Events, Fiction, Reviews

Shadow winner for The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick announced!

As you may have read on Twitter, on the award website, and my fellow shadow panel member’s blogs, our winner for the Young Writer of the Year Award has been announced! And the winner is… The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar! I reviewed the book here, and I have to say I really enjoyed it.

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image via penguin.co.uk

If you’ve read all our reviews of the four shortlisted books, you’ll know that there were a lot of different opinions in the mix, but meeting in person on 19th November at the FMcM offices was a brilliant opportunity to talk about the books in person. After a lot of debate we agreed that The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock was the most deserving of the four books, and we are very pleased to choose it as our shadow winner.

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The official winner of the Young Writer of the Year Award 2018 will be announced on 6th December at the award event at The London Library. I’m planning to attend, as is my fellow shadow judge Lucy Pearson. I will be reporting back after the event!

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Fiction, Reviews

Elmet by Fiona Mozley (2017) – shortlisted for The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick

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image via hodder.co.uk

Elmet has been nominated for a lot of awards, most famously the Man Booker Prize in 2017, but I have to admit I hadn’t heard of it before it came to me as part of the shortlist for the Young Writer of the Year Award 2018. Once I started reading I wasn’t surprised that it has garnered so much praise and attention, especially given that it’s a first novel. Elmet is a visceral and gritty story that is filled with intense emotion.

Initially I was wary of the young narrator, as Daniel is only in his mid-teens, but I could see why this choice was made. He and his sister Cathy live with their father – ‘Daddy’ – in a remote home in Yorkshire, where they live off the land and keep to themselves. They are isolated and you can see how this strange life has affected the young Daniel throughout his narrative. Their father is a bare-knuckle boxer, fighting for money, and there is a strong element of danger and the threat of violence running through the story.  Seeing the story from Daniel’s perspective means that we don’t always get the full picture, but as adult readers we can infer the rest, which is sometimes darker than Daniel realises.

The title comes from the old Celtic name for the section of northern England where the characters live, and there is a timeless element to the story, especially as everything seems to happen so far away from normal society. The family very much live in their own world, where there is a blend of folklore and modern life. As a reader you wonder why they are so isolated, what has happened to the children’s mother, and what drives the father to be so intense and scary, frankly. They do have some neighbours and it soon becomes clear that there may be issues over who actually owns the land on which they live, and from this there comes discussion of rights and class, as well as the importance of home and belonging. These themes run throughout the book, right through to the dramatic conclusion.

I quite liked the premise of Elmet, but for me the style and the setting was a little too affected, and I didn’t warm to any of the characters. Like their father, Cathy is tough and secretive, and Daniel clearly needs more from both of his relatives. Their situation is extreme and unhappy, and the reading experience is hard going. While I admired Mozley’s skill with scene setting and atmosphere, I found the novel quite hard to engage with. However, I think Elmet will still find a lot of fans who will enjoy the interesting family dynamics and the multi-layered issues and theme throughout the novel.

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Published in 2017 by John Murray, an imprint of Hodder. My copy was provided for review in conjunction with the Young Writer of the Year Award 2018.

Purchase from FoylesBlackwell’sBlackwell’s, and Wordery.

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Fiction, Reviews

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar (2018) – shortlisted for The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick

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image via penguin.co.uk

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock continues the trend of historical novels that are filled with rich detail, the glamour and grunge of the city, and a vivid cast of characters. This novel also brings in a slightly fantastical element with the mermaid, which I think makes it a bit more original than some other novels in this vein. From the start the novel is very engaging and immersive, full of descriptive detail and a wide cast of characters. It is written in the present tense, which I wasn’t sure about at first as this can often be misused, but I was quickly convinced that it was the right choice for this novel.

