The Cows by Dawn O’Porter

I’m a big fan of Dawn O’Porter. I’ve read and enjoyed both of her young adult novels, Goose and Paper Aeroplanes, and I absolutely adore her podcast, Get It On. When I heard that she was writing her first adult novel, I was pretty excited. It came into the shop a couple of days before my birthday, and when I found myself at work on the day I turned 23, I decided that if I had to work on my birthday, I was at least going to buy myself a book.

I’m going to start by talking about how much I despise the cover. It’s so, so rubbish. It looks like a book about kinky sex, to be entirely honest. I assumed that I would hate it less once I’d actually read the book and realised its relevance, but it has literally nothing to do with the content of the novel. Also, the hardback underneath is white, which is just inevitably going to get grimy. All round, not a fan of this book as a physical object.

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Onto the actual content. It’s the story of three women who aren’t fulfilling societal expectations: Cam, a blogger, Tara, a single mum and documentary maker, and Stella, a PA who is dealing with an enormous amount of personal grief as she struggles with the premature deaths of her mother and sister, as well as the possibility that she will be unable to have children.

Women rejecting expectations is a theme which I love, but I would underline the difference here between rejecting norms and not fitting into them through no choice of one’s own. The descriptions I had heard of The Cows definitely made it sound like the former, but on reading it I felt like there was a lot more of the latter. Stella deeply wants to be living a conventional life, but can’t. Tara has chosen to be unconventional in some ways (although I think we’re past the point where being a working mum is that unusual, it’s well-trodden territory at this point) and only really suffers when she does something which is certainly against norms, but is not actually a choice to reject norms – it’s very much not something she would choose to be public knowledge. Cam, meanwhile, sort of just blogs about how she lives this deeply unconventional life and doesn’t actually do all that much.

I guess the point there is that these kinds of expectations damage us all, whether we are trying to meet them or not. It’s not necessarily a flaw of the novel, it’s just a case of it having been mis-sold, and I think that the frustration with it not fitting in with my expectations of it damaged my enjoyment.

Personally, I found that I only really enjoyed Tara’s strand of the story. She felt the most textured to me, and we also saw the most of the other people in her life. I fully understood what motivated Tara and I identified with a lot of the choices she made. Stella, while I thought she was an interesting character who made a lot of worrying points about wider themes (by her behaviour, not in what she says), I can’t honestly say I enjoyed her plotline. It’s just so unpleasant to watch this woman fall apart, and she really is not likeable.

My real gripe with the book is with Cam. I don’t think I was supposed to like Stella, but with Cam it felt like the intention was for the reader to love her and particularly her blog posts, which are often included. I didn’t. I found her superior and obnoxious and arrogant, and honestly it was totally implausible that someone would make the amount of money we’re told she does (and that she frequently brags about) from blog posts that self-obsessed. Like I know that there are self-obsessed bloggers out there, but they are not marketing themselves at adult women, they’re for teens. If the posts which were included had been as brilliant as she’s described as being, it would have made sense but they just weren’t. On top of that, there was a lot of her moaning about how her family just didn’t understand her choices, but then there was so much judgement from her about their choices. She’s a woman in her thirties, but she reads like a teenager who thinks she understands everything about the world and no one else has any idea.

I did like the book, but it’s tricky because the three women have such separate stories (they do come together, but not much and never all three at once) that I have different opinions about each strand. When I add them all up, it equates to me liking the book, but there were definitely parts which I absolutely did not like. It’s unusual for me to read a novel which has such a variation in it, and I suspect that different readers, especially different women, would like or appreciate different characters.


A selection of random booky thoughts I’ve been having recently

Sprayed edges will make me want to read literally any book. The new Jo Nesbo has bright yellow edges and even though I have never in my life wanted to read Jo Nesbo and it’s like the twelve thousandth book in a series, I’m finding myself slightly wanting this one. There’s some kid’s book which came into the shop the other day and it has these Venus flytrap looking things down the pages and I’m obsessed with it.

