Book Review: Trespasses

Trespasses

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

There have been a growing number of fine books published recently where the story unfolds amidst a backdrop of Belfast’s Troubles. Adding to these, Trespasses stands out for its powerful and forensic dissection of just how pervasive the sides taken during this time were in ordinary residents’ everyday choices and experiences.

It focuses on Cushla Lavery, a twenty-four year old primary school teacher who embarks on an affair with Michael, an older, married man who knew her late father. Michael is a barrister, a Protestant whose wealthy peers accept his philandering.

The bones of the tale, then, are commonplace in fiction – unwise sexual liaisons that lead to difficulties and recriminations. Let me assure you, however, this is not a story akin to others read. The threads woven are tangled up with how the Belfast community in the 1970s was so bitterly divided. Church and state propounded hatred and condoned the violent treatment meted out as maybe illegal but likely deserved. Fear and guilt were sown at every turn to ensure compliance.

Other than a brief prologue and epilogue, the action takes place in 1975. Cushla, a Catholic, enters her family’s bar on Ash Wednesday with the ‘papish warpaint’ of the day visible on her forehead. Her brother, Eamonn, demands she remove it lest their customers are affronted. The bar may be Catholic owned but it serves many Protestants, including army personnel from a nearby barracks. Being located just outside the city, it has thus far avoided much of the violence inherent therein.

The bar has a television set and the author uses news broadcasts as a means of conveying how normalised daily beatings, murders and bombings were. At her school, Cushla is required to start the day by asking the children she teaches to share a recent news item, the headmaster claiming they should be aware of the world around them.

“Booby trap. Incendiary device. Gelignite. Nitroglycerine. Petrol bomb. Rubber bullets. Saracen. Internment. The Special Powers Act. Vanguard. The vocabulary of a seven-year-old child now.”

Cushla lives with her alcoholic mother, Gina, and is tasked with caring for her through Gina’s increasingly regular benders. When she is invited into Michael’s world it is an escape. Here she can discuss music, art and literature. His friends’ political views may be at odds with hers but Michael himself is more tolerant and sympathetic.

“Everyone else takes a position. Like ‘those towers are full of Provos and they deserve all they get’. Or ‘they’re lucky to be getting a place to live for nothing’. You don’t do that.
It’s depressing that you find that remarkable, he said.”

When Cushla tries to help the family of one of her pupils, Davy, whose father has suffered a life changing beating, it draws the attention of her employer and the hate filled priest who has unfettered access to the school and its pupils – who Cushla struggles to protect. Davy’s Catholic family have been housed in a Protestant estate where they are subjected to daily abuse, and worse. The sectarian divides in housing, education and available labour offer reminders of how the Troubles were perpetuated.

Residents of the city were subjected to constant surveillance with police and army using their powers to attack and intimidate. There were tit for tat murders carried out by both sides’ sectarian organisations. The story brings to the fore how it wasn’t just the horrific violence that became commonplace but also the hatred and bigotry casually spouted by otherwise ‘reasonable’, educated people. Cushla’s kind acts are regarded as insolence, deserving of punishment for not toeing the line expected. Eamonn is furious at the risk she thereby poses, not just to herself but the wider family.

This depiction of the mess that was Belfast during the Troubles serves as the base on which the various strands of the story are built. The author skilfully weaves Cushla and Michael’s affair through the loom of how insular the community they lived within remained. Locals watch and condemn. Much is not spoken of in the hope it will be suppressed or cease if not acknowledged. Children are groomed to take sides and then action, by puppet masters guarding their power bases.

Any Cop?: For those of us who grew up in Belfast during this time period it is a reminder of how much twisted behaviour was passively accepted. The story is of the people depicted and how their lives were affected. A poignant and, at times, rage inducing love story written with mastery and depth.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Mischief Acts

mischief acts

This review was written for and originally published by Bookmunch.

“What is a wood for?”

Mischief Acts takes the reader on a whirlwind romp through the history of everyday life in England. It weaves true events, often violent, both natural and man-made, with the mythical creatures that may have caused them. Set in the Great North Wood, a sprawling ancient landscape that gradually became fragmented by the development of south London’s suburbs, the story opens in 1392. King Richard is out hunting, his party led by Herne, a favourite. In an act of self-sacrifice Herne steps between the king and an attacking stag. Although mortally wounded, Herne is brought back to life by Bearman (regarded as a sorcerer) but at a terrible cost. Herne will continue to haunt the woods in various incarnations, with his saviour and nemeses always close by.