We are introduced to Jonah Hancock, a merchant who has recently lost his wife and son. He owns several ships, and it is the captain of one of these ships who comes to him with the mermaid – a small creature caught from the sea. It appears to be dead by the time it makes its way to Mr Hancock, but it is a marvel nonetheless. They quickly come upon the idea of displaying it to the public for a fee. We then meet Angelica Neal, a courtesan striving for more independence. Her world is just as vividly drawn as that of Mr Hancock, if not more so, and we are drawn into her story from the start. These two characters are drawn together and it all goes from there…

There were times when I thought the language got a little too flowery or affected, especially with the use of the present tense, but I don’t think it went over the top – rather it served to create another world for the characters and the story. It is a very dense and developed world, filled with well-developed characters, both the central couple and those around them. Their relationship is very interesting, as they are drawn to each other but you’re not always sure how much of a game is also being played, on either side. As my fellow shadow panel members Susan and Amanda have pointed out in their reviews, this novel could be read as a morality tale and there are shades of ‘be careful what you wish for’, in terms of relationships but also the mermaid itself and everything it brings with it.

I’m not sure I would have got around to picking up this book if it were not for the Young Writer of the Year shortlist, but I’m glad I did. I have observed several other novels in this trope, but I’m glad I haven’t actually read too many of them, so it didn’t feel tired to me. Imogen Hermes Gowar obviously researched the time period thoroughly, and she does well with the world building. The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is an engaging and intriguing novel that I can just see being made into a BBC drama – no lack of visual and atmospheric details! I think anyone who enjoys historical fiction of this type will love it.

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Published in 2018 by Harvill Secker, an imprint of Penguin. My copy was provided for review in conjunction with the Young Writer of the Year Award 2018.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth (2018) – shortlisted for The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick

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image via penguin.co.uk

I had not heard of this book when it was shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read it – I have always liked travel writing, and I love to read about places and things I know nothing about, but still find interesting. Kings of the Yukon is based around Adam’s Weymouth’s journey along the Yukon river (crossing the Canada/Alaska border) in a canoe at the same time of year as the salmon are making their way along the river in the opposite direction, back inland. He writes about the salmon themselves quite a bit, their different species and habits, their life span and their habitat; and he writes about the places he visits and the people he finds there.

I loved the way that Weymouth let the people along the Yukon tell their own stories, and sort of sat back and let them talk on the page. He does not try to impose his own opinions or narrative on things, and this book is much more about the journey, places, and people than about the author. A lot of travel writing is about a personal journey, some sort of self-discovery, but that doesn’t really happen here, and it was actually quite refreshing. I do like reading those more personal travel books, but Kings of the Yukon is about how people interact with nature, and how that impacts the animals, the land, and in the end the people themselves. Weymouth writes about the impact of overfishing and the bureaucracy that is put in place to control it, successful or otherwise. I felt I was learning new things right from the start of the book, which was wonderful.

I also loved Weymouth’s writing style. It is simple and understated, descriptive and yet never overblown or too complex. He is clearly a keen observer, and adds marvellous details in just the right places. His fascination with his subject comes through in his writing, and you can feel that this was a journey, and a book, that came from a passion for nature and this particular area, as well as the people who live there. Stories are told of both the native First Nations people as well as those who came later; we learn about why these people came to the area – the gold rush, farming, and of course the fishing. The history of the place still seems to be present in the lives of the people that Weymouth speaks to, alive in their memories. As a British person who has never visited either Canada or Alaska, it was fascinating to learn this history and the ways in which it has influenced the lives of those in the area.

Reading Kings of the Yukon was a wonderful experience outside of normal life, off to this remote place up near the arctic circle that I now really want to visit. I also loved the hand drawn map at the start of the book that shows the Yukon river and the places mentioned in the book. I very much look forward to whatever Adam Weymouth publishes next!

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Published in 2018 by Particular Books (UK), Little Brown (US), and Knopf (Canada). My copy was provided for review in conjunction with the Young Writer of the Year Award 2018.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery.

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Comment, Fiction, Reviews

The Haunting of Hill House (2018) on Netflix

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image via IMDb.com

Regular readers will know that I love the work of Shirley Jackson. In 2015 I read and loved her novel The Haunting of Hill House, so I was very intrigued when I heard that there would be a Netflix series based on it. It’s been adapted into a film before, in 1963 and 1999, so I thought perhaps a series would actually be a good way to get deeper into the story and the characters. I really must watch the films (though I know the 1999 version is supposed to be terrible, but it’s got Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones so I’m sure it’s entertaining).

