The Book Club 2021

February

LGBT+ History Month

The Book Club is back for 2021 and we’re beginning this year’s reading journey in February, which is LGBT+ History Month. To celebrate, we’ve got a slightly bigger selection of beautiful works by some of the greatest authors of the last century, from groundbreaking classics to informative new fiction. As always, I’ll put a poll on Twitter so that people can choose the book they’d like to read most. Our discussion will probably be in early March, but this is totally flexible depending on everyone’s schedules.

Here are February’s books:

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde is one of the most influential poets, feminists, writers, activists (you name it) of the 20th Century. Her work, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name is a deeply personal ‘biomythography’.

‘Zami: A New Spelling of My Name tells the story of Audre Lorde’s passage from childhood to young adulthood. It covers many themes but focuses primarily on the close bounds she develops with women throughout her life, first with her mother and then with various lovers throughout the book.’ (Bookrags.com)

Giovanni’s Room (1956) by James Baldwin

For those of you that read September’s book Swimming in the Dark, you’ll know how significant James Baldwin’s book was to a young Ludwig in helping him to realise his identity.

‘In a 1950s Paris swarming with expatriates and characterized by dangerous liaisons and hidden violence, an American finds himself unable to repress his impulses, despite his determination to live the conventional life he envisions for himself.’ (Penguin)

The Line of Beauty (2004) by Alan Hollinghurst

This beautiful novel won Alan Hollinghurst the Man Booker Prize in 2004.

‘Nick Guest has left university and summer is in full swing. At first, Nick’s sexuality is largely hidden from the upper-class world he drifts into — with trysts in gated gardens and behind closed doors. But as time passes and the AIDS crisis develops, this no longer becomes possible. Taking aim at the hollow allure of wealth and the moral vacuum of Thatcher’s rule, Hollinghurst’s novel is sumptuous and increasingly sombre.’ (Goodreads)

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019) by Ocean Vuong

The debut novel by Vietnamese author Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is one of the most talked-about books of the last few years.

‘Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family’s history that began before he was born — a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam — and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity.’ (Goodreads)

Felix Ever After (2020) by Kacen Callender

I think this might be the first YA novel we’ve had for the Book Club! Felix Ever After is written by Stonewall and Lambda Award winning author Kacen Callender.

‘Felix Love has never been in love—and, yes, he’s painfully aware of the irony. He desperately wants to know what it’s like and why it seems so easy for everyone but him to find someone. What’s worse is that, even though he is proud of his identity, Felix also secretly fears that he’s one marginalization too many—Black, queer, and transgender—to ever get his own happily-ever-after.’

Orlando (1928) by Virginia Woolf

One of the most important figures in the modernist movement and an influential feminist, Woolf’s work is immortalised by her explorations of gender, sex and power. Orlando is based on and dedicated to her friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West.

‘Spanning three centuries, the novel opens as Orlando, a young nobleman in Elizabeth’s England, awaits a visit from the Queen and traces his experience with first love as England under James I lies locked in the embrace of the Great Frost. At the midpoint of the novel, Orlando, now an ambassador in Constantinople, awakes to find that he is now a woman, and the novel indulges in farce and irony to consider the roles of women in the 18th and 19th centuries.’ (Penguin)

I’m so excited to see which book is chosen – they’re all fantastic!

Lily xx

Winter Books

5 cosy books

to read this winter

Cosy, snuggly, hygge (pronounced hoo-gah, or so google tells me – think candles, IKEA showrooms and aesthetic knitwear found on Pinterest). Whatever you want to call it, I love this aesthetic and it’s certainly the mood we need for this January. For the purposes of this blog, it’s a literary genre too.

How satisfying is the Zoella-esque idea of ‘snuggling up with a good book on these cold, wintry nights’? I live for it. That’s what we’re going for with these books – novels that make you want to grab the fattest mug of tea you can imagine and while away the hours escaping the January blues.

Winter by Ali Smith

An obvious one, really. I finished this on Boxing Day, feeling super cosy with my new Christmas candles burning.

