About Georgie Matthews

I act. I model. I write. I think.

Gaining My Politics

Books that have shaped my world view

The date today is 1st October, 2020. It is the first day of Black History Month in the UK. Two days ago, Trump and Biden had their first televised debate of the US election. The Coronavirus pandemic has now been ravaging the planet for almost a year. About 4 months ago, George Floyd’s death saw people all over the world standing up for the Black Lives Matter movement. My personal life has also been a series of challenges this year, with events that deeply shook my sense of self and my place in this world.

In short, it has been quite a year. My cultural and political allegiances have been pulled apart and pushed into a new shape I can’t see clearly just yet. And lately, it has got me thinking about the books that have shaped my politics from a young age up the present. Some of these books are the result of deliberate searching; others simply fell into my lap at the perfect moment. Books are like that – they only come along when you really need them. They only show their true worth when you are ready to receive it.

What follows is an account of some of the books that have made me the political being I am today.

Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman

Noughts & Crosses, Penguin Random House Children’s UK

I read Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses series at the age of 16. It was a year of bookish consumption and gluttony. I read hurriedly and greedily, skipping from book to book. From classics of the literary canon (Gulliver’s Travels, Frankenstein, Persuasion) to modern classics, revolutionary titles, fantasy and teen fiction. None of them imposed on me by a curriculum.

I read Blackman’s entire series within a couple of weeks. (I should point out that I am not a fast reader, so that’s pretty monumental by my standards – you will find this to be a recurring theme in this blog.) I think it would be fair to say that the speed with which I read may have undermined the messages I should have learned from it. But as a teenager, I was far more interested in the action itself, rather than the politics that was undeniably the driver to it all. What I remember most about the story isn’t the incredible overturning of racial stereotypes. What I remember most is the tension and the sexual awakening of the character’s lovers – a tragic Romeo and Juliet narrative.

But whether I realised it or not, this book was teaching me so much more about politics – race and terrorism.

Crossfire is the fifth part of the series, only published last year (2019). I have not read this latest addition.

Seventy-Two Virgins by Boris Johnson

Seventy-Two Virgins, HarperCollins Publishers

This book was part of that same year of voracious reading, when I spent most lunch times with my nose in my book rather than talking to my peers. I come from a Conservative family and at the age of 16, as is the case for many young people, my politics mainly consisted of parroting what I heard my parents say. At that time, if someone asked who I would vote for, I would probably have said Tory, although I couldn’t have told you why. At that time, all I really knew about Boris Johnson was that he seemed like an affable clown that got stuck dangling over London once, while abseiling to advertise the London Olympic bid. But my dad would say he was very smart, in spite of that, and that he liked Boris. So that’s why I picked up this book from my school library when I came across it.

My mature political (and staunchly liberal) leanings colour my remembrance of this book. But at the time, I did not see what I would now, that it was undoubtedly affirming damaging racist stereotypes. At the age of 16, I read it with the eyes of a child and the shallow political identity one gains from parents through osmosis.  I did not read with depth or with agenda. I learnt a few things about the process of parliament and was presented with some opinions on terrorism.

But really, Johnson’s novel did not leave much of a mark on me. I hope I am being true to my recollection when I say that this is simply because the writing did not inspire me. My reason for recounting it now is because I sat here thinking about which books have brought a new perspective into my personal political landscape. And as awkward as I feel in sharing this, I read a book written by our current Prime Minister during my formative years, so it would be obtuse of me to omit from this account.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Nineteen Eighty-Four, Penguin Books Ltd

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four in the summer I turned 17. At that age, my A-level English Literature studies had introduced me to what the syllabus termed “Critical Reading” – i.e literary criticism. We were quite deliberately encouraged to start reading with greater context and to consider alternative viewpoints. It was during these lessons I first heard the word Marxism. I was still without the understanding that would allow me to generate real life responses to what I read, but it was a beginning.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was perhaps the first novel I read with real, if immature, political awareness. The ideas this book related were truly mind-boggling, incredible and terrifying. Language as a weapon and a tool of oppression. As an adult, I have seen some of these tactics in practise and I am fearful for the path that lies ahead for our global political landscape.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale, Vintage Publishing

Once again, this book came at around the same time as those previously recounted – I read The Handmaid’s Tale in its entirety on one November night at the age of 17. I vividly remember staying up to read this book through the night. I could not put it down until I was done, and I mean that quite literally. To this day, I cannot recall another novel that has so captured me.

The Handmaid’s Tale is characterised by taboo. Both the topics under discussion and the actions of the characters are driven by the things we “should not talk about”. The role of women in society is painfully distorted, with particular attention on the function of sexual intercourse and menstruation.

The TV adaptation came along a few years ago and the book’s sequel, The Testaments, was last year’s joint Man Booker Prize winner. The ardour I hold for the original text meant I was very nervous about whether these more recent incarnations would hold up. Thankfully, they do.

