The Christian Aid Book Sale – 3 Years Later!

From the Christian Aid website:

‘The 50th Christian Aid Book Sale takes place on 14, 16-20 May at St Andrew’s and St George’s West Church, George Street, Edinburgh.

Since it started in 1973 the sale has raised over £2m for Christian Aid’s work to end poverty.

During Christian Aid Week, over 500 volunteers from Edinburgh and beyond work together to create the UK’s biggest fundraising event.

Over 100,000 books of every kind fill the sanctuary and both courtyards. But there’s much more than books. Upstairs in the gallery you’ll find sheet music (and more books!). Downstairs in the Undercroft Café you’ll find delicious homebaking. In the Davidson Room, hidden, at the back of the church you’ll find a treasure trove of antiques and collectables. And did we mention the toys, records, stamps and postcards?’


Three years ago, Mon and I said that the Christian Aid Book Sale in Edinburgh was going to be our new yearly tradition – the following year was 2020. Need I say more? This year – the year of the 50th Book Sale, no less! – we finally returned, and were accompanied by the wonderful Ellis and Rosie (of Yorick Radio Productions fame). The weather was beautiful and sunny, the books were aplenty, and though I was stricter with myself than 2019 and only bought eight books – in contrast to 2019’s twenty – I still had a wonderful time. How could I not, browsing books with friends?

Obligatory book pile picture:

And now, the books in more detail – some nonfiction, some fantasy, the obligatory book on Russian history, and one book that was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2021! All blurbs are from Goodreads (even though I’m using The Storygraph these days, shh):

Mon mentioned they wanted to read more by Terry Pratchett, but we’ve agreed I get to read these first before I pass them on! Having loved Mort, Small Gods, and The Wyrd Sisters, I can’t wait to see more of this fantastical world.

‘A is for Apple. A bad apple.

Jack has spent most of his life in juvenile institutions; he’s about to be released with a new name, new job, and a new life. At 24, he is utterly innocent of the world, yet guilty of a monstrous childhood crime.

To his new friends, he is a good guy with occasional flashes of unexpected violence. To his girlfriend, he is strangely naive and unreachable. To his case worker, he’s a victim of the system and of media-driven hysteria.

And to himself, Jack is on permanent trial: he struggles to start from scratch, forget the past, become someone else.

At a time when the privacy of the individual is under threat from all sides, BOY A raises fundamental questions about the morality of the media.’

‘Few individuals have written about the evil forces of Hitler’s Germany with the immediacy and urgency of Gitta Sereny. She first encountered the Nazis in 1934 at age eleven when she witnessed a Nuremberg rally, and in 1940 she was in Paris when the Blitzkrieg overran the Allied armies. In 1942, warned of impending arrest for having hidden British pilots, she fled across the Pyrenees.

In The Healing Wound Sereny presents a vital historical account of Germany in the twentieth century, exploring the guilt which is in many ways the legacy of Nazism. She argues that despite the remarkable achievements of Germany since 1945, the awareness of the horrors committed in their name remains in the minds of Germans to this day — an open wound of historical culpability. The Healing Wound combines political statement with the haunting personal memories of one of the twentieth century’s most relentless witnesses.’

‘1910, Edinburgh. Jessie, the devil’s daughter, arrives on the doorstep of an imposing tenement building and knocks on a freshly painted wooden door. She has been sent by her father to bear a child for a wealthy couple, but, when things go wrong, she places a curse on the building and all who live there – and it lasts a century.

Caught in the crossfire are the residents of 10 Luckenbooth Close, and they all have their own stories to tell. While the world outside is changing, inside, the curse creeps up all nine floors and through each door. Soon, the building’s longest kept secret – the truth of what happened to Jessie – will finally be heard.’

‘Russia wakes from a long sleep and marches to St Petersburg to claim her birthright. Her awakening will mark the end for the Romanovs, and the dawn of a new era that changed the world. Arthur Ransome, a journalist and writer, was part of it all. He left his family in England and fell in love with Russia and a Russian woman. This is his story.’

‘Set in Moscow in the 60s, written in an ironic style, this story combines realism with grotesque fantasy. Moscow radios announces an official “Day of Public Murder”, which permits any citizen to murder any other citizen. Yuli Daniel uses this to satirize hack literature, Soviet broadcasting, political naivety, racism, anti-semitism and the Soviet intellectual class.

