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Easter reading!

For most people Easter is a pleasant long weekend and you may have had the chance to get some extra reading in. For parents of school-age children it's a holiday that stretches for what seems like eternity (it's still going on; it may never end) – almost as long, in fact, as the latest Sarah J. Maas book, and for more on that see below. I put the photo above in so that someone other than me can appreciate how great Laura (centre) looks in that dress. It was a pre-lockdown purchase of mine that has NEVER BEEN WORN except by her that one time on that photoshoot. She wasn't convinced by it, I could tell, but I think it looks amazing on her. Anyway – to the books...

House of Earth and Blood by Sarah J. Maas
Laura and I love a good fantasy read. In fact we've got a list of our favourites all ready to launch on our website. So I'm the last person to be a lit-snob about a fantasy book, or to grumble about length. That said, my experience reading House of Earth and Blood by Sarah J. Maas has caused something of an existential crisis. The writing felt clunky and self-conscious, and while the world building was inventive the amount of exposition needed to situate everything in place and time was exhausting. It had faint echoes from every fantasy series I've ever watched – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Supernatural, the Avengers movies, The Librarians, and Lost Girl. The characters had all the depth of a piece of Amazon cardboard. And yet, and yet, I read all 800 pages of it and have to admit I'm keen to read the as-yet-unwritten sequel.

The story takes place in the city of Lunathion (or 'Crescent City'), on the planet of Midgard, where humans and the Vanir (supernatural creatures) live uneasily together. We're just told this, mind, we don't actually see any awkward interactions in particular. But never mind. Our heroine Bryce is half-human half-fae and has yet to make something called 'The Drop' which will end her mortal life and begin her immortal one complete with unspecified powers. The 'fastlight' released when beings make the drop provides the energy that allows the infrastructure of the world to function (including presumably mobile-phone masts because all characters no matter how supernatural their abilities, are addicted to their mobiles). I'm a little hazy on the details actually but that's only because Maas never really properly explains it. I wouldn't even mention it now except that it's probably the biggest Macguffin in the plot.

Our heroine, Bryce, is mourning the death of her friend Danika, murdered along with the rest of the werewolf pack by a demon who goes on to attack a senior angel, Micah, whom Bryce rescues. Subsequently entangled with the angels and their affairs she is assigned a protector, Hunt, onetime rebel leader, now fallen slave who must act as contract-killer for his less than angelic boss. Together they search, initially for the demon, then for something called The Horn, an artefact which threatens to overturn the established power hierarchies. Meanwhile Bryce starts to think that her annoying bodyguard is actually rather loveable, but he's so tortured, and she's in so much pain it seems unlikely they'll ever be able to put their psychological demons to one side before they get killed by actual demons. There are also vampires, werewolves, sprites, faries, powerful mercenaries, Bryce's art-dealer boss who conveniently has a lost-library and every gizmo Bryce might need, a strange sort of giant lamprey in a tank and – oh yes, there are merfolk.

A sample:

"Is this the point where you start yelling?”
Lightning cracked through the sky, and echoed in his veins as he leaned closer and purred, “Would you like me to yell, Bryce Quinlan?” Her throat bobbed, her eyes glowing with golden fire. “Maybe?” Hunt let out a low laugh. Didn’t try to stop the heat that flooded him. “That can be arranged.” All of his focus narrowed on the dip of her eyes to his mouth. The blush that bloomed over her freckled cheeks, inviting him to taste every rosy inch. No one and nothing existed but this—but her.

Celia Walden in The Telegraph summed it up rather neatly as Game of Thrones meets Buffy The Vampire Slayer with a drizzle of E.L. James and I think it's the E.L. James that's the problem really. Those Fifty Shades books were almost unreadably bad, and yet they sold in their millions. The YA novels of Sarah J. Maas, including A Court of Thorns and Roses and Throne of Glass, have sold millions of copies and made her a New York Times bestselling author many times over. She has a passionate and committed fanbase and so as Katharine Coldiron points out in her excellent review that had me nodding along with almost every point, the quality of the writing is almost irrelevant as far as the publishing industry goes. 

If it hadn't been for the ending I would happily dismiss it. But readers, let me tell you, at around page 650 (after all the senior players have convened for the world's most boring board-meeting) things suddenly pick up, and all those plot strands that felt like they were going nowhere suddenly coalesce into a throw-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-at-it-ending that had me on the edge of my seat. And then one paragraph – one paragraph – of dialogue at a crucial moment was so good I read it twice in astonishment and just like that I suddenly cared. And hence my doubt. Because it should matter whether the writing in the things we read is good, shouldn't it? Fantasy especially – if you're going to make me believe in a completely made-up world you need to give me characters I can believe in and a structure / economy / magic system that makes sense. Or so I thought. But after reading Sarah J. Maas I think perhaps you can just type any old thing and as long as you give me a simmering love-interest, bad-ass-girl-hero-coming-of-age-plot and a hot merman it turns out I'll be enthralled. Even though I think slightly less of myself for it.

I'm looking forward to discussing this on our next bookshelf where hopefully Laura will help me put things in perspective.