The chapters are mostly set a century or so apart. We see how the Great North Wood was used and how this changed with the times. There are: charcoal burners, landowners, inn keepers. Living alongside the wild creatures are: hermits, goddesses, beautiful women drawn from their modest upbringing to commune with the elusive and enchanting. Local residents forage for food, for themselves and their livestock. There are those who understand that the ancient network holds secrets, having observed everything that has played out in these environs across time.

“The straight lines of society’s rules cannot extend into the wood. They are left at the road, and something else takes precedence in the mind at the sight, and scent, of trees.”

I very much enjoyed the writing style and how it subtly altered as the way life was lived by man changed as the centuries passed. In the 1691 chapter, colliers gather in a tavern to discuss the rumour of a highwayman who dresses like a woman – an unimaginable concept and one that disturbs more than any known law breaking.

“As the heath absorbed the last film of light, as dew into a rug, on that Monday evening in October, and the colliers asked for more ale so that their throats were now thoroughly wetted, they began to talk. Always their conversation creaked before finding its runners, for days and nights alone in the wood can rust a man’s words, but find a track they did”

In later centuries, the Enclosures Act carves up the wood for the wealthy, with trees felled and non-conforming residents evicted. Wildness is to be tamed and money made however foolish this may again prove to be. At a time when landowners desired manicured lawns and managed landscapes – the outdoors an extension of their vast country houses – natural woodland was merely another resource to be plundered.

Men of science are shown to be revered as forward thinkers, harbingers of progress who understand the benefits to their own standing.

Moving on, the 1936 chapter focuses on the fire that destroyed the redevelopment of the Crystal Palace. Herne the Hunter, in this incarnation, woos the daughter of the man whose life’s work is the restoration of this supposed wonder of the modern world. The daughter expects to impress Herne when she shows him around – and is perturbed by his reaction.

“You won’t have seen anything like it,’ I said. ‘Inside is like an endless garden, like a paradise. You can see anything, learn anything.
‘You don’t remember what was here before,’ the man said […]
‘Spectacle! Glamour! Obedient magic! Come to the Crystal Palace, and be enchanted. For what could be more enthralling than things that men have made.’”

Mischief makers are and have always been villains to some and heroes to many. There are those who believe it is worth sacrificing freedom for a conformity that is sold as offering wider benefit – to privileged mankind at least, who considers little else. The latter sections of the book move into the future to vividly portray the path this attitude takes.

“Progress is a slippery concept … It’s all about context”

The author plays with a plethora of myths and legends as she moves through time and the key events that serve as anchors in the myriad stories told here. Nature is appreciated by few of the characters, except when it has been controlled and prettified. Wildness – the unknown – is feared. The results of the dominance of one species and the destruction they wreak are shown to be deadly serious.

The denouement is a clever turning of the circle, with Herne and Bearman coming together in an imaginative and almost hopeful scene. Although much has changed, the elemental heart of the wood remains, waiting to reawaken.

Chapters are preceded by poems – folk lyrics – some of which I recognised, in cadence if not the words. There are also charms that weave through the story that follows – magic to be found in nature. All of this adds to the air of mystery. Not everything in life needs provable explanation.

Maps are included that show how the Great North Wood lives now mostly in street names.

Despite the obvious destruction of a wild place filled with lore as well as life, this remains an exuberant take on man’s conceits – his reaction to what he cannot explain and whose existence he will therefore deny credence. The stories offer a reminder that natural woodlands are much more than the trees. Man’s foolish belief in his omnipotence is what is fanciful – how quickly he forgets the storms and other phenomena that rip through the houses of cards he mindlessly, endlessly builds.

Any Cop?: A tale for our times, a call to learn from history. An evocative and highly entertaining read.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Pig Iron

pig iron

“violence is a part of life”

Pig Iron, by Benjamin Myers, is possibly the most disturbing work of fiction I have ever read. The graphically described scenes of animal and child abuse are skilfully written – and fit with the story – but may not appeal to readers harbouring more delicate sensibilities. The tale being told is distressingly believable, presenting man at his most bestial. The cast of characters are: travellers, fairground workers, young people living on a northern sink estate in England. While much of their behaviour may be put down to circumstances and upbringing, few are depicted sympathetically.