But as I read a bit more about the new series I quickly realised that rather than an adaptation it was more of a… re-imagining. The showrunner is Mike Flanagan, who has made some really great films like Hush and Oculus, both of which I really enjoyed (especially Hush, it’s really clever and brilliant), so I had quite high expectations, as did my husband who is a big horror fan. Though he hasn’t read The Haunting of Hill House. Anyway. I was still on board, even though Flanagan changed the group of strangers brought to Hill House by a researcher into an actual family, the Crains, who lived in the house. Interesting, but could still work…

But of course as anyone who has seen the show knows, it just becomes its own thing from there really. There are callbacks to the book, and there are several characters based on or named after characters from the book, but really the links are pretty tenuous. I did like that Eleanor was named after the central character of the novel, and both of them have the deepest connection to the house (except perhaps the mother in the series?), and I think that worked ok. There is also Theodora (Theo) who is a bit mysterious in both, and I liked that the series actually made her gay where the novel just implied she was (although that is kind of a can of worms as discussed in this brilliant article). Then there is Luke, who in the novel is part of the family that own the house, though I have to say I don’t remember him being super connected to it, but feel free to correct me. In the series he and Eleanor are twins, and so I think he gets drawn into the house with/through her. I think they also randomly named Eleanor’s therapist in the series Dr Montague, which is the name of the researcher in the novel that brings them all to the house, but that just seemed so weird I’m not going to try and analyse it. One of the sisters is also called Shirley but that is a WHOLE OTHER THING, grouped in with the character of Steven.

One of the big changes that I read a lot about is the fact that the writing side of the story is given to a male character, Steven. The famous opening paragraph of the novel is a masterclass in Jackson’s spare and beautiful prose, and it gets hold of you straight away. In the series, this paragraph is used in a voice-over at the opening of the first episode, read by Steven, and it’s revealed that in the series this is from his book on Hill House, called The Haunting of Hill House, that he wrote about his family’s experience living there. I mean. There are several things here. I’m not sure why they felt the need for his book to have the same title, though I get that his writing about their life is a big plot device used throughout. But the main issue is that he is the writer. Why should Jackson’s brilliant words be given to a man? Especially when there is a character named Shirley? Who is a woman? It just makes no sense to me. It also doesn’t help that Steven is a terrible character who is awful to everyone and should just go away.

There are a lot of good things about the series. The plotting and storytelling is excellent, as is the use of the two timelines and how they are edited together. The actual house and the sets are all excellent and brilliantly used, with just the right amount of creepiness and atmosphere. Mrs and Mrs Dudley, the house’s caretakers, are also well used, apart from the weird story line with their children but that’s another issue… I loved the character of Eleanor and her story really resonated with me. My husband and I were bawling our eyes out by the end of the episode focused on her (episode 5, The Bent-Neck Lady), and the actress who played her, Victoria Pedretti, was wonderful and very well cast. I was also really impressed with episode 6, Two Storms, which brilliantly explored the family’s issues and relationships while also looking incredible with a couple of really long tracking shots that were just amazing.

Regardless of the connections and differences to the novel, The Haunting of Hill House is a brilliantly made but flawed show. It is unrelentingly grim and utterly sad, and watching more than two episodes in a row would be overwhelming. It is a bit overblown. Also I wish they had explored the story of the Hill family a bit more, whose ghosts appear to the Crains in the house and who would clearly be interesting if further investigated. I also had very mixed feelings about most of the Crain family as characters. While they all had good moments (apart from Steven, just blanket awfulness) I think I only actually liked Eleanor and Luke. I think I found them the most interesting, along with the father, Hugh. He has different memories, and actual knowledge, about the house from his children, so their dynamic was very interesting, and I think his character was well constructed and well used.

So, a very mixed bag. My main thought on the show now is that while I appreciate that Jackson’s novel is obviously great source material, I just don’t get why Flanagan didn’t just make a series with an original story about a family and a haunted house. I couldn’t help but thin that maybe he missed something about the novel when I read that he didn’t think a straight adaptation was possible. That doesn’t seem to make sense to me.

It’s been a week or so since my husband and I finished watching the series and I’m glad I left a bit of time to digest it before I wrote this post – right afterwards I had so many thoughts about it that if I had written about it then I would have rambled on even longer than I have here. So I thank you if you have stayed with me this far! I’m experimenting with writing about things other than book reviews, so I’ll see how this post lands and go from there. Thank you for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this adaptation.

