The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn: A sweeping wartime saga ★★★★

These are the years between the wars, and young Cristabel Seagrave plays out her days in the stately Chilcombe manor on the Dorset coast; ‘a many-gabled, many-chimneyed, ivy-covered manor house with an elephantine air of weary grandeur’. She’s an orphan, and a plucky heroine to boot, the natural ringleader of her half-sister Flossie (nicknamed the Veg) and her much-longed-for cousin, Digby, who she considers a brother.

There’s a delightful and expansive cast of characters that play a role in Cristabel, Flossie and Digby’s idiosyncratic childhood; the lady of the manor, Rosalind, who delights in frittering away the family fortunes on décor and parties and not much else. Willoughby, her husband, has roguish but undeniable charm, and a penchant for fast cars and planes. They are joined by bohemian types – an American poetess, a Russian avant-garde artist (and his lovers and semi-feral children). There are also the many staff employed to keep the house running – from the inquisitive maid Maudie Kitcat to the disinterested governess Mademoiselle Aubert. And the Dorset landscape is itself a character alongside the rest of them, personified and alive with the changing seasons.

‘April is blown away by another round of storms, thunder rolling about the bay like a wooden skittle ball, then May steps in with a curtsey, and Dorset blooms with a giddy enthusiasm, like a young girl at her first county ball spun about the dance floor by a strong-handed farmer. The hedgerows take up motion, cow parsley quivering delightedly every time Willoughby roars past in his Daimler.’

Within the first half of the novel we follow this whimsical childhood. A seminal event is the discovery of a whale, washed up on the shores in the summer of 1928. Cristabel declares the carcass her own, and once there has been no sign of the King’s men arriving to stake their claim, the bones of the whale are transported up to the manor, where they become the stage for the titular Whalebone Theatre. From that point onwards, their imaginations can run wild – each summer of their childhood the Seagrave children enlist a troupe and perform to local crowds – Shakespeare, Homer – and delight in the rising star of their amateur productions.

And then, of course, years pass – the war arrives, and everything changes. The plot at this point is driven not by the will of the characters but by the force of history: Cristabel becomes an undercover agent who is parachuted into France, hoping to be reunited with Digby, and Flossie joins the Women’s Land Army. As is the nature of war, other characters disappear and die as the story is propelled forward. Chilcombe manor briefly plays host to evacuees from London, puts on musical evenings to build morale of nearby stationed American servicemen, and slowly falls into a state of disrepair, as England itself slips into yet another year, another Christmas, of this seemingly never-ending conflict.

‘The beach appears very far away, in the same way that their bodies seem distant when seen underwater. How easy it is to separate, from the land, from the shape of yourself. England is an unprepossessing layer of beige and green; it hardly seems worth fighting over.’

Quinn’s writing is gorgeous and evocative, and I particularly enjoyed the textual excursions – lists or diary entries or inventive formatting. Chilcombe is a magnetic force in the novel; I kept wanting to go back there. The first half of the book, set entirely against the Seagrave childhood on the Dorset coast, is dazzling. But this is a book of two halves: once the war begins and we are in occupied France, I found it harder to sustain interest. The plot moves a lot faster, of course, and there is life-or-death peril – but it lost some of the sheen from the first half, and began to feel more generic and, dare I say, predictable.

However, it’s the powerful bonds of love that drive forward the second half when it begins to get bogged down with history – particularly that between Cristabel and Digby, the sensitive boy who always preferred poetry to rugby, over whom Cristabel has always felt fiercely protective.

‘If he were still a boy, she would put her arm around him, but he is twenty-one years old now, a young man who has spent nearly all his adult life at war, and the hunch in his shoulders tells her he does not want to be calmed or comforted, however much she wants to comfort him.’

These later scenes are emotional and affecting, reminding us all of the horrors of war and what humanity is capable of – the bad and the good. A brilliant start that would have benefited from a different approach to the second half, but with a suitably satisfying conclusion ultimately makes this a story well told.