There are two narrators – John-John Wisdom and his mother, Vancy. When the story opens, John-John has recently been released from a five year prison term. He is not yet, or only just, out of his teens. What unfolds is the young man’s life story and it is shadowed by violence. The travellers know they are mostly viewed with prejudiced contempt by those who live in the houses near where they camp. Their behaviour among themselves makes it difficult to consider them any more kindly.

Vancy married young, getting together with Mac Wisdom when she was barely fifteen. She fell for a handsome and physically strong suitor. Her parents recognised him as a braggard and bully.  Mac made money from bare knuckle fighting while Vancy stayed home in their caravan through multiple pregnancies. She suffered from his temper outbursts and beatings, as did their children.

John-John is now determined not to follow in his dad’s footsteps. He won’t touch drugs or alcohol and gets a job to enable him to save for his own caravan. He hates having to live in the flat his probation provides. Through a prison contact he is offered work driving an ice-cream van – being outdoors suits him, especially after his incarceration. The route he is required to follow takes him through a rough housing estate where feral kids get their kicks through vicious and upsetting cruelty.

“Stuff like that cuts us up. Especially animal stuff. Animals never asked to be dragged into the shite human world. Animals do just fine without us lot interfering.”

The estate is also home to Maria who is fascinated by John-John as he is so different to the lads she has always lived alongside. The local young men are into drugs and sex, supplying others as well as meeting their own base proclivities, the horrific descriptions of which are sickening to read. When they learn that John-John is a traveller they turn against him. After he bests their leader they attack by hurting what he cares for rather than him directly.

“It seems like a taste for vengeance is my only inheritance … It’s like reason can never beat violence. Violence always pushes through, like a weed through concrete. You only have to watch the daily news to see that.”

Vancy’s narrative lays bare how little she did to protect her children. She remained loyal to Mac, accepting his depravities because he was her husband, and travellers keep family business to themselves. As well as brutalising people, Mac takes his young son to watch him attack a helpless animal, claiming it will toughen him. The audience at this event show no hint of humanity. This scene still haunts me.

John-John dreams of getting back to the life some travellers used to live – seasonal work on farms or other physical outdoor labour. He longs to be left to himself but is also drawn to Maria. The modern world encroaches with its own take on poaching, fishing and protecting reputations.

“It’s still the ruthless, heartless animals that reign in this living hell. We’re all just savages. Beasts. And I’m sick of it”

The deeply upsetting imagery made this a tough read. Structure and tension retain engagement but the relentless barbarism cuts deep.

A searing depiction of life through the eyes of those existing on the margins. An impressive literary accomplishment but one that leaves a bitter aftertaste.

Pig Iron was first published in the UK by Bluemoose Books and is available to buy now from Bloomsbury.

Robyn Reviews: Piranesi

‘Piranesi’ is the second novel by Susanna Clarke, author of ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’, and one of the rare fantasy novels to cross over into the mainstream consciousness. Along with being nominated for the the fantasy staples of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards, it was nominated for the Costa Book Award and won the Women’s Prize for Fiction. With a brilliantly clever premise and engaging prose, it’s easy to see why it has such wide appeal, but personally I didn’t find the ending had quite the impact I wanted.

Piranesi lives in the House. The House is a labyrinth of endless rooms, each filled with hundreds of statues and inhabited by an ocean that intermittently floods them with its restless tides. Piranesi is one of only two occupants of the House. There is also The Other, a mysterious man who visits Piranesi twice a week so Piranesi can help his research into The Great and Secret Knowledge. Piranesi loves his House, dedicating his life to studying it. However, the arrival of a visitor to the House shatters Piranesi’s world, and all his understanding of the House and its beauty starts to unravel.

‘Piranesi’ is a novel to go into with as little knowledge as possible. It’s a short book of gradual realisation, and starting from any point but ignorance robs it of some of its impact. Other reviews I’ve seen favour the second half, where things are clearer for the reader and there’s the tension that comes with waiting for the characters to catch up; strangely, I feel the first half of the book is by far the stronger, with a sense of confusion and building tension that grows as the reader starts to connect the dots.

One of the strongest aspects of the book is the writing. Clarke uses a lot of short, sharp sentences, reflecting the very literal way in which Piranesi sees his world. She creates a brilliant sense of place and atmosphere without resorting to flowery language – her ability to say a lot with few words is excellent. For some people the style might take a little time to get used to, but it adds to the sense of tension and slight disconnect from reality.