I feel like I’m buying more yellow books at the moment. Is that a general trend or is it just me? My YA/lighter reads shelf has loads of yellow books on it, why is that a design choice?

At some point, I just decided that I hated Sarah J. Maas and I don’t remember why. I’ve literally never even read the blurb of one of her books. It might just be because the covers are so shit.

I’m finding myself wanting to read crime, which is out of character. It’s not that I dislike crime fiction, it’s just that I have literally never considered it as an option.

It’s very strange that no one is talking about Lincoln in the Bardo. I thought it was going to be the book of the moment and everybody would be going on about it but it’s gone quiet. Guys, read Lincoln in the Bardo, it’s fucking incredible. (That said, I lent it to my dad and he’s not finishing it because he finds the form annoying.)

There’s a part of me that really loves the idea of a book club but also I would hate having to read things that other people had chosen. I basically want a book club where everyone has to read the books that I choose.

I’m really craving a good YA romance but realistically I’m probably just going to end up rereading Fangirl or Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist because too much YA is overwraught and ridiculous (cough The Sun is Also a Star cough) and I can’t be dealing with that.

I feel like I’m having a really good reading year so far. I’m on my 33rd book of 2017 and eight of them would be five star reads if I used goodreads/did star ratings. I’m reading more than I have in years, although my stack of unread books is still growing (it’s had to be split into two stacks because it was very wobbly).

Honestly this is just a selection of thoughts that didn’t warrant their own posts, but I still wanted to get out. Some of them might end up being full posts, or at least the starting point for full posts, but that just isn’t happening today.

I went to Foyles and spent too much money: A Haul

I love Foyles. Foyles is a magical wonderland. So when I recently found myself at a loose end in Covent Garden, I thought I would wonder up Charing Cross Road to their flagship store, and take the time to really work my way through the fiction section. (Side note, I also popped into Any Amount of Books on my where there, which is a lovely second hand bookshop, but didn’t spot anything I fancied. If you’re ever in the area, they always have a surprising amount of new releases and proof copies.) The thing I love about Foyles is that they always have books that I’ve never seen anywhere else, so I always end up buying things that I’ve never heard of but look exciting.

Orlando by Virginia Woolf
So this one I had heard of, and I’ve been intending to pick it up for a while. I’m also slightly obsessed with these Vintage Classics editions, I have the Brontës and I desperately, desperately want the Russian Classics series. As far as I know, the character of Orlando starts out as an Elizabethan courtier, and ends up as a woman in the twenties. It’s supposed to be a classic of feminism and gender studies, and I picked it up for a couple of reasons. Firstly, my friend Laura and I had a conversation about gender identity maybe three or four years ago which has stayed with me, and she mentioned this as an expression of gender which she felt really rang true. Secondly, I have been meaning to read Virginia Woolf F O R E V E R and I was recently watching a Sophie Carlon video where she was talking about The Waves, which sounds incredible but she mentioned that she would say Orlando was a better starting point with Woolf.

Closely Watched Trains by Bohumil Hrabal
This is one of those books I was talking about, that I come across in Foyles and buy even though I’ve never heard of them. There was a whole shelf of Bohumil Hrabal, who I have never heard of at all, so I figured I would pick up the shortest one to see if I like his writing. He’s Czech, and after reading Spaceman of Bohemia I’m really intrigued by Czech culture and history. It’s about a railway apprentice during the Second World War, and it looks at themes of heroism and humanity, I believe, although I don’t know too much about it.

Certainty by Madeleine Thien
I recently raved about Do Not Say We Have Nothing, so I was definitely interested to look into Thien’s back catalogue. This seems to have similiar themes of friendship, dislocation, and the impact of one generation on those that follow. It’s also been beautifully republished to match the new B-format paperback of Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which I tragically have in the previous large paperback so they don’t match.