“In Ali Smith’s Winter, lifeforce matches up to the toughest of the seasons. In this second novel in her acclaimed Seasonal cycle, the follow-up to her sensational Autumn, Smith’s shape-shifting quartet of novels casts a merry eye over a bleak post-truth era with a story rooted in history, memory and warmth, its taproot deep in the evergreens: art, love, laughter.” (Goodreads)

The Secret History by Donna Tart

This book is the birthplace of the dark academia aesthetic from TikTok. Also, snow features heavily. I’m dying to wear a chunky knit sweater with elbow patches just thinking about it.

Steeped in ancient Greek allegory, The Secret History is a murder mystery in reverse. Someone is dead, though the how’s and why’s are unclear. As Richard Papen reveals little by little the details of his year studying Greek at Hampden College, his absorption into a cult-like group of Classics students sees the boundaries of morality pushed to the very limit.

You can read my review of it here.

The Northern Lights by Phillip Pulman

Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy was the first ‘grown up’ series I ever read and so I have a lot of love for it even though I must have read the trilogy like 10 years ago. Anyway, it’s jam-packed with all the wintery things you could imagine – the North Pole, polar bears and icy, icy Mrs Coulter.

In a parallel universe resembling Oxford, we follow Lyra Belacqua and her daemon, Pan, as they explore a world where magic, science and theology are one. However, the two sense that something is gravely wrong when children start to go missing.

The Thursday Murder Club – Richard Osman

A cute group of pensioners are united by their love of solving murders – but their hobby soon becomes something else entirely when someone close to them is killed. This book is super easy reading and so engrossing – you can spend hours de-stressing in Osman’s retirement home. This isn’t strictly ‘winter’ themed but it is guaranteed to make you feel better.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

This is the ultimate winter book. Remember Edmund in the literal snow being fed Turkish delight (a winter snack if I’ve ever seen one) by the White Witch? WINTER.

Four siblings tumble through the wardrobe and find themselves in the eternally wintry world of Narnia. With its people enslaved by the White Witch, the children, along with the help of a gallant Lion, must find a way to save Narnia.

If you’ve found yourself in a bit of a reading slump after the year we’ve had (I’ve really struggled to read throughout November and December), perhaps reframing reading as an act of self-care could be a good way to tackle it. Use reading as a way to unwind, break up your day in between work or revision, or get yourself to sleep at night. Maybe try audiobooks too – I’m pretty sure all of these titles are available on Audible.

Look after yourselves,

Lily x

2020 Round Up

Coming at you from lockdown 3.0.

I have never in my life been so ready for NYE. That’s not because I’m going to a fun house party wearing a sparkly outfit and drinking gin with my friends (looks like Tier 4 Me will be doing the exact opposite), but because it means we can finally kiss goodbye to what is objectively the worst year in recent memory.

Today, however, we’re focusing on the positives. In spite of the fact we are now in our third lockdown, 2020 has not been all bad. It saw the end of the Trump presidency, dolphins returning to Venice and, to top it all off, the UK got half price Nando’s in August.

I started this blog two weeks before my undergrad dissertation deadline during Lockdown 1. And while in this third lockdown it has started to get a bit cabin fever-y, being at home has allowed me the time to read some incredible books and have some great discussions too. I can’t believe that over 2,000 people from 30 different countries have clicked on this site this year. I am baffled.

We also started the Book Club this year and have had some wonderful chats on Zoom. Hopefully next year some of us can meet up in person (imagine), open a bottle of vino and talk about books together.

While the posts have slowed since I started my masters in September, I’ve loved having the freedom to write about what I’m reading in a non-academic way – there’s only so much literary criticism a gal can take. Here’s to another year of reading and chatting shit on the internet.

My round up

Total Books Read: 42*

*I’ve decided not to include academic books I’ve had to read for my degrees because that’s boring af. Am pleased with this number though – hopefully next year I’ll reach the big five-oh.

Here’s a run down of my favourite books this year…

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve mentioned this book on my blog but go hard or go home.

Girl, Woman, Other has been my favourite book of the year – it is a one of a kind. Bernardine Evaristo is such an excellent writer and she deserves all the success she’s had this year.

If you haven’t read this, make sure it’s first on your 2021 TBR pile.