How To Be A Woman by Caitlyn Moran

How To Be A Woman, Ebury Publishing

Skipping forward several years now, to the age of 25. At this time, I undertook a rather deliberate search for feminism. It took me some time to be confidently and vocally feminist and I can cite Caitlyn Moran as part of that journey. In this biographical work, Moran discusses her own journey to womanhood. She references Germaine Greer (author of The Female Eunuch) several times, but not with the blind adoration of a sycophant: with perspective that felt refreshing and personal. One of such references is how Moran came to stand on a chair and shout, “I am a feminist!” I did this when I went for a walk in the woods not long ago. I said it loudly and proudly and it felt freeing and wonderful.

There was a time when I was not so loud and proud. I used to fear being labelled as “one of those girls” (deciding to call myself a woman rather than a girl is another recent development). By which I mean being labelled as “difficult”. Accusations get thrown at people who call themselves feminist: man-haters that don’t truly believe in equality and can’t take a joke. With any political movement, the individuals that make up the whole can hold vastly different ideas. Political movements evolve, splinter groups form with ideals and goals of their own that might be at complete odds with the rest, but they are all under the banner of Feminism. There are people in this world who call themselves feminists that are doing more harm than good, people I would strongly disagree with.

But what I mean when I say “Feminism” is equality. They are, to my mind, synonyms. But Equality, with a capital “E”, is very busy these days, with so many kinds of injustice to overcome. So we separate the issues under subtitles that allow us to focus our attention on one at a time. Intersectionality, which I learnt about it in the next book, is a more recent term that asks us to consider all the factors that result in inequality concurrently, because only in this way, so advocates believe, can we make real positive change.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Renni Eddo-Lodge

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started on this title earlier this year (aged 26). But I know that I was prepared to find it difficult. The title sets up the reader for confrontation and, as a general rule, I don’t do well with confrontation. Furthermore, although I, like many a modern person, believe myself to be an advocate for equality and anti-racism, it is rare that I, or people like myself, truly partake in a subject that makes one’s own history culpable in a present that continues to favour white people over black and brown people. Being born into this modern era of what we might casually call racial equality is a convenient lie. We have made strides forward, absolutely, but to imply that there isn’t a lot more work to be done is to massively undermine the continued difficulties experienced by those with darker skin tones in Western society.

This book astutely points out what is already obvious in our society, if only one takes the trouble to think – really think. Eddo-Lodge’s observations were difficult for me to listen to. As a modern young woman, I flatter myself with the traits of liberal and open-minded, but as Eddo-Lodge identifies the ways in which I am privileged – which I am, undoubtedly – it forced me to confront some things I had always managed to hide from my conscious mind. At times, this book made me feel defensive, but subsequent analysis of that feeling left me with guilt and troubled clarity.

Discussing race is something I have always found difficult. I am, after all, white, and there is a reason that Eddo-Lodge says she is “no longer talking to white people about race”. I do not want to be one of those white people who shies away or undermines the race conversation. But neither do I know how to approach such a difficult topic with the sensitivity and historical knowledge it deserves.

As I have grown older, experienced more, met different people to myself, I have repeatedly found myself wanting. Wanting, primarily, in education. British history is not a pretty one, but we are not told about it at school. We are not told about the times we were the aggressors, rather than the victims or heroes. We are not told about the cultures, the peoples we invaded, destroyed and plundered. I am still reluctant to look for the evidence myself, fearful of the guilt and horror I will find. But reading this book was a step in the right direction.


It is highly tempting to carry on naming books and delving further into my own psyche and the texts that have surely influenced me in all kinds of political topics. But, when we boil down the essence of what literature, what writing is for, it is to offer a new perspective on the world that we might not otherwise have come across. To write is to be political. To read is to be political.


Other books of political note from my reading back catalogue (click on highlighted titles to see my review):

  • The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes – Russian Communist Revolution
  • Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien – Chinese Communist Revolution
  • Golden Hill by Francis Spufford – Colonialism
  • Smoke by Dan Vyleta – Industrial Revolution, Classism
  • Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez – Feminism
  • The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer – Feminism
  • The Seasonal Quartet by Ali Smith (Autumn (2017), Winter (2018), Spring (2019), Summer (2020)) – British Politics, Brexit, WW2
  • On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder – Democracy
  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – Russian Communist Revolution
  • Reunion by Fred Uhlman – World War 2
  • The Sellout by Paul Beatty – Racism
  • The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler – World War 2
  • Regeneration by Pat Barker – World War 1, Mental Health
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – World War 2
  • What A Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe – Classism
  • A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf – Feminism, Writing
  • The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben – Environmentalism
  • The Overstory by Richard Powers – Environmentalism
  • The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan – Gender Identity
  • A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – Mental Health, Sexuality
  • Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks – WW1
  • The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter – Feminism
  • The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen – Mental Health
  • Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig – Mental Health

Book Review: Out of Love by Hazel Hayes

“I think we like it because it’s not a fairy tale,’ I said. ‘It’s bittersweet. And it’s real.”