There are very few characters in the book, making the reader’s connection with Piranesi very important. Sharing too much about Piranesi might delve into spoiler territory, but he’s an easy character to like and sympathise with.

Whether or not this book works for each individual reader essentially hinges on how well the twist works. There’s a great deal of foreshadowing and by the time the climax happens there’s a simultaneous sense of horror and satisfaction. However, I didn’t buy into it as much as I wanted to. I absolutely loved the House and the creativity of the premise, but certain elements of the twist felt more contrived and underwhelming. I also felt it tried just a little too hard to explain all the fantasy elements, which removed some of their glorious magic. There was an undercurrent of morally grey ethics which I adored, but I wanted the fantasy elements to be just a little stronger.

Overall, ‘Piranesi’ is a short book worth reading for the excellent faculties of language, creativity of premise, and crossover appeal to fans of both fantasy and more literary fare. It didn’t blow me away as much as I wanted it to, but if you’re curious about the hype, it’s definitely worth giving it a read.

Published by Bloomsbury
Hardback: 15th September 2020 / Paperback: 2nd September 2021

Book Review: Whereabouts

whereabouts

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Jhumpa Lahiri is a multi-award winning author who had somehow passed under my radar. I am pleased to have now rectified this. Another reviewer described her writing style perfectly: “Lahiri spins gold out of the straw of ordinary lives”.

The narrator of the story is an accomplished and independent woman. Due to a mix of life choices made and circumstance, she lives alone in her Italian city flat. Her day to day existence is ordered and materially comfortable. The routines she has developed keep her grounded, although at times she mulls possibilities missed through roads avoided.

“Is there any place we’re not moving through?”

Structured in short chapters, the reader is taken on a journey through the woman’s daily habits and wider experiences. She shares observations on: her surroundings, her thoughts on those encountered, herself and how she reacts. There is an underlying melancholy to many of the musings. Insights shared are succinct and candid, raising issues of interest alongside personal history.

The narrator’s childhood generated an abiding dislike of her parents. She still visits her mother but derives little pleasure from the older woman’s company.

“In spite of how she’s clung to me over the years, my point of view doesn’t interest her, and this gulf between us has taught me what solitude really means.”

There are regular catch-ups with a variety of acquaintances, although the narrator can be scathing about those they introduce her to. On meeting a childhood friend’s husband for the first time, when the couple visit the city with their child, she writes of his pomposity, considering him ill-mannered.

“He mentions that his father was a diplomat and that he was raised all over the world. […] The city doesn’t enchant him, after just two days he’s complaining about our haphazard way of life. […] And I wonder, what exactly did he learn about the world after living in all those different countries?”

Mentions of past lovers attempt to normalise that some were married. There is a brief temptation to take a platonic relationship with the husband of a friend further. Mostly she accepts her solitude and the freedom it brings to live as she chooses. Her life is notably one of comfort and privilege, as are the lives of those she mixes with.

One chapter describes a vacation at an empty country house, offered by the owner as a pick-me-up when the woman goes through an unexplained hard patch. There is a visceral description of her reaction to a decapitated mouse – how the mind can induce absurd terror from unexpected minor upsets. Such insights are presented with consummate clarity.

The honesty in the writing at times includes negative traits. These are dissected with the same candour as all other thoughts and feelings shared. The narrator exhibits a selfishness she is free to nurture as she lives alone and may choose who to spend time with – and when.

Despite her attainments, the woman lacks confidence in certain areas.

“I’ve always felt in someone’s shadow, even though I don’t have to compare myself to brothers who are smarter, or to sisters who are prettier.”

Unlike most of the writing in this tale, the gender divide inherent in this thought grated.

The woman describes herself as disoriented, bewildered and uprooted yet she comes across as solidly able – capable of thinking through experiences and expressing herself clearly. This begs the question what has been omitted – what aspects she has chosen not to share.

The final chapter provides an excellent metaphor for the sadness of the ingrained detachment she has cultivated – of moments missed through her unwillingness to step outside the comfort zone created. The narrator is aware of this shortcoming, and that the bricks on which a life is built often crumble. She ponders the possibility of change.

The short vignettes provide a window into the woman’s world but are far from a complete back-story or description of her current situation. This adds to the story’s skilful pacing and how strands are woven together.