Beating the backlist in 2023, AKA working my way through an out-of-control bookcase

Surveying my stacks of books that have now spilled out from the bookshelves and into piles, I decided it was time to participate in the Beat the Backlist Reading Challenge. As per the challenge, it is: ‘designed to help you tackle all the books you keep meaning to read and still haven’t’.

The guidelines are simple:

  1. The book must be published in the previous year or earlier (for the 2023 challenge, anything published in 2022 or earlier counts).
  2. You have to start and finish the book in 2023.
  3. I’m adding a third guideline that I have to own a physical copy of the book, as this is the real impetus behind reading these

Any format, any genre. Re-reads count, and you don’t have to own the book. It’s open for the entire year so whenever you feel like jumping in, you can!

Prompt: meant to read it last year (and every year for the past 6 years)

Do Not Say We Have Nothing
by Madeleine Thien (2016)

Prompt: multiple points of view

Of Women and Salt
by Gabriela Garcia (2021)

Prompt: recommended by a bookseller

The Hierarchies
by Ros Anderson (2020)

Prompt: more than 450 pages

The Warmth of Other Suns
by Isabel Wilkerson (2010)

Prompt: featuring travel (time optional)

I’m Waiting for You and Other Stories
by Kim Bo-Young (2021)

Prompt: set on a continent you don’t live on

The Republic of False Truths
by Alaa Al Aswany (2018)

Honestly, I’ll be very happy if I get to these 6 this year without getting distracted by shiny new books!

Bliss Montage by Ling Ma

Subversive and surreal short stories: Bliss Montage by Ling Ma ★★★★½

After reading Ling Ma’s Severance, one of my favourite books of 2020 (and I’ll be so bold as to say this decade), I was going to read whatever she published next.

Bliss Montage is a surrealist collection of short stories narrated by Chinese-American women. One lives in a house with 100 of their ex-boyfriends, but only two who matter: the one she was in love with and the one who beat her. A twenty-something aspiring PhD takes a banned drug (for old time’s sake) that turns her invisible. A professor finds a liminal space in another dimension in the back of her office closet.

The stories are bizarre and unsettling at times, but despite the weirdness, they never stop feeling real: whether we’re living in our 2023 or a near-future world order where microplastics wreak havoc on our bodies and America has fallen spectacularly from grace (see: Tomorrow), the rhythm of human life follows the same patterns. We fall in and out of love. We make and lose friends. We wonder what to do with our lives. We grapple with who we are and want to be.

‘When I think about Y now, I think less about the beginning than about the end, which is where all my feelings have now pooled, having rolled downward towards the inevitable outcome.’

It is our shifting identities that are at the centre of the book: the way we perceive ourselves and the way others perceive us, the way we write and rewrite our own histories and the histories of others. This is particularly poignant in ‘Peking Duck’, a metafictional narrative where a woman on an MFA program shares the story of her immigrant mother’s unpleasant encounter with a door-to-door salesman. When her story is published, she shares it with her mother, whose response is indignant. “How would you even know what happened? It happened to me, not to us.” In the workshop, the story is derided as “stereotypical” and “a kind of Asian minstrelsy“.

Ma resists giving us tidy conclusions. The stories often take us on an unpredictable path and then end without a full resolution. This sounds like it would be frustrating, but it feels the most honest approach in a book about the complexities of our modern condition. The writing is cool and restrained but also wryly funny at times (like the financier husband who speaks only in dollar signs) and I could have read 10 more stories in the same volume and still be enchanted and haunted by them all.

TW: domestic abuse

2022 round-up: the best books of the year

2022, another year over. This was a pretty good reading year – 28 books in total, under my initial (and overly ambitious) reading goal of 40 but over my revised goal of 25. I am always in awe at readers who can manage 52+ (the only time I got close to that, other than when studying for my Literature degree 10+ years ago, was 2020).