Because of his activity publishing satire abroad, Daniel was convicted to five years in the Gulag. He was the first writer to plea innocent in a process of the kind, with fellow writer Synovsky, and the Daniel-Synovsky trial is considered the end of the Khrushschev thaw.’

‘The story of a murder, a miscarriage of justice, and a man too innocent for his times . . .

Mahmood Mattan is a fixture in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay, 1952, which bustles with Somali and West Indian sailors, Maltese businessmen and Jewish families. He is a father, chancer, petty criminal. He is a smooth-talker with rakish charm and an eye for a good game. He is many things, but he is not a murderer.

So when a shopkeeper is brutally killed and all eyes fall on him, Mahmood isn’t too worried. Since his Welsh wife Laura kicked him out for racking up debts he has wandered the streets more often, and there are witnesses who allegedly saw him enter the shop that night. But Mahmood has escaped worse scrapes, and he is innocent in this country where justice is served. Love lends him immunity too: the fierce love of Laura, who forgives his gambling in a heartbeat, and his children. It is only in the run-up to the trial, as the prospect of returning home dwindles, that it will dawn on Mahmood that he is in a fight for his life – against conspiracy, prejudice and cruelty – and that the truth may not be enough to save him.’


I started reading Boy A yesterday, and I’m hooked so, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to it… If you get a chance to visit the Book Sale in Edinburgh, I’d highly recommend it. Thousands of books and all the money going to a good cause? Totally worth the trip.

Another audio review!

Ever wanted to actually hear me rant about The Last Tudor and Philippa Gregory’s terrible writing, rather than just read it? Now’s your chance! My dear friend, Rosie – of Yorick Radio Productions – invited me back to the podcast for another instalment of Cozy Critiques, and drew me in my actual Book Wyrm form about to chow down on the raven from the book’s front cover!

It was such fun to actually read that review aloud – it’s one of my favourites I’ve written so far, perhaps because I hated the book so much! 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, Rosie, for having me on the show once again!

In which The Book Wyrm adds to her hoard

Today my Mum and I went for a wander round some charity shops (and Waterstones), and I ended up coming home with a suitcase full of books, and then some. I simply had to document the day’s haul here – can’t wait to read all of these at some point, though it may take awhile to get through them all!

Allow me to preface this little story by saying that, as I had travelled to see my Mum and only stay overnight, I had only brought a backpack with me. Said backpack was, of course, full of my stuff, and I wasn’t going to lug it round the shops. I therefore had no bag with me in which to carry potential purchases. This wasn’t an issue for long, however, as in the first charity shop we visited, I found this:

Yes, that is a small handheld suitcase. Yes, I did purchase it – not only for its use as a handbag today but for future Larp-related reasons in the future (I have a doctor character who needs a medical bag) – but I digress. I half-joked to Mum that my goal, having bought to suitcase, was to fill it with books – and little did I realise how soon that would become a reality. In the next charity shop we visited, the process began when I found the following:

I knew I’d heard of this book before – I’d seen it previously with a different cover when it was first published, meant to buy a copy, never got around to it. I was very excited to be able to find a copy now, and with such a beautiful cover.

From Michael Arditti’s 2017 review of the book for The Guardian: ‘Crimes of the Father is a provocative and powerful study of abusers and the abused. It captures the honourable priests determined to expose the outrage and the church hierarchy equally determined to discredit them. Most poignantly, it depicts ordinary Catholics caught in the crossfire, whose faith is eroded by men who, in the words of Keneally’s protagonist, Father Frank Docherty, have “been exalted above our merits”.’

I also found a copy of The Discomfort of Evening – a book I’ve been meaning to read ever since it came out, but I always had other books higher up my list of priorities:

Obviously this edition was in print before the author became the joint winner of 2020’s International Booker Prize, along with the novel’s translator.

Following this charity shop, we went on to Waterstones, where I proceeded to spend the book voucher gifted to me at Christmas by my aunt, uncle and cousins, which was apparently burning a hole in my pocket.

I’d wavered on whether or not to buy this book for ages, considering its gruesome subject matter, but I read a review of it the other day that convinced me to give it a shot.