Any Cop?: A spare yet evocative study of a chosen existence presented with impressive lucidity. A reminder that lives move forward, ripples intersecting, ramifications rarely predictable.

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Last Good Man

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The Last Good Man is set in a dystopian future. Fires burn in the city and many have died. With food scarce and basic services and utilities failing, there is a sense that the end of times approaches. Rumours circulate of communities in the countryside but these are as often about the masses that have perished as about the possibility of survival and a better way of life.

The protagonist of the story, Duncan Peck, travels to Dartmoor after receiving an invitation to visit from his estranged friend, James Hale. Duncan’s mother took James in when he was a boy and the two ‘cousins’ grew up together. Four years previously, James left the city without telling Duncan – a betrayal that still smarts. Since then, life has become ever more untenable. With nothing now to lose, Duncan seeks change.

The remote town on Dartmoor, where James now lives, has developed an innovative justice system. It relies on community snitching and a type of ochlocracy. A vast wall casts a shadow over the town and residents are encouraged to post their grievances on it. If a name appears several times then it is assumed there is some truth in the accusations that require punishment. If the writing is on the wall then it is acted on.

The community functions using a system of reward based on perceived behaviour. There is no currency as such but each resident is expected to contribute by carrying out useful tasks in return for a share of goods produced. James has been given the role of punishing transgressors, stepping into the shoes of a long time resident who fell from grace following a murky family dispute. James has accepted the need for violence in maintaining order, to a degree that initially shocks Duncan.

Arriving at a time when the number of serious accusations is increasing, Duncan is wary of the veracity of what is being written on the wall. There are many petty matters but also more troubling allegations. When James’s closest neighbours find themselves the focus of attention, loyalty is demanded whatever the truth of the matter.

There is a history of tragedy and infidelity to unpick. Respected individuals may expect bounty but goodwill can quickly be lost. Duncan is welcomed by many but draws ire from a dangerous source. He recognises the potential for good in a town working together to attain self sufficiency but also how its customs encourage backstabbing as payback for personal grudges.

The story starts well, drawing the reader into how things are without too much overt exposition. The writing is fluid and world building imaginative, although much is left unexplained. Plot progression, however, proceeds in fits and starts. At times it coasts, the loss of momentum making the prose appear bloated, before a sudden turn of events effectively jump starts interest.

Too many of the characters never become fully formed – introduced and then largely ignored. Human nature is portrayed as so flawed as to make people unlikable, whatever guise they don. It became hard to root for the community’s survival amidst the dying that still surrounds them. The title suggests goodness exists yet clemency is depicted as currency that will require a reckoning. Likewise kindness is offered only by those who expect to gain personally.

There will likely be readers who can more easily accept the violence and selfishness than I managed. Mass deaths and the breakdown of society may lead to such behaviour but the lack of hope made the story a challenge to enjoy.

Any Cop?: A depressing depiction of a world ravaged in which survivors prove themselves no better than the worst of those who exist now. A dispiriting read that I could have done without.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Beastings

Beastings, by Benjamin Myers, is a raw and shocking tale set in the wilds of the English Lake District. The author’s prose retains its signature poetic quality but is used here to flay any notions of easy tranquility when up against nature. Characters are depicted as elemental – brutal in their determination to protect the way they live.

A teenage girl, raised by nuns in a pitiless workhouse, takes her employers’ baby and flees their home in Cumberland. She plans to cross the fells in hope of reaching the sea. The girl seeks a life away from people. Her existence to date has been one of endless abuse. She wishes to offer the child a chance of a better life than she has had to accept.

When the abduction is discovered the baby’s father turns to the town priest for help. It was the church that placed the girl in his home to help with chores his wife’s sickness prevents her from completing. The priest has personal reasons to wish the girl be found and returned to the church’s care.

The priest employs the services of a poacher and his dog to track the absconders. The poacher has heard rumours of the priest’s proclivities but has reasons of his own for helping a man with such influence. He does not expect it to take long to catch up with a young girl considered ‘a dummy’ and lacking provisions.

The story told is of the chase. Narrative switches between: the girl, those she meets, the poacher and priest. Journeying across high ground in order to avoid locals and tourists – who may have been alerted to the taking of a baby – the travellers encounter few people other than men hardened to survival in a lonely and rugged terrain.

The priest is a monstrous creation – the church at its worst. He is contemptuous of his congregation and believes he deserves the rewards he grants himself for ‘doing God’s work’. As he and the poacher traverse the fells, their conversation reveals details of the life he leads. When faced with those who will not bend to his will he responds with cold brutality.

