises and gold-rush frenzy of Silicon Valley.

Things We Say in the Dark by Kirsty Logan

A shocking collection of dark stories, ranging from chilling contemporary fairytales to disturbing supernatural fiction.

Alone in a remote house in Iceland a woman is unnerved by her isolation; another can only find respite from the clinging ghost that follows her by submerging herself in an overgrown pool. Couples wrestle with a lack of connection to their children; a schoolgirl becomes obsessed with the female anatomical models in a museum; and a cheery account of child’s day out is undercut by chilling footnotes.

These dark tales explore women’s fears with electrifying honesty and invention and speak to one another about female bodies, domestic claustrophobia, desire and violence.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Balram, the White Tiger, was born in a backwater village on the River Ganges, the son of a rickshaw-puller. He works in a teashop, crushing coal and wiping tables, but nurses a dream of escape. When he learns that a rich village landlord needs a chauffeur, he takes his opportunity, and is soon on his way to Delhi behind the wheel of a Honda. Amid the cockroaches and call-centres, the 36,000,004 gods, the slums, the shopping malls, and the crippling traffic jams, Balram learns of a new morality at the heart of a new India. Driven by desire to better himself, he comes to see how the Tiger might escape his cage…

Pain and Prejudice: A Call to Arms for Women and Their Bodies by Gabrielle Jackson

A timely and powerful look at how our culture treats the pain and suffering of women.

‘Women are in pain, all through their bodies; they’re in pain with their periods, and while having sex; they have pelvic pain, migraine, headaches, joint aches, painful bladders, irritable bowels, sore lower backs, muscle pain, vulval pain, vaginal pain, jaw pain, muscle aches. And many are so, so tired … But women’s pain is all too often dismissed, their illnesses misdiagnosed or ignored. In medicine, man is the default human being. Any deviation is atypical, abnormal, deficient.’

Fourteen years after being diagnosed with endometriosis, Gabrielle Jackson couldn’t believe how little had changed in the treatment and knowledge of the disease. In 2015, her personal story kick-started a worldwide investigation into the disease by The Guardian; thousands of women got in touch to tell their own stories and many more read and shared the material. What began as one issue led Jackson to explore how women – historically and through to the present day – are under-served by the systems that should keep them happy, healthy and informed about their bodies.

Pain and Prejudice is a vital testament to how social taboos and medical ignorance keep women sick and in anguish. The stark reality is that women’s pain is not taken as seriously as men’s. Women are more likely to be disbelieved and denied treatment than men, even though women are far more likely to be suffering from chronic pain.

In a potent blend of personal memoir and polemic, Jackson confronts the private concerns and questions women face regarding their health and medical treatment. Pain and Prejudice, finally, explains how we got here, and where we need to go next.

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré

The unforgettable, inspiring story of a teenage girl growing up in a rural Nigerian village who longs to get an education so that she can find her “louding voice” and speak up for herself, The Girl with the Louding Voice is a simultaneously heartbreaking and triumphant tale about the power of fighting for your dreams.

Despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in her path, Adunni never loses sight of her goal of escaping the life of poverty she was born into so that she can build the future she chooses for herself – and help other girls like her do the same.

Her spirited determination to find joy and hope in even the most difficult circumstances imaginable will “break your heart and then put it back together again” (Jenna Bush Hager on The Today Show) even as Adunni shows us how one courageous young girl can inspire us all to reach for our dreams…and maybe even change the world.

Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain by Sathnam Sanghera

In his brilliantly illuminating new book Sathnam Sanghera demonstrates how so much of what we consider to be modern Britain is actually rooted in our imperial past. In prose that is, at once, both clear-eyed and full of acerbic wit, Sanghera shows how our past is everywhere: from how we live to how we think, from the foundation of the NHS to the nature of our racism, from our distrust of intellectuals in public life to the exceptionalism that imbued the campaign for Brexit and the government’s early response to the Covid crisis. And yet empire is a subject, weirdly hidden from view.

The British Empire ran for centuries and covered vast swathes of the world. It is, as Sanghera reveals, fundamental to understanding Britain. However, even among those who celebrate the empire there seems to be a desire not to look at it too closely – not to include the subject in our school history books, not to emphasize it too much in our favourite museums.

At a time of great division, when we are arguing about what it means to be British, Sanghera’s book urges us to address this bewildering contradiction. For, it is only by stepping back and seeing where we really come from, that we can begin to understand who we are, and what unites us.

50 Things About Us by Mark Thomas

In 50 Things About Us, Mark Thomas combines his trademark mix of storytelling, stand-up, mischief and really, really well-researched material to examine how we have come to inhabit this divided wasteland that some of us call the United Kingdom. Based on his latest show, 50 Things About Us, Mark picks through the myths, historical facts and current figures of our national identities to ask: who do we think we are?

