Pretentiousness by Dan Fox | When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi | The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

I've been reading a lot of non-fiction lately and I've been enjoying it so much. I always felt non-fiction wouldn't be something I'd enjoy reading when trying to relax but it turns out I was wrong! I've been looking forward to delving into yet another non-fiction book at weekends. I have topics I love but I also keep an eye out for interesting subjects which may catch my interest. 

The three books I've selected below are all rather short but definitely pack a punch. Pretentiousness is a fantastic essay on the art of pretending and why it matters; When Breath Becomes Air is a stunning and beautifully written memoir from a doctor suffering from cancer; and The Argonauts is a book that blends essay and memoir about gender, motherhood and identity.


Pretentiousness: Why It Matters by Dan Fox

Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016
Bought the ebook edition

What is pretentiousness? Why are we afraid of it? And more controversially: why is it vital to a thriving culture? This book will argue that pretentiousness is the engine oil of culture; that it has always been an essential lubricant in the development of the arts, from the most wildly successful pop music and fashion through to the most recondite avenues of literature and the visual arts. Demonstrating how pretentiousness forms part of daily life, this book aims to ignite a lively debate about public discourse around the arts, advocating critical imagination and open-mindedness over knee-jerk accusations of elitism or simple fear of the new and the different. Drawing on the author's own experiences growing up and working at the more radical edges of the arts, this book is a timely defence of pretentiousness as a necessity for innovation and diversity in our culture.


I kept seeing this book popping up in my Twitter feed and I couldn't quite understand why someone would ever think pretentiousness mattered. After reading the author's compelling case, I see I had fallen in the prejudiced idea of seeing pretentiousness as a very one-sided negative trait. Dan Fox goes through the history of the word itself and how it's been used in the past and the negative connotation which crept up relatively recently.

No art would ever be thought-provoking, original and unusual if people didn't have a tendency to pretend. Everything would feel very same-y and safe. Pretending to be a bit more/better/different than you are is a way for a person to reach further than what they would/could otherwise have done. This really made me question my automatic reaction to some art that feels a bit too "out there".

One aspect of the book that has really been fascinating to read - and which I'd never really thought about before - is the part about people pretending, not to be better than they are, but pretending to be   like everyone else - "just an ordinary person". I think it resonates particularly with all the discussions regarding diversity in the Arts with everyone pointing the finger to the problematic "them" and acting as if they themselves are not part of the problem.

This book also introduced me to Fitzcarraldo editions who have a fantastic list - I already have picked up Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett and Memory Theatre by Simon Critchley to read.


When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Published by Bodley Head, 2016
Thanks to Vintage for the finished copy!

What makes a virtuous and meaningful life? Paul Kalanithi believed that the answer lay in medicine’s most demanding specialization, neurosurgery. Here are patients at their life’s most critical moment. Here he worked in the most critical place for human identity, the brain. What is it like to do that every day; and what happens when life is catastrophically interrupted?

When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable reflection on the practice of medicine and the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.

With a foreword by Dr Abraham Verghese and an epilogue by the authors wife, Lucy.


I love reading books about death and it seems there have been so many published this year. This one is spectacular, it is written by a doctor and a writer who wrote this while dying of cancer. It is powerful and beautifully written and in some parts took my breath away.

It blends memoir with incredible reflections on medicine, death and healing. I can't recommend it highly enough.


The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

Published by Melville House, 2016
Bought the ebook edition

An intrepid voyage out to the frontiers of the latest thinking about love, language, and family.

A timely and genre-bending memoir that offers fresh and fierce reflections on motherhood, desire, identity and feminism.

At the centre of The Argonauts is the love story between Maggie Nelson and the artist Harry Dodge, who is fluidly gendered. As Nelson undergoes the transformations of pregnancy, she explores the challenges and complexities of mothering and queer family making. 


This is a fascinating book about Maggie Nelson's reflections on life, femininity, love, motherhood and language while also talking about her life and her relationship with trans artist Harry Dodge who describes himself as a "debonair butch on T". 

The writing in the book is incredibly compelling and the beauty of the writing combined with the breadth of topics made for a fantastic read. The author includes quotes from a bunch of theorists about feminism, parenting, gender studies etc to try to make sense of the reality she lives in. I like the idea that knowledge and awareness are fluid concepts that evolve over time, rather than a fixed knowing state of being that remains unchanged. 