As days pass, the girl struggles to find food for herself and the baby. She knows that she will be hunted and must keep moving if she is to succeed in getting away. Gradually, her backstory is revealed and the reader comes to understand the extent of the suffering she has faced – why she is so determined to escape. She is just one of many taken in by the church as an act of charity, used and then punished for the sin of existing.

In an era before mass tourism, the locals eke out their livings against a landscape of fearsome beauty but hard won takings. There is a poverty of expectation in communities where choice is limited by economics and location.

“I do believe killing is bad.
The Priest raised his head from the fire and looked at him.
Yet you kill animals every day.
That’s different.
[…]
They’re just animals.
And humans aren’t?
[…]
Some of them are pests Father.
So are some humans.”

This story is not for the faint-hearted. It is tense and engaging but filled with horror and hate filled individuals who think nothing of violating others knowing they will get away with it. It is also quite brilliant in the way it remorselessly evokes the time and place.

A succinct and skilful rendition of base behaviour in a bleak yet awe inspiring landscape.

Originally released by Bluemoose Books, Beastings is now published by Bloomsbury.

Robyn Reviews: The Devil and the Dark Water

‘The Devil and the Dark Water’ is part mystery, part horror story against the background of a trading ship in the 17th century. An eclectic group of people – the governor general of Batavia, the world’s greatest detective, a loyal bodyguard, the greatest navigator in the East India Trading Company, a healer, the last Witchfinder – have all ended up on the Saardam, a ship travelling from Batavia (now Indonesia) to Amsterdam. However, their voyage appears cursed – and as demonic symbols and strange events start to strike the ship, they must all band together to solve the mystery before it kills them all.

The key part of any mystery novel is the reveal at the end, and whilst this is very clever – it’s difficult to guess the key players right until the end, with red herrings left right and centre – the final chapter isn’t entirely convincing. Nonetheless, this is a great read filled with solid characters, and the narrative spins in different directions throughout. There are plenty of historical fiction tropes – forbidden romance, clever women stifled by men, the seductress wanted by every man she meets – but they’re written well, adding to the narrative rather than detracting from it.

The highlights are undoubtedly Arent Hayes – the gruff bodyguard of renowned detective Samuel Pipps, who is heading to Amsterdam in chains to face judgement for an unknown crime – and Sara Wessel, the wife of the governor general who hates her husband with the ferocity of a wildfire. Arent is a genuinely good man, one who became a soldier out of a lack of options but is now so good at it he doesn’t believe he’s good for anything else. Sara is a smart woman who knows there’s no place in the world for smart women and will do everything in her power to keep her even smarter daughter out of harms way. This unlikely pair lead the search for answers – Arent with his fists and his sword, and Sara with her brains and sheer determination. It’s impossible not to root for them both, and to feel deeply for how they’ve been scarred.

The ship makes an excellent setting for what, at its heart, is a locked room mystery. It’s filled with stark divides – rich and poor, passengers and crew – and these dynamics deeply affect each part of the novel. The look into life at sea is fascinating, if regularly horrifying. Stuart Turton never flinches from the stark reality of sailors’ lives, and the imagery he creates is visceral.

Overall, this is a solid historical thriller with an intriguing and varied cast, brought to life by its setting and the vivid language. The ending could have been more satisfying, and some of the characters more original – but this is still a great story. Recommended for all fans of historical fiction and closed-room mysteries.

 

Thanks to NetGalley and Bloomsbury for providing an eARC – this in no ways affects the content of this review

 

Published by Bloomsbury
Hardback: 1st October 2020

Robyn Reviews: Cinderella is Dead

Cinderella is Dead is pitched as Queer Black girls take over the patriarchy – and it pretty much does exactly what it says on the tin. This is a fun, quick read – the sort of book I’m so glad today’s teenagers get to grow up with. The plot is mostly predictable, the twists standard young adult fantasy fare, but the fierce sapphic women are delightful enough to read about to make this a worthy addition to the genre.

The book follows Sophia – unapologetically herself, but born into a world where that person isn’t accepted. In her world, men rule the roost. Women are required to attend once-yearly Balls – in homage to the original Ball where Cinderella found her Prince Charming – where they will be selected by a husband. If a woman fails to be chosen, she is cast out. There is no space for women who think for themselves – let alone women who happen to fall in love with other women. Sophia does both, and she can’t understand why no-one else seems to be fighting for change.