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

The Tsar of Love and Techno begins in 1930s Leningrad, where a failed portrait artist is tasked by Soviet censors to erase political dissenters from official images and artworks. One day, he receives an antique painting of a dacha inside a box of images meant to be altered. The mystery behind this painting reverberates through the stories that follow, which take us through a century as they thread together a cast of characters including a Siberian beauty queen, a young soldier in the battlefields of Chechnya, the Head of the Grozny Tourist Bureau, a ballerina performing for the camp director of a gulag and many others.

I Am Not Your Baby Mother by Candice Brathwaite

When Candice fell pregnant and stepped into the motherhood playing field, she found her experience bore little resemblance to the glossy magazine experience in Great Britain today. Leafing through the piles of prenatal paraphernalia, she found herself wondering: “Where are all the black mothers?”.

Candice started blogging about motherhood in 2016 after making the simple but powerful observation that the way motherhood is portrayed in the British media is wholly unrepresentative of our society at large. The author writes with humour, but with straight-talk about facing hurdles such as white privilege, racial micro-aggression and unconscious bias at every point.

Salt Slow by Julia Armfield

In her brilliantly inventive and haunting debut collection of stories, Julia Armfield explores bodies and the bodily, mapping the skin and bones of her characters through their experiences of isolation, obsession, love and revenge.

Teenagers develop ungodly appetites, a city becomes insomniac overnight, and bodies are diligently picked apart to make up better ones. The mundane worlds of schools and sleepy sea-side towns are invaded and transformed, creating a landscape which is constantly shifting to hold on to its inhabitants. Blurring the mythic and the gothic with the everyday, Salt Slow considers characters in motion – turning away, turning back or simply turning into something new entirely.

Winner of The White Review Short Story Prize 2018, Armfield is a writer of sharp, lyrical prose and tilting dark humour – Salt Slow marks the arrival of an ambitious and singular new voice.

I hope you found something you’re interested in among my recommendations – and hopefully it won’t be months before I’m back, with a proper review this time.

The Last Tudor – Review (Come at Me, Books! – Dare #3)

This book. This bloody book.

Where do I begin? I was going to sit down and collate all the pictures I took of especially egregious prose and dialogue and type them up, and perhaps divide the review into three sections, one for each ‘book’ these 513 pages are split into. But that’s far more effort than this waste of paper and ink deserves. Trees died for this, and I’m furious. I finished this book yesterday afternoon, and I was so frustrated with it that I had to step away from the computer and go for a walk to calm down before I could come back and try and collect my thoughts into a semi-coherent review instead of an unfiltered rant.

Let me preface this review by saying I have always hated Philippa Gregory’s work, and I knew I wasn’t going to like this book. I just didn’t realise how much I was going to dislike it. I’ve always hated her work, you see, without having read any of it – a cardinal sin, I know. But the fact her ‘historical fiction’ consists of deliberately misinterpreted facts and indulgence in speculation and rumours put me off ever reading any of her books – I watched The White Queen purely because it’s based on one of my favourite historical periods, and that infuriated me enough. Witchcraft, pitting women against each other while claiming to be feminist, anachronistic nicknames the better to tell the difference between characters with the same name because she writes everyone the same way – I could go on, but if I try and review that series as well my head will explode.

Ellis actually challenged me to read this book years ago – two years, I think. I kept putting it off and finally, Friday 13th 2020, I’m not even superstitious but, just in case, I thought ‘if I start it now, that’ll be the worst thing that happens to me today’ – and boy, was I right. Forgive me if this review isn’t as well structured or eloquent as my other reviews, but honestly I need to get this all off my chest and then never think of this book again.

If my fury seems exaggerated to you, allow me to explain.

I had to put the book down on page six – page six – to consider whether I could actually go through with it and read the damn thing. The book consists of the stories of the Grey sisters – Jane Grey, infamously ‘Queen for Nine Days’, and her lesser known sisters, Katherine and Mary. Clearly, as they are the protagonists, we are supposed to sympathise with them. But when Jane, on page six, says that Elizabeth (later Elizabeth I) was ‘tickling and romping’ with Katherine Parr’s husband – I’ll talk more about how this book treats Elizabeth in a bit, trust me – when she treats this rumour as stone cold fact, and talks about it with such self righteous glee despite claiming ‘I do not judge’… I wasn’t even ten pages in, and I disliked her immensely. Jane was not only full of herself and holier-than-thou, constantly banging on about how she was better than everyone as they’re all ‘so very stupid’, but she was also possessed of ‘dainty prettiness’ unlike the ‘stout’ Princess Elizabeth (?!), and ‘the most learned young person in the country’, so much so that her own father ‘fear[ed] [her] eloquence’. Her sisters were no better – judgemental, egotistical and selfish – and I don’t differentiate between them as I couldn’t tell their voices apart. The only difference between the three was Jane’s slavish devotion to the reformed religion – to the extent that when she was in the Tower, facing execution, she wished Katherine would leave her alone and refused to speak to her so she could pray.