The title comes from the Argonauts who, despite replacing sections of their ship time and time again, still called it the Argo. It feels like a lovely metaphor about life and identity. I loved this book and I also loved the fact that it goes beyond the idea of family, motherhood and femininity as cis and heteronormative concepts.


Let me know if you've read any fantastic non-fiction lately!!

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney | Pleasantville by Attica Locke | Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney

Published by Hodder & Stoughton, 2015
Shortlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction
Longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize for debut fiction

One messy murder affects the lives of five misfits who exist on the fringes of Ireland's post-crash society. Ryan is a fifteen-year-old drug dealer desperate not to turn out like his alcoholic father Tony, whose obsession with his unhinged next-door neighbour threatens to ruin him and his family. Georgie is a prostitute whose willingness to feign a religious conversion has dangerous repercussions, while Maureen, the accidental murderer, has returned to Cork after forty years in exile to discover that Jimmy, the son she was forced to give up years before, has grown into the most fearsome gangster in the city. In seeking atonement for the murder and a multitude of other perceived sins, Maureen threatens to destroy everything her son has worked so hard for, while her actions risk bringing the intertwined lives of the Irish underworld into the spotlight . . .

Biting, moving and darkly funny, The Glorious Heresies explores salvation, shame and the legacy of Ireland's twentieth-century attitudes to sex and family.


I was completely engrossed in The Glorious Heresies and it's one of my favourite titles on the Baileys longlist and shortlist. 

The story follows the lives of five characters in Cork who meet each other, ruin each other's lives and save each other. The book talks about Ireland's recent history, religion, traditions, sex and family. There is a lot to take in in this book. It is at times funny, at times utterly heartbreaking. The language is beautiful and often lyrical.

An interesting aspect of the interlacing stories was the different generations of the characters. This really put each story into perspective and showed some events in a new light. 

The most striking thing for me was how much heart there is in the book. It's especially interesting to see inside the lives of characters from the fringes of society, ones who are usually dismissed and/or stereotyped - sex workers, addicts, drug dealers, killers.

This book is about life, the messy kind, the one you're given, the one you fight for. I loved it to bits and I can't wait to read what McInerney writes next.


Pleasantville by Attica Locke

Published by Serpent's Tail, 2015
Longlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction


In this sophisticated thriller, lawyer Jay Porter, hero of Locke’s bestseller Black Water Rising, returns to fight one last case, only to become embroiled once again in a dangerous game of shadowy politics and a witness to how far those in power are willing to go to win
Fifteen years after the events of Black Water Rising, Jay Porter is struggling to cope with catastrophic changes in his personal life and the disintegration of his environmental law practice. His victory against Cole Oil is still the crown jewel of his career, even if he hasn’t yet seen a dime thanks to appeals. But time has taken its toll. Tired and restless, he's ready to quit.

When a girl goes missing on Election Night, 1996, in the neighborhood of Pleasantville—a hamlet for upwardly-mobile blacks on the north side of Houston—Jay, a single father, is deeply disturbed. He’s been representing Pleasantville in the wake of a chemical fire, and the case is dragging on, raising doubts about his ability.

The missing girl was a volunteer for one of the local mayoral candidates, and her disappearance complicates an already heated campaign. When the nephew of one of the candidates, a Pleasantville local, is arrested, Jay reluctantly finds himself serving as a defense attorney. With a man’s life and his own reputation on the line, Jay is about to try his first murder in a case that will also put an electoral process on trial, exposing the dark side of power and those determined to keep it.


This is the first book by Attica Locke I've read and I can tell you it won't be the last! The book starts with the disappearance of a young girl who was volunteering for a local campaign. The circumstances of the disappearance seem familiar and politics soon intrude on the investigation.

I love all things political and the mechanics of power and this was everything I love about political thrillers and so much more. The setting was particularly interesting. I hadn't heard of Pleasantville before and the role it plays in the political scene in Texas. The book is set in the 1990s during a mayoral election and it was fascinating to see changes in the political landscape, which would go on to affect elections as we've witnessed them. 

This book has a lot to say about times changing, about race, politics and people. The characters were all layered and complex. Right and wrong isn't clearcut, just as in real life. I loved reading about Jay Porter's moral compass and his doubts.

So much of the book speaks about events happening in the world today - black girls disappear and no one goes digging. It was so heartening to see Jay Porter's mission to bring justice to the parents of these girls and his fight against corruption. It's the social aspect of the book and the idea of justice that really made the book special for me.

If you're a fan of the politics and legal drama in The West Wing, The Good Wife and To Kill a Mockingbird, then you're in for a real treat!


Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett

Published by Virago, 2015
Longlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction

An impassioned, charming, and hilarious debut novel about a young woman's coming-of-age, during one of the harshest whaling seasons in history. 

When the eldest daughter of a whaling family in New South Wales sets out to write about the particularly difficult season of 1908, the story she tells reveals itself to be far larger than she ever expected. As her family struggles to survive, and as she attempts to navigate sibling rivalries and all-consuming first love, nineteen-year-old Mary will soon discover a shocking side to these men who hunt the seas, and the truth of her own place among them. Swinging from Mary's own hopes and disappointments to the challenges that have beset her family's whaling operation, Rush Oh! is also a celebration of an extraordinary episode in history, when man and beast formed a unique, heartwarming allegiance.


I found Rush Oh! to be utterly charming. It gave me the same feeling I have reading Jane Austen or Dodie Smith's I Capture The Castle, with a lovely (if a little innocent and clueless) heroine recounting her early life and her first foray into love.

Mary is the eldest daughter of a whaling family and, with her mother gone, she is the one taking care of the household. She has to cook for her father's team of whalers and look after her younger siblings. Rush Oh! is Mary's account of a difficult whaling season and her meeting with a young man she has high hopes about. 

The storytelling is beguiling. I loved being inside Mary's head and seeing her relationship with the whalers and others in the local village. The period is also an interesting one, foreboding changes in the industry and looking at how a small town can survive when its main industry becomes superfluous. Another fascinating point was how the whalers operated - helped by a group of killer whales, all with their different personalities. 

My one slight niggling issue is that it's all from the point of view of Mary but at times she recounts episodes about which she couldn't possibly know every detail, which pulled me out of the story sometimes. That being said, it didn't completely tarnish my enjoyment of the book and I spent such a good time learning about whaling, the fascinating relationship between man and nature and following Mary's affections.

Definitely one to read if you love a down-to-earth heroine you can root for.

Girl at War by Sara Novic | The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks | The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

Girl at War by Sara Nović

Published by Little Brown, 2015
Longlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction

Zagreb, summer of 1991. Ten-year-old Ana Juric is a carefree tomboy who runs the streets of Croatia’s capital with her best friend, Luka, takes care of her baby sister, Rahela, and idolizes her father. But as civil war breaks out across Yugoslavia, soccer games and school lessons are supplanted by sniper fire and air raid drills. When tragedy suddenly strikes, Ana is lost to a world of guerilla warfare and child soldiers; a daring escape plan to America becomes her only chance for survival.

Ten years later Ana is a college student in New York. She’s been hiding her past from her boyfriend, her friends, and most especially herself. Haunted by the events that forever changed her family, she returns alone to Croatia, where she must rediscover the place that was once her home and search for the ghosts of those she’s lost. With generosity, intelligence, and sheer storytelling talent, Sara Nović’s first novel confronts the enduring impact of war, and the enduring bonds of country and friendship.


This book was a real revelation for me and it shows how important prize longlists can be for bringing authors to the attention of readers. I had set out to read as much of the Baileys longlist as I could anyway, but Girl at War kept calling to me. I'm not sure if it's the book's European-ness that has appealed to me or if it's just the subject matter but I read it in two greedy sittings and I am already looking forward to the author's next book. 

The book is set in two different times, one part with Ana as a 10-year-old when the Balkans war starts, and the other with Ana at college, being thrust back into her past and travelling back to Croatia. Ana's voice is so brilliantly woven between the two timelines that I still can't believe this is the author's debut novel. I was taken by Ana's voice from the start, and keen to witness what happened to her while she remembered her past.

I think it's a brilliantly written piece of fiction that highlights powerful themes. Especially with the anti-European and "anti-foreign" sentiments developing in the UK and the role of the UN getting severely criticised. 

I loved following Ana when she goes back to Croatia and confronts what happened to her after years of quashing her memories. As a child she tried talking truthfully about what had happened to her but no one really wanted to hear. The reader can bear witness to the atrocities of this war by reading Ana's journey. 

I couldn't recommend this book highly enough. 


The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

Published by Little Brown, 2015
Longlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction

With more than two million copies of her novels sold, New York Times bestselling author Geraldine Brooks has achieved both popular and critical acclaim. Now, Brooks takes on one of literature's richest and most enigmatic figures: a man who shimmers between history and legend. 

Peeling away the myth to bring David to life in Second Iron Age Israel, Brooks traces the arc of his journey from obscurity to fame, from shepherd to soldier, from hero to traitor, from beloved king to murderous despot and into his remorseful and diminished dotage. The Secret Chord provides new context for some of the best-known episodes of David's life while also focusing on others, even more remarkable and emotionally intense, that have been neglected. We see David through the eyes of those who love him or fear him - from the prophet Natan, voice of his conscience, to his wives Mikal, Avigail and Batsheva, and finally to Solomon, the late-born son who redeems his Lear-like old age. Brooks has an uncanny ability to hear and transform characters from history, and this beautifully written, unvarnished saga of faith, desire, family, ambition, betrayal, and power will enthral her many fans.


I don't read a lot of historical/mythical fiction (though I love history and myths, weirdly) and I never seem to seek out this kind of book but I'm always so happy when books like this pop up on a prize longlist, bringing them to my attention. I absolutely adored The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller and though The Secret Chord didn't steal my heart in quite the same way, it definitely made me want to seek more books by Geraldine Brooks and more books in the same vein.

The Secret Chord is a retelling of the story of David (as in David and Goliath) seen through the eyes of his prophet Natan, but also through the stories of the people closest to him. Regardless of the religious aspect of the book, we can see how myths get built and a legend starts. I didn't feel taken by Natan's voice at first, feeling him quite emotionally detached from what he was observing, but as the story grew, and as his understanding of David developed, I loved the concept of Natan telling the story. 

Natan is a fascinating character who channels prophecies through his body and rarely manages to witness them himself. He attaches himself to David as a young boy and serves as his prophet but also as his friend, being one of the few to be able to be honest with him. David is a flawed man whose decisions (and tragic flaws) impact on his life and the life of those around him. I very much enjoyed this brilliantly written and judged piece of fiction.


The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

Published by Faber and Faber, 2015
Longlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction

Memory, the narrator of The Book of Memory, is an albino woman languishing in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe, where she has been convicted of murder. As part of her appeal her lawyer insists that she write down what happened as she remembers it. The death penalty is a mandatory sentence for murder, and Memory is, both literally and metaphorically, writing for her life. As her story unfolds, Memory reveals that she has been tried and convicted for the murder of Lloyd Hendricks, her adopted father. 

But who was Lloyd Hendricks? Why does Memory feel no remorse for his death? And did everything happen exactly as she remembers? Moving between the townships of the poor and the suburbs of the rich, and between the past and the present, Memory weaves a compelling tale of love, obsession, the relentlessness of fate and the treachery of memory. 


There is a type of book that takes hold of you from the first few sentences and keeps you reading and invested in the story throughout. The Book of Memory was this kind of book for me. Petina Gappah's writing was quietly sublime; I was in Memory's head from the start and was fascinated to read her story. 

The story is told through a diary Memory starts while in prison, accused of murder. Memory is an albino woman who grew up with her parents and sisters before being "adopted" by Lloyd, a white man, when she was young. It is Lloyd whom she is accused of murdering, and in her diary she recounts the events leading up to her imprisonment.

The prose is powerful and the voice strong. Though I finished the book a few weeks ago, I still think about the story and about Memory's life in prison, and what it must have been like growing up as an albino woman in Zimbabwe. What really shone through the book was her feeling of always being the odd one out and never feeling like she fit in. This is the author's debut novel, but she has had a bunch of short stories and essays published, which I'll be looking out for.

LGBTQIA Classics Challenge 2016 on Queer YA

Happy New Year!

Just a quick post to let you know I'll be participating in the 2016 Classics Challenge organised by the lovely Stacey @ Pretty Books with a focus on classics with sexuality and gender identity themes. I'll be posting thoughts on books over on my other blog Queer YA (link here) so do head over there if you're interested.

I hope you received many lovely books at Christmas (I did!) and you had time to read a bunch of them over the holidays (I definitely did!).

June Reads

Hi all,

Here are the books I've read in June. I've read some truly amazing YA books, the new Judy Blume and discovered a fascinating gender studies book!

The Summer I Wasn't Me by Jessica Verdi

I read this book as part of the Queer YA Scrabble at the beginning of June. This was a stand-out book for me as it dealt sensitively with a lot of themes that are important to me and that I don't see so much in YA books: sexuality, femininity and religion. The fact that it was set in a camp to de-gayify was also fascinating. You can read my full review here on Queer YA but this is a book that more people should be reading and I will be pushing it into many hands!

The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

This is another book I read as part of the Queer YA Scrabble last month and it's been on my radar forever so I was so thrilled to finally get a chance to read it. This is another stand-out book for me in terms of YA. This book is utterly unique in its setting, characters and storytelling and I am in so much awe at Alaya Dawn Johnson's talent. The fantasy isn't your typical fantasy and there is a varied cast of characters. Brownie points for non-judgmental sex and masturbation scenes. You can see my full review here on Queer YA. If you love fantasy, this is one for you to discover this summer!

Elspeth Hart and the School for Show-Offs by Sarah Forbes

I read this lovely book for younger readers in one sitting, it was at times sweet and at others quite terrifying. Elspeth is a deeply lovable heroine and we can't help but root for her as she is trying to find out what happened to her parents while going about her daily life in the Show-Off School. Some of the characters are truly sinister and will remind you of the nightmarish characters in Roald Dahl's books. A lovely start to a soon-to-be classic series. 

One by Sarah Crossan

This book utterly broke my heart and is written with such a light and powerful touch that I'm sure it will be sweeping up all the children's / YA awards this year. This verse novel about conjoined twins Grace and Tippi will take over your heart. This is a heart wrenching and heart warming story about sisters, love and identity and is such an amazing addition to the UK (and Ireland) YA scene. It will also convert you to verse novels. Perfect for fans of contemporary YA like John Green, Jenny Downham and Gayle Forman. 

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

I read this as the author's new book, Fear of Dying, is out at the end of the year and I wanted to read her classic novel which I'd never read before. I think this is one of these books that can't be read without keeping in mind the context in which it was written. This was very much an instant classic when it came out for its portrayal of female sexuality and which resonated with a lot of women at the time. The novel is narrated by poet and writer Isadora who finds herself in Vienna for a conference. She ditches her husband of five years in search of a more fulfilling relationship and what she ends up finding is herself. Things have changed since it was written but I really liked the style and the feminist themes so I'm very much looking forward to reading the new book!

Poirot Investigates (Hercule Poirot) by Agatha Christie

As ever, there isn't any month where I don't read an Agatha Christie! I was reticent to read Poirot at first, thinking the stereotypes on Belgians (and French people by extension) would be too annoying for me but I actually ADORE Poirot and even read his dialogue with a French accent in my head. This book is a collection of short mysteries that Poirot, Hastings and the famed little grey cells solve. I am always very proud to solve some of the mysteries myself and this was greatly enjoyable.

1492: The Year Our World Began by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

I'm doing some research on this period of history for something I'm writing and was hoping this book would be perfect but I didn't like this book as much as I'd hoped. Each chapter is about a different country for the years around 1492 and it was hard to put in perspective what happened simultaneously. It was interesting to read but I will be tracking down some other books on the subject to get more insight on some aspects of the period.

Women, History and Theory: The Essays of Joan Kelly by Joan Kelly

I loved reading this book. Joan Kelly is one of the first researchers in gender studies and she comes from a history background. It was so fascinating to read her essays - collected in this edition after her death - on looking at history from the point of view of women and how widely accepted periodisations in history can't apply to a history of women. Her essay on Renaissance and how there wasn't, strictly speaking, a Renaissance for women and this period of history was mostly about increased rights for men, was truly fascinating. This was a fantastic random find from the library and I'll be seeking more books by Joan Kelly in the future. 

In The Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

I adored this book! Loved it so so much! I'd only read Judy Blume's YA books and didn't know what to expect from one of her adult books but I totally loved it. The story is about three generations of family, friends and strangers in Elizabeth, New Jersey, after a series of unexpected events in the 1950s. I loved the variety of characters and what they were going through, especially Miri. I also loved the story, which was inspired by true events, and which is so topical and really makes you think. This is an amazing book and the perfect read for this summer. (Warning: not to be read on a plane or before a plane journey. You're welcome.)


What amazing books have you read last month?

In July I've already read a few Judy Blume classics in preparation for her event on 16th July in Edinburgh (SO EXCITED! Tickets here if you want to come!), as well as Naomi Novik's AMAZING new fantasy book Uprooted and Nancy Tucker's memoir about her eating disorder The Time in Between