Before I get on to my favourites, here’s a quick wrap up:

Of these 28:

  • 17% were non-fiction, 83% fiction
  • All but one were written by women
  • 57% of authors were American, 37% British, with the remaining being Irish and Australian. This is less geographically diverse than previous years and something I want to improve on in 2023!

I love these wrap-ups because they remind of how much joy there is in reading a book you adore. Here are my top reads of 2022…

True Biz
by Sara Nović

Genre: contemporary fiction

In a sentence: an incredibly eye-opening read that introduced me to Deaf culture in all its exuberance.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

How High We Go In The Dark
by Sequoia Nagamatsu

Genre: lit fic/sci-fi/speculative

In a sentence: deeply imaginative, illuminating and original stories from a plague-ridden world that transcend the boundaries of genre.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Hop
By Diana Clarke

Genre: contemporary fiction

In a sentence: refreshing and empowering perspective on the sex work industry with whip-smart commentary on contemporary culture.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Yellowface
by R. F. Kuang

Genre: lit fic

My one 5-star read of the year. In a sentence: a biting and deliciously dark story, satirizing the publishing world and the creative process in a very on-the-nose way. Publishing 2023!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Nobody Told Me
by Holly McNish

Genre: poetry

In a sentence: poetry and prose that is candid and funny, playful yet serious, and unflinchingly honest on the realities of motherhood.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Intimacies
by Katie Kitamura

Genre: lit fic

In a sentence: a translator navigates language and power in this brilliant, incisive novel where the writing is a joy to behold.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Fight Night
by Miriam Toews

Genre: memoir

In a sentence: an irrepressibly energetic book told through the eyes of a nine-year-old – a hilarious and moving rallying cry.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Happy new year – let’s hope it’s a good one!

Some recent posts

Emily Ratajkowski’s ‘My Body'

Emily Ratajkowski’s ‘My Body’ ★★★¾

Emily Ratajkowski, for those unacquainted, is an actress and model – with the kind of face and body that has defined her whole life. She rose to mainstream fame in Robin Thicke’s infamous Blurred Lines video, and has since starred in Gone Girl and graced the catwalk at countless fashion shows. Her body has made her a millionaire, but it has undoubtedly come at personal cost.

These essays, better described as a loose memoir, are her attempt to reclaim the narrative, use her voice, and work through the sticky complexities that come from being in her line of work. Her perspective is fascinating, vulnerable, conflicted. She is articulate about the challenges of selling her image while wanting to retain ownership over it. In ‘Buying Myself Back’, an essay previously published in The New Yorker, she writes about a sleazy photographer early on in her career who took nude photos of her, ostensibly for a magazine shoot, only to publish the rest of the roll of film years later when Emily had risen to fame – in glossy coffee-table style books for which she didn’t earn a penny. The distinction may not be visible to all, but it’s an important one. So what, people might think – she was a willing participant in the shoot, why does it matter what the photos are used for? But it does matter, in a world where the power is so frequently taken from women and wielded by powerful men.

She is unflinchingly honest about her experiences as a victim of sexual violence, writing in a clear-eyed way about the self-doubt and self-loathing that creeps in in the aftermath. In fact, the whole book is unflinchingly honest about all sorts of things: how she felt her mother place her value on her beauty from a young age, how modelling became a vehicle for influence and not just money (against her better judgement), the serotonin boost at seeing hundreds of thousands of likes tick up on a single Instagram post.

‘Through the years, I’d developed a necessary and protective immunity to the frequent disappointments and rejections that came with modelling… I didn’t care if my image ended up on a billboard or in a magazine as long as the check cleared. I wasn’t interested in fame or notoriety, just the cash, or at least that’s what I told myself. In New York, I broke my own rules; I let myself imagine the power, beyond money, that other women seemed to have gained by becoming successful.’

The essential problem is that the money and power necessitates playing the game. However much it is a feminist act to commodify your body and use it to make a living and build a public persona (which I wholeheartedly support – make that money!) you are still essentially doing so within the oppressive white, patriarchal power structures of that industry.