I didn’t care for, or sympathise with, any of them – especially when none of them seemed to care for or sympathise with each other. Then there’s their treatment of Elizabeth, with Katherine especially acting as though everything the Queen did was to spite her personally. All three of them went on and on about how they were ‘of the blood royal’, with Mary once even whining ‘I cannot live like this’ when confined to a small room with hardly any room for her maid to serve her, the horror! – would she rather have been in the Tower? – but Katherine, especially, kept insisting she was far more regal than Elizabeth and, of course, more beautiful. She, her sisters, and Gregory herself continually refer to Elizabeth as a whore – ‘I think that if she were not a queen she would certainly be a whore’ – and it’s very clear that Gregory has a problem with her as a historical figure and is using her novels to indulge in petulant mud-slinging.

Unlikeable protagonists, historical inaccuracies, bias… what else could go wrong? How about the pacing? Jane’s story – the most well known, and arguably the most exciting – was crammed into just over a hundred pages. Katherine’s book was the longest and felt as though it went on forever – she was in favour, then she wasn’t, in favour, then she wasn’t – eventually ending up imprisoned for marrying without the Queen’s permission, like a complete idiot. Then Mary goes and does the same thing in her book, and both constantly whine and complain and whinge and cry and protest they only married for love and did nothing wrong… You married without the Queen’s permission! If you weren’t a piece of wet cardboard stuffed into a kirtle transported to the 16th century from the 21st, you would understand the importance of doing that, you absolutely insufferable morons!!

… Excuse me.

The pacing was dreadful not only due to some events being rushed, and others described with all the dry detail of a Wikipedia article, but also due to how dull and repetitive the book was. There were so many instances of characters stating the obvious because Gregory doesn’t trust the reader – “Jane, the king, my cousin, is dead” and “My husband? My Thomas, Thomas Keyes? The queen’s sergeant porter, the biggest man at court? Who married me?” being some of the most egregious, and hilarious, examples – which made the writing not only clunky as hell, but so heavy on the exposition and info-dumping that I quickly lost track of who was who, though frankly I didn’t care much in the first place. People do not talk like this – they didn’t talk like this even in the 1500s. The dialogue was awful, the characters not even worthy to be called two dimensional, the events of the book were repetitive and poorly paced – but overall, the worst sin this book committed, was that it was so. bloody. boring. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I told you I almost nodded off trying to read it. Katherine’s section alone should have been cut by two hundred pages but, even if the whole book had been trimmed to a much more reasonable length, it still would have been dull as ditchwater. My Last Duchess and Throne of Glass were boring and poorly written, but at least they had the common decency to be somewhat amusing at times. When I finished this book I threw it on the floor and kicked it across the room – if you don’t believe me, ask me and I’ll send you the video evidence.

Writing about this book – even thinking about this book – makes me want to scream. The fact that Philippa Gregory’s books are so popular that her versions of events are often regarded as accurate infuriates me. I sometimes don’t mind historical fiction, don’t get me wrong, but this went too far – as I understand her other books do too, such as having Anne Boleyn and her brother actually commit incest… If I’m completely honest, having read this book, I am officially retiring the ‘Come at Me, Books!’ challenge for the sake of my sanity. I know some people will say ‘it’s just a book, calm down’ or ‘it’s fiction, don’t be so angry’, but I was literally – and I use that word correctly – shaking with barely suppressed rage while struggling to finish this book. The Last Tudor isn’t worth it. Philippa Gregory certainly isn’t.

I probably could say more, but I’m tired. Drained, even. This book did not defeat me, but it dealt me a near fatal blow. If I ever pick up another book by Philippa Gregory it will be so I can use it as a weapon to whack her over the head – and keep whacking until she promises never to write another.

The Nothing Man – A Review

I think I need to stop apologising for the long gaps between posts, and just accept that my posting on this blog will be sporadic at best. Having returned to working from home at the end of August, I then returned to my desk officially in September. I was quite busy, but was starting to get into the swing of things after months of furlough when Abdominal Pain 2: Electric Boogaloo occurred. To make a long story short I have gallstones and the process of sorting them out is ongoing.