You can read my review here.

Such A Fun Age – Kiley Reid

Funny, poignant and engrossing, Such a Fun Age is the novel for our times. This is easily the best debut I’ve read.

Exploring police brutality, fetishism and white privilege, Kiley Reid takes a look at racism from angles we rarely see on the news but still exist every day.

This was the first book I reviewed this year – you can read all about it here.

Intimations – Zadie Smith

Speaking of novels of our times – this is another. Zadie Smith’s collection of essays, Intimations, looks at life right now – in the midst of a pandemic.

Smith captures how we all feel right now – insecure, unsteady, remorseful of the lives and times lost.

The only thing that might depress you is the fact we are still in the same position we were six months ago. Love that for us.

Swimming in the Dark – Tomasz Jedrowski

We read Swimming in the Dark for ‘people’s choice‘ in September and it was my favourite book club pick.

Following the life of Ludwik, a boy discovering his sexuality in Soviet-occupied Poland, Swimming in the Dark is incredibly moving. Jedrowski gives us a glimpse of a hidden history while also telling a beautiful love story.

I cried at the end, which is always a good sign.

If you want to read my thoughts, take a look here.

Dominicana – Angie Cruz

https://whatlilyread.com/2020/06/16/dominicana-angie-cruz/

From a quiet town in the Dominican Republic to the bustling, musical streets of New York, Dominicana explores identity, womanhood and duty from the perspective of a young female migrant.

Again, the word ‘poignant’ comes to mind. Dominicana‘s role in helping us understand that America is a country built and sustained by immigrants should not be underestimated.

The Glass Menagerie – Tennessee Williams

This is a play. “A play?”, you may be wondering, “Would you really choose to read a play?”. Not ordinarily, but I make an exception for this one.

The Glass Menagerie is a masterful piece of writing and an incredible play. It is little plot and big characters done very, very well. I love Tennessee Williams and, if you’re not bowled over by Streetcar, this is a great intro to his work.

The Secret History – Donna Tartt

The whole time I was reading The Secret History, all I could think was, ‘Why haven’t I read this sooner?’

Dark academia aesthetic with a murderous twist, this is the best mystery novel and was a strong contender for my favourite book overall.

Again, if you haven’t read it yet, make sure to put it on your list for 2021.

Collected Poems – Robert Frost

2020 was the year I read Robet Frost for the first time – it soon became my favourite collection of poems. Prior to this, I had only heard about him from the Suite Life of Zack and Cody when Cody talked about the meaning of ‘two roads diverged in a yellow wood’. Anyone else remember that?

Give ‘Mending Wall’ a read. It’s witty, sharp and relevant to our increasingly isolationist world.

Or is it? Frost’s writing is playful – it’s filled with the suggestion of meaning but the meaning is very rarely clear. Very frustrating stuff, but equally great.

p.s. sorry about the photo – this book is in my uni house so pic is from my Christmas gift guide.

Beloved – Toni Morrison

Again, WHY haven’t I read this book before this year? Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize winning masterpiece, Beloved, is equally as heartbreaking and brutal as it is spooky.

Beneath the ghostly presence of Beloved lurks the ever more terrifying and unimaginable spectre that is the Atlantic slave trade. I’ve never read anything like it.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 – Cho Nam Joo

Finishing my 2020 round up with, you guessed it, another piece of feminist literary fiction. Because that’s what we talk about here.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is one of the first translated books I’ve read (as far as I’m aware, at least) and I am in love with it. While the novel focuses on women’s issues in South Korea, it is universal. Kim Jiyoung is everywoman.

That’s it! Thank you for a wonderful 2020 despite all the doom and gloom. I’ll be posting some cosy reads and a few reviews in the next few days.

Happy New Year.

Lily xx

Christmas Gift Guide 2020

Merry Christmas to everyone except Jeff Bezos – A Gift Guide

Look at us. Who would have thought that, by Christmas, Bristol would be in Tier 3, we’d still be unable to see friends and Wales would have gotten way too into the spirit of the roaring 20s with nationwide prohibition? Not me!