My dear friend Ari told me about ‘The Lottery’ recently, which I read on Kindle and enjoyed so much I knew I’d want to re-read it, so I bought a physical copy (I prefer to read physical books as opposed to electronic books or listening to audiobooks) and can’t wait to read the other stories too as ‘The Lottery’ was so good!

This one wasn’t on my radar at all until I spotted it on the shelf, but having read the blurb I thought it’d be an interesting change of pace from my usual true crime/Russian history/literary fiction:

The Walkman. Karaoke. Pikachu. Pac-Man. Akira. Emoji. We’ve all fallen in love with one or another of Japan’s pop-culture creations, from the techy to the wild to the super-kawaii. But as Japanese-media veteran Matt Alt proves in this brilliant investigation of Tokyo’s pop-fantasy complex, we don’t know the half of it.

Japan’s toys, gadgets, and fantasy worlds didn’t merely entertain. They profoundly transformed the way we live. In the 1970s and ’80s, Japan seemed to exist in some near future, soaring on the superior technology of Sony and Toyota while the West struggled to catch up. Then a catastrophic 1990 stock-market crash ushered in the ‘lost decades’ of deep recession and social dysfunction.

The end of the boom times should have plunged Japan into irrelevance, but that’s precisely when its cultural clout soared – when, once again, Japan got to the future a little ahead of the rest of us. Hello Kitty, the Nintendo Entertainment System, and multimedia empires like Pokemon and Dragon Ball Z were more than marketing hits. Artfully packaged, dangerously cute, and dizzyingly fun, these products made Japan the forge of the world’s fantasies, and gave us new tools for coping with trying times. They also transformed us as we consumed them – connecting as well as isolating us in new ways, opening vistas of imagination and pathways to revolution.

Through the stories of an indelible group of artists, geniuses, and oddballs, Pure Invention reveals how Japanese ingenuity remade global culture and may have created modern life as we know it. It’s Japan’s world; we’re just gaming, texting, singing, and dreaming in it.

One last charity shop find before lunch – how have I not got around to reading this one yet?

After an amazing feast of sushi and chicken katsu curry at a Japanese restaurant I hadn’t been to before, the quest to fill the suitcase with books (though, to be honest, it was full and I ended up having to borrow one of Mum’s tote bags) continued.

The first shop we came to yielded remarkable results – having only intended to buy one book, I was informed it was three books for £1. Well, if you insist…

It’s not very fitting I should have found this book a year to the day I was recovering from the removal of my inflamed gallbladder, since I’ve always been treated wonderfully by the medical professionals who have looked after me! I do, however, have a couple of dangerous doctor characters in the Larp and online forum RPG worlds, so figured I’d give this a shot. Having been informed of the 3 for £1 deal, I picked up the following:

Yet another book I’ve dithered about buying before, but I figured why shouldn’t I, as I would be getting it so cheap? Let’s see if it lives up to the hype.

I think someone may have dropped this book in their bath at some point, but I was sold on the premise (not to mention the adorable cover art):

Our narrator’s days are numbered. Estranged from his family, living alone with only his cat Cabbage for company, he was unprepared for the doctor’s diagnosis that he has only months to live. But before he can set about tackling his bucket list, the Devil appears with a special offer: in exchange for making one thing in the world disappear, he can have one extra day of life. And so begins a very bizarre week . . .

Because how do you decide what makes life worth living? How do you separate out what you can do without from what you hold dear?

In dealing with the Devil our narrator will take himself – and his beloved cat – to the brink. Genki Kawamura’s If Cats Disappeared from the World is a story of loss and reconciliation, of one man’s journey to discover what really matters in modern life.

On to the final charity shop of the day. I picked up a copy of In The Miso Soup as I first read it years and years ago and, having more recently read Piercing and Audition by the same author, I wanted to see if this book was as good as I remembered.

The final book of the day was this one – RRP £25, I picked it up for £3.99. I’ve always been meaning to read it and add it to my Russia shelf (history, novels, books about Russia more generally) but had always been put off by the price – and, admittedly, the length: this copy is 923 pages long. But for that price, I couldn’t say no. I’ve enjoyed Figes’ The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia – if enjoyed is the right word – so I hope this one will be similarly enlightening.

Thus, at the end of a long late morning into the afternoon of book-shopping, I arrived home with a haul of eleven books, plus a nifty suitcase to carry some of them in:

I would like to thank my Mum for her infinite patience. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and read for a bit.