Trumpet by Jackie Kay
I have been meaning to buy this for ages, but I’ve never actually seen it in a shop. I thought I was going to have to get it online, but Foyles came to my rescue. It’s about a trumpeter named Joss Moody, and what happens when after his death it is discovered that he has female genitals. They read this on Banging Book Club last year, and Leena has been talking about it on her channel for a long time, so I snapped it up.

Mr Loverman by Bernadine Evaristo
This is another one that I’ve been intending to read, but have never spotted in a bookshop, this time based on a recommendation from Simon of Savidge Reads. It’s about an Antiguan man in his seventies living in Hackney. His wife knows that he’s having an affair, but what she doesn’t realise is that the affair is with his lifelong best friend, Morris. It’s about sexuality and prejudice, and a look at the older Caribbean community in the UK. I’m so, so excited to read this.

The House in Smyrna bt Tatiana Salem Levy
This is another one that I had never heard of, about a Brazilian woman of Turkish origin who is suffering from a mysterious illness, and whose grandfather gives her the key to his childhood home in Smyrna in Turkey, and challenges her to open the door with it. She embarks on a pilgrimage, and this somehow sets off the telling of various stories: her grandfather’s emigration to Brazil, her parents’ exile in Lisbon and her own romantic history. It sounds intriguing, and I don’t know that I have ever read a Brazilian novel.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

I’m not ready to talk about how good this book is. I don’t really have an adequate way of expressing just how much I adored reading this. This is going to maybe be the most incoherent review I have ever written because I can only really make weird grunting sounds when I try to express how I feel about Days Without End.

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It’s the story of Thomas McNulty, an Irish soldier in America during the Indian Wars and the Civil War. He witnesses incredible brutality, but, as he explains, is well-equipped to deal with it having lost his entire family to horrific famine and abject poverty back in Sligo, and then crossed the Atlantic in a nightmarish journey. The description of battles and fighting is visceral and beautiful and violent and poetic in equal measure. Barry has an incredible way with prose, to the point that as I was reading I was unable to understand just how he achieved it. Like, I was having to take pauses just to digest the structure of the sentences.

What is particularly wonderful is the way he can flip on a dime from moving reflections on life, to talking about how the soldiers are so afraid that they are quite literally shitting themselves, to the most beautiful description of violent death by bayonet imaginable. There is no transition between these disparate moments, they are just blended together in this poetic, lyrical way which is entirely beyond my ability to describe.

Throughout the novel, Thomas’s constant companion is another Irishman, John Cole. The two first meet under a hedge as young teenagers, and from then on are essentially inseparable.  They first find work as dancers, dressed as women to partner the miners. Once they are too old to convincingly pass as women, they join the army together. After a particularly vicious sequence, the soldiers are celebrating and a simple, brief reference is made to the two soldiers having “quietly fucked”.

This brief moment is the start of the love story which underpins the entire novel, which encompasses an examination of gender fluidity and what constitutes a family. While it is not entirely believable that at that time two men would have been able to marry one another (even if Thomas does wear a dress and give his name as Thomasina), or live with a young Indian girl as family, somehow Barry makes it perfectly believable. I didn’t even register that it is implausible and anachronistic until I thought about it afterwards.

As the novel moves forward, Thomas increasingly identifies as a woman, preferring to wear dresses whenever possible and acting very much as a mother to Winona, the young Indian girl they come to treat as their own child. This is always in contrast to his stereotypically masculine role as a soldier, a role to which he constantly returns despite the horrors he witnesses and the violent ends of many of his friends.

I have no caveats with this novel, no critiques, nothing to counteract just how much I loved it. I have never read prose like this, and I am absolutely staggered by his ability with words.