But, as we know from all of the corporate Christmas adverts on telly that are peddling wholesome covid-approved messages such as, ‘we’re all in this together’ or ‘thank you to all the key workers, buy a Kindle’, it’s safe to say that Christmas presents (thank god) are here to stay. And while you may be tempted to go straight to the Website That Must Not Be Named – you know exactly which one I mean – I have an alternative for those that want to give the gift of books this Christmas.

Bookshop.org is a new online bookshop that has literally every title you could ever dream of, delivered straight to your door from independent booksellers and shops around the UK. You can search for individual titles or you can find your local bookstore and order from them using Bookshop.org’s map.

I am aware that this sounds like the biggest #Ad ever – it isn’t at all – but supporting independent bookstores has never been more important. Even if you think that your local shop isn’t struggling, they probably are after months of being forced to close. So, instead of filling the pockets of old Jeff, choose to support actual, real people who aren’t rancid billionaires.

Christmas Gift Guide 2020

Disclaimer: These recommendations seem weirdly specific but the bottom line is they are just fab books that anyone would enjoy.

For your friend that struggles to ‘get into’ a book.

I challenge literally anyone to read this book and not be totally immersed in it from the very beginning.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

‘Eleanor Oliphant has learned how to survive – but not how to live. She leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend. Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything.’

Hardback £12.09 from Bookshop.org

For the angsty teen in your life

And then wait for the ‘omg this is literally written about me’ text in mid-January.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

‘The hero-narrator of The Catcher in the Rye is an ancient child of sixteen, a native New Yorker named Holden Caulfield. Through circumstances that tend to preclude adult, secondhand description, he leaves his prep school in Pennsylvania and goes underground in New York City for three days.’ (Waterstones)

Hardback £15.95 from Bookshop.org.

For your friend who un-ironically begins a sentence with ‘when I was travelling in [insert any foreign country]…’

If they found themselves after going to a temple in Bali on an organised tour, then Kerouac is the man for them. Could also work for people who have recently gotten into crystals.

Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

‘Two ebullient young men search for Truth the Zen way: from marathon wine-drinking bouts, poetry jam sessions, and “yabyum” in San Francisco’s Bohemia, to solitude in the high Sierras and a vigil atop Desolation Peak in Washington State. Published just a year after On the Road put the Beat Generation on the map, The Dharma Bums is sparked by Kerouac’s expansiveness, humor, and a contagious zest for life.’ (Goodreads)

Paperback £7.43 from Bookshop.org.

For your friend that’s a secret fantasy nerd

We’ve all got one, and if you don’t, it’s definitely you. Perfect for those of us that were obsessed with The Golden Compass film from 2007.

‘Set in the world so masterfully established by Philip Pullman in his trilogy His Dark MaterialsLa Belle Sauvage is a story of survival, where two children, with everything at stake, find themselves pursued by a terrifying evil. In their care is a tiny child, and in that child lies the fate of the future.’ (Goodreads)

£8.36 from Bookshop.org.

For any gal in her 20s

Sometimes we need a book to just say, ‘it’s okay, none of us have literally any clue what is going on.’ This is that book for me.

‘Politically alert, heartbreakingly raw, and dryly funny, Exciting Times is thrillingly attuned to the great freedoms and greater uncertainties of modern love. In stylish, uncluttered prose, Naoise Dolan dissects the personal and financial transactions that make up a life-and announces herself as a singular new voice.’ (Goodreads)

Hardback £13.94 on Bookshop.org.

For the person who says they can never find time to read.

It’s a collection of short stories! No excuses for not reading in 2021. Plus, these stories are so enchanting and interesting that the receiver of this book will make time, I guarantee.

Love in Colour by Bolu Babalola

‘Beautiful love stories from history and mythology, rewritten with incredible new detail and vivacity in this debut collection. Focusing on the magical folktales of West Africa, Babalola also reimagines iconic Greek myths, ancient legends from the Middle East, and stories from countries that no longer exist in our world.’

Hardback £15.79 on Bookshop.org

For any adults who still think Rustler’s burgers are food.