On this plus side, while I’ve been waiting for various appointments and a procedure, I’ve had a little more time to read. I loved Kiley Reid’s debut novel Such a Fun Age – to the extent I stayed up late the night before I had to wake up at 6:30 to get to the hospital in order to finish it – but in this review I’d like to talk a little about The Nothing Man. Because this book… this book. I went in with very high expectations, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s not often I get to say that!

I was the girl who survived the Nothing Man. 
Now I am the woman who is going to catch him…

You’ve just read the opening pages of The Nothing Man, the true crime memoir Eve Black has written about her obsessive search for the man who killed her family nearly two decades ago. 

Supermarket security guard Jim Doyle is reading it too, and with each turn of the page his rage grows. Because Jim was – is – the Nothing Man. 

The more Jim reads, the more he realises how dangerously close Eve is getting to the truth. He knows she won’t give up until she finds him. He has no choice but to stop her first…

I’ve read a lot of true crime books, watched several documentaries, and always try to catch the latest episodes from Mike of ‘That Chapter’ on YouTube, where he discusses different disappearances and murder cases, most of which I’m unfamiliar with. I once went through a period of binging clips from the show Deadly Women during my lunch breaks. And that’s just me. To say that true crime is having a moment would be accurate, but it’s something I don’t feel I’m properly able to explain. Even for my own part – why am I so interested in these cases when, statistically, I’d be a likely victim? Luckily I’ve ordered a book – Savage Appetites by Rachel Monroe – that investigates our cultural fascination with true crime, particularly as it pertains to women. Maybe once I’ve read it I’ll be able to explain this phenomenon better.

My point in saying all of this is that my expectations for The Nothing Man were high. Despite my interest in true crime I don’t tend to read many thrillers, as I often labour under the (probably false) belief that a lot of them are stories full of tropes and cliches, churned out to sell at airports. I initially thought the same of this one when I saw the cover, I won’t lie, but when I read the premise I knew I had to read the book. As it turns out, a character I myself have written is a killer who is hiding in plain sight, decades after committing his crimes, working a menial job. This remarkable similarity, combined with the true crime memoir element, piqued my interest more than the usual ‘mysterious woman who lives upstairs’ or ‘retired detective is called back for one last case’ sort of thrillers.

The Nothing Man is structured brilliantly, moving between extracts from Eve Black’s book – including author acknowledgements, a postscript and so on, a genuine book-within-a-book – and Jim’s narrative, the differences made clear not just in the different writing styles but through different fonts. Throughout the book Jim is reading Eve’s memoir and you read along with him, making you feel complicit as you see the events of the book as a whole from his perspective. The book doesn’t just focus on the killer and his one survivor, however – Eve’s memoir details not only The Nothing Man’s attack on her family but the stories of his other victims. Ryan Howard makes a very clear point that, while we can reel off the names of infamous serial killers with ease, we have a harder time recalling the names of their victims, and we ought to know more about them besides the gory details of their deaths, and the person who took their lives. The pacing of the overall narrative was fantastic, and I’m honestly already planning to re-read it soon, trying to read it more slowly in order to appreciate the brilliant twists and turns and Jim’s descent into paranoia that he’ll be caught…

I realise this review is short but I don’t want to say anything more at the risk of revealing important plot points or some of the twists that occur in the book’s final act. Needless to say I was gripped and finished this book in two days – I would have finished it in one were it not for a pesky medical procedure! The premise is one I haven’t seen before, and not only did I love how this novel was structured but I found the characters compelling and the overall message to be a very timely one. I hope to read more by Catherine Ryan Howard soon – at present, I wouldn’t hesitate to say The Nothing Man is one of my favourite books of the year so far, and considering how many books I’ve managed to read this year, what with lockdown and recovering from surgery, it’s up against some pretty stiff competition.

Pun somewhat intended.

I’ll show myself out.

I’ve got a little list (and don’t worry, it’s not about executions this time)

People like lists. This isn’t a radical thing to say – the rise of Buzzfeed and similar websites have shown that because lists are easy to read, and break information down from long paragraphs into bite sized chunks, people are more likely to read them than a lengthy article. I was going to write my own list for this post – the best and worst books I’ve read in lockdown so far – but, in truth, I struggled to find more than three books I would consider ‘the worst’. With that in mind, and the fact I’m sure we could all use a bit of positivity right now, here instead is my little list of only the best books. I hope you find something on here that takes your fancy! 🙂

If you fancy something differentGirl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

This was my first Evaristo book, and it won’t be my last. I believe I’ve said it before on this blog but I’ll say it again – I’ve honestly never read a book like it before. There are twelve different stories here which are interconnected and move back and forth in time. It’s polyphonic, big and bustling, somewhere between poetry and prose. I didn’t think I would enjoy it to be completely honest – books without a clearly defined plot are normally books I shy away from – but the brilliantly realised characters and Evaristo’s wit and wordplay blew me away.

