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2021

My only meagre aim of 2021 was to read more. I miss reading books, and for the last few years I haven’t had the time (the story of many people’s lives), and I find that listening to audiobooks doesn’t give me the same level of immersion as reading does (a lifetime of consuming physical and kindle books can’t be beaten by only the last few years of listening to audio fiction). I still listen to audiobooks, but to improve my own writing, I thought it was important to at least try to read more. However, I’m not one of those people who forces myself to finish a book that I’m not enjoying. I completed every book on this list unless otherwise stated (with a very handy percent completed on each one). Here is the list of every book (kindle and audiobook) I consumed in 2021, in the order in which they were consumed (links to Goodreads):

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (V.E.Schwab) – The first book I read (in physical copy, sorry Kindle) this year by who is probably my favourite author. It was nice in January to have time to sit and zoom through this book. A criminally short synopsis is a young woman makes a Faustian deal with an “old god” to essentially live forever, with the catch that no one will ever remember her, until one day a young man does. I did have some gripes, which I’m not going to unleash on you, but it is beautifully written and is a really good story that I enjoyed reading, and would thoroughly reccommend.

The Wolf Hall Trilogy (Hilary Mantel) – I got really into the Tudor era at the end of 2020, and ended up re-watching Wolf Hall by the BBC (a programme I thoroughly recommend if historical drama is your thing). If you haven’t heard of this trilogy, it’s essentially historical fiction that follows the life of Thomas Cromwell, a very important player during the reign of King Henry VIII of England, from his rise to his ineveitable downfall. Mantel does a really good job of making Cromwell likeable, which makes his downfall all the more heartbreaking (there’s no such thing as spoilers in history). If you like historical fiction, this is the trilogy for you. Well written with incredibly fleshed out and nuanced characters. The trilogy comes as a pack on Audible, and, obviously, I listened to the audiobooks.

The Starless Sea (Erin Morgenstern) – The second physical book I read this year (I charged my kindle up after this so no more physical books for me), at the beginning of February. I read The Night Circus, Morgenstern’s debut novel that came out in 2011 to critical acclaim. I can’t tell you how profoundly inspired I was by her first novel when I read it in 2014/2015 that I was really happy when I heard after so long a time away she had written another book. I wish I could write stories like this one, where every tale she so deftly weaves is part of a bigger picture. It really is masterfully written. A few minor personal gripes, but they did not detract from the enjoyment I had as I read this novel. I would attempt a synopsis, but it’s just so whimsical and fairy-tale esque I feel it’s better to just read it for yourself.

A Gathering of Shadows (V.E.Schwab) – I charged my long neglected kindle up in the second week of February and finally got around to finishing this novel. I think I started it in 2018, but then just…stopped reading. I was enjoying it, but then time became a rare commodity and I found audio fiction, and my kindle was left to gather dust. This is the second in Schwab’s Darker Shade of Magic trilogy (I finished the first one, A Darker Shade of Magic, about a year before I started the second). Due to this being the second in a trilogy, I’m not going to write a synopsis. Although this isn’t my favourite of her series (go and read her Villains series, I can’t tell you how amazing it is), I still enjoy this world she’s created. I do have a confession to make, though. I didn’t finish this book. I have some major issues with the main characters, which I don’t want to go into details about here, to the extent where I got about 70% through the book, then gave up and looked up a synopsis online. It wasn’t only the characters that annoyed me, it was the pacing of the book that began to bug me, which is such a shame because I used to adore anything written by this author. The story spends more time jumping between the main characters, building up a special event, that ends up only starting 70% of the way through the book. That’s a whole lot of pages with nothing plot-wise significant happening. Needless to say, I won’t be reading any of the future instalments in this series, but that doesn’t mean I don’t recommend you try it for yourself. (Completion: 75%).

The Secret Ingredient of Wishes (Susan Bishop Crispell) – Oh, boy, was this not for me. As a fiction podcaster and writer I’m a bit reluctant to completely tear into this book, so I won’t. Let’s just say it was not my cup of tea. It has such an interesting premise. A woman who has the ability to grant other people’s wishes tries to outrun her past and her powers, eventually ending up in small town America where there seem to be a few people just like her. It has so much potential and just fell so unbelievably flat for me. Honestly, it read like bad fan fiction rather than a novel. And that’s as harsh as I’ll be. (Completion: 61%)

The Binding (Bridget Collins) – Another audiobook/book I really wanted to like but ended up finishing it with very mixed feelings. Again, another interesting premise. Set in the 19th century (although there was nothing particularly indicative for me, an amateur social historian, that it was the 19th specifically), Emmett Farmer is sent to be an apprentice at the book binder, an old woman who binds people’s secrets into books. I blamed the poor narrator for my inability to get into this book, but it’s actually just that this book is deathly slow, and so bleak (and that’s coming from me, a horror podcaster). The story itself was good, but it took ages to hook my interest, and I ended up finishing this out of sheer will power. It was so ambling at a lot of points it made me frustrated. Pacing is a big weakness of this book. I also wasn’t convinced by the romance, I don’t understand how one character can go from being so irritated by another that they regularly think about or do actually hit them, to being in love with them. Allosexual people, is this how it works? I couldn’t get past my opinion that they hated each other, and fell in love because plot said so. Overall, very mixed feelings about this book. The writing was beautifully descriptive, I really felt transported at certain paragraphs, but my Gods the pacing is awful, and it’s so depressingly bleak that it was a struggle to finish it. Not my cup of tea, but it could be yours.