2021 is the year of health (round of applause for the gals Pfizer & BioN Tech) and so we’re extending self care beyond putting on a Garnier sheet mask every other month. Take a literal page out of Ottelenghi’s book and cook some tasty veggies. With beautiful imagery and incredible food, this is such a gorgeous present to give someone! Also perfect for any friends thinking about doing Veganuary.

PLUS For every copy of this title purchased by 21 December, Penguin will work with social enterprise Neighbourly to donate a book where it’s needed most. (amazing)

Hardback £25.77 from Bookshop.org.

That’s it! I hope you find some inspiration with these books. I didn’t want to overload this post with tonnes of choices so these are just a few that I think are universally great and people will enjoy. Also, not sure if you’ll agree but I’ve included a lot of hardbacks as they seem more gift-y to me?

Have a lovely Christmas and read lots and lots <3

You are my Beloved. You are mine. You are mine. – Reading Beloved by Toni Morrison

Spellbinding, heartbreaking, terrifying. Morrison’s masterpiece will literally leave you speechless.

Ahh I haven’t written a blog post in a very, very long time so forgive me if my writing is a bit rusty. To be fair, I’m sure anyone trying to write about Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) has a hard time putting this novel into words. Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning story really is something else. I know I’ve probably said this about 5 times already this year, but this is the best book I’ve read in 2020, possibly ever.

Dedicated to the ‘sixty-million and more’ that died as a result of the Atlantic slave trade, Beloved is set in the years after the American Civil War. Morrison tells the story of Sethe and her daughter Denver, who’s house near Cincinnati, Ohio, is haunted by the malevolent spirit of Sethe’s dead baby daughter. All that remains of the baby girl is a headstone marked only with ‘Beloved‘, where Sethe could not afford ‘Dearly’. Having been born into slavery, Sethe and her children escaped from Kentucky to Ohio twenty years before the novel begins, but the presence of the past is more alive than ever.

“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”

Beloved is one of those books where, upon finishing, you kind of just have to sit there paralysed for a minute of two, trying to take in what you just read. While you’d place the book somewhere between magical realism and gothic horror, it is ultimately rooted in the inescapable, historical context of the slave trade. It’s this aspect of the novel which might strike you the most shocking, though, as Morrison points out in her essay Playing in the Dark, the looming presence of slavery and ‘Africanism’ is evident and unavoidable in much of white, American literature to date.

The sheer brutality of Sethe’s experiences and memories in Beloved are detailed matter-of-factly by Morrison, who is careful not to sugarcoat or gloss over the lived experiences of slaves for the sake of ‘palatability’ – as was the case with some slave narratives which were commissioned to ‘inspire’ the abolitionist movement. (Or, in order to ‘humanise’ African slaves in the eyes of white people who benefitted from slavery.) From the out, it’s clear that Sethe is far from a ‘sympathetic’ character, rather, she is a woman forced to make choices that few people could comprehend making. Beloved is a gut-wrenching account of motherhood at a point in history where an enslaved woman’s children were not her own in the eyes of the law.

Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place–the picture of it–stays, and not just in my remory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don’t think if, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.

One thing that struck most when reading Beloved is the jumpy, disjointed narrative. The past and present fold into one another – as we move from Sethe’s house in Cincinnati to the Kentuckian plantation she was enslaved at, Sweet Home, it’s sometimes impossible to tell which is which. This is certainly not a complaint on my part, though. The structure novel reflects the trauma that permeates Beloved entirely. (Sorry I’m being super vague about what or who that trauma is – I just really don’t want to spoil it.) .

I’ve never read anything quite like this book. It is utterly devastating but vitally important. Do yourself a favour a give it a read.

Halloween BooOOok Club

Our book club pick for Halloween is Angela Carter’s horror-filled collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber.

What an incredible choice, once again. We truly are on fire with the book club picks.

I am super excited to read The Bloody Chamber, it’s hailed as one of the 20th Century’s greatest collections of short stories and its supposedly super spooky.

Our discussion will probably take place mid-November – as always, there is room for manoeuvre in terms of dates/times for discussion. Let me know when is best!

After The Bloody Chamber, our next book club will potentially be extended over the Christmas period. (This is such a busy time of year, it doesn’t seem realistic to try and fit a book in between mid Nov. and Christmas.)

