Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

Cover of Old Baggage

This is billed as the ‘what happened next’ story of a suffragette, set in 1928. And though I think that’s selling it a little short I’m struggling to come up with a better way to describe it. Can we only be defined by what we once were? It’s not just Mattie the ex-suffragette’s story; the minor characters make it the story of a time and a place. We see Mattie’s housemate ‘The Flea’ working as a health visitor trying to dispense contraceptive advice among other things. Her teenage charlady’s dealings with family and friends shed light on the way women were expected to behave at that time. And one of Mattie’s former suffragette colleagues has fallen under Mussolini’s spell. I really enjoyed it and I was surprised at the end to find that it’s a prequel of sorts (I think) to another of Evans’ books so I’ll be looking out for that one.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

With Our Blessing (Inspector Tom Reynolds, #1) by Jo Spain

Cover of With Our Blessing (Inspector Tom Reynolds, #1)

Suspect this was a free book of the week on iBooks at some point. It’s been knocking round my phone for ages and I finally finished it off. It deserved better really. It’s an Irish mystery that, as a Brit, I felt was all a bit stereotyped as it’s a murder involving a nuns and priests and the Catholic Church being generally repugnant. I think the plot suffered from my reading it in fits and starts so I forgot who a few of the characters were; the ones who stuck in my head were good though and I’d certainly pick the author up again and try and give her less of a short shrift next time!

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

The Hidden Room by Stella Duffy

Cover of The Hidden Room

I read Stella Duffy’s Saz Martin mysteries a few years back and my memory says they were pretty good (later I’ll go and check what I actually said at the time, there are often discontinuities between my memory and reality) but I don’t think I’ve read any of her other books since. This jumped off the library shelf into my hands and engaged me so much I read it in about 24 hours which is something I used to do all the time but rarely get to do any more (mostly I blame me and my life for that rather than the books). The story’s about a woman, now grown up with children in the UK, who was adopted into a cult in America as a baby, and about how the past comes back to haunt her. In places it was a little predictable maybe but in the kind of “oh no, this is all going to go horribly wrong, can I read it with my eyes closed?” probably intentional sort of way. A good read for sure.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Cover of Little Fires Everywhere

It starts at the end – with the house burning down, and a quick look at what’s going on in the town which seems to involve some kerfuffle with an American family adopting a Chinese baby. And then the story goes back a year or so to show us the lives of the families involved: one seems to be the stereotypical successful all-American family with a child each year of high school, the other is a nomadic unit with a single mother and her daughter. But it’s obvious from the beginning that neither of them is really a stereotype, I thought Ng’s characterisation and eye for details was great. I only had a couple of minor complaints. The setting is the mid-90s, which makes sense when it dives further back into the past, but, to me at least, the mid-90s world is enough like the present day that the occasional period details sometimes seemed jarring. And I felt some of the male characters got short shrift and were a bit more hackneyed than the females, but since that’s the opposite of the usual complaint I can live with it, besides it wasn’t all of them.

The book has a slow start once we go back to the beginning of the story, deliberately I’d assume so that we see the slow build up of tensions in the community, then it really gets going half way through. But all in all it was a very enjoyable and well plotted read, I liked the way the threads of the story intertwined and reflected each other. Hmm, reflecting threads? Well even though I can’t keep an analogy straight for a single sentence I can tell that Celeste Ng can craft a fine tale and I’d like to read more.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

Testosterone Rex by Cordelia Fine

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So, we’re definitely in confirmation bias territory here. Cordelia Fine quotes tons of research that shows that arguments like “men have to be the breadwinners because their ancestors evolved to be hunters and women are just inferior/better-at-other-stuff and wouldn’t it better if they just stayed home and had babies” (that’s my lousy paraphrasing, not an actual quote) are just nonsense, and since I completely agreed with her premise to start with I wasn’t reading this looking for holes in the reasoning. Instead I found myself wanting to memorise the arguments on every other page to use as fuel in future debates. There’s so much good stuff here, and so many refutations of the tired old cliches about men being good at one kind of thing and women being good at another. Here the cliches are stripped down and shown to, on the whole, only be wearing clothes composed of the social and cultural constructs we’ve built around them. Which is the kind of thing I’ve been trying to say for years without having the research based knowledge to back it up.