It will be difficult for me to recommend or review this book. Not because I did not enjoy it, but because my connection to this novel feels so personal, I doubt my ability to fairly critique it. At times, reading this novel felt like reading my own life; like it was written for me. 

Suddenly, the words of some half-remembered Seamus Heaney poem come swimming up at me. ‘Sunlight’ […] The poem began with a sunlit absence, but I had never understood that opening line until now. What could possibly be missing from this scene, I wondered, which seemed so overflowing with light and love? Standing here, now, I finally understand; the scene itself is absent. It has already come and gone and faded into memory. The moment exists outside of time, as though it’s happening in the present but is already part of the past

Out of Love, p263

Out of Love is, quite simply, the unravelling of our anonymous heroine’s relationship. The timeline has been reversed: starting with the break-up and ending with their first meeting. I have come across this chronology before in The Long View by Elizabeth Howard, which I reviewed some years ago. But while the The Long View is characterised by complete unhappiness and regret, Out of Love is characterised by the absence of happiness – happiness known and ended. And ultimately, there is no room for regret if good memories and self-respect are to survive.

Both Howard’s and Hayes’ novels belong to the romance genre. If I might care to pigeonhole myself, or belittle said genre, I might (and would) blithely state that I “do not do” romantic fiction. I find it to be a genre filled with gender stereotypes and clichés, gratuitous tragedy and fake fairytale endings. Out of Love has none of these things.

I think we like it because it’s not a fairy tale,’ I said. ‘It’s bittersweet. And it’s real.

Out of Love, p346

Out of Love is raw, but not needlessly tragic. It is honest and modest. It is flavoured with self-deprecation and colourful self-satire, and painted with a bittersweet brush. And that is the overarching emotion that this book conjured in me: bittersweet. I could not honestly say I had experienced the bittersweet until very recently in my life. Bittersweet has that quality of sadness and joy that only adulthood can muster – its trademarks are vulnerability, maturity and acceptance.

Acceptance is an elusive thing. It is quiet and subtle and undefinable. You are never quite sure when you arrive there, and after such powerful experiences as towering love or abysmal sadness, acceptance is only distinct in its absence of palpable feeling. An absence of great joy or pain, but with knowledge of both which is truly a gift. That is the zone in which Out of Love exists.

Acceptance cannot exist in a vacuum, and Hayes’ story is not without pain, joy, anger or love. But there is a security that accompanies it all, and with that security comes resilience, good humour and empathy.

Heartbreak is a grieving process. We unpick the relationship, looking for clues and red flags we should have spotted. We look to blame something or someone for the pain we are in. Out of Love is told from the heroine’s perspective, and at first glance, we think it righteous to point the finger at the ex-boyfriend. But, as the saying goes, relationships are a two-way street. Love blossoms where connection is sought by more than one party. And the severing of that connection leaves no-one unharmed. So, between the lines of her story, we see his too.

Your story never stops. How can it, when all our stories are woven together, part of some greater tapestry of tales that make up our lives and the lives of those around us?

I am my mother’s daughter, and her story is my story too. It’s mine to carry, mine to hold – with love if I can manage it – and mine to weave into my own.

Out of Love, p282

Everybody has the same potential for love and suffering and, out of love for one another, we must find a way to accept the flaws of those we have loved and who loved us back.

We are both wounded in our own way and, like a pair of tectonic plates shifting over time, our wounds will gradually grate against one another’s, causing damage at a glacial pace. Neither one of us will notice until it’s too late.

Out of Love, p310

Like I said at the start, I feel a deeply personal connection to this book. It is evident that this story comes from Hayes’ own experience of loss and her struggle to find acceptance. In the Acknowledgements at the back of this book, Hayes says best what I would like to say to myself:

And finally, this book is for my Angels, those past and future versions of myself who continue to love and to hope and to fall in spite of themselves. Keep falling please. I will always be there to pick you up.

Out of Love, p356

Credit: Out of Love, by Hazel Hayes, published by Unbound Books

Natash Pulley Double Bill Review: The Bedlam Stacks & The Lost Future of Pepperharrow

It’s easy to think that nobody could really arrange the world like clockwork. All sorts of things would get stuck in the mechanisms … But clairvoyants have a knack for arranging time, and it was not without a sense of irony that Keita Mori was a watchmaker.
In his workshop, it was difficult to see what he was making until it was done. A sort of organised chaos characterised the way he worked, so much so that he could be constructing something for months or years and it would it only look like a tangle of something generically worrying – right up until it got up, walked off, and turned out to be an octopus.