Shelf by Shelf: Classics

I used to be a big reader of classics, mostly when I was a teenager. It was at that stage that I read all of Jane Austen’s novels, and I think my reading was very influenced by the idea of what I was “supposed” to read. At that time, I didn’t really know where to get book recommendations from: I knew that I loved reading, but I didn’t follow BookTube at all, I wasn’t on Twitter, I didn’t read blogs, I was too shy to ask booksellers for recommendations… So I basically just read things that were famous. These days, I read a lot less classics. It’s not that I don’t still love the books I read during that phase, it’s just that I come across so many more books, online and in real life, that I tend to put the classics to the back of my mind.

First up, there’s my stack of Shakespeares. I’ve read about half of this stack, and it’s a long term goal to read all of his plays, but it’s one that has stalled recently. It really bothers me that this stack isn’t quite high enough to reach the top of the books next to it and support the book above, but Penguin have stopped printing these editions so they’re a little trickier to get hold of now, which is irritating.

Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare
I haven’t read this and I don’t remember the plot at all.

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
I remember my mum telling me about this play when I was a kid, because she had studied it for her English A-level and it had stayed with her for that long. Having read it, I can totally see why, it’s a powerful, memorable play. I’m really keen to read Howard Jacobson’s retelling, Shylock Is My Name.

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
I mean it’s as famous as it is for a reason, this is some of the most beautiful poetry ever written, even if the plot’s a bit thin. This was my first exposure to Shakespeare, as I played Balthazaar the page when I was about ten in my local youth theatre’s production.

Richard II by William Shakespeare
This is maybe my favourite Shakespeare. I’ve read it two or three times, and saw it in the theatre a few years ago at the Donmar Warehouse when Eddie Redmayne was playing the lead, with Andrew Buchan as Henry Bolingbroke. It was maybe the best piece of theatre I’ve ever seen.


The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
A lot of people interpret this as a feminist play, but personally I don’t think it was written in that spirit. However, it is open to interpretation and that is what I like about this play. It can totally be played as feminist even if the script is kind of sexist a lot of the time. To be entirely honest though, I prefer Ten Things I Hate About You.

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
Haven’t read it, don’t remember what it’s about. Is this the one She’s The Man is based on?

Love’s Labour’s Lost by William Shakespeare
This is my other potential favourite Shakespeare. It’s a comedy, but it’s also much more moving than most of the comedies. I saw it at a local Shakespeare festival a couple of years ago and cried with laughter and then also with sadness.


As You Like It by William Shakespeare
I definitely have read this, but I don’t remember it massively well. It’s about mistaken identity and disguises, but how many Shakespeares could that describe?

King Lear by William Shakespeare
I sort of read this in relation to my dissertation (it’s hard to explain the connection between this and Samuel Beckett but it made sense to me at the time). It’s fantastic though, and I am so so glad that this prompted me to read it.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin
This is my favourite book. It’s about a woman who rejects society’s expectations of her and her womanhood, especially those of her husband. It’s incredible, and I’ll eventually get around to writing a whole post on why I love it so much.


The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
I haven’t read this, but I’m really hoping to soon. I’ve heard a few things about Anne Brontë recently, I think because a biography came out not too long ago, and I get the impression that she might actually be the most up my street of the three sisters. This little set of Brontës in these beautiful Vintage editions were a gift and I love them very deeply.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
I adored this book as a teenager. I loved the romance and the tragedy and how awful the characters are. I think if I read it again now, I would have a totally different take on it – not that I would like it less, but that I would think about it very differently now.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Again, I haven’t read this since I was a teenager and I didn’t love it then. But now I think I would understand it more and look at Bertha in particularly differently.


Breakfast at Tiffany’s (and other stories) by Truman Capote
Confession: I have never seen the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But I bloody love the short story (or is it more of a novella) it’s based on. It’s brilliant. Read it.

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster
I bloody love this. It’s a comedy of manners with strong homoerotic undertones, what’s not to love.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
This is kind of likely to get culled next time I have a clearout, if I’m being honest. It was a book I read because I thought I should, and in the six or so years since I slogged my way through it, I have realised that I don’t actually like Victor Hugo. It’s a great story in its bones, which is why I’ve kept it, but Hugo constantly breaks out of the narrative to write lengthy political essays.