Scythe (Neil Shusterman) – Another book that’s been in my Kindle library since 2018, with 0% progress. This is part of a YA series set in a future dystopian/utopian-esque universe where humanity has conquered all foes (death, illness, and politics). I usually avoid YA, due to the tropes and teen drama/angst in the characters I have no wish to relive or be irritated at, but the premise of this one was just too good for me to pass up; 3-years ago me, anyway. And I bought it back then, so I was at least going to try and read it. It’s well-written but kind of…dull. I never felt any connection to the 16 year old characters. And to be honest, I couldn’t escape the fact that it felt like the “Scythe” (a human who is selected to act essentially as a grim reaper and kill people to avoid over population), who is over a century old, was torturing two 16 year old children, and making them accessories in sanctioned murder. All the while claiming that he had superior moral standards. No, pal, just…no. Shusterman also made the mistake of heavily foreshadowing the hetero-romance between the two teenagers. I decided to hop off board pretty quickly after I read the cliche rule of “you can’t fall in love with each other” came up. I am, however, in the minority for this book, according to Goodreads. It just wasn’t for me. (Completion: 21%).

The Once and Future Witches (Alix E. Harrow) – After I hadn’t enjoyed the last few books I read, I decided to retreat into familiar territory. This was the most recent book I’d added on my wishlist, and the reason I chose it instead of scrolling was because I thought it wouldn’t have any romance in it. There is a reason for this. Every book above has romance. Every. Single. One. Even if it’s unecessary, which in my opinion is in a few, if not most, cases. I was fatigued with pointless romance. Set in 1893, it follows the lives of three sisters as they try to mend their relationship with each other, and prevent what is essentially genocide of women labelled as witches. One of my pet peeves, as an avid historical fiction fan, is when the small details are wrong about the period. As someone with quite a lot of knowledge of social history, especially the 19th, it completely brings me out of the story when I read something I know to be wrong. I honestly think this book should ahve been set in 1903 rather than 1893 (and I know, a decade doesn’t make much difference, except it does to me). A lot goes on in these decades, especially around the suffragist movement, which this book features a lot of. I also kind of low-key didn’t like two of the three sisters, or the narrow theme they were fit into. A major theme of this book is the neopagan belief in the Triple Goddess (Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Most recently featured in the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina). I’m not a big fan of this belief system as I think it’s very narrow, and I especially didn’t like how much emphasis was put on the sister who essentially emobided the “mother”. I was constantly being told she was the “strong one” but found no actual evidence of this being true. As someone who has no interest in being a mother, I find it very irritating when a lot of value is placed on a woman being a mother, so much so that it apparently elevates her above her childless female counterparts, thereby making women without children less important or valuable. Perhaps I’m just taking this too personally, but I hate this branch of thought, that a woman’s worth or strength or value is dependent on whether she procreates. I wasn’t really off to a good start with this, because the Triple Goddess theme is evident very early on in the story. I also wasn’t particularly fond of the sister who was the “maiden”. She strayed a bit too close to the “I’m not like other girls” trope. Overall, a story with a lot of potential, but for me, because the overall themes clash with my own views on femininity, I just couldn’t enjoy this book that much.