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, “Prologue”, Natashy Pulley, pIX

I have read Natasha Pulley’s full catalogue of published novels to date – 3 in total: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, The Bedlam Stacks and The Lost Future of Pepperharrow. I loved every single one and whatever comes along next, you can bet I won’t be waiting for the paperback. Hardbacks ahoy.

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow is the sequel to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, with The Bedlam Stacks being an expansion of the same world with cameos from Keita Mori – the eponymous watchmaker. And the world is intoxicating. When I read The Watchmaker, I would have called it magical realism, but The Lost Future and The Bedlam Stacks have leant more deeply into fantasy and sci-fi. The Watchmaker alluded to magic while the storyline was still very firmly rooted in the human experience. But in these two subsequent novels, the storyline is far more affected by the magic and its mechanics that I would change my classification. My old bookseller pal will be pleased – he insists that fiction steals all the good stuff due to intellectual snobbery… but I digress.

You can read my full review of Watchmaker here.

Let us first turn more specific attention to The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, sequel to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. We return to the tale of Keita Mori, watchmaker, clairvoyant and Japanese nobleman, and Nathaniel Steepleton, telegraphist, pianist, translator and Londoner. The Lost Future of Pepperharrow takes Mori back to his roots – Tokyo. Thaniel gains a position at the legation as a translator and so their new adventure begins.

Returning home isn’t an easy experience for Mori, as politics of family and government rake up the past and obscure the future.

Natasha Pulley does a fantastic job of creating mystery and intrigue throughout this novel. Unlike her key character, you cannot predict what’s going to happen and in spite of all you know about Mori, you are guaranteed nothing.

New characters bring new dimensions – unknowns are a must for any sequel, but even more so when clairvoyants are part of the mix. Recurring characters are used sparingly but effectively – their familiarity to the readers being undercut by their function in this story, primarily as providers of instability and narrative upset.

As the story progressed, I was pleasurably distressed by the events. I had fear and hope jostling against this magical world’s complex mechanics.

The only thing that falls down is the science. I recall this was the same in The Watchmaker. When Pulley’s characters start going into detail about how and why this world is the way it is, it fails to elucidate the reader effectively. However, I don’t hold this against the reading experience; it is notoriously difficult to explain physics with verbage.

As with The Watchmaker, the story is carried by enigmatic characters and challenging relationships.

Superhuman, preternatural Mori might be, but he is not immune to fallability – is perhaps the most fallible. He might be able to organise the machinations of governments; but try as he might, he cannot overcome his personal fears and shames. Is it brave to live in a world where you know exactly what’s going to happen? Or to live in a world where even the smallest possibility of disaster plagues your every waking moment? Exactly what characterises Mori’s insecurities or his feats is never revealed to the readers. Pulley allows us to see through the eyes of his companions, his lovers, but not Mori’s own. And there is nothing favourable about the perspective of a lover – who else is more likely to fret and fray, to find fault and worry at all the possibilities. Is he evil? Does he love me? Can he love anyone? Is he invincible? These are the questions we are asked to consider.

He’d always thought that Mori was brave because he always knew what was going to happen, but that turned out to be a serious misjudgement of character.

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, Natasha Pulley, p458

The Bedlam Stacks is a separate narrative, but if you read them in order of publication, the overall timeline is consistent and there are lovely nuggets and easter eggs for the keen observer to discover and smile conspiratorially.

The Bedlam Stacks takes us to Peru, where smuggler and horticultural expert Merrick Tremayne is sent by the East India Co. to find Cinchona trees. These trees are the only source of quinine – a vital component for malaria treatment.  But Peru is guarding its resources, so smuggling is the only route out.

When Tremayne arrives, the settlement he stays in during the expedition becomes far more interesting than quinine. The native religion, the way of life in this place so removed from western civilization, called uncivilised by western travellers, is nothing but. This is an ancient and reverential place; living simply does not mean being unsophisticated. Call it folklore, magic or religion – the history here is undeniable.  But put history up against the frantic appetite for “new” and “more” that characterises the EIC and the sprawling destruction and appropriation of the British Empire, and folklore will struggle to stand its ground.

The wooden statues that guard this place are emblems of a timeless culture and a civilisation that began hundreds of years before our own. But these guardians are far more than that. The way of life in the region – as with the country – is being eroded by the west. And the people of the Bedlam Stacks are the bridge between the old and the new. They live in contradiction, the result of generations before being forced to leave behind tradition. But while habits are easily broken and forgotten, the induction of thought and emotion engendered by the generations before is not so easily taken away.

It’s a miracle, actually; sickly prematurely ageing worrying inbred horsey idiots have managed to convince everyone else their way is best by no means than firmness of manner and the tactical distribution of flags. I can’t believe no one’s called our bluff yet.