If you fancy something scary‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

Maybe horror isn’t the best genre to be reading during a global pandemic, and it’s certainly nothing new to see me recommend a book by Stephen King. Besides, choosing a King book in a scary category is hardly groundbreaking, but ‘Salem’s Lot is a beloved classic from his bibliography for a reason. The slow build of suspense, a tightly crafted story, taking a traditional vampire story and cranking it up several notches – what’s not to love? It’s up there with my favourite King books now.

If you fancy some non-fictionIn Order to Live by Yeonmi Park

The story of a young woman’s struggle to survive – and escape from – one of the most repressive regimes in the world today isn’t exactly light reading, but it is inspiring. Having endured unimaginable hardships in the country where she was born, Park’s escape is not the end of the story but the start of a new hellish chapter, as she endures China’s underworld of traffickers and smugglers. This book is not just the story of her physical escape but the escape from the mental prison of her upbringing in a totalitarian regime – “In North Korea, even arithmetic is a propaganda tool. A typical problem would go like this: “If you kill one American bastard and your comrade kills two, how many dead American bastards do you have?” – and it’s both harrowing and uplifting. The fact that Park and I are the same age only helped to drive the horror of what she’s endured home for me.

And finally, if you fancy some prize-winning fictionThe Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Just because a book is prize winning doesn’t mean it’s good – check out my scathing review of Normal People for more on this, and don’t mention that book in my presence unless you want me to rant about it. This is a book that lives up to the hype. As with all the books on this list, The Nickel Boys deals with some dark, and often frightening, themes – and it’s based on the real story of a reform school in Florida to boot. Elwood, a high school senior, is about to start classes at a local college, but ‘for a black boy in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future’. He is sent to a juvenile reformatory which turns out to be more like a prison, if not worse – and his idealism surrounding Dr. King’s notion of loving those who are cruel to you is contrasted with his friend Turner’s skepticism, leading to a decision that… well, I don’t want to spoil anything, but the twist at the end had me tearing up. Tightly plotted and masterfully crafted, The Nickel Boys is well deserving of its praise and its Pulitzer.

Treat Your Shelves!

As has sadly become the norm for this blog, I’ve haven’t written for a couple of months – but I have a good excuse this time! At the start of July I finally had the surgery I needed that had been cancelled in April, so I’ve been taking my time recovering from that – that, and reading a heck of a lot. They say that time is a healer, but whoever’s saying that hasn’t been reading the right books.

Terrible attempts at jokes aside, I’ve been able to get out and about more over the past few weeks owing to lockdown restrictions easing and my own drastically improved mobility. Today was one such day and I ended up in Waterstones – though let’s be honest, I didn’t end up there by chance – and emerged triumphant maybe half an hour later with a stack of books, which I’m now going to share with you all. It’s been far too long since I’ve shared one of my book hauls with you all!

Part of the reason I’m so excited about these books is because I had enough points on my loyalty card to get £10 off – so I may have gone overboard! In no particular order of excitement – if I could read four books at once I would – they are:

William Shakespeare found dozens of different ways to kill off his characters, and audiences today still enjoy the same reactions – shock, sadness, fear – that they did more than 400 years ago when these plays were first performed. But how realistic are these deaths, and did Shakespeare have the knowledge to back them up?

In the Bard’s day death was a part of everyday life. Plague, pestilence and public executions were a common occurrence, and the chances of seeing a dead or dying body on the way home from the theatre were high. It was also a time of important scientific progress. Shakespeare kept pace with anatomical and medical advances, and he included the latest scientific discoveries in his work, from blood circulation to treatments for syphilis. He certainly didn’t shy away from portraying the reality of death on stage, from the brutal to the mundane, and the spectacular to the silly. 

Elizabethan London provides the backdrop for Death by Shakespeare, as Kathryn Harkup turns her discerning scientific eye to the Bard and the varied and creative ways his characters die. Was death by snakebite as serene as Shakespeare makes out? Could lack of sleep have killed Lady Macbeth? Can you really murder someone by pouring poison in their ear? Kathryn investigates what actual events may have inspired Shakespeare, what the accepted scientific knowledge of the time was, and how Elizabethan audiences would have responded to these death scenes. Death by Shakespeare will tell you all this and more in a rollercoaster of Elizabethan carnage, poison, swordplay and bloodshed, with an occasional death by bear-mauling for good measure.

Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung, Ceausescu, Mengistu of Ethiopia and Duvalier of Haiti.