Loveless (Alice Oseman) – This audiobook was a bit of a personal choice for me. I’ve alluded to this in the reviews above, but I recently realised that I’m on the asexual spectrum. And I was really sick of reading allosexual romances, and just romances in general. I’d had this book on my wish list since learning and finding out more about asexuality. It took me until I was 27 to realise that I was asexual. I’d never heard of it before, and I wasn’t really sure what it meant. I assumed, like society does, that everyone is heterosexual until proven otherwise. I also assumed, like society expects, that one day I would just find romance, or someone I wanted to be in a relationship with. I ignored the fact that whilst everyone else was dating I didn’t want to, and that whilst everyone else was finding serious relationships, I was happy on my own. I ignored the fact that I’d never wanted to have sex with anyone, and that the idea actually freaked me out. I, like many other people, believed that it was just because I hadn’t “found the right person yet”, and that one day I would. I was a victim of allosexual society for a long time, mostly out of my own nonchalance for that kind of relationship. I just thought I was a prude. I’ve heard asexuality being called the “invisible sexuality”, and its lack of visibility isn’t great. The thing about being asexual, at least for me, is that I don’t care about romantic/sexual relationships like that, and whenever I was told or heard dating horror stories I only felt relief that I wasn’t having to go through that, nor did I have the desire to start (going so far as to wonder why people bothered putting themselves through the torture of dates in the first place, I thought it was insanity). But it is strange being in a world full of allosexuals. People can be very dismissive of asexuality, going so far as to say it doesn’t exist, but my answer to this is if a person can be attracted to anyone of any gender (i.e. pansexual, bisexual, etc.), then why can’t a person not be attracted to anyone? We all like to feel represented in media, but to date I’d not consumed anything with an outright asexual character (I’m aware there are some, but I’ve never personally watched/read anything). Which is why I wanted to read this book. To feel seen. I’d recommend if you are curious about asexuality, whether because of your own personal journey or someone you know. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a strong affinity to a fictional character, but almost everything about the main protagonist (Georgia) resonated with me. Her asexual journey started a lot younger than mine (18 compared to my ancient 27), but I found myself empathising with a lot of the situations she found herself in and the thoughts she had. A lot of the thoughts she had pertaining to romance and relationships I’ve also had. I, too, have forced myself to try and have romantic feelings for someone just because I thought I was supposed to. I did get frustrated at points, at some of her decisions, and the fact I so clearly knew she was asexual before she even knew what it was, but had to continue to watch her try and force herself into the allosexual bracket, and hurt everyone around her in the process (yeah, the protagonist is an awful, selfish person for at least the first half of the book). It was quite painful to listen to at some points. Also, most of the characters are 18 in the book, and my God are they dramatic. I was 18 once, and I swear I wasn’t as dramatic as they are. Such gems as “I’ll die alone”, and “I’ll never find anyone to be with” come up more than once, and as a 28 year-old woman, I rolled my eyes so much at these phrases I was afraid they wouldn’t come back. This was very much aimed at teenagers, and I don’t know if it’s because of my age, but I felt like there were very little consequences to the horrible things Georgia did to her friends. She used one in the most awful way in an attempt to convince herself she was heterosexual, and then went along with hurting the other one by kissing someone she knew her other friend liked. She was drunk for the second one, but that is never, and will never be, an excuse for terrible and hurtful behaviour. It took at least a month to even try and get them to forgive her, it’s like as soon as Christmas came she just forgot about them until she returned to university and even then her main motivating factor appeared to be appeasing her new friend, subsequently also the one she kissed before Christmas. The used friend gave in too quickly for my liking. I think the second friend’s reaction was a bit more believable, Georgia actually had to put in some effort to gain forgiveness. I also feel like this should have been swapped. I think it’s a lot worse to take advantage of and use someone you think has feelings for you, than to drunkenly kiss a person who your friend has a crush on. Don’t get me wrong, both are shitty things to do, but I definitely feel like the first one’s worse.

Norse Mythology (Neil Gaiman) – A re-telling of some of the stories from Norse Mythology. It’s quite a short audiobook that I managed to get in a 2 for 1 credit sale, and I thought I may as well, I’ve played God of War (2018). I thought I knew a lot more about the Norse Pantheon than I actually did, so this book was not only really interesting, but informative as well. I’d recommend if you have also played God of War (2018) and want to know how much creative licence they took, and also if you have even the slightest interest in the Norse Pantheon.

The Familiars (Stacey Halls) – I have nothing to complain about with this story, which is unusual, as you can tell. Another historical fiction set at the beginning of the 17th century (so not a time period I know that much about). No romance, so another tick from me. It’s quite a sad story, and quite an ambling one. There’s not really a plot, per se, but that’s not actually a bad thing. It’s quite short (the audiobook was about 9 hours long), which makes the whole thing work. I felt really sorry for the protagonist for the first half or so, for understandable reasons. I had a few minor gripes, but nothng worth mentioning here. Otherwise it’s beautifully written, and I could really see the places where the story was set, so very immersive. Would recommend.

Wakenhyrst (Michelle Paver) – I don’t really understand what I’ve listened to with this book. Most of it doesn’t really have a plot, and even the one that’s introduced very early on is pretty weak. It’s not a bad book, by any means, I’m fascinated with the setting of the Fens (which seems to be very Scotland-esque in regards to lasting superstitions), but there were numerous times in the book when I felt uncomfortable. The protagonists father was also an absolute piece of garbage with no apparent motivation (a bad person for bad person’s sake, a bit like a Disney villain with little to no motivation for acting in such an awful way). It was mainly the father’s passages that made me the most uncomfortable. I also never really identified with the protagonist, but I didn’t dislike her. This book was just a bit…meh. So meh, I didn’t finish it. 5/10.5 hours completed.

Anient Greece Second Edition: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic times (Thomas R. Martin) – I played Assasins Creed Odyssey, and if you’ve played the game then you’ll understand. My first non-fiction audiobook of the year.

Delphi: A history of the centre of the ancient world (Michael Scott) – I’ve always been fascinated by the oracle and Delphi and since I was on an ancient Greek binge, I decided to read this too. I bought the actual book.

Creators, Conquerors, and Citizens: A History of Ancient Greece (Robin Waterfield) – Another physical book. I find textbook-esque books like this one it’s a lot easier to buy the physical book so you can flip between the text and the figures/maps. The last book in my Ancient Greece binge.

Howl’s Moving Castle (Dianna Wynne Jones) – Did you know this was a book before it was a film? I didn’t. I am massively late to the Studio Chibli films (I know, they’re awesome, I don’t know what I was thinking). As I was Googling the film I found out that it was based on a book by a Welsh author and I had to read it. I’m impressed the film got so many details into it, and the overall essence of the book, but obviously there were a lot of details not in the film. I am surprised this is classed as a “children’s” book, as it was quite serious in places, even quite dark and shady in places. A possibly unpopular opinion, but Howl is a lot better in the film, he’s a bit annoying in the book (to me).