If anyone has any suggestions/ideas of books you’d like to read next, I am (regrettably) always on my phone so if you message me, you best believe you’ll get an instant reply.

Happy Halloween and spooky reading to all!

Let’s get spooky – I read the Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Rating: 3 out of 5.

What, you’re telling me you’ve never spent the summer in a mysterious isolated house in the middle of nowhere with a group of people you don’t know after being invited by a doctor that you’ve never met?

So, I started The Haunting of Hill House (1959) in July and never finished it. But with the nights getting colder and the vibe decidedly more spooky, I thought I would dig it out again.

Shirley Jackson is the uncontested queen of suspense and horror. One of my favourite novels of all time is We Have Always Lived In the Castle (1962); it’s a delicious cocktail of mystery, surrealism and gothic horror. But what about Hill House?

…Meh.

When lonely Eleanor is invited by Dr Montague to spend her summer in Hill House, she jumps at the chance to do something, anything with her life. Along with Theodora, an artistic ‘sensitive’, and Luke, the heir to Hill House, the group moves in. Upon arrival, however, it becomes clear that something in Hill House is wrong. A light-hearted social experiment soon turns to a dark, inescapable nightmare.

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality…Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” 

spooOoky

Undoubtedly, the best part of Hill House is the very beginning. As Eleanor makes her way to the house, I was literally on the edge of my seat, terrified. Shirley Jackson has an incredible talent for creating suspense – our omniscient narrator always toying with the reader, revealing little details but never enough for us to truly grasp why we’re so afraid, we just know that we are. The paragraph above is an excellent example – how creepy is the use of ‘whatever’?

“Journeys end in lovers meeting; I have spent an all but sleepless night, I have told lies and made a fool of myself, and the very air tastes like wine. I have been frightened half out of my foolish wits, but I have somehow earned this joy; I have been waiting for it for so long.” 

(Before I say anything more, I’d like to clarify that I am terrible with horror – I got to the part in the Shining where Stephen King is literally just describing the topiary (these big hedges/bushes shaped like animals) and then shut the book. I haven’t touched it in five years. I scare easily, is what I mean.)

I think if you stop trying to see Hill House as an objectively ‘scary’ book, then it’s great. If you’re looking to be frightened, though, this isn’t it. The novel’s hallucinatory, ‘scary’ parts are undoubtedly really interesting – Jackson plays around with narrative voice, almost like a stream of consciousness. She focuses much of the novel around Eleanor’s psychological state, distorting her reality. But it didn’t scare me, and for a book that is hailed as the greatest haunted house novel of all time, I wanted to be terrified. The pace of the plot is quite slow, and often, I found myself actually feeling a little bit bored.

But you know what is really scary (and I hate myself for saying this)? The Netflix series. Oh my god, I couldn’t sleep. The plot is completely different but it’s soo terrifying!

Anyway, all I can say is if you’re going to read some Shirley Jackson, read We Have Always Lived in the Castle before you do anything else. Hill House gets 3 stars.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Halloween BooOOok Club (sorry)

it’s fricken bats

I love halloween

First, I’d like to apologise for my bat drawing. I wanted to buy a small pumpkin and take a photo of that but I couldn’t find any so this little sad bat will have to do. I’m really excited for our October book club picks though! I’m terrible with scary things, but I feel like if I read along with other people maybe it won’t seem as scary.

Horror is difficult to get right, especially with books. Reading can make you feel a whole host of emotions, but feeling genuinely frightened by a novel is not an easy thing to accomplish. That’s why we’re bringing out the big guns for our book club picks.

The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter

A literary heavyweight, Angela Carter has been ranked among the greatest writers of the 20th Century. The Bloody Chamber is her horrific masterpiece:

‘A delirious mix of fairytale, gothic romance and sly feminism, Angela Carter’s breathtaking collection is a sensual, passionate reading experience punctuated by singular supernatural imagery and baroque turns of phrase. An era defining work of multilayered meaning and seductive horror from a literary master. ‘ (Waterstones)

Carrie – Stephen King

What would horror be without Stephen King? He’s published sixty-one (literally what) novels, but Carrie was the first, and one of the most memorable.