No dictator can rule through fear and violence alone. Naked power can be grabbed and held temporarily, but it never suffices in the long term. A tyrant who can compel his own people to acclaim him will last longer. The paradox of the modern dictator is that he must create the illusion of popular support. Throughout the twentieth century, hundreds of millions of people were condemned to enthusiasm, obliged to hail their leaders even as they were herded down the road to serfdom.

In How to Be a Dictator, Frank Dikötter returns to eight of the most chillingly effective personality cults of the twentieth century. From carefully choreographed parades to the deliberate cultivation of a shroud of mystery through iron censorship, these dictators ceaselessly worked on their own image and encouraged the population at large to glorify them. At a time when democracy is in retreat, are we seeing a revival of the same techniques among some of today’s world leaders?

This timely study, told with great narrative verve, examines how a cult takes hold, grows, and sustains itself. It places the cult of personality where it belongs, at the very heart of tyranny.

Wallace has spent his summer in the lab breeding a strain of microscopic worms. He is four years into a biochemistry degree at a lakeside Midwestern university, a life that’s a world away from his childhood in Alabama. 

His father died a few weeks ago, but Wallace didn’t go back for the funeral, and he hasn’t told his friends Miller, Yngve, Cole and Emma. For reasons of self-preservation, he has become used to keeping a wary distance even from those closest to him. But, over the course of one blustery end-of-summer weekend, the destruction of his work and a series of intense confrontations force Wallace to grapple with both the trauma of the past, and the question of the future.

Elegant, brutal and startlingly intimate, Real Life is a campus novel about learning to live from an electric new voice in fiction.

Berlin, 1940, and the city is filled with fear. At the house on 55 Jablonski Strasse, its various occupants try to live under Nazi rule in their different ways: the bullying Hitler loyalists the Persickes, the retired judge Fromm and the unassuming couple Otto and Anna Quangel. Then the Quangels receive the news that their beloved son has been killed fighting in France. Shocked out of their quiet existence, they begin a silent campaign of defiance, and a deadly game of cat and mouse develops between the Quangels and the ambitious Gestapo inspector Escherich. When petty criminals Kluge and Borkhausen also become involved, deception, betrayal and murder ensue, tightening the noose around the Quangels’ necks …

Hopefully I’ll be writing reviews for these at some point soon – in the meantime, I’m planning to write up a post of some of my best and worst reads from lockdown thus far. To date, I’ve read over forty books so it may be hard to narrow it down!

Here’s hoping it won’t be another two months until I write on this blog again. To everyone out there who’s reading this, thank you for sticking around. I really appreciate your patience. Until my next post – happy reading, everyone!

Black Lives Matter – A Couple of Brief Reviews & Recommendations

As has sadly become the norm for this blog, it’s been ages since I’ve written. I have nothing but time on my hands, and I’ve been doing a lot of reading, and yet it’s been months since I posted an update or – God forbid – an actual review. Recent developments have changed this, however, as today I will be posting two mini-reviews/book recommendations.

If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll have already seen my post about the BLM movement and the reading I plan to do in order to educate myself, but I’ll post what I said here for those of you who didn’t see it. I put up a picture of the following books:

. Natives: Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala
. Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging by Afua Hirsch
. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
and
. White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson

with this caption: ‘These books represent a small fraction of the literature I plan to read this year, in order to try and become a better ally. I’ve signed petitions and donated to protest organisations, but these actions alone are not enough. I have to educate myself further and understand that allyship is never arrived at, but a continuing practice.’

To date, I have read Akala and Hirsch’s books, having just finished the latter today. I wanted to write this post to recommend both, as they are not only incredibly insightful in showing what it’s like growing up as a black person in Britain, but also because both books are written in such an engaging style. Akala’s book is a blend of autobiography and history, while Hirsch uses her background as a jumping off point to explore a wide variety of topics, from race and class to the perception of black bodies.

From the first time he was stopped and searched as a child, to the day he realised his mum was white, to his first encounters with racist teachers – race and class have shaped Akala’s life and outlook. In this unique book he takes his own experiences and widens them out to look at the social, historical and political factors that have left us where we are today.

Covering everything from the police, education and identity to politics, sexual objectification and the far right, Natives will speak directly to British denial and squeamishness when it comes to confronting issues of race and class that are at the heart of the legacy of Britain’s racialised empire.

I’m going to start this recommendation/mini-review with a confession. I have seen this book in bookshops on a number of occasions and, while I was intrigued by the cover art, I never felt any desire to pick it up. I made the assumption that this would probably be a dry historical tome concerning the 19th century, particularly with relation to the subjugation of POC. This was something I didn’t feel comfortable reading about, and so I never picked this book up. I was wrong in my assumptions about this book, as Akala’s style is both hard-hitting and even humorous at times, and his writing was so engaging I finished the book in a couple of days.