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The Haunting of Hill House is on Netflix worldwide now. The novel is available from Foyles, Blackwell’s, Wordery, and I’m sure plenty of other retailers.

 

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman (2018) – shortlisted for The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick

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image via orionbooks.co.uk

I’d had The Reading Cure on my GoodReads TBR for a while, so I was pleased to see that it was shortlisted for The Young Writer Of The Year Award, and I would have a reason to actually hurry up and read it. It is a memoir that blends together the personal and the literary, as writer Laura Freeman takes us through her struggles with anorexia and her deep love of reading.

Despite the word ‘cure’ being in the title, and the subtitle being How Books Restored My Appetite, Freeman acknowledges that anorexia is a much more complicated thing than that, and she muses on the fact that it will never completely leave her. I admired her candidness throughout the book, and found her discussions about mental health issues refreshing and down to earth, especially the lasting effects of it both on her and those closest to her. More than once she writes about how isolated she was during the worst points of her illness, whether that was in a literal sense when she was confined to bed, or in a more personal sense when she felt different and weird for having these issues around food.

Her discussions of the possible causes of her anorexia are insightful and fascinating as she takes us through her happy and thoughtless childhood eating through to her gradual realisation as a teenager that food could make her fat, something she didn’t want to be, and that the ideal form was obviously to be thin. Later in the book she also considers how women both in real life and in literature seem required to eat daintily, to prefer neater foods, while the man can glut themselves on pies and meat. This is something that I have observed too. It always seems to be seen as a virtue when a woman denies herself more food than she absolutely needs. Freeman considers this in light of the writers she reads throughout her illness, as she starts with male authors and eventually veers over to more women, such as M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, and Virginia Woolf.

The books she reads are the centre of this memoir. It is as much a reading diary as a book about Freeman’s experience with her illness. She takes us in great detail through her year of reading Dickens, her time reading Laurie Lee, Paddy Leigh Fermor, First World War poets, and then through Fisher, David, Woolf, and on to others. At times I felt like there was a little too much detail from the books (I was glad I actually hadn’t read most of them, otherwise it would be too repetitive), and not quite enough about how it related to Freeman’s life and experience. She is also very obviously influenced by her reading when it comes to her writing style, which is quite flowery and sometimes quite self-conscious. While she discusses her love of new words she learns from her reading, and this is great at the time, her later use of them can come across a bit heavy-handed.

The Reading Cure is a very charming book, filled with Freeman’s love of literature and her appreciation for food, despite her illness. At times I think things could have been delved into a little deeper, or explored from another perspective, but the book is very enjoyable and a great accomplishment nonetheless.

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Published in 2018 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, an imprint of the Orion Group. My copy was kindly provided in conjunction with the Young Writer of the Year Award 2018.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery.

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Fiction, Reviews

House of Glass by Susan Fletcher (2018)

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(image via goodreads.com)

I loved Susan Fletcher’s last novel, Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew, so I was very happy to accept a review copy of House of Glass, which was published at the start of November. It’s another historical drama, this time centering on a woman named Clara Waterfield, who is employed to create a greenhouse at a mysterious country estate, Shadowbrook (doesn’t sound creepy at all…). Clara is born with weak bones and lives a very sheltered life until she finds a ‘gentle’ job in the greenhouses at Kew Gardens – and it is from there that she is employed at Shadowbrook.

From the start things are a bit weird, with the house’s owner, Mr Fox, being absent and everyone being a bit cagey about where he is. The housekeeper Mrs Bale is kind but seems fraught with some underlying fear or tension, and evades Clara’s questions; and the two maids at the house are likewise unable or unwilling to give her any more information. She must simply prepare the greenhouse for the plants that are to come, and when they arrive she must plant and look after them. While the house and its owner are a mystery to Clara, she in turn is something of a mystery to everyone she meets – her bones mean that she is short and walks with a cane, and she has unusually light hair, skin, and eyes. She constantly feels looked at wherever she goes, and it takes her a while to settle in. Throughout these introductory sections of the book, Fletcher’s beautiful writing really shines through, as Clara explores the house, grounds, and the local village, observing everything and always wanting to learn more. She also thinks and dreams of her dead mother almost all the time, haunted by her memories.