The Midnight Library (Matt Haig) – Oh boy, I seem to be in the minority regarding this book. I didn’t like it. I near loathed the main character. It’s definitely a “me” thing, though. I can’t stand whiny people, or people who don’t try and then blame everyone else when things go wrong. I get that the main character has mental health issues (I think it’s meant to be depression and anxiety), but so do I, which is why I feel like I can take my stance. Believe me, I know what it’s like to have a bad day and mental illness to make everything worse, or to feel like your mental illness prevents you from doing things, but I don’t believe it gives you a reason to use it as an excuse not to try. I do understand that’s not how everyone who suffers mental illness sees things, but I’m a firm believer that you have to at least try and help yourself sometimes. I felt the main character, Nora, didn’t. As I said earlier, her life turned to shit because she never took control of things and then blames everyone else in her life. I decided not to finish this book, and as of about halfway through, there has been no internal reflection, which I kind of feel was needed for this character to fully develop. The premise is good, but it’s very predictable and that took even more joy out of it for me. A bad mixture of irritating main character, and predictable (to me) tropey plot made for a very frustrating listen. This book is very highly rated though, so if you’re not like me (in that you have a very wide threshold for what you consider whiny) then give it a go. 4/8 hours completed.

If You Were There: missing people and the marks they leave behind (Francisco Garcia) – A bit of a serious topic. I, along with many, many people, like to dabble in true crime/unsolved mysteries, and this involved missing people. This is a very humanist and realistic way of looking into the circumstances and definitions we use to identify missing people, and often the way they’re generally failed by the wider system. I definitely think that the author’s own estrangement from his missing father served to run a nice narrative thread through all of the stops he made, and ground the story, giving in that heart that stopped it from sounding too textbook-y. It’s a short audiobook, at about 6 hours. If you’re interested in the, arguably growing, missing persons problem we seem to have in the UK, then give this a go.

The Lost Storyteller (Amanda Block) – Gods save me from pointless romantic subplots.

The Isle of Stone (Nicholas Nicastro) – Historical fiction can fall into two categories; more fiction than fact, more fact than fiction. That’s a bit reductive, but what I mean is you can get historical fiction where the historical accuracy and factual correctness is more dominant than the actual fictional story/plot. These type of novels can also be described as “information dumps”, and this one definitely fell into that category. Except, it wasn’t historically accurate information. Most of it was, but there was a lot of Spartan stereotypes thrown in there. In fact, most of the characters seemed to be defined solely by this idealised Spartan society that we’ve created more than 2,000 years later. You had the only female character (the mother of the two main characters) being a typical harsh Spartan female (even going so far as to tell her young son before he leaves for the Spartan training regime to jump back up her hoohah if he’s scared). She was very 2-dimensional and unbelievable as a woman. There was so much potential with her, too. The rest was a sausage fest, with quite 2-dimensional characters, and lots of dialogue that was just information dumps about Spartan culture and warfare. I feel like this book had a lot of potential, but fell quite short of it for me.

Troy (Stephen Fry) – Oh, did you think I was done with ancient Greece? Me too, but then I saw this when I was perusing Audible for something to listen to that wasn’t The Lost Storyteller (I’m sorry, but another useless romantic subplot? Gods save me). The books I’ve read on this list about ancient Greece are about the history, what we know (or think we know) about what life was like in the Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods (yes, I learned). But what about the most famous event in ancient Greece, that pre-dates all of these eras? Obviously, everyone in the west knows about the Trojan war, and Helen, and Achilles. Except I didn’t. I just knew their names. Stephen Fry tells the full story in this book (apparently The Iliad by Homer doesn’t finish at the end of the Trojan war). I suppose it’s a bit like a dramatisation, or really a translation into prose, drawing and giving background to all of the players and events that lead up to the tragedy that was the Trojan War. If you didn’t know The Iliad is actually a poem (yes, even though it’s as long as a book, it’s still a poem). I found this so interesting, and it itched my current obsession with Ancient Greece. Prepare for a lot more to come before the year is out.

Mythos (Stephen Fry) – Yep, I’m deep in the Ancient Greece hole again. Help.

Heroes (Stephen Fry) – Damn you Stephen Fry.