‘The women who gained their power from beauty were indebted to the men whose desire granted them that power in the first place.’

I won’t be the first person to point out where this book falls a little short: it’s her perspective alone, and doesn’t always scratch much beyond the surface. If you’re going in expecting a searing interrogation of western beauty ideals, the (fe)male gaze, and what can be done to make the industry fairer, you’re not going to find it. But it succeeds in being a frank first-person account of a life very few of us will ever truly understand.

I know it gets a bit silly to fractionise ratings in this way, but I went back and forth on how to rate this and so settled on 3.75 stars: not quite illuminating enough to be 4 stars, but well-accomplished as an articulate and thoughtful perspective we don’t often hear.

P.S. I picked up a signed copy of this book in Finsbury Park’s delightful Book Bar. If you’re in London, be sure to pay them a visit! Emily had recently stopped by for a signing and they have lots of events with high-profile authors.

2022 round-up: favourite book covers of the year

With just 11 days left until 2023 (say it isn’t so!), here’s the first round-up post to finish the year – covers from books published in 2022 that would have me plucking them off the shelf in a bookshop in no time. We all know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but these are just *chef’s kiss*.

Recent book reviews

Emily Ratajkowski’s ‘My Body’ ★★★¾

Emily Ratajkowski, for those unacquainted, is an actress and model – with the kind of face and body that has defined her whole life. She rose to mainstream fame in Robin Thicke’s infamous Blurred Lines video, and has since starred in Gone Girl and graced the catwalk at countless fashion shows. Her body has made her…

The beginning of the apocalypse is here: Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam ★★★★

Two well-heeled Brooklynites, Amanda and Clay, have rented an Air Bnb in rural Long Island with their two adolescent children. Amanda overbuys at the supermarket, Clay smokes, the children swim in the pool. It’s an idyllic enclave, a place for them to ‘leave the world behind’, switch off from their busy jobs and the mundaneity of everyday life in the city.

Before long, though, there’s a knock on the door.

The detail in the writing is excruciating at times, both to beneficial and detrimental effect. When GH and Ruth knock at the door, the moment – suspended in time – is excruciating in all the right ways. We don’t know what’s wrong, but it’s clear that something very much is.

GH and Ruth are a wealthy Black couple in their sixties who own the vacation home. There is an immediate sizing up of these unwelcome guests (if you can call them that). They’ve clearly done well for themselves, and Amanda bristles. They say there’s been a power outage and all lines of communication in the city are down. The same, it turns out, is true for the vacation home – while the electricity remains, there is no TV, phone reception, or radio – just the same message on repeat: this is the emergency broadcast. GH and Ruth have asked to spend the night until they can all figure out what’s going on.

“Ruth had learned only one thing from the current reality, and it was that everything held together by tacit agreement that it would. All it took to unravel something was one party deciding to do just that. There was no real structure to prevent chaos. There was only a collective faith in order.”

The characters are all granted rich interior lives, and the narration slides between their perspectives as things grow evermore uneasy. The tension is so well crafted, the atmosphere unbearable as they struggle to understand what’s happening, what nameless, terrible thing has occurred. The horror builds, piece by piece: a noise so terrible no-one can express it in words. A sudden flock of flamingos. The teenage son’s teeth falling out, simultaneously, horrifyingly, leaving bloody recesses where they once were.

This book has been around for long enough that I knew we wouldn’t get answers by the end. But Alam instead gives us an omniscient narrator who provides windows into what the future world might look like, hints at who lives and who dies. It’s an ingenious way of giving the reader tantalizing pieces of information about a post-apocalyptic world, without having to give that future shape and name.

I alluded to the purple prose above – I can absolutely see why it isolated and irritated readers (at one point the fridge is described as a ‘cacophony of magnets’) and there are some bodily descriptions that are particularly cringe-making. With more ruthless editing it would be a five-star read.