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
I read this after having seen the film, and it is fantastic. I loved both, but I think if you were familiar with the book before seeing the film that might not be the case.


North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
This is about a young woman who moves from the rural South of England to the industrial North. I love this book, I think it combines the political side of Dickens with Austen’s wit and romance. Also, go watch the BBC mini-series.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
I don’t think I really knew what this was about before I read it, just that it was a World War I novel from the German point of view. It’s actually about a group of young soldiers who all joined up together and who are gradually killed as the novel progresses. It’s grim, but fantastic.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
This is one of my favourite dystopian novels; it’s very much a classic for a reason. It’s an unusual sort of dystopia, much softer and (seemingly) less oppressive than many are. It’s always compared with 1984, as the two great classics of the genre. I can’t speak to that as (to my shame) I haven’t read it, although I did see the highly acclaimed play last year.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
How stunning is this edition? I would eventually like to collect all of Fitzgerald’s works in these editions, but for now I have just the one physical copy (the rest are on my kindle). Again, I definitely feel that this is a classic for a reason, I just love Fitzgerald’s writing so much that I wouldn’t even care if the plot was rubbish (it isn’t).


A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
I used to call this my favourite book, and I still do love it a lot. What I love the most about this book is what Burgess does with language. The whole thing is written in “nadsat”, a futuristic form of slang based on Russian, so every time I have read it I’ve taken something new from it. I first read it when I was 13, loved it, but didn’t necessarily understand the themes and nuances all too well. Then I read it again at the age of 18, and the themes made more sense to me and I was able to understand it on a deeper level. This was the time when I really fell in love with the language. I have reread it once since then, about a year and a half ago, at which point I spoke pretty fluent Russian, so I was really able to see the workings of the linguistic games Burgess is playing. You totally don’t need to speak Russian to understand and appreciate the novel, but there’s this whole other dimension there if you do. This edition is pretty crap, I bought it for a pound from a book sale because I didn’t own it, having previously borrowed my dad’s copy.

Dubliners by James Joyce
I mentioned this in my May wrap-up so I won’t go on about it. This is the only Joyce I’ve read, and I was kind of meh on it, mostly because short stories aren’t for me. Honestly, I’m far more at home with avant-garde modernism than I am with short stories, so despite not really getting on with his most accessible (supposedly) work, I am not deterred.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
This is another one I haven’t read, although I did see the play when it was on at the National Theatre a few years ago. It’s perched up here instead of on the pile of unread books because this edition is so lovely and I’m worried about it getting damaged in the pile.


The Nix by Nathan Hill

I’ve been struggling to come up with a coherent response to this book since I finished it a couple of weeks ago. I mentioned in my March Wrap Up that with both this and Brit Bennett’s The Mothers, I felt like I needed some time to process them before I could talk about them. With The Mothers, I thought about it a lot and came to the conclusion that I loved it and I had a lot to say about it. My review of that has gone up and I feel like I could write a totally new one about it and have totally new things to say – it’s a book that I keep thinking about and reacting to.

That hasn’t really been the case with The Nix. As I was reading the two books, I would have said I was enjoying them equally, they were both engaging and compelling to read, but in the aftermath, I’ve come to the conclusion that my thoughts about The Nix are incoherent because The Nix is a bit incoherent.

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Nathan Hill is undoubtedly a strong writer. It’s sharp and witty and clever, and he experiments to great success in places. The book is very entertaining, and despite being pretty chunky, it doesn’t feel long (although at one point the protagonist’s publisher tells him that only 10 people will read his 600-page novel, a moment of self-awareness which I loved). At one point, the incredible physical decline of a man addicted to an online game is described in a single sentence which lasts around ten pages, and yet manages not to lose its thread.