The Bedlam Stacks, Natasha Pulley, p300

In The Bedlam Stacks, folklore fights back.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that immense good humour that froths on every page Pulley writes. Her characters are brimming with it and I cannot but hope for them, live for them, turn hundreds of pages for them.

Book Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

It’s dangerous to write a sequel. When the original was so popular. When there has been such a gap between the former and the latter. When there has been no notion of a sequel in all the years between – despite constant requests being made, as I’m sure must have been the case with this book. So why now? It could smack of opportunism. The Handmaid’s Tale has been brought back into the public mind in recent years, with the TV adaptation that has had much critical acclaim.

To my mind it is also a dangerous thing to approach a TV adaptation when the novel has been so loved and so discussed and so revered by so many since its publication in 1985. But I can honestly say, as a big fan of the book, that the TV series is fantastic and does justice to the ideology Atwood espouses in her novel.

For myself, it was a daunting prospect to start watching Amazon’s TV show. It was also a daunting prospect to pick up The Testaments. The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the very few books in my life I have had to read. Could not put it down, read throughout the night till I reached the climax, the pinnacle, the conclusion, the answers, the revelations. I was 17 then and no book had ever garnered my attention so fiercely. I don’t believe I have picked up a book since that has induced such a response from me – at least in terms of the speed with which I consumed it. I am not, generally speaking, a fast reader. And that is in no small part because few books urge me to the speed of which I am capable of reading. The Handmaid’s Tale did that.

The taboo, the politics, the stirring of understanding that had never been presented to me in the past. It spoke of things not talked about. Not really. Of course, I was old enough to know about sex and relationships – had even known love, by that age, even if ephemerally by the more mature standards of my wizened 26-year-old self. And I’d had that gentle education into politics that one gains by osmosis in everyday life; through family and friends and history lessons. But The Handmaid’s Tale was like a firecracker. It threw a grenade into the ideas about feminism and politics that I was only just beginning to grasp.

And so now, some 9 years later, The Testaments has arrived in the bookshops. A sequel to a book that had a significant impact on my younger self. When I sat down to start reading, I felt that I was making a bold decision. “Please don’t let her have messed this up.” It was thus that I was drawn back into Gilead. It is with the voice of recognisable figure, but not a voice we’ve heard before. A figure that generated fear and loathing and hypocrisy – a woman in power, subjugating her fellow women, just to maintain her position on top of the pile. Aunt Lydia was that figure, and it is upon her statue that we that look – how fitting that it is. We are asked first to look at the statue of the woman – strong and imposing and pious – and then to hear the real-life counterpart discuss it. I am immediately reminded of just how damn smart Margaret Atwood is, simply in the retelling of it now.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, it is Offred’s voice alone that is our guide to Gilead, but Aunt Lydia is not the only voice in this novel. We are also privy to the thoughts of Jade – a teenager in Gilead’s bordering country of Canada – and Agnes Jemima – a girl of Gilead. Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments is more of an adventure. It is driven strongly by plot and action. I am glad of this difference, as another Offred style narrative would seem superfluous. The Handmaid’s Tale is about the politics, the intricacies and hypocrisies of the regime. It is introspective and highly ambiguous. Another Gilead story of this kind would undermine the perfect conciseness of what preceded it and unpack its meaning and reshape them, risking a marring of the original. But The Testaments is not about how Gilead persists, it is about how it falls.

The young women of the story are simple, by and large. They are the products of their environments and the innocent canvases on which rebellion and optimism can be found. They are by no means fascinating characters – in my opinion anyway. Aunt Lydia is the crux of this story and her person is shrouded in intrigue. She is deep and complex and strong and fearless. And cruel too. She is cruel, that cannot be denied. But with motive comes respect, begrudging though it may be.

I turned the first page of The Testaments with trepidation. I turned the last with gratitude. It did not light my world on fire, as The Handmaid’s Tale had done before, but it was a reassurance and a confirmation that I did not place my faith wrongly in the hands of Margaret Atwood.

“Our time together is drawing short, my reader, possibly you will view these pages of mine as a fragile treasure box, to be opened with the utmost care. Possibly you will tear them apart, or burn them: that often happens to words.
                “Perhaps you’ll be a student of history, in which case I hope you’ll make something useful of me: a warts-and-all portrait, a definitive account of my life and times, suitably footnoted; though if you don’t accuse me of bad faith I will be astonished.”

The Testaments, Margaret Atwood, Penguin Random House UK, 2019, p403

Book Review: “Muse of Nightmares” by Laini Taylor

IMG_2849 (2)

Laini Taylor’s style is addictive; she builds her world with finesse and love, and dazzling colour. Her characters are warm, menacing, complex, dangerous, beautiful and capable of wonderful – or terrible – things.