Perhaps more importantly, I was right about being uncomfortable with the material. But that is necessary. As someone who has a very privileged background reading about Akala’s experiences made me appreciate, even more than I usually do, just how privileged I am. I have been able to have so many of these experiences and advantages in life partly because of the colour of my skin – the very fact that when I lived abroad, for example, I would be referred to as an expat, rather than an immigrant, my presence generally welcomed rather than being regarded with suspicion. But this is not about me, and my privilege. I have to use my platform to amplify voices that need to be heard, and Akala’s is one such voice. From being stopped and searched as a child, to his racist teachers deliberately putting him into a different class as they couldn’t cope with his intelligence, he explores an array of difficult issues both in his own life and throughout history, from the legacy of colonialism to the way history is taught in schools, and so much more.

Akala’s Natives directly confronts British denial and awkwardness surrounding issues of race and class which, whether we feign ignorance or not, are at the heart of Britain’s imperial legacy. This is a book for our times, which demands to be read.

You’re British.

Your parents are British.

Your partner, your children and most of your friends are British.

So why do people keep asking where you’re from?

We are a nation in denial about our imperial past and the racism that plagues our present. Brit(ish) is Afua Hirsch’s personal and provocative exploration of how this came to be – and an urgent call for change.

Afua Hirsch similarly uses her life experiences as a lens through which to examine Britain’s denial of what it has been and continues to be. Her experiences growing up were radically different to Akala’s as she grew up middle-class, and yet her life has been anything but easy. She finds it difficult to fit into either British or black culture, and her early life experiences include being chased out of a posh shop as ‘girls who look like her must be thieves’, and struggling to pronounce her own name. Feeling an outsider in her own country she attempts to work out who she is and where she belongs by living in Senegal and Ghana, but her experiences there only serve to complicate her search for her identity.

As well as exploring the different stages of her life, Hirsch links these to wider issues, from slavery to stereotypes of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ immigrants, from the impact of class to the treatment of BAME people by the legal system. Her writing not only gives you a greater sense of the history that led to Britain’s present day identity crisis, but it’s also a hard-hitting social and cultural analysis. Perhaps most urgently, Hirsch also examines the forms of racism that are particular to British society. Polite denial of race – ‘I don’t see colour’ – and insistence that she doesn’t come across as black given her background and education at Oxford – these kinds of statements and so many others only serve to perpetuate inequality and hinder meaningful discussions.

Hirsch’s Brit(ish) was called ‘a book everyone should read: especially comfy, white, middle-class liberals’ by Caroline Sanderson in The Bookseller, and I couldn’t agree more.

Literature in Lockdown

Remember that New Year’s ‘Reading Resolution’ I made for myself where I said I would post on this blog once at month, at least?

Hahahahahahahaha-

In all seriousness, we’re all going through a very strange and scary time right now. I’ve been furloughed from work, and while that means I’m in a very privileged position and I’m able to get loads of reading done, I’m finding that nothing is really grabbing me. I haven’t read anything yet where I’ve said ‘yep, this book is excellent, five stars’. I’m not sure if that’s because there’s a constant worry about the current situation ticking away in the back of my mind, or if its genuinely just the books I’ve chosen to read so far.

I’ve read quite an eclectic mix of books during my time in lockdown so far, and here are just a few:

. The Stand by Stephen King
. Dear Mr M by Herman Koch
. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
. The Recovery of Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel
. Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw

A couple of these – My Dark Vanessa and The Recovery of Rose Gold were debut novels I was really looking forward to, but I only ended up giving them each three stars. Five Star Billionaire was a book I picked up in a charity shop – back when spending an afternoon browsing charity shops for inexpensive books was a thing – and I only gave it four stars, something about it just didn’t quite work well enough for me to give it five. Dear Mr M started well but became confusing and muddled, only slightly redeemed by an unexpected ending – if I was to re-read the other book I’ve read by Koch (The Dinner) I wonder if I would be similarly underwhelmed.

Then there’s The Stand. I was questioned as to whether or not reading this during a global pandemic was a good idea, and honestly I don’t know that I would have ever read it if I weren’t for the pandemic. Not simply due to its length – 1421 pages in the uncut edition I have – but also due to the subject matter – sci-fi and post-apocalyptic aren’t usually my genre. I’m glad I read it now, in a way, because it helped me to truly appreciate the horror in the first part of the book as the infection spread and took hold – and as cities were put under quarantine. But even reading about a global pandemic during a global pandemic couldn’t elevate what was actually on the page, and I must confess I finished the book disappointed. My next King book will either be ‘Salem’s Lot or It, though, and I have high hopes for both.