“Carrie White is no ordinary girl. Carrie White has the gift of telekinesis. To be invited to prom night by Tommy Ross is a dream come true for Carrie – the first step towards social acceptance by her high school colleagues. But events will take a decidedly macabre turn on that horrifying and endless night as she is forced to exercise her terrible gift on the town that mocks and loathes her.’ (Waterstones)

The Turn of the Screw – Henry James

Henry James’ literary legacy cannot be underestimated, and his novella The Turn of the Screw, is easily one of the scariest ghost stories of all time.

“A very young woman’s first job: governess for two weirdly beautiful, strangely distant, oddly silent children, Miles and Flora, at a forlorn estate…An estate haunted by a beckoning evil.” (Goodreads)

Dark Tales – Shirley Jackson

We can’t talk about horror without talking about Shirley Jackson. The queen of suspense herself, these short stories are bound to terrify.

“There’s something nasty in suburbia. In these deliciously dark tales, the daily commute turns into a nightmarish game of hide and seek, the loving wife hides homicidal thoughts and the concerned citizen might just be an infamous serial killer. In the haunting world of Shirley Jackson, nothing is as it seems and nowhere is safe, from the city streets to the country manor, and from the small-town apartment to the dark, dark woods…” (Waterstones)

Personally, I’d be happy to read any of these books, but it’s not up to me! Here’s a twitter poll for you to decide which novel you’d like to read this month:

Swimming in the Dark – Thoughts and Questions

I’m not crying, you are.

Our Book Club pick for September was the incredible Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski, a coming-of-age love story set in Soviet-controlled Poland. A one-way ticket to heartbreak city and a dive into an otherwise forgotten slice of history, this has to be one of my favourite books of the year.

But first, here’s some questions to get you thinking:

1) Swimming in the Dark takes the form of one continuous letter from our narrator Ludwik, addressed to his lover Janusz. How did you feel about this structure?

2) Ludwik is both terrified and fascinated by James Baldwin’s novel, Giovanni’s Room. Why do you think this had such an impact on him? What do you think about his conflicting emotions towards the book?

3) The setting – Poland in the 1980s- is a major factor in the decisions that Janusz and Ludwik make. Were you surprised by this? Why?

4) While Ludwik is raring to leave the country, Janusz is against it. Considering the life that Janusz now has to lead, why do you think he is so reluctant to leave Poland behind?

5) How did you feel about the ending? Do you feel there was closure? Was this a realistic way to end the novel?

Thoughts on Swimming in the Dark

After what felt like a hopeful, post-covid August, September has been a messy month – not just politically and economically, but the threat of another lockdown has drained me emotionally. Reading Swimming in the Dark, however, felt like dipping my toes in beautiful pool of light, distracting from the hellscape we find ourselves in.

Occupied Poland, early 1980s. Ludwik Glowacki is an anxious and disillusioned graduate (aren’t we all), tired of the ever-controlling, ever-threatening Soviet government. Along with the rest of his class, Ludwik is sent to agricultural camp for the summer where he meets Janusz. After a dreamlike summer together, they find themselves confronted by the harsh reality of life in the USSR, where secrets are the most dangerous weapons of all.

“No matter what happens in the world, however brutal or dystopian a thing, not all is lost if there are people out there risking themselves to document it. Little sparks cause fires, too.”

What struck me immediately about Swimming in the Dark was that I had zero idea life in Poland in the literal eighties was this tough. It’s Orwellian – medicine shortages, rising food prices and extreme censorship all taking place under the watchful eye of the Party. I guess this was a reality I’d associated with East Germany – I’d never related it to Poland before now.

“The odds had been stacked against us from the start: we had no manual, no one to show us the way. Not one example of a happy couple made up of boys. How were we supposed to know what to do? Did we even believe that we deserved to get away with happiness?”

In the midst of it all is Ludwik – a boy acutely aware that he doesn’t fit the mould society would have him squeeze into. The start of Swimming in the Dark focuses on Ludwik’s battle between what he knows deep down – his homosexuality – and the desperation to squash it down, to be the same, to toe the Party line.