Soon, Clara starts to hear strange noises in the house, and wonders why there are no pictures on the walls. She learns that there were pictures, but they kept falling down for no apparent reason. So, not only do we have a mysterious house with a mysterious owner, we might also have ghosts. I wouldn’t say that House of Glass is a ghost story or a haunted house story, but it’s certainly Gothic. Clara herself is a great Gothic character with her unusual appearance and sheltered life. She moves about like a little creature, stared at, but still bold. She makes a point of talking to people and asking them about the house the its previous owners, the Pettigrews. Everyone seems to have an opinion about them and they obviously made quite an impact on the village – particularly the daughter, Veronique, who inherited the house and was the last Pettigrew to live there. Clara is fascinated by Veronique and endeavours to find out everything she can about her – while wondering if she is the ghost in the house.

I honestly can’t say too much more without giving things away, as there are several key things that slowly get revealed as the book goes on. An investigator is hired to come and see if there really is a ghost, and from this point Clara digs deeper and does manage to uncover some truths. The story is really well paced, and while things are revealed slowly to the reader, you don’t feel like things are held back, or given too fast. I found Clara to be a really engaging narrator and I loved her bold attitude and determination. As I expected Fletcher’s characterisation (of the whole cast) is excellent, and the world of the novel feels very real, as do the people in it. The novel starts a little slowly, but gets better as it goes on, and I have to say I was not expecting what was revealed towards the end – the truth about Mr Fox, Shadowbrook, and the Pettigrews. It is an ending well worth the time and effort it takes to get there.

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Published by Virago, an imprint of Little, Brown. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

This Will Only Hurt A Little by Busy Philipps (2018)

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(image via goodreads.com)

Like many people, I was aware of, and liked, Busy Philipps from her various TV shows and movies, and my liking of her only grew when I followed her on Instagram and witnessed the joy and brilliance of her Stories on the app. I love that she is honest and frank on Instagram, and shows us the everyday parts of her life as well as the exciting ones. Of course you have to realise that even for someone as open as Busy Philipps, the life we see on Instagram cannot be the whole picture – there is always more to people’s lives than what they present to the world, whether online or in real life. And in Busy Philipps’ case, quite a bit of the ‘more’ is here in her book, This Will Only Hurt A Little.

Busy Philipps is an insightful and engaging writer, even if her style isn’t ‘literary’, and she draws you in straight away. There isn’t really a theme to the memoir, so it is a a straight chronicle of key moments from Philipps’ life, and she is relatable and likeable right from the start. I have seen reviews where people weren’t sure how to feel about her strong emotions, especially when she expresses anger or dislike; but for me I liked these moments because she was really being honest, and women are often discouraged from expressing these ‘unpleasant’ emotions or opinions. You can see that sometimes she had a certain reaction for personal reasons, which might not always be ‘correct’, but I liked that she didn’t try to sanitise or cover up what really happened and how she really felt. Philipps readily admits that she is “a lot” and that she is an emotional person. I loved that she is so honest about how she feels, and that she is unwilling to compromise who she really is.

I had a very different experience growing up to Philipps, but despite that there was still so much in the early parts of the book that I could relate to, and I think a lot of people will find the same thing. There is always something universal about growing up in a very ordinary place, and going through the turmoils of family, friends, school, puberty, and all the ensuing drama – we each just have our own versions of all these things. I was amazed at how open Philipps is about her family in particular, and their own unique issues and personalities. I did wonder how they might feel about all that being in the book. I wondered this too about various people she meets over the years, as she never uses pseudonyms or tries to hide who she is talking about, or what happened between them. Likewise she is searingly honest about her marriage and its ups and downs, as well as her and her husband’s feeling about having children, and what is was like to be new parents. This type of candour and emotional honesty is rare in the celebrity world, especially when it is not played for laughs and just told straight – and I found it refreshing and relatable. Busy Philipps and her husband (who is a screenwriter, producer, and director) may have a Hollywood life, but they still have a family and a marriage, and everything that comes along with it.