She floated in the air before them, eyes glowing red, flames blooming in her hands, wearing mesarthium armor and wielding lightning like spears, and the godspawn and humans were humbled and appalled.

Muse of Nightmares, Laini Taylor, p336

Hodder & Stoughton (9781444788952)

Muse of Nightmares is the sequel to Strange the Dreamer, which I read last year and neglected to review. Sometimes it’s difficult to think critically about a book you’ve just read, because you feel bereft when it’s suddenly over. That’s how I felt when I finished Strange the Dreamer a year ago, and how I felt last night, when I closed the cover of Muse of Nightmares. Bereft is the word. Hyperbolic, it may be, but we, my friends, are Book People, so I hope, between us, I will not be judged.

In many ways, Strange the Dreamer is a fairytale. A young man, an orphan, with nothing to his name but a dream of greater things. A young woman, made to feel worthless despite her wondrous potential, trapped in a tower, dreaming of escape. Those same young people, against all the odds, unlock each other’s destinies. But this is a fairytale smuggled inside a fantasy, so think big.

Muse of Nightmares, like Strange the Dreamer, is a fluent, acrobatic, magical silk sleigh ride through the world of Zeru. Zeru is the world of Lazlo Strange, and the blue-skinned orphans of the terrible blue-skinned gods, who left a city without a name, and a tragic legacy of murder and mystery.

The characters all have the unmistakable stamp of Laini Taylor. They are in turns warm and funny, desperately in love, in exquisite pain, hopeful and distraught. Taylor has the ability to convey emotion effortlessly and without hyperbole or falsity, no matter how intense. Her characters and her world envelop you in a warm blanket, and leaves you wishing for a duvet day that would never end.

Taylor’s storytelling is so effortless, full of wonderful imagery and dialogue, that you can flick to almost any page and find something worth reading aloud. But she also achieves perfect clarity continuously, and that is the best compliment I could give.

She gave the words back to him, murmuring, and kept them, too. You could do that: Give them back and keep them. “I love you” is generous that way.

ibid, p166

The first book in the series sets up many questions that the second endeavours to answer. Muse of Nightmares seeks to not only conclude the epic story of the first book, but to develop the universe, introduce a new collection of characters and tie up all the loose ends – a daunting task. I am not convinced this undertaking was necessary. Why not expand into another book, when there is so much to be told?

Some character arcs were rushed and some scintillating subplots deserved more attention than they received. My favourite arc in Muse of Nightmares revolves around two sisters, Nova and Kora, and the spectral eagle known as Wraith that features in book one. To avoid spoilers, I will just say that this subplot added a whole new dimension to Taylor’s universe, and I wanted more!

I have not read any of Taylor’s previous titles, but she leaves some tidy Easter eggs within Muse of Nightmares, suggesting that her universe is connected in more ways than is evident in Lazlo’s story alone. We are left with the tantalising notion of “The End. (Or is it?)”, but the way things wrap up at the end of this novel, one could be forgiven for thinking there might not be a next. Nevertheless, I live in hope.


Title: Muse of Nightmares
Author: Laini Taylor
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN: 9781444789034
Format: Hardback

Paperback to be published April 2019 (9781444789065)


Book Review: “The Watchmaker of Filigree Street” by Natasha Pulley

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

by Natasha Pulley

 

“The Watchmaker of Filigree Street” is one of those books whose resolution you desperately chase, but whose end you sincerely wish would never come. Discover forever. That’s the possibility that Natasha Pulley gives us. Possibilities that hang luminous and tempting in your foremind. Strands of narrative like the strands of a spider’s web, floating in the imperceptible breeze.

Mori the Watchmaker can see all the possibilities.

Thaniel is a clerk at the home office. That’s probably all he ever would have been. If Mori hadn’t seen the possibilities.

watchmaker of filigree street

Magical realism is in vogue. How modern it is to indulge in a bit of magic. Natasha Pulley’s story floats effortlessly on this veil of literary mystery, this effervescent, illusive (perhaps empty) phrase, magical realism. What does it mean? Superficially, it means a story that is grounded in what is known and human and understood, but with something extra thrown in, something mystical, something unexplained – magic. Something that illuminates the story in a way that straightforward realism cannot. That is, in my opinion, the noble and elusive hope of magical realism.

Magical realism is not science fiction or fantasy. In the traditional sense at least. Although many an avid SF fan will insist that fiction is stealing the good stuff under its umbrella, while rejecting SF as an intelligent and complex genre in its own right. Personally, I find SF/Fantasy to be, most definitely, a genre worthy of more respect across the realm of literature. In the not too distant future, children will study J.K. Rowling and Patrick Rothfuss at school in place of dusty Dickens and tiresome T.S. Eliot.

But this is all beside the point.

“The Watchmaker of Filigree Street” is magical realism. A solid foundation of Victorian London. With political strife and everyday life. But woven through every chapter, paragraph and sentence, are the glittering threads of something far more extraordinary.