It’s only when Ludwik dares to read James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, a forbidden book in Poland, that he seems to reach some level of acceptance. For the first time, he sees himself reflected on the page. While Giovanni’s Room brings a form of relief in that now, at least, Ludwik knows why he feels the way he does, it also shows him that a life outside Poland could give him the freedom to love who he chooses.  

“Because you were right when you said that people can’t always give us what we want from them; that you can’t ask them to love you the way you want. No one can be blamed for that.”

Janusz, however, is not on the same page. I think this baffled me the most throughout the novel. While Janusz is open and adventurous in some parts, he has a loyalty to the government and to Poland that ultimately clouds his sense of self.

If you did read this book, you’ll know how heartbreaking it is throughout. In the discussion, literally every single one of us admitted we cried at some point. Very cathartic. I loved it.

For the rest of October, we’ll be turning our attention to some spooky reads! All info will be on the groupchat & Twitter.

Ohh, she’s COMMUNIST communist – Reading Guns Under the Bed by Jody Forrester

Rating: 4 out of 5.

USA. LBJ. LSD.

We’re going back to the swinging 60s, except this time, McCarthyism is long gone so we’re joining a hierarchical communist revolutionary group, carrying ammunition and sticking it to the man, comrade.

A few weeks ago, the lovely people at Odyssey Books sent me Jody Forrester’s new book, Guns Under the Bed, to review on Kindle. Honest, raw and oftentimes fraught with the dry sarcasm that only comes with hindsight, this is an account of Cold War America straight from the inside.

The world watches in horror as America’s war crimes in Vietnam air on national television, but it’s in a college town in California that a group of kids try to do something about it. With an unavoidable rebellious streak running throughout Jody’s childhood, this manifests itself into something altogether revolutionary as the tension of the Cold War builds around her.

Who doesn’t love a bit of communist ideology now and again? I’m envisioning the hammer and sickle that Michael Gove’s daughter has spray painted on her bedroom wall (I know). A far cry from an ‘eat the rich’ twitter bio, though, Jody Forrester’s journey from a misbehaving kid to a revolutionary demonstrates her desperation to make systemic change in a country where preserving capitalism was (and probably still is) more valuable than the lives of Vietnamese children.

‘They leaned out the windows of their beat up vehicles with plates from Idaho, Ohio and Kansas to ask, “Where’s it at?”. That was the question of our times, all of us seekers for a life where love was the valued currency.’

What struck me about Guns Under the Bed was the incredible snapshot it gives of what life was really like growing up the 60s and early 70s. Riots, protests and marches often conflated with hippies, LSD and the Summer of Love. For Jody, a painful home life and an unwavering sense of what’s right and wrong leads her to rebellion – first from a cruel mother who only cares what the neighbours think and later to America itself.

Influenced heavily by the vibrant subcultures emerging out of California, Jody seeks out her ‘people’, who she eventually finds clutching protest signs and singing ‘Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?’. I think even now, though the world is still plagued by racism, brutality and inequality, it would be difficult to imagine the impact seeing the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement on television would have.

‘The images assaulted me, and I sat there blown away by the brutal treatment done to the Vietnamese civilians by American soldiers, and to Black people on the streets by the National Guard. How could I not be radicalised?’

While today we’ve almost become desensitised to horror from the sheer volume of it we see on social media and the 24hr news, this was the first time that war could be seen live from the comfort of your own living room.

Jody makes it clear that her eventual radicalisation and absorption into the Revolutionary Union wasn’t on a whim; it was the sum of incredible tensions worldwide, newfound freedoms for young people and solid proof that American imperialism was corrupt. If any of you have read Phillip Roth’s American Pastoral, Jody kind of reminds me of Merry Levov, the one who set off a bomb in protest of Vietnam – though Jody is decidedly less crazy.

While her writing is incredibly concise, thoughtful and honest, I do feel that the narrative jumped around somewhat, particularly in the first few chapters. Nonetheless, this is a must-read for anyone who owns a pair of flares, listens to Bob Dylan and wants to learn more about America’s tumultuous 20th Century.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

You can order Jody’s book directly from Odyssey.