I genuinely just really enjoyed reading This Will Only Hurt A Little, and I was happily swept up in the emotions of Philipps’ stories. It made me feel a lot of things about her, and myself, and women, and men, and mothers and sisters, parents, work, self-worth and self-esteem, moments when we need to be tough and demanding, moments when we need to work and give, moments when we need to be there for others, and for ourselves. Philipps has had an incredible life filled to the brim with people and emotions, and it has obviously been a difficult life at times, both when she was young and as an adult; but I was impressed by her resilience and her later self-awareness and willingness to deal with difficult things. I really do admire her for these things – as well as her wonderful body of work. Freaks and Geeks is one of my favourite things I have seen her in, as well as Vice Principals, and movies like Made of Honor (one of several movies and TV shows where she plays a scene-stealing friend of the central female character). I’m also very keen to see her new late night chat show on E!, amazing titled Busy Tonight, partly because she is one of very few women to host a late night show, but also because I am sure she will be completely engaging and brilliant on it.

I think This Will Only Hurt A Little is one of the most well-written and engaging celebrity memoirs I have come across, and in fact it doesn’t really feel like a ‘celebrity’ book – more like a memoir of a woman who is really interesting and brilliant and normal and just happens to be an amazing actress with an amazing life. I really recommend it to anyone who enjoys this type of memoir, especially if you would normally be put off by the ‘Hollywood’  aspect. Busy Philipps is a relatable and brilliant women who deserves nothing but success. Read this book!

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Published in 2018 by Sphere, an imprint of Little, Brown.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery.

 

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore by Emma Southon (2018)

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(image: goodreads.com)

I was particularly excited to read this biography of Agrippina the Younger for a couple of reasons: I had only vaguely heard of her and was keen to know more about a real Roman woman, and I also pledged to support this book on its publisher’s website. As you may know, Unbound is a crowd-funding publisher where readers can pledge towards a particular book, and in exchange you get a copy of it and your name printed inside. I was really intrigued by the premise of this book and pledged as soon as I read about it – and was very pleased to finally receive my copy of the paperback a couple of weeks ago. I started reading straight away.

Now, I knew that Agrippina was not going to be an ‘academic’ book, despite the author Emma Southon being a Dr, because I knew she has left academia. And I knew that Unbound are an unconventional publisher, and they might not be as rigid as some of the bigger presses when it comes to the books they publish. But somehow I was entirely unprepared for the style of this book.

I totally get that Southon wanted to write a more ‘popular’ style of book on the Romans, and I think that is a good thing, especially as she actively seeks to demolish old-fashioned ideas about them, and makes a point of highlighting how women were treated in the Roman period and in the historical record. Throughout the book Southon demonstrates how hard it is to put together a biography of someone about whom we have very few sources of information left. This is very admirable and very interesting, and initially I liked that Southon was clearly rejecting the stiff academic style of historical biography, and that she makes a point of trying to make her characters seem more human and relatable, especially when trying to understand what happened and why.

However – perhaps it’s just me, but I found the writing almost too casual and chatty, and I found this hard to get along with. As Southon points out, a lot of the characters in her story had the same or very similar names, and everyone in the Julio-Claudian dynasty was related in complicated ways, and it can be hard to keep track. But I found the chatty and casual style made it even harder to keep track of this, because the conversational tone meant that it was a bit stream-of-consciousness and meandering.

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Agrippina the Younger (image: britannica.com)

Despite my issues with the style – and the over-the-top swearing and gratuitous graphic phrasing – the story of Agrippina’s life is undoubtedly fascinating and engaging. Her position in the dynasty meant that her life was full of high drama, including exile to an island, a few possible murder plots, affairs, death, divorce, political intrigue, revenge… and that’s just in the first couple of chapters. I loved reading about such a courageous and defiant woman who lived in an age when women had basically no rights and, as Southon points out, did not matter unless they were attached to a man. It was fascinating to see how Agrippina’s position and status changed along with the men in her life, and how interconnected and fragile the structure of Roman high society was. Everyone’s lives were intertwined and very involved, and everyone was constantly vying for power and status. Women had so little of both these things, so they often seemed the most desperate. Southon succeeds in depicting the women in this story as fully-formed people as well as possible, given the limited source material. She also succeeds at acknowledging both the flaws and importance of these sources – such as Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio.