This isn’t really a bunch of mini reviews, or a long review, and there isn’t a picture of one of my signature book piles. This is really just a little update. Perhaps I’ll post another long review sometime soon – I have plenty of time on my hands, after all…

Stay safe out there, everyone!

‘Is it just a matter of time, Corona?’

Excuse my terrible attempt at humour in parodying the song ‘My Sharona’ – I wanted to come up with a funny title and that was the best I could do.

These are very unusual times. I’ve been working from home as of eleven days ago, and since last Saturday I’ve been staying with my parents – a relief as it means I’ll no longer be living on canned soup. In all seriousness, I really appreciate them having me to stay, as I love spending time with them and we often have what we call ‘reading afternoons’ where we all sit in the same room and read together (pretty self-explanatory, right?). It’s very peaceful, and considering the frightening news on the TV, scrolling through Facebook or Twitter, I really appreciate that sense of calm.

Of course, I often spoil it for myself by reading non-calming books. Not long after this all started – but with no relation to what was going on, it was just strange timing – I decided I wanted to read more books by Stephen King. This led to me making a joke about stockpiling on my Facebook page.

The Shining and The Stand arrived just before I moved through to my parents’ house – how’s that for good timing? I’ve read the former before, and had wanted to read it again even before the current situation make it frighteningly apt, and the latter… I’m still not sure if I’ll actually pick that up when I’m here or not.

I haven’t posted on here for awhile because I’ve wanted to get away from my screen after working at home during the week, but I wanted to give anyone reading this an update – and also post some book recommendations. Something my parents and I have worked on during lockdown here in the UK is clearing out an old bookshelf:

While doing so I discovered some gems – such as Good Omens, which I would highly reccomend if you haven’t read it already, and a Dilbert book – always good for a laugh. There’s also the very intruigingly named Sex & Punishment – not only a hefty book, ideal for these times of staying indoors, but one which looks to cover a fascinating topic.

Here’s a brief list of some of the books I’ve read since staying at home on a more permanent basis than usual, with ratings and mini-reviews of each.

The Dead Zone by Stephen King
*****
As soon as I read the synopsis I knew I had to read this one – and not just because I have my own fictional villain called Greg. King was on top form with this book and I would highly reccomend it – from the horrifying premise to the unexpected ending.

The Running Man by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)
****
The shortest book by King I’ve read so far, this one wasn’t quite what I expected. As well as this, due to its length, I initially found it difficult to fully immerse myself in the world hence the slightly lower rating. Still a very solid book though!

Selling Hitler: The Story of the Hitler Diaries by Robert Harris
****
This was a very unexpected book for me – I found it when Dad and I explored some charity shops a few weeks ago, and WWII isn’t a topic I usually read about. I didn’t know about the scandal of the Hitler diaries, nor did I know one of my favourite authors wrote non-ficton – and having read a couple of pages while in the charity shop, I knew I had to read more. It was a fascinating and very readable account, but a little overlong.

The Recovery of Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel
***
I expected to like this book much more than I did. I knew a little about the case of Gypsy Rose Blanchard that inspired the author, but nevertheless the book proved an unusual take on a thriller, focussed as it was on a toxic mother-daughter relationship. While I enjoyed the dual perspectives and thought both mother and daughter were well drawn characters, the ending veered sharply into the realm of the unbeliavable and left me disappointed, lowering my rating from four stars to three.

Thinner by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)
***
My least favourite King book so far. I don’t know if it was the dislikable protagonist or how the story panned out but I found this one a struggle to get through – very unusual when it comes to me and Mr King. While the premise of the curse and its effects was fascinating, the execution of the story wasn’t up to King’s usual standards, at least in my humble opinion.

Night Shift by Stephen King
****
My first collection of King’s short stories – as with any anthology, I enjoyed some stories more than others. ‘Quitters, Inc.’, ‘Children of the Corn’, ‘Battleground’ and ‘The Man Who Loved Flowers’ were my favourites – I would also include ‘The Mangler’ but I actually felt a bit queasy reading it! Others such as ‘Night Surf’, ‘The Lanmower Man’ and ‘Trucks’ I found less enjoyable, but the collection overall was excellent, and one I’ll definitely pick up again in furture to re-read my favourites.

I’ll hopefully post some more book recommendations – and reviews, isn’t that what this blog is meant to be? oops! – soon. In the meantime, I hope you’re all staying safe out there. I’m sending you all my very best wishes – and my hope that you have some great books to get you through these dark times.