“They said the ocean was coming for them all. …They didn’t ask what the world would be when their children grew.”

Rating: 4 out of 5.
The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz - book review

Inventive, twisty thriller with dark academia vibes: The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz ★★★★½

Books about the writing world are catnip to me. Combine that with one of my favourite genres, the psychological thriller, and I am the perfect audience for this inventive, twisted story about success, creativity, and the limits of both.

30-year-old Alex has ‘risen up the ranks from bleakly underpaid editorial assistant to bleakly underpaid associate editor.’ She had been working on her own writing, but since a catastrophic fall out with her best friend Wren (the circumstances of which are slowly revealed to us), she’s had impenetrable writer’s block. Seeing other friends in her writers’ circle garner mainstream success is a difficult pill to swallow.

‘A hungry, wolfish feeling reared up in my gut. What would it feel like to hold your own book in your hands for the fist time? For it to be a physical object, a thing that people paid for?’

Alex and Wren had bonded over their shared love for kooky author Roza Vallo, known for her deliciously dark novels that push the boundaries of genre. A series of fortunate events land Alex a spot at Roza’s much-coveted writing retreat in her remote 19th-century mansion in upstate New York. The only problem is, Wren will also be there, and Alex doesn’t know how she’ll manage being in such close proximity to her ex-best-friend, under such claustrophobic and high-stakes circumstances.

Because this is no ordinary writing retreat. The five young women chosen will each have to complete a full manuscript during their time at the mansion (which was, coincidentally, the historical site of two mysterious and brutal deaths). One will be chosen for an eye-wateringly big publishing deal at the end. And Roza, they discover, has a darkness both on and off the page, enjoying her mind games in the name of sparking their creativity. From the start, her unpredictability is what keeps the writers – and the reader – on the edge of their seat. 

‘Her jeans had a large tear and skin showed through like a bone poking through flesh.’

The atmosphere is spellbinding as the writers begin to work under the extreme pressure to perform – and when a major snowstorm cuts off transport and communication to the mansion, well, any seasoned thriller reader will know that this is when things get really hairy. 

So yes, I loved it – mostly. The first quarter, this was a five-star read for me. Things lost momentum a little during the middle, and the end went a little nuts (as psychological thrillers are wont to do). I also wasn’t as keen on the passages interspersed in the narrative showing Alex’s own writing – it took me out of the ‘now’ of the novel and I felt myself skimming past to get to the meat of the story. But overall, it is fresh and original, with three-dimensional characters and a complex exploration of friendship, trauma, sexuality, and the promise and pitfalls of literary fame. 

Many thanks to Atria/Emily Bestler Books for the advanced reader’s copy. The Writing Retreat will be published in February 2023.

A galvanizing account of the power of female rage: Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister ★★★★½

Women aren’t supposed to display rage. While men’s ire is ‘comprehensible’ and ‘rational’, angry women are chaotic, unhinged, unnatural. Of course, we’ve got a lot to be angry about. This double standard is just one more addition to a growing list of rage-inducing injustices. In this powerful, incisive account, Traister traces the history and power of women’s anger, how it has been received and perceived over time, and how it is inherently powerful. Written in the months following the election of Donald Trump, this is very much a book about a particular contemporary moment in American history.