Buy The House of Earth and Blood from
Don't Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri
Let us turn from problematic fantasy to a book of such shining excellence and relevance, reading every page felt like a thrill. Don't Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri was recommended by Nadia Odunayo of books app The Storygraph (an enjoyable way of tracking your reads and finding new ones). She was so enthusiastic about it on Anne Bogel's What Should I Read Next podcast I thought 'I have to try it', and duly ordered it from the library. It's a detailed exploration of black hair and culture, and why it's so much more important than you might have thought – certainly if you are white.

It's a book so rich in information and ideas I ended up with post-it notes on almost every page, and I loved the way it frequently tossed my received ideas up into the air and allowed them to fall in a new pattern. It hadn't struck me until she mentioned it, but mine is the generation who grew up during Live Aid, leaving us with the overriding impression that Africa was a nation of starving people who needed to be saved. I loved reading her corrective to this narrative, her detailing of the history of colonisation, the impact of slavery (of course I knew about slavery, but Dabiri really demonstrates what the loss of millions of its most active and able citizens must have meant for the development of Africa) and the civilisations the European 'adventurers' happened upon, by today's standards far in advance of their own. I loved reading her critique of the Western concept of time as a commodity, something we 'spend' or 'waste'. How much better does the African notion of time as a continuum sound, where days are measured not by hours and minutes but by tasks to be completed. Where the hours it takes to braid someone's hair become precious moments for companionship, for socialising, for bonding. 

In-between the more theoretical analysis is Dabiri's own story, born of an Irish mother and Yoruba Nigerian father, and growing up as a black child with tightly coiled hair in white, homogeneous, socially conservative Ireland. What Dabiri started to understand was that it wasn't so much her skin colour that marked her out as different, as her 'kinky' hair. And that even within the black community there exists a hierarchy based on having 'good' hair. 

There was so much packed into this book and I absolutely loved reading it. I'd say the style is 'lightly academic' in that you do need to concentrate and there are certainly moments where following felt like a stretch, but in a way that's exhilarating rather than confusing. Ultimately Dabiri does find nuggets of hope. 'For me,' she writes, 'great possibilities exist in my recognition that the society I live in was designed with my exclusion in mind. Never again will I mutilate any part of myself in an attempt to one day awkwardly almost-maybe fit in. We have the freedom to design a reality of our own making, one that recognises our humanity and thus reflects our highest needs. We are the ones we have been waiting for.'

Buy Don't Touch My Hair from

What to listen to:

Our fellow podcasters Virginia Seymour and Louise Jones have come up with a nice lockdown idea for their Diving In podcast – books themed around different cities. This month it's Paris and I loved catching up with their favourite Paris reads, including a new novel called The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles based on the real-life events surrounding The American Library in Paris during the Second World War. It sounds right up my street, particularly as I have visited the library a few times to chat to Morgan Thomas who runs the Proust Book Group there (and have a listen to episode 10 for more on that).

Things to watch

Take an hour of your time and treat yourself to this talk between Monique Roffey and poet Nikita Gill for the British Library on The Mermaid of Black Conch. I dipped in just to check how to pronounce the main character’s name, and was completely absorbed by this wide-ranging and nuanced conversation between two fascinating and intelligent women.

If Ulysses isn’t worth reading then life isn’t worth living. Find out why...

Things to read

If you think the robots are coming for you, read this by Ted Chiang in The New Yorker and feel reassured. Also luxuriate in the enjoyable sense of mental exercise that reading anything by Chiang gives you, and finally listen to this episode of the pod to find out why Laura and I revere him the way that we do.

Accounts to follow

Over on Instagram I love @philosophyminis by Jonny Thompson who explains philosophical ideas with a simple image and a detailed caption. They are beautifully written, models of clarity, always thought-provoking and often entertaining. 

What Kate is reading:

I'm currently enjoying Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan C. Slaght, about owl conservation in remote regions of Russia. The lengths the author goes to in order to study these rare, elusive birds are extreme, and I'm in awe of his courage and dedication. It's lucky there are people like him in the world because if it were left up to people like me who only want to sit around and watch Schitt's Creek on Netflix nothing would ever get done. Luckily no-one is making me drink ethanol or wade through freezing rivers in the snow, but I'm fascinated reading about it.

What Laura is reading:

I'm finally picking up The Library Book by Susan Orlean, a Christmas gift from my parents – and a favourite recent read of Kate's. I'm enjoying it so far. Orlean's description of the fiery inferno that engulfed the LA Central Library stacks is riveting, and now we’re moving into the lives of the people who run it, past and present. I've also made a worrying discovery: Georgette Heyer has a legion of modern-day imitators, none as good as her, but prolific in their own right. Why is this worrying? There’s always going to be a Regency romance to turn to for a palette-cleanser read ... and really I know I should have better reading habits.

Thanks so much for subscribing and we hope you've enjoyed these bookish ramblings. Do get in touch at or via our website. Let us know what you're reading – we always love to hear from you.

And if you enjoyed the newsletter do forward it on to a book-loving friend. Sign up link is here. Spreading the word is the best possible way to support us and we are so grateful when people do. But for now, until next week, happy reading.

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