Circe (Madeleine Miller) – Despite my raging consumption of Ancient Greece, there is one area that I haven’t fallen into. The Odyssey by Homer. I do know the Odyssey itself is about the tale of Odysseus trying to get home after the Trojan war, and that somewhere on that decade long journey he meets Circe. The only thing I knew about her was that she was a witch? Was she possibly evil as well? As you can tell, a massive gaping hole in my Greek mythology knowledge. This was beautifully written, which is always a delight to listen to. I had a few niggles. It kind of felt like it was trying too hard to redeem Circe, or make her a saint. It’s a bit strange to say, but I would’ve loved her to be a bit more…morally questionable? What I’ve learned from the previous books about the Greek mythos is that Gods tend to be a bit psychopathic, mostly because they’re immortal, there are no stakes for them so why should they care, especially about mortals? It’s very unlike Christianity, where we’re all God’s children and he cares about our wellbeing. The Greek Gods did not give a fig, and in order to do something for us they had to get something in return. They are spiteful and vindictive when they think they’ve been slighted. Yet, in this book, Circe was very compassionate, she felt guilt for her mistakes, and granted these are qualities that make a morally upright character, except Circe isn’t supposed to be human, she’s the immortal offpsring of a Titan (the generation of Gods before the Olympians we all know). It didn’t help that her entire family, and I mean entire, were like the Gods are supposed to be in Greek mythology. Utter psychopaths who don’t have a sympathetic or empathetic bone in their body. It was a very Cinderella situation for Circe, in that her entire family, cousins, brothers sisters, and even birth mother were utterly horrible to her. At times it kind of felt like they needed to be utterly iredeemable in order to make Circe herself more sympathetic. In other words, dragging everyone else down in order to raise her up. I quite liked some parts of her character, but she felt a bit self-righteous at times, and there was definitely the air of Mary-Sue-ism occasionally from other characters. In case you dont’ know Mary Sue is the female version of a somewhat perfect character in literature. They can do everything well, and everyone loves them most of the time with no effort on the Mary Sue’s part, people will step aside for the Mary Sue even though she isn’t experienced, but yet she’ll succeed anyway with flying colours and will be the best at that task any of the other characters have ever seen (and they’ll lavish her with praise just to be sure). It’s a wee bit like the female protagonist of V.E.Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic I read earlier in the year. Circe isn’t a Mary sue, but the characters around her speak to her like she is. There is one bit of dialogue in particular between her and her sister that just sang Mary Sue-ism to me (the typical, we were so mean to you for so long yet you were so so strong and never bent or broke, no matter how hard we tried. How strong you are). A minor niggle, if you want to make a traditional “villain” sympathetic then go ahead (a la Disney’s Maleficent), there’s nothing wrong with it, and it can be refreshing. However, I find myself recently craving characters that are morally grey, or just morally “evil”. I’ve had this in my mind for years now. Can protagonists, especially of novels, be anything other than morally just? Do readers always have to find protagonists sympathetic? My mind always reverts back to Dexter syndrome. Again, in case you don’t know, Dexter is a relatively long running TV series that follows a serial killer. I don’t know about anyone else, but I found myself rooting for a serial killer (Dexter), who is not really morally good. But, he only kills other killers/serious criminals. Whilst this doesn’t make what he’s doing just, it makes it slightly more palatable than if he were just a regular serial killer. I’ve often thought of Dexter and tried to deconstruct why it managed to get to 8 seasons considering the subject matter, and that Dexter was killing people every episode (or thereabouts). There’s probably a few other characters like this, but Dexter is the most extreme to me. How can the normal, rational viewer not want Dexter, a serial killer, to get caught by the police? Coming back around to this book, I like morally complex characters, and that’s what I find so fascinating about Greek heroes in mythology. Most of them are not Captain America or Superman levels of honourable, no matter what modern re-rellings want us to believe. They’re all a bit more Batman-esque, and some are just plain bad. Herakles (Hercules as we keep calling him, the Latin version of his name) literally killed his wife and kids in a mad rage, yet he’s one of the most enduring heroes of Greek myth. I like that ancient Greek heroes are not black and white, they make mistakes, they hurt other people, they’re selfish, vain, petulant, and immature. This is why I’m kind of disappointed that Circe seems to be a kind of Mary-Sue in this re-telling. Why does she have to be a saint? Granted, she does something a bit nasty to another nymph near the start of the book, but honestly the nymph wasn’t exactly a saint herself, so I didn’t feel bad, yet Circe did – again, highly unusual for an immortal Greek deity. I think I was just craving a bit more of a complex character given Circe’s reputation, a bit more ruthless, a bit less sympathy/empathy, a bit more…chaotic evil. I would recommend this book, though, despite my rant about characterisation, it is a bestseller, and really is written beautifully. The narrator is also quite good for the audiobook, which I listened to. There’s a strong possibility I’m too thick to appreciate this novel. You are probably not.

The Women of Troy (Pat Barker) – Oh, f*ck no. Also, don’t start with the second in a series. If you like relentlessly depressing fiction, this is for you. I don’t know what I was thinking.

What will be (Eve Pearson) – I really wanted to like this one, and I really tried to persevere with it. Written by a fellow Scot and set in the city I grew up in (Glasgow), it marries the supernatural and fairy-tale esque creatires with the issues of everyday life. This reminded me a lot of the True Blood books (not the TV series, I’ve never watched it, but the original book series, which I read when I was far too young to do so). It’s got that kind of small-town girl is actually something much more important feel. I’m really reluctant to be harsh with this one, but it wasn’t for me. I finally gave up at the unbearably cliche “I don’t believe in love” conversation. I have a massive issue (if you can’t tell by now) with unecessary romantic subplots, and this one was so pretentiously unecessary it made me grit my teeth and eventually give up. I do recommend trying this book though if you’re not like me (which according to recent statistics is at least 97% of you). It’s not my particular brand of supernatural, but it might be yours. Book series like this tend to be quite popular, so I’d give it a go. The only issue is that the author is weirdly specific with place names, dropping them in frequently. To me, a native Scot, this was fine because I knew where all these places were and understood the implications, but it’s a bit of a shortsighted decision, in my opinion, on the author’s part since all of this fine detail will be completely lost on international audiences unfamiliar with Glasgow and the surrounding areas. Google maps will help.