The problem is that I couldn’t tell you what it’s about. It feels like Hill has put every single idea he has ever had for a novel into his debut, and while I loved his writing and will eagerly read whatever he publishes next, I have no idea whether he’ll be able to given the number of things covered in this one book. Student protests in the sixties, motherhood, child abuse, the Iraq War, the entitlement of American youth, online gaming addiction, childhood grief, police brutality, media bullshitting, social media, a bit of unrequited love, guilt… I could go on. It doesn’t feel like it when you’re in it, when you take a step back from the book, it’s a bit of a mess.

Hill is trying for a sweeping epic, but the multiple strands don’t weave together very much, and where they do it feels a little ham-fisted. Certain characters feel like they didn’t add anything at all to the story, and for my money if the book is going to be this long, you have to earn every page.

In principle, it’s about Samuel, an academic and struggling writer, who finds himself back in contact with the mother who abandoned him when she assaults a presidential candidate. Her lawyer wants Samuel to vouch for her character, but meanwhile Samuel’s publisher, threatening to sue him for the advance on a book he never finished, sees the opportunity for a tell-all book. The main plot is about Samuel and his mother’s lives, what lead her to leave and what the impact of that has been on him. But there is so much extra flab around that plot that it gets lost in the crowd of subplots. The depth and nuance with which Hill is able to treat an enormous cast of characters is impressive, but ultimately doesn’t add an awful lot to the reading experience.

I honestly did like the book, and as I said, I will be keen to read anything else he writes. It’s just a little too much, in every sense. There is constantly a little more than there needs to be, too many characters given a moment in the spotlight, too many subplots with no clear logic, too many words used. It’s a clever book, but I’m not sure that it’s a good one. There are the bones of an incredible book in there, but it’s a little hard to find them under all the flab.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

All three of the central characters in Brit Bennett’s debut novel are connected to Upper Room, a black church in San Diego, and all three have complex relationships with their mothers. When we first meet her, Nadia is reeling from her mother’s recent suicide. Luke’s mother is the overbearing wife of the pastor, and Aubrey’s mother has chosen the stepfather who abused Aubrey over her daughter. They are also all three deeply affected by their individual trauma.

Nadia, struggling to cope, is skipping school and partying, and then starts hooking up with Luke, who is grappling with what he is to do with his life after a football injury which has put paid to both his sports career and his college scholarship. The rest of the novel shows us the way that this brief relationship and the decisions they make echo down the years, as Nadia moves away to college, Luke and Aubrey get together and secrets are kept. Namely, Nadia finds herself pregnant, takes the decision to get rid of it and Luke gets the money to do so together. Nadia never tells Aubrey, her deeply religious best friend about this,

My Instagram feed was full of this book back in January and I couldn’t get the cover out of my mind. I had heard it was about the experience of black womanhood, which sounded interesting.

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It’s about the oppressiveness that can come with being a part of a small, close-knit community. The novel is to an extent narrated by the Church Mothers, a group of older women who have devoted their lives to the church, and who know everybody’s business. Every now and then they break into the narrative, frequently passing judgement over the characters. Shame and guilt are strong themes running throughout, particularly for the female characters, who are definitely judged more harshly than the men. There’s an underlying idea of the standards to which black women are held, and of what those women should and should not choose to do with their bodies.

One of the primary expectations placed on women is their role as mothers. Nadia rejects that role, and is judged harshly by Luke and later other members of their community, and suffers guilt about her abortion in the years that follow. Meanwhile Aubrey is struggling to conceive and feels inadequate as a result. There is also Nadia’s own mother, who is judged by the Mothers and others within the community for failing in her duty as a mother by killing herself, with very little consideration given for what her mental situation must have been to bring her to that stage.

The mothers open the novel by assuring us that they now know everything that has gone on with Nadia Turner and the pastor’s son, but by the end we realise that the picture of events that they have pieced together is garbled and hyperbolic. Ultimately, even in such a small community, it is shown to be impossible to know the whole story.