Please Read This Leaflet Carefully – Review

I realise this is meant to be a book review blog and not a medical blog, but my most recent medical history ties in rather too well to this book. Three months ago I was officially diagnosed with a chronic illness – not terminal, but the need for injections every three months for the rest of my life, among other things, isn’t exactly ideal. Of course I’m lucky it’s not more serious than it is, but I’m still coming to terms with it – and that’s when this book came into my life. I had received a Waterstones gift card from my aunt and uncle for my birthday and was having a peaceful afternoon browsing the shelves, not looking for anything in particular. The title caught my eye so I picked the book up – and as soon as I read the first paragraph I knew this was one I needed to buy.

Having read this first paragraph, I went on to read the blurb:

Please Read This Leaflet Carefully, the debut novel from Norwegian writer and translator Karen Havelin, is the story of a woman whose body has become her enemy.

The novel tracks backward, from 2016 until 1995, etching details of daily life into a gripping and darkly humorous bildungsroman, about the intricacies of love and life in a fragile body.

We meet Laura Fjellstad first as she works and cares for her young daughter, while struggling with debilitating pain and endometriosis, an invisible chronic illness.

As the reader moves in reverse to meet Laura’s younger and somewhat healthier selves (a hopeful bride in New York, a baby queer in Paris, a figure skater in Norway) we uncover her tireless work to gain control of her identity, her illness and the conflicting demands made by doctors, friends, lovers and family.

Man Booker Prize-winning author Paul Beatty says most books about disease try to describe the pain; told in poetic whisper, Karen Havelin’s debut novel lets pain speak for itself. It’s a book that dares you be nosy, to eavesdrop and listen in to a stoic young woman whom no one noticed until she began to disappear, her body disintegrating from the inside out until there’s nothing left but searing agony and almost impossibly―a burning triumph.

Jarringly funny and perceptive; an intimate reckoning with the inner demons and precarity of everyday life, unpacked through the very specific lens of a woman with chronic pain.

If I hadn’t already been so gripped by the first paragraph, this would have definitely persuaded me to make my purchase.


This book was a profoundly honest exploration of what it’s like to live with a chronic illness, and as it was told backwards I was able to see the deterioration of Laura’s body and mind in reverse. Reading the final chapter, where Laura is excited for the future and all the promise it holds, was heartbreaking – and it made me want to read the book backwards in order to more fully capture just how much her pain affects her thoughts, her body, her entire life as it progresses. As the book was so introspective it was more of an exploration of character than it was a book driven by plot, and so at times I was a little uncertain as to what was happening when thanks to the time jumps. But what was more important than the overall narrative – to me, at least – was the way Havelin’s writing so eloquently expressed my exact sentiments in relation to my own health journey.

The frustration:

The feeling you’re being a burden or overwhelming people, not wanting to inconvenience them:

The fear and catastrophising of my anxious thoughts:

And of course the overwhelming desire to be as you appear – not unwell, not in pain:

I found myself taking pictures every few pages or so, and found it difficult to narrow those pictures down to make this review less rambling and more succinct. I realise that this book will not be to everyone’s taste, and I’m well aware that my own personal experiences coloured my enjoyment – if that is indeed the word I’m looking for – of this book. I’m also well aware that this has become less of a review, more of a post full of pertinent quotations, but I can’t express my sentiments better at present than how Havelin does through the character of Laura. As well the representation of chronic illness, the novel also explores Laura’s coming to terms with her identity beyond it – although this, too, felt very personal to me.

Although my condition is not as severe as Laura’s, and my symptoms are relatively mild, the book still spoke to me on a number of levels, and I’m so grateful I had that time to properly browse the shelves at the bookshop, to find this book when I would get so much out of it. For all of its exploration of illness, pain, fractured bodies and relationships, there is also humour in Havelin’s work – if somewhat dark, thanks to the nature of the book’s subject matter.

I don’t know if I would have read this book were it not for my current circumstances, but I would recommend it to everyone, complicated medical history or not, if you want to gain a better understanding of living with illness that won’t get better. Even if it’s uncomfortable, at least you’re not reading this in the waiting room, having prepped for a colonoscopy – unless you are, in which case, good luck.

The subtitle of this novel is ‘Keep the leaflet. You may need to read it again.’ – and I’m certain I will.

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!

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.