The Song of Achilles (Madeleine Miller) – I know, I couldn’t stay away, could I? It took reading the previous entry in this list for me to realise how good Circe actually was (or how minor the issues when in comparison), and Miller really is a wonderful writer, her prose is just so beautiful. Achilles isn’t my favourite Greek hero (in fact, he might be my least favourite), but it was mainly for the writing style that I listened to this audiobook. I really enjoyed this book, and actually have no complaints. There was a few things I didn’t understand regarding some of the main character’s decisions, but that could just be me. Would recommend this book.

Daughters of Troy (Claire Heywood) – I can’t promise this will be the last book set in ancient Greek myth I read this year, but I am starting to get a wee bit fed up. This book is quite short, and although not as well written or plotted as some of the others on this list, I actually quite enjoyed it. There’s nothing really to complain about. I think it started to drag for me in the last 3 hours or so, but I liked both of the characters (Helen, of Troy fame, and Clytemnestra, her sister and wife to Agamemnon, a la Trojan war fame). I felt it touched on some topics of womanhood in antiquity that felt pretty modern, but I suppose they would’ve had the same issues back then. I personally never thought about it before. What happened when women, like today, didn’t want children? Did they have a choice? We always think no, but Heywood gives quite intriguing alternatives, that I unfortunately can’t verify either way. It felt very realistic to me, it definitely went down the root of taking the mythical out of the mythos that is the Trojan war. So no true prophetic seers, no intervening Gods, no men with special abilities and blessings. If you think that’s half the fun of the Trojan war, then I agree, but this book was written from the perspective of two prominent women involved, far away from the mythical action. I liked both characters for different reasons, and for me it’s always unusual to see women who don’t want children represented in any forms of media, so I appreciated that. I would definitely recommend this book if you’re looking for a short story from the points of view of the women in the Trojan war.

The Hoarder (Jess Kidd) – I feel a bit disoriented with this book. I’m not sure if that’s the point. I’m finding it hard to discern what’s real. I think the protagonist suffers from hallucinations, but that means it’s difficult to discern what’s actually happening. It’s not helping that I do other things whilst listening to books so do miss a few lines here and there. I like the protagonist though, the writing is very wry.

Episode 3 – False Medium

The case of Abigail Grayson wasn’t the only strange occurrence to happen in my first month as a PhD student. I alluded to this incident in my last statement about Abigail the first night when she’d appeared outside the office wanting me to follow. Before I could reach the door Strother stopped me, a strange woman at his side. They’d both come from the other entrance to the building. It was after midnight, and I’d thought I was alone. I think his sudden appearance frightened me more than the ghosts had. If he thought it was strange to see me there at that time of night his facial expression never gave anything away. He said that he needed my assistance.

Following Strother through the building at nearly 1 in the morning was like a nightmare about purgatory. It was dark, gloomy, and I was still dazed from my encounter with Abigail’s ghost. It was also quite early in the morning, and believe it or not I didn’t make a habit of sleeping at the office. My head began to twinge with fatigue, and it was hard to concentrate when the woman Strother had appeared with started a conversation.

She apologised for the lateness of the hour, but said that Strother had been most insistent on getting her to come to the university. There was nothing special about her. That sounds meaner out loud. All I mean is that there were no giant tattoos, no visible scars, and no chakra bracelets. She had long brown hair that was braided into a loose plait, a heart shaped face, and round green eyes. That’s what I remember, at least. She didn’t look that much different from someone you’d get stuck behind in a supermarket queue doing the weekly shop. She introduced herself as Sandra Oakes, and then paused for a brief second, as if expecting me to recognise her. When I didn’t, she explained, with more than a hint of pride, that she was a medium by profession.

My relationship with self-proclaimed mediums has always been…fraught. You could say its snobbery, but in all my years none of the professional mediums and psychics I’ve ever met have been genuine. The more different you are, the more you pretend to be normal. That’s not to say I’ve never met anyone else like me, but I can count them on one hand. That’s my opinion now, but back then I didn’t have much life experience. I was sceptical of people like Sandra Oakes, but I was more hopeful that they would turn out to be genuine because it’d mean I wasn’t alone.

She began to tell me that she’d been conducting a late-night séance when Strother had approached her and asked her to join his study. They’d both come into the building so she could sign a consent form and book an appointment for when she would do a reading. Just after she had said her goodbyes to Strother she turned to me and said:

“It was nice to meet you, Miss McIlwraith.”

I know, it’s a very benign statement, but what made it weird was that neither I nor Strother had ever told her my surname. It was just a wee niggle, a tiny loose thread. But the thing about loose threads is that they have the potential to cause everything else to unravel. Her wee display had my curiosity piqued.

She came back a few days later for her reading. This wasn’t a reading in the traditional sense, as in someone sits across the table from her and she falls into a trance trying to communicate with the deceased. Oh no, this was science, and there were rules. I don’t remember it all, some of it was complicated, and don’t forget I wasn’t there as a psychologist.

Sandra came in at about 10 in the morning and was shown to one of the interview rooms we had. Strother showed her in and explained to her what was going to happen. The interview rooms all had two-way mirrors so you could observe whoever was inside. Exactly like the kind you see on police dramas. The novelty at being in such a room quickly wore off. It was dark, compact and incredibly stuffy when you spent more than half an hour inside. Strother had invited me to watch Sandra’s first sessions. In his words, I needed to know where the data came from to better understand it. I watched as he began to stick bits of plastic to her scalp, what he called nodes. This was an electroencephalogram or EEG. It was attached to a machine that recorded electrical activity in the brain.

I was struck at how Strother spoke to Sandra. To me, and the rest of our team, he was harsh, brusque to the point of condescending, but with her he was polite. He tempered his accent into what I can only call scientific English until the Yorkshire lilt disappeared completely. He was patient and answered all of her questions calmly. Whenever we asked him anything he’d usually answer, unhelpfully, with another question. When he was finished, he left her in the room and came to join me behind the two-way mirror. Just as he left a young man, in his mid to late twenties, entered. I’d never seen him before, but I just assumed he was one of the sitters. The man gave Sandra a first name, and that was it, he said nothing for the next 30 minutes.

Strother quietly explained to me that the man sitting in with her wasn’t a part of the study, he was a research assistant working for a different team in the department. The generally accepted way to test mediumship is to never have them meet the sitters. Because Strother and I had already met Sandra, we couldn’t meet the sitters who were having a reading with her. Ken and Steph had selected them from the pool of controls they’d recruited in the first few weeks of the study, and they hadn’t been allowed to meet Sandra.

When I asked why, he told me that it negates the results being down to cold reading, fishing, unconscious transfer of information, and even telepathy. You heard that right, telepathy. Because Sandra never met the controls, she couldn’t conduct a cold reading on them to discern information that could be related to the deceased person they wished to contact. Because Strother and I hadn’t met the controls it meant we couldn’t inadvertently let something slip to Sandra about them. The names she was given were the first names of the deceased that the controls had lost.

I can’t go into detail about the EEG. Analysing those were never part of my PhD. I saw them a few times during my time there, but I never understood what they meant. Lord knows what’s happened to them now. They’re not amongst the files I kept.

The entire session was recorded and later transcribed. Statements were extracted and given to the controls on whom Sandra had done the reading. They’d then have to rate how accurate she’d been, and how specific it was to their circumstances. The general theory about mediums was that they said general statements that had a high probability of meaning something to their client. It’s quite similar to the Barnum effect. This is a phenomenon usually connected with horoscopes or fortune tellers, where the practitioner claiming to have a paranormal gift says vague statements that their victim perceives to be about them, but are in fact so general as to be applicable to many others. Exactly like a weekly horoscope. Obviously, it’s a bit different with someone claiming to be a medium receiving messages from deceased loved ones, but the psychology behind them both is very similar. Most of it comes down to the victim placing meaning in vague statements out of a sense of desperation, and how ready they are to believe in the supernatural.

In the case of mediumship, phony mediumship anyway, any more specific statements tend to come from cold readings, which were impossible in the experiments we conducted. Whilst Sandra sat in one room, the controls sat in another at the opposite end of the corridor, listening to music, and supervised by Ken and Steph. They never crossed paths with Sandra.

She contributed a total of 4 readings to the study. There was a break between the first and second where she could relax, have a drink, and gather her thoughts. I was still behind the two-way glass, watching her the same way I would an animal at the zoo, when the glass of water she was drinking stopped halfway to her mouth. She looked directly at the mirror, straight at me, as though she knew I was there.

Your father, Robert, says he misses you very much, Sarah, she said.

I thought my heart was going to stop. It’s like the feeling you get when you’ve been caught watching a couple fight in public. She couldn’t have known I was there, yet there was such certainty in her gaze as it pierced through the glass.

I rarely spoke about my Dad back then. The wound was still raw, even after four years. He died from cancer when I was in my last year of school. I didn’t talk about it because I didn’t want to be the girl who’d lost her Dad so young. I didn’t want their pity. No one on the research team knew about my loss, so how did Sandra? I just added it to the growing number of questions I had about the medium.

Strother came back in just as the second proxy sitter entered and gave Sandra a name.

Don’t be rattled by what she said, he warned me.

I stared at him, confused. I hadn’t thought he’d heard her for a start, but how could he tell me not to be rattled? A woman I didn’t know was speaking about a Dad who she couldn’t possibly know I’d lost. I told him he wouldn’t be saying that if she’d been speaking to him. He paused a moment, pensive. He asked me if I believed she was genuine. I hesitated. If he’d asked me earlier that week it would have been a firm denial, but after my few encounters with Sandra I was torn. How had she known my surname? I didn’t have any ID on me at the time, and Strother had only addressed me by my first name, which is common as hell. How had she known my Dad was dead? I hadn’t told anyone, and it wasn’t something I went around talking about. She’d even known his name!

Alright, I was rattled, but you’d be too if you were there. Strother’s calm infuriated me as much as his superior attitude did. He told me not to feel too bad that I’d been duped by her since she was a professional con artist. In what would become the first of frequent outbursts, I demanded that he tell me how she knew so much of my personal information. He swivelled around in his chair and gauged me, like a pensioner does the weather when they want to put a wash on.

Figure it out, he said.

I don’t think you know how she did it either, I retorted like a petulant child.