Agrippina is a very engaging read, and I am very glad that Unbound made it possible for this book to be published. The world always needs more books about the women of the ancient world, especially such influential and intriguing women like Agrippina. This biography helpfully includes a list of further reading, which I will definitely be mining for inspiration. It has also reminded me that I need to do much more Classical reading! I work on the subject in my job, so I often forget just how much I love reading about the Classical world outside of work. Agrippina is a great starting point for anyone who wants to learn more about women in the Roman world in a less formal way, and I’m sure a lot of people will love this book.

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Published in 2018 by Unbound. I received my copy as part of the crowdfunding scheme.

Purchase from Foyles, Wordery, and Blackwell’s.

 

 

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial by Maggie Nelson (2007)

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(image: goodreads.com)

I came across The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial in my GoodReads recommendations, and thought it seemed almost like the perfect book for me – a memoir about family history, women, and crime. The crime element particularly appealed to me as the book details Maggie Nelson’s experience of the trial of the man of may have murdered her aunt, over thirty years before. She and her family had no idea that the murder was still being investigated, and then suddenly they are told that a possible suspect will be tried for it. It’s a whirlwind of old pain and new horror as Nelson’s mother, aunt, and grandfather have to dredge up their memories of what happened to their sister and daughter – Nelson’s aunt Jane.

It turns out Nelson had written a book of poetry and prose about her aunt, simply called Jane: A Murder, which came out in 2005, just two years before this book – so she was already somewhat familiar with her aunt’s life and the circumstances of her death, even though she never knew her. Jane was murdered in 1969, when she was 23 and studying at the University of Michigan. Unless it happens to you, it’s impossible to know what it’s like to live with the knowledge that someone in your family, so closely related to you, was murdered. Throughout The Red Parts, Nelson muses on her connection to Jane and why her death seems to haunt her so much. Perhaps because she knows the pain caused to her mother and her other relatives, perhaps because Jane was killed so randomly by a stranger, and that this could, in theory, happen to any woman who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

She also muses on our shared interest in these awful stories, especially when she and her mother are asked to participate in an episode of the show 48 Hours Mystery about Jane’s death. They agree to do it, but throughout The Red Parts Nelson discusses her conflicted feelings about this sort of thing – why do we want to know all the unpleasant details? Is it voyeuristic or sensationalist to learn about murders like Jane’s? She wonders why we obsess so much over young women who are murdered, why it can be so hard to prove what really happened, and why it is necessary to try a man for a crime that happened so long ago. She wonders about the nature of justice and the difference between its legal definition and the feeling of justice that she supposes her family are meant to feel if the suspect in Jane’s murder is found guilty. Does that make it all better? Does that close the book on the whole thing?

These are interesting and vital questions that I think we could all relate to or apply to something in our lives; but I wasn’t sure whether Nelson was trying to appeal to her readers in that way, or whether she just wanted to express her disgust at both the horrific nature of Jane’s murder, and her own confusion over it and its consequences. She seems to disapprove of 48 Hours Mystery and other media interest in the trial, and at times even her own interest in it beyond her familial connection. I thought perhaps she was going to explore the possibility that we are all fascinated by things like murder because we are afraid of them, and we want to understand them, and she brings this in to some extent, but the overwhelming impression is of her revulsion and misery in the face of the whole situation. Not to say she shouldn’t feel these things, but there was nothing to counter it, nothing to remind us that life can still be good and happy, and that there can be light at the end of the tunnel.

I’d never read anything by Maggie Nelson before The Red Parts, and honestly I’m not sure I will read anything else of hers. While I found this book fascinating, I found it very hard to read (it’s only 195 pages and I was reading it from August to October) and I can’t say I enjoyed it very much. Nelson’s narrative is raw and tough, and I personally found her hard to relate to, despite the universality of much of what she discussed. The Red Parts is, to me, a cold and hard book with a cold and hard centre. Its darkness is rarely countered by glimmers of light or comfort and the unpleasantness and sadness is unrelenting. I’m glad I read it, but I’m also glad it was so short. Not one for the fainthearted.

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Originally published by Free Press (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) in 2007. I read the 2017 Faber paperback edition, pictured above.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwells, and Wordery.

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