Now out in paperback, The Bedlam Stacks, Pulley’s second novel.

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Title: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street
Author: Natasha Pulley
Published: 14/07/2016
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 9781408854310

 

Review: “Northanger Abbey” by Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey
by Jane Austen

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It was about time I had another classic in the bag and Northanger Abbey has been sat on my shelf since university – part of an extensive reading list that was never completed. I’ve read several of Austen’s novels before and I’m sure we are all familiar with the formula: husbandless female meets handsome rich male; complications ensue; yada yada yada; bish, bash, bosh; wedding bells.

I hope I won’t be revealing any big spoilers for anyone when I say this (look away now if you’d prefer not to know): they end up happily ever after. And yet…

I got genuinely riled up when the douchebag characters screwed things up for the heroine.

Having had a considerable break from Austen, I am now able to read her with fresh appreciation. She is truly a master of narrative prowess and impeccable characterisation. Yes, her works are filled with stereotypes and archetypes. But what is so enjoyable about her characters, is that they are as true to life now as then. I know people like the characters of Northanger Abbey in my life. I was particularly amused by the conversations shared by our heroine and her new best friend – a girl she’d barely known a day. Their chats bare all the marks of quickly made teenage friendships. The idioms of intimate conversation, the subtleties of social interaction are the same as they ever were.

“The progress of the friendship between Catherine and Isabella was as quick as its beginning had been warm, and they passed so rapidly through every gradation of increasing tenderness that there was shortly no fresh proof of it to be given to their friends or themselves.” – 26

But besides her characters, I quickly warmed to this novel because it is very aware of its own formula (i.e. girl meets boy and so on). Northanger Abbey was released posthumously, as was Persuasion, and as such, have a degree of maturity to them that I personally do not find in her earlier publications. By the time she was writing Northanger Abbey, she had established herself well enough to be able to play with her form. And while all her works feature a degree of social satire, it is twice heightened in Northanger Abbey by taking on another genre: gothic romance.

From the outset, Austen is doing her best to unseat the conventions of her genre. The opening pages are strongly advising us not to think of Catherine Morland as your classic heroine: “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.” (1)

And besides an unfortunate appearance, “not less unpropitious for heroism seemed her mind. She was fond of all boys’ plays, and greatly preferred cricket not merely to dolls, but to the more heroic enjoyments of infancy, nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush.” (1-2)

Of her mother: “She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on.” (1)

Making fun of the epistolary trope:

“Not keep a journal! How are your absent cousins to understand the tenor of your life in Bath without one? … My dear madam, I am not so ignorant of young ladies’ ways as you wish to believe me; it is this delightful habit of journalizing which largely contributes to form the easy style of writing for which ladies are so generally celebrated. Everybody allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female.” – (17)

And Austen herself has some things to say to her readers:

“I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding – joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, for whom she can expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk with threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body” (26-7)

I think my dear Jane has said all that need be said on the matter. I shall simply add that I found Northanger Abbey a delightful read. Intelligent, self-critical and highly amusing.

 

Title: Northanger Abbey
Author: Jane Austen
Publisher: Harper Press (Harper Collins Publishers Ltd)
ISBN: 9780007368600

Book Review: “Autumn” by Ali Smith

Autumn

by Ali Smith

I’ve been waiting a year to read a book like this. I only wish I’d read it three months ago, when the falling leaves outside could’ve matched those of this book. Or better still, a year ago, when this country made a historic decision that clearly weighed heavily on Ali Smith’s mind. Brexit prominently features in this novel. No matter what side of the vote you fell on, it cannot be denied that much social and political unrest persists in the wake of the UK’s decision to leave the EU.

This novel is, predominantly about an unlikely friendship. Elisabeth is nine-years-old when they move house, and Daniel, an ageing bachelor, becomes their next-door neighbour. Both lonely, for their part, it doesn’t take long for a connection to be made and one that will continue for decades to come.

“The lifelong friends, he said. We sometimes wait a lifetime for them.” (52)

The characters are inherently imperfect and complex – as you would hope and expect from contemporary literature. We only see Elisabeth and Daniel in part, never whole. We know that Elisabeth’s father is out of the picture, but never why. We know that Daniel lost the people he loved, but never how. This, added to the fragmentary nature of the work, imbues the novel with authentic emotional experience. – While we hope that others feel as we do, you can never truly know. It is fearful hope that leads us to love, friendship and trust. It is through this fragility that Smith calls on us to be brave.

The style is distinctly contemporary – like its subject matter. It is lyrical, rhythmic and littered with truncated poetry. Perspectives shift with grace and empathy. There is a wonderful cohesion to this piece. Embracing everything in its withering foliage, autumnal metaphors and similes trace and echo effortlessly throughout the narrative. It is natural, melancholic and vibrant.