It wasn’t my finest hour, I’ll admit, but everyone’s guilty of impatience. Strother wasn’t one for getting drawn into arguments that he didn’t start himself so we spent the rest of the session in silence.

It must’ve been about a week later when I was cleaning the data that I noticed the results. Everyone involved in the study was given a unique identifier so we wouldn’t know who the results were from when we looked at them. It’s a common practice used to prevent bias affecting the results. I wasn’t supposed to know which result came from Sandra, but it was obvious in the early stages when she was one of the few mediums we’d managed to recruit. She had received high scores for accuracy from the sitters when they’d rated her statements. They weren’t perfect, there was no 100%, but it was enough to surprise me. It occurred to me then that perhaps the way I saw ghosts wasn’t necessarily the only way. I still wanted Sandra to be genuine but I was grasping at straws. As I’ve mentioned before I’d never met anyone else like me, and when I was younger, at that strange age where you’re an adult but don’t feel like one, I was just looking for somewhere to belong. If Sandra could communicate with the dead like I could, then perhaps she could answer all of the questions I had. It’d also meant that Strother had been wrong.

A few days later I arrived at the university a little earlier than normal, so early the cleaners hadn’t finished. Not wishing to disturb them I took a different way to the office. At the bottom of the stairs was a board of staff members and students. There were neat rows of faces, variously frowning and smiling at the camera, names and qualifications on a small label beneath. I must’ve seen it dozens of times, but something caught my eye. Namely, the addition of my own face at the bottom beside the other students in the department. It hadn’t been there the last time I’d walked past. Then I began to think. These stairs were at the back of the building, where Strother and Sandra had come from that night. Could she have seen the board, and then simply matched my face to the name?

On my journey to the office my mind kept churning through the information. You can do a lot with a name. That’s why we’d only given Sandra the first name of the deceased she was supposed to contact. She had my full one. As soon as I logged into my computer, I searched for myself on Google. I kept my social media accounts private so it wouldn’t have been them, I hoped. I scrolled down the page, looking past the profiles of the handful of other Sarah McIlwraith’s in the world, when I came to an obituary archive from a newspaper. It was my Dad’s.

Had what she did in the interview room been a show, and I’d been dragged naively in? Were her words just a shot in the dark, intended to lure me into her lies? I remembered her results; accurate but not perfect. Perhaps there were different levels of clarity with the dead, or perhaps it was all or nothing. Sandra Oakes wouldn’t be the one to tell me because somehow I just knew, like Strother did, that she was a fake.

The disappointment was eclipsed by the realisation I’d have to apologise to Strother for what I’d said. If I was hoping to avoid him then my disappointment only increased when he came into the office an hour later looking for Steph. I told him I’d been wrong about Sandra and asked him if he’d known she was a fake from the beginning. He shrugged, a recurring habit throughout our time working together and said he hadn’t known, but recruitment had been slow and he’d seen an advertisement for her séance. I realised at his answer that unlike me, Strother went into these things assuming none of it existed. He had the luxury of relying on science, and his own experience. That was his faith, his God. It was sometimes strange talking to him, especially about the veracity of mediums, psychics, and other paranormal phenomena. He was so adamant that they didn’t exist, and yet there I was, standing next to him, seeing the things he wanted to disprove. It was always a strange concoction, and I wish I could tell you it got easier, but you know it didn’t.

Present day

I phoned Alice Strother a few days ago. Thankfully she remembered me from the funeral. We arranged for me to visit the house this morning so I could look through what he’d left about his work. What was meant to be a few hours of looking turned into an entire day buried in paperwork, laptops, and files. I had no idea he was involved in so many pieces of research.

I didn’t get through all of it, but did find the files on our study amongst the chaos. They didn’t tell me anything I hadn’t already found out. In all of the paperwork he had there was no mention of who funded out study. Alice came in and helped me with the password on his laptop. It certainly made me wish I was a better programmer. I asked her if she remembered anything he might’ve said regarding the study, even just in passing. She repeated that he refused to speak about it, then reluctantly she voiced her own theory. In her view there had been an important reason why Strother had stood back and watched his career burn, especially considering how important his work had been to him.

Alice left me to peruse the laptop after she heard her mother returning from her knitting club at the local church. I’ll give it to Strother, he was meticulous when it came to file organisation, everything was named and dated so there was no confusion or endlessly trying to translate what obscure file names meant. Despite all of that there was nothing of use on either of his laptops.

In a last ditch attempt to find something I began to look through his emails, even his personal account, which proved no more illuminating. Then it occurred to me that he may have met up with them. That’s how funding usually worked, regular updates and outputs to prove you haven’t just spent the money on an expensive coffee machine. There were meetings with the head of the psychology department, with all of us, with Ken and I, with Steph, slots blanked out for testing subjects. There was one thing that caught my eye.

Every week there was an appointment on a Wednesday at 1pm. What was conspicuous was that there was only a set of initials in the heading. Everything else used full names. I looked back 2 years and it was always there. What was better was that there was an address of a café that wasn’t far from the university. It was small, a tiny thread, but you know where I stand on threads.

They’re closed tomorrow but I’ll go at the weekend. I know it’s unlikely anyone who worked there 15 years ago will still be there, but I have to try.

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