I love Sophia. Plenty of teenagers will empathise with her rage at the world and its injustices, and her determination to fight against it – even when everyone else has given up because of the seemingly insurmountable odds. Sophia is feisty and reckless, but also beautifully caring and human. She’s fiercely loyal to her friends – even when they can’t see it – and sticks fast to her principles even when they get her in trouble. She isn’t unflawed – her practical skills are lacking (which leads to a brilliant scene between her and Constance about making bread, my favourite part of the book) and she trusts incredibly quickly – but her heart is always in the right place.

Constance is the badass warrior woman all girls want to be. Need to make a bomb? She’s your girl. Want to know how to kill a man? She’s got that down. I actually wish we got more of her backstory because her upbringing sounds incredible but very little of her past is revealed. Her relationship with Sophia was delightful – perfectly paced and believable, which is something of a rarity in young adult romance. I was rooting for them the entire time.

Overall, this is an excellent young adult fantasy. The twists might not surprise you, but it’s still fun with characters you want to root for. Recommended for any teenager and any young adult fantasy fan – especially those who need more sapphic characters in their lives.

 

Published by Bloomsbury
Paperback: 6 August 2020

Robyn Reviews: Sway – Unravelling Unconscious Bias

Sway is a thoroughly researched and comprehensive look at unconscious bias and how it impacts day-to-day life, from job interviews to romantic relationships to saving for retirement. It covers a huge number of sensitive topics – sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia – with tact, and combines statistics with stories to paint a fuller picture and enhance understanding. Agarwal also clearly delineates theories with a solid grounding in science from musings which have yet to be proven, presenting references for each argument made and allowing the reader to make up their own minds. Science is ever-evolving, and sadly this is an under-researched field.

Sway is split into several sections. The first, ‘Hardwired’, covers basic neuroscience and psychology – how our brains create an image of ourselves, the world, and how the two fit together. It unravels the pathways involved to give a grounding to the lay reader. I have a neuroscience background, so whilst this was interesting I can’t comment on its accessibility to someone new to the field. However, Agarwal includes several diagrams to illustrate her points, and I imagine these will be very useful to those trying to picture the concepts she describes.

The second section, ‘Smoke and Mirrors’, covers the ways in which our brains reinforce biases and prevent us moving past them. This was fascinating. It covered things like hindsight bias – believing after something has happened that we knew would happen from the start, even though we actually had no or very little idea. These are concepts which we rarely consider day-to-day but are incredibly important for acknowledging our own limitations and mistakes. We cannot confront our own biases and blind spots unless we’re aware that they exist. Agarwal includes plenty of examples and anecdotes to prevent the material becoming dry, again citing all her sources so that those interested can read further.

The third section, ‘Sex Type-Cast’ covers what everyone thinks of when they think of bias – prejudice, from racism to sexism to homophobia. It also covers things that people might think of less – fatphobia, ageism, and discrimination based on ‘beauty’ or conventional attractiveness. Agarwal combines scientific data with her own polls carried out on Twitter, with some rather interesting results. After all, one of the well-known biases in science is research bias – those involved in research studies, including those on bias, are not representative of the whole population, but instead just of the population willing to get involved in research. This is a different group to those happy to spend a few milliseconds clicking on a Twitter poll. Agarwal doesn’t claim huge scientific accuracy to her Twitter poll data, merely including it as a point of intrigue – it supplements the more conventional sources very well.

The final section, ‘Moral Conundrum’ looks to the future and the impact of technology on bias. Technology is claimed by many to be the solution to bias – why would a robot care about race? The answer, of course, is that robots care about race because the humans programming it do, and the data sets they are trained on have their own intrinsic biases. There is a chapter in this section called ‘Good Intentions’ which covers the incredibly contentious topic of how trying to reduce bias can end up increasing or reinforcing it, which should be mandatory reading for everyone. Agarwal covers the issue masterfully and without judgement, merely presenting the facts and highlighting the importance of education and continual learning. Being completely unbiased is impossible – all we can do is continue to learn from our mistakes, learn our own biases, and act on them.

Overall, this is an excellent book – well-researched, informative without being dry, and highlighting some incredibly topical issues. Recommended for everyone.

 

Published by Bloomsbury
Hardcover: 2nd April 2020