“The leaves are stuck to the ground with the wet. The ones on the paving are yellow and rotting, wanwood, leafmeal. One is so stuck that when it eventually peels away, its leafshape left behind, shadow of a leaf, will last on the pavement till next spring.” (259)

Autumn has always been my favourite time of year. The colours and the sounds of leaves upon the ground. So, naturally (pun intended), I loved the imagery used throughout Autumn.

The dialogue reads like a script, and I could imagine the scenes playing out on a stage or screen. Humour makes a bold appearance too and I found myself smiling broadly on several occasions. The book, on the whole, moves at a fast pace, but comes to a dead stop, from time to time. The contrast is beautiful, matching the ebb and flow of the seasons, which is doubly echoed by the lives of the characters.

The “problem” of immigration is constantly referred to both directly and indirectly. Sexuality also goes uncategorised for all the main characters. In this way, Smith is representing minority voices, while eschewing the notion of labelling that often creates hostility and mistrust. In this respect too, Smith’s is a distinct and proud modern voice.

“Autumn” promises to be the first in a quartet of novels that speak directly to the now of UK society. The second novel, “Winter”, is now out in hardback, and I will most certainly be picking it up. It is both fascinating and delightful to read something that feels so impressively contemporary. And with “Autumn” shortlisted for the Man Booker 2017, we can only hope great things are in store for the rest of this collection.

Title: Autumn
Author: Ali Smith
ISBN: 9780241973318
Publisher: Penguin

Quicky Review: “The Wise Man’s Fear” by Patrick Rothfuss

The Wise Man’s Fear

By Patrick Rothfuss

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The Wise Man’s Fear is the second instalment of the Kingkiller Chronicles, following The Name of the Wind. I absolutely devoured The Name of the Wind last year and with the third novel still without a publication date, I wanted to savour what was available to me in the second novel. It is a sizeable tome and thanks to my Pudding/Vegetable reading pattern, I used a few vegetables to break up my reading and extend the pleasure of Rothfuss’ delicious storytelling.

As expected, the story does not disappoint. Full to the brim with exciting events and a fantasy world rich in detail. However, I must confess to not enjoying this book as much as the first. I found a fair amount of the sexual content – of which there is a lot – both jarring and ill-fitting. It felt heavily exaggerated and Kvothe’s use of superlatives became exhausting.

The character of Kvothe continues to be drawn out, his life experience so varied and eventful and insane … but … really? He wooed a wild sex fairy? There are times when I fell into scepticism, because even with the suspension of disbelief … come on, really? But, we are often reminded that Kvothe is a storyteller – prone to exaggerate and even wilfully misrepresent. After all, “You have to be a bit of a liar to tell a story the right way.”

In spite of some misgivings, I still love the series. The intricacies of all the civilizations that Kvothe encounters, with their language systems and customs are brilliantly thought out and intruiging. Every new group we meet and learn about seems to be adding to a much, much bigger picture and I can’t help but feel that everything that happens is part of an arc whose landing point is unkown and terribly exciting.

We Rothfuss fans now await the third instalment – Doors of Stone – with waning patience. Hear’s hoping it won’t be long now!

Click here for my review of The Name of the Wind.

 

Book Review: “The Music Shop” by Rachel Joyce

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The Music Shop

By Rachel Joyce

music shop

I’m a big fan of Rachel Joyce, since reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, so as soon as I heard about The Music Shop, I had to read it immediately and it didn’t disappoint.

The Music Shop is about a man called Frank, who owns a record shop in the late 80s. Music is Frank’s way of interpreting and existing in the world and he has the extraordinary ability to listen. He understands the melody, the meaning, the emotion that a piece of music can contain – how it can elate, enrage or embrace you. And now, whenever a customer walks into the ordered chaos of his record shop, he will listen and he will find the song they need. It’s probably not what they came in asking for, but it’s what they need nevertheless. Frank will listen to you and hear the secret song inside you and make it real.

Then one day, a woman in a pea-green coat with eyes like vinyl faints outside Frank’s shop and changes everything.

Joyce has an extraordinary touch. She observes people minutely and exactly. But she does not pin down her characters with exactness. She is rather like a lepidopterist, who can gently cradle a passing butterfly in her hand. She examines carefully and with dedication. But only for a few seconds before releasing it once again. Hers is a gentle and respectful fascination with the human experience. She does not care for melodrama or action sequences. Joyce pays attention to the quiet existence of life that we can all relate to. Loneliness, grief, tender love and fierce friendship. And through it all, her words are warm and funny and generous.

“Jazz was about the spaces between notes. It was about what happened when you listened to the thing inside you. The gaps and the cracks. Because that was where life really happened; when you were brave enough to free fall.”
(p97)

Click here to see my review of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.

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Also see The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald.