‘Demon Copperhead’ – Barbara Kingsolver

Finally. I can breathe a sigh of relief now I’ve closed the pages on Demon Copperhead, having taken forever to read it. This was not a book I could say I enjoyed. It was bleak and I had to read it in small steps initially as it was just too depressing to stomach. As I found myself caught up in Demon’s story it became easier to read – I knew this was going to feel grim, but there was a certain charm to the spirit of this character. From start to finish, this was hard work – not in terms of readability or style, but because the subject matter forces you to confront issues that it’s easier to ignore and puts a human face on the suffering so many experience.

This had sat on my shelves since it came out, and I admit that it scared me somewhat. Never having read David Copperfield and being rather taken aback by the hefty page count, I’d built this into an obstacle. A number of friends had read it, and their positive comments kept me going even though I thought about giving up in the early stages.

Our main character, Demon, is a child born to a single drug-addict mother. He’s dragged up through foster placements and finds himself on the periphery of all manner of illegal activities. As he matures, he finds himself to be a gifted footballer and this period of his life offers some stability. But after a terrible accident he finds himself addicted to more than the stereotypical teen drugs. His life is miserable in so many ways, but there are periods of intense joy and moments that show his potential. It was not difficult to feel his frustration at being judged simply because of him being born in a particular place, and I felt a growing anger at the pharmaceutical companies and those who have done their best to spread such vile poison.

As the book drew to its closing stages I felt rather amazed by the resilience Demon shows in dealing with the terrible hand he is dealt by fate. While I usually like a neat ending, I felt the way his story was resolved highlighted just how we each have to accept our role in what happens to us and I firmly came down on the idea that he had a chance of his happy ending.

‘Babel’ – R.F. Kuang

I don’t mind admitting that it took me over a year to get round to this. It looked daunting, and I really wanted to make sure I was in the right frame of mind to settle into it. Having just finished, I’m kicking myself for waiting so long to read it.

Babel focuses on young Robin Swift, an orphan from Canton, who is taken to England as a child under the guardianship of Professor Richard Lovell. He is educated in Latin and Greek, given a home and looked after…but be under no illusion – he is a commodity. Robin, who believes himself to be Lovell’s son, is effectively being trained to master languages so that he can take his place at Oxford and go to work in Babel, the library that effectively runs the country with the scholars’ ability to translate texts and work with silver.

From the moment he enters its hallowed halls, Robin loves Oxford. However, over the course of his studies – and witness to the way he and the other students in his year are treated – Robin comes to detest what Babel represents and is determined to find a way to challenge the colonial attitudes taken for granted by those around him.

For such a hefty book, I was surprised by how absorbing I found this. I don’t want to give any more details about the story, but it was the kind of book that will stick with me long after reading.

‘Clytemnestra’ – Costanza Casati

From her childhood in Sparta, Clytemnestra has known the need to follow her duty. In this richly imagined tale we follow Clytemnestra through her growing up, marriage and enforced life as queen to Agamemnon.

A young woman who knows her mind, and a queen who is happy to take her time in order to get vengeance. It’s hard not to admire the strength of this woman, and I was struck by the brutality of the life recounted.

It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel. From start to finish we are shown a complex character who is presented with unflinching honesty. We’re shown the various experiences she has, and while we might not always admire her decisions they show the development of the woman. She knows she will be infamous for the choices she makes, but we can at least understand her decisions.

‘Thin Air’ – Michelle Paver

Grimly atmospheric, haunting and deeply unsettling.

Thin Air is told through the eyes of Stephen Pearce, the late addition to an expedition to try and be the first party to climb Kangchenjunga in 1935. Following in the ill-fated footsteps of an earlier party, we journey with the group as they travel to the foothills of the mountain and then attempt their challenge.

I’ve never been anywhere this high or remote, but Paver brings the experience to vivid life for us. She captures the beauty and menace of the mountains, showing us how easy it can be for someone to succumb to fears in the face of their own humanity.

The superstitions held by the local climbers play a large part in this book, and we are never certain whether the group are indeed haunted by something lurking in this dangerous wilderness or whether we are watching the gradual deterioration of men pushed to their physical limits. 

It’s hard not to be captivated by the exhilaration of the climb and the descriptions of the journey. Of its time, the attitudes shown by the English travellers were nothing to be proud of. The climax occurred quite unexpectedly and didn’t focus on the character I thought was most affected by the journey.

‘Rebecca’ – Daphne du Maurier

What a read!

The introduction to the edition I read offered valuable insight into the mindset of the author at the time, and this lent a different light to the novel.

The opening firmly establishes the setting of Manderley. We see it ruined and deserted, but with no idea why. I felt this made the ending more poignant as we never find out if this was Danvers’ last shot at the man she’d come to loathe or an unfortunate natural occurrence. Regardless, the descriptions of the home were beautifully atmospheric.

The story focuses on two characters who don’t particularly endear themselves to the reader. Our unnamed narrator who marries after only a few weeks of acquaintance with Max de Winter, a widower. Gauche and painfully self-doubting, our narrator seems ill-equipped to form such a bond. This exacerbates her feelings of inferiority when she returns to Manderley and is faced with the ghost of her predecessor, Rebecca.

From start to finish it was obvious that things were not well in the de Winter home. As our narrator stumbles through married life, hindered by the housekeeper of horrors, she uncovers secrets that could have awful consequences. 

Strangely, the people in this story and the damage they wreak upon each other did not have the impact I expected. None are particularly pleasant, and all bear some culpability for the situations that arise. Though I sympathised with our narrator for finding herself in this scenario, her sacrifice at the end seemed unnecessary. 

There were many similarities to Jane Eyre, high points and low, and it strikes me as strange that one book can be so revered and another – very similar – can be so easily dismissed and overlooked.

‘Last Night at the Telegraph Club’ – Malinda Lo

Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a story of forbidden love, set at a time fraught with danger for numerous reasons. It tells the story of Lily, a young Chinese American, and her growing understanding of what it will take for her to be happy.

Set in 1950’s America, the attention to detail seems thorough. Against a backdrop of fear at the threat of Communism, acknowledging a difference such as being homosexual would seem subversive. Set against this rigid and conventional background we watch Lily gradually realise she has feelings for girls, find a safe space and love interest but then be placed in a situation that forces her to consider her duty to her family.

As a love story, this had appeal. However, Kath was a vague character who only really seemed to be there as a catalyst for Lily to figure out her feelings. The side characters we meet at The Telegraph Club were intriguing, but also only there to offer hope for Lily and to highlight the bigotry surrounding her. The pacing of the book was frustrating, with things taking a long time to get established and then feeling glossed over at the end. However, I’m sure this will still win its fans.

‘The Davenports’ – Krystal Marquis

The Davenports is a historical romance, exploring the demands placed on our key characters by their families and wider society. It examines attitudes to race and developing social agitation while offering a somewhat light-hearted look at relationships.

Our key focus is the Davenport family. Wealthy, and black, the Davenport children – Olivia, John and Helen – are accustomed to living a relatively charmed life. Their race is not often an issue as their wealth protects them from some of the more common experiences many faced at this time. However, as the family try to secure a match for Olivia and maintain their business fortune, eyes are opened and the children start to develop their own understanding of the world around them.

From start to finish this was both entertaining and informative. As you might expect, the characters often behaved foolishly but there was a sense of them growing as characters. I found the ending a little frustrating, but it reads as if there might be more to come.

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read and review this before publication.


‘Weyward’ – Emilia Hart

Three Weyward women: Altha, Violet and Kate. Separated by time, but linked by blood. Both victims and survivors, these women share a bond.

Altha, a healer, was on trial for witchcraft. Violet, raped at sixteen by a family cousin and disowned by her father. Her only solace the insects that so fascinate her. Kate, in the present, escaping an abusive relationship. She flees to Crows Beck, a remote Cumbrian cottage left to her by her eccentric great-aunt Violet. Upon her arrival she starts to unearth her family history.

Multiple points of view can be distracting, but these blended almost seamlessly. With interwoven elements it was fascinating to read about each woman and to see their growing personalities as they each challenge the expectations of their time.

While it’s infuriating to see the ongoing issues women who do not conform to society’s expectations face, I feel that the author focuses on the developing strength of each woman and growing courage to stand firm in her own identity. I adored the way nature was presented here, in each time period.

This is part of a growing trend in books focusing on witches and exploring womens’ identity. While the character of Kate is presented as the one who is uncovering the family history and the one who may be seen by a contemporary audience as most sympathetically presented, I found Violet and Altha the characters who most caught my interest. Their stories, sadly, may have been common and I – like Kate – was eager to learn more about the two women who took on the patriarchy in their own ways.

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read and review this prior to publication.

‘Hex’ – Jenni Fagan

It’s 1591. Fifteen year old Geillis Duncan is imprisoned, several floors below Edinburgh’s High Street. Accused of being a witch, Geillis is about to be killed for the crime she has been accused of. During the course of her last night, Geillis is visited by Iris, a visitor in the shape of a crow who claims to be a woman from the future and sympathetic to Geillis.

Over the course of her last night we hear Geillis recount the story of how she came to be in prison. It is an age-old story of jealousy and persecution of something unknown/different. The story of her arrest, brutal torture and forced confession is appalling…and I felt incredibly angry reading it.

For such a slim book this packs a powerful punch. It is more powerful for the fact that hundreds of years later we see similar tales of persecution and injustice. A warning tale of the dangers of being ruled by fear, and I would love to see extracts used alongside ‘Macbeth’ to offer students another view of the supernatural and contemporary views of women in power.


‘My Policeman’ – Bethan Roberts

Started again in November having read none of it last month, and this is a definite case of rounding up my review though there’s many elements of it that frustrated me.

The Policeman is a book that I only heard about when looking for a book to fulfil a PopSugar2022 category, and it tells the story of Marion and her husband, Tom, and the third wheel to their relationship, Patrick.

Our setting is 1950s Brighton. This period was evoked well, and the claustrophobic nature of the setting was necessary to highlight the key focus of the story. Marion becomes best friends with Tom’s sister and has a crush on him, she waits for him to return from National Service and engineers ways to spend time with him. Though this might seem rather forward for the time, it’s clear from the outset that Tom isn’t going to get her into the expected trouble as he is gay.

Given the time, this can’t be named. The secrecy surrounding people trying to express their feelings is something I find hard to accept, though I do think the writer presents this well. The knowing looks and euphemisms highlight just how brave someone who lived their life as they wanted to really was, but the situations that are referenced throughout emphasise just what a risk was being taken.

The book begins with Marion’s view and takes us through the beginnings of her relationship with Tom. We see them enter marriage, and when the narrative shifts to Patrick’s diary it is evident that this is not going to end well.

Through Patrick’s eyes we see his pursuit of Tom and their subsequent relationship. I felt desperately sad that these men could not be honest about their feelings for one another and that the selfishness of each of the characters led to this very messy situation.

As the book draws to its end we learn that Patrick has had a stroke and is being cared for by Marion. This is no selfless act, rather a need to atone for something she thinks she set in motion by writing a letter to Patrick’s employer. This act – though we are never sure – leads to Patrick being imprisoned for indecency, and though his charm gets him a long way we know he is beaten for being gay.

In spite of the setting and general story being presented so well, I found it difficult to understand the motivation of any of the characters. For seemingly progressive people, they were quite restricted in their thinking. I was frustrated by the fact that we never hear Tom’s view and he is only seen through the eyes of others. The hero-worship was never justified for me. The structuring of the book began well, but things moved so quickly at the end and it seems a shame that for what was clearly such a major event in Patrick’s life, so little focus was paid to what followed. Perhaps there was a reason for this – others have commented that Tom’s silence and his absence from Patrick’s life may be intentional – but it niggled. I also found myself increasingly frustrated by the fact that each of the characters was so determined to pursue their course of action in spite of it making them so bloody miserable! Was it worth it?