Some of the major points I want to remember are: The way men are supposedly more risk-taking than women depends on a very narrow definition of risk (e.g. pregnancy has a higher death rate than sky-diving) and a narrow definition of men (wealthy & educated white western men tend to perceive the world as a safer place than most everyone else does); and that’s before you get onto the fact that there’s no single scale to measure how ‘risk taking’ any single person is; that testosterone isn’t the deciding factor in how aggressive people are; and there’s a great statistical analysis of how the “women are limited to one baby a year-ish, but men can have hundreds” theory just doesn’t wash in the real world.

This book concentrates on the role than hormones play in what makes us act in ‘male’ or ‘female’ ways (spoiler: not much, and what are these ‘male’ and ‘female’ ways anyway?) and Fine’s previous book Delusions of Gender apparently approaches the same argument from the brain’s point of view and I’m looking forward to reading that as well.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

Island of the Mad by Laurie R. King

Cover of Island of the Mad

Ah, Mary Russell. Yay! This is a series that you just can’t explain to anyone who hasn’t read it because it just sounds like twaddle as soon as you get to the “and then she marries Sherlock Holmes” bit (and possibly before). But I love Russell, she’s one of only a few authors on my “buy hardback on release” list and actually I think that Waterstone’s managed to deliver this book to me before it was released which is weird but good. And yes, the way these books are packaged up as Mary Russell’s memoirs does make me think of them as her books rather than Laurie King’s.

This one sees Russell chasing off to 1925 Bedlam lunatic asylum as well as partying with Cole Porter in Venice. I do think that the character of Holmes has morphed a bit but I haven’t read Conan Doyle in a long time, and, hey, relationships will do that to people.

A good fun read, I did think the plot got a bit ropey in spots but certainly nothing to put me off buying up future instalments on release.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

A Rising Man (Sam Wyndham #1) by Abir Mukherjee

Cover of A Rising Man (Sam Wyndham #1)

Reading the first in the series after the second; it doesn’t sound ideal but I often find that authors get better as series go on so I don’t think it’s that bad an approach. Here I had an inkling that something was up with one of the characters based on the fact that they hadn’t featured in the second book but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment. The author didn’t make me care very much about the victim here, it was more figuring out the logic of the puzzle of who killed him and why, which is interesting and there’s no reason every fictional murder victim should be a nice guy but it just felt a bit uninvolving at times here. Darren’s reading this at the moment and pointed out that Sam seems to be far too liberal a character for the time and place (1920ish colonial India) but I think that if he wasn’t then he’d be insufferable to a twenty-first century readership so I’m glad he’s a bit anachronistic.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There by Rutger Bregman

Cover of Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There

Really enjoyed this; I was in need of a non-fiction fix and this delivered it. Very well written essay on how the world could be a better place (and especially well written considering it’s a translation from Dutch). I went into it expecting to agree with the author on some points and disagree on others but mostly I felt talked a lot of sense. Certainly on the things I already knew a fair amount about he seemed to have his head screwed on. It left me with lots of things to explore (and lots of citations to follow up, though as always it’s super annoying not being able to access academic journal articles easily) and lots to think about.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell

Cover of This Must Be the Place

An utterly fab book. Each chapter skips around to a different character, a different time, a different place. The sort of device I adore. Sometimes you know what tragedies are ahead of the characters before they do, sometimes you hope things we be resolved differently. It all revolves around the life of a reclusive movie star, but spreads out in all directions. You could end up feeling that it was all spread too thinly but instead I just wanted to know more about some of the minor characters who barely got mentioned. Just more please.

The bit that really made it marvellous was that the chapters skipping around to different characters/times/places were all so distinctly different. Lots of different ways of telling the story – of digging into a character’s personal archives – were embraced which made you want to read on just to see the ‘how’ of the story as well as the ‘what’.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.