The rage of women, Traister convincingly and meticulously argues, is a catalyst for societal change in the US – despite the disdain, disgust and ridicule that is heaped upon these women. Mamie Till, the mother of lynched schoolboy Emmett Till, insisted upon an open casket at his funeral: the world would not be permitted to look away from the unimaginable racist violence inflicted upon him. Mamie Till, Traister writes, is ‘most often pictured as a grieving mother being held up at her son’s coffin, weeping… What we are never trained to consider is that alongside her sorrow and suffering was a burning rage.’ This was a rage that would help propel the struggle for civil rights and change the course of American history. She also turns to Rosa Parks, often presented in a sanitized way and lauded for her stoicism and refusal to show anger – when in fact she had been a ‘lifelong furious fighter against sexual and racial violence, a defender of black men wrongly accused of sexual misconduct by white women, and an elected NAACP secretary who investigated the rape claims of black women against white men’. As a more contemporary example, she turns to the crusade of the Parkland students, demanding an end to gun violence in the wake of another horrific school shooting. 16-year-old Sarah Chadwick, in a tweet that went viral, responded to Trump’s thoughts and prayers with ‘I don’t want your condolences you fucking piece of shit, my friends and teachers were shot. Do something instead of sending prayers.’ Such rage galvanized Chadwick and her peers towards nationwide protests and resonated with millions of Americans, for whom her anger spoke to their own desperation over the inevitability of relentless gun violence. The year before, the election of a white supremacist and abuser to the White House in 2016 inspired the Women’s March movement and a resurgence of activism for women of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds.

In the twenty-first century, it is still ‘unfeminine’ to be angry. To be angry is to be obscene and hysterical, our anger is pathologized. Women in the public eye – particularly those in politics, such as Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris – are frequently discredited for transgressing that boundary: ‘The best way to discredit these women, to make them look unattractive, is to capture an image of them screaming’, Traister writes. ‘…The act of a woman opening her mouth with volume and assured force, often in complaint, is coded in our minds as ugly.’ Ugly, unlikable, not to be trusted. By contrast, white men display rage with impunity, and are often portrayed in a far more sympathetic light – just think of the so-called ‘lone wolf’ perpetrators of mass shootings who are supposedly misunderstood loners or lovesick teens – something Traister explores in a later chapter, using the term coined by Kate Manne: ‘himpathy’.

We have the voices of stalwart feminists throughout – Audre Lorde, Andrea Dworkin, Gloria Steinem and many more – peppered with Traister’s own personal experiences, lending depth and personality to the essays. I felt seen in her chapter about tears as ‘one of the most frequent outlets for our wrath’ and the depressing truth that they are ‘fundamentally misunderstood’ by the men who witness them. There is nothing more infuriating than involuntary weeping out of fury – except for the fact that men may misread the anger as sadness, something to be pitied.

‘One of my sharpest memories from an early job, in a male-dominated office, where I too once found myself weeping with inexpressible rage, was being grabbed by the scruff of my neck by an older woman—a chilly, hard-ass manager of whom I’d always been slightly terrified—who dragged me into a stairwell. “Never let them see you crying,” she told me. “They don’t know you’re furious. They think you’re sad and will be pleased because they got to you.”‘

She also takes care to explore how anger is not perceived the same across colour lines: Black women must resist ‘America’s cheapest caricature’ of the Angry Black Woman. Quoting Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: ‘for black American women, there is an added expectation of interminable gratitude, the closer to groveling the better, as though their citizenship is a phenomenon that they cannot take for granted’. Similarly, while white women’s tears – of anger, rather than rage – can be perceived sympathetically by white men (or indeed, weaponized by the women themselves) – the same cannot be said for the perception of a Black woman expressing emotion in the same way. They are not afforded the same sympathy, and suffer to an even greater extent as race and gender intersect.

A large part of the book is spent discussing #MeToo in an impassioned and clear-eyed way, where she turns to her own experience of meeting Weinstein as a young journalist. She describes the movement as giving us a ‘view of the architecture of sexism that had been holding everything up.’ The cacophony of voices speaking out meant that women could no longer be derided and disbelieved: there was safety and power in accumulative rage – and perhaps the beginning of breaking everything apart.

‘If they are quiet, they will remain isolated. But if they howl in rage, someone else who shares their fury might hear them, might start howling along.’

In art, and media, and politics, and justice – female rage can incite change. While we are at a different moment now – both better in some ways, worse in others, reeling from a global pandemic and the fall of Roe v Wade, this book still feels powerful, and galvanizing, and a convincing rallying cry to embrace our anger.