2021’s Year in Books: Part One

Each year, I set a goal for how many books I’d like to read during the year. I’ll be breaking down each book in sections so if you want a glimpse as to what I’ve been reading? Come and find out, warning ahead, mild spoilers – with each book in the order I read them in!

Weird Woods: Tales from the Haunted Forests of Britain by John Miller

This book is an anthology of stories stemming from rural areas in the UK, think Yorkshire and Devon from different eras capturing nature with a dark twist. The sole focus of the book is to talk about strange forests and woodland that seem to host the supernatural, the magical or the just plain weird within its foliage for you to explore.

I feel a little misled by the description of this book. When I see the word, ‘haunted’, I expect suspense and an adrenaline rush that a good horror flick can give you; which is lacking here.

What we are offered instead, is an odd collection of tales. From sentinent trees, that can shape destiny, in stories such as ‘An Old Thorn’; others seem to describe a perculiar forest or tree, and it left me wanting. There’s nothing terrifying about this, it’s like catching a haunted mansion on its lunch hour – boring.

I understand the scenery is the focal point, and it does have a certain gravitas, there just isn’t a driving force behind a lot of the fables. They also feel like filler scenes to a much larger story, one we don’t have any context over.

For me, I find it missing in its key unique selling point (USP), it’s like we’re getting short changed. We get tales of hatred, fantasy elements and romance; but when you hear the word ‘haunted’, you think of the supernatural and of horror, rather than what we actually get.

The only two tales that really had me at the edge of my seat was ‘Man-Size in Marble’ and ‘The Name-Tree’. It had enough mystery and intrigue, with a dash of magick, to really immerse me. This was where I saw the haunting I was promised.

Miller may play on the traditional sense of horror and the unusual, as a lot of the stories are from older eras. However, I felt that this was a strange and odd collection of fables. One that left me lost from one strange forest to another. It really like the book wasn’t cohesive as, aside from a short introduction to each piece, we had no context.

There was also, no world building (unless in the story itself) to be to fully drive the story forward and give it conviction. You simply cannot see the wood for the trees in this book, which is apt when you think about it.

My rating: 2/5 stars

Young Blood (The Mediator Book 4) By Meg Cabot

Number four in The Mediator series, Suze has landed herself a summer job babysitting for a posh hotel, where she meets two other kids with the same gifts as her; but her heart strings are tied in knot as the grave of her crush, and current ghostly roommate, are dug up leaving old secrets of the past chasing her. Will she get the guy?

Admittedly, this is a dive into nostalgia for me. I remember reading this in high school in the English block, and I wanted to revisit the series to see if I still enjoyed it as I did then; as I have a total soft spot for it!

As much as I loved this as a teenager, I need to take off the rose tinted glasses. It’s a quirky take on the ‘girl meets boy’ saga with a twist; but at least, there’s definitely a haunting in this book! It is halfway through the series, and with any chic-lit, there’s always a curveball or five. Mostly, will the two lovers ever reunite/confess their love for each other/ever be together. Cue eye roll here.

It’s very overdramatic, with some pointless drama and naivete. I feel like I’ve outgrown this, but I can see why this would appeal to a younger audience. It just generates some serious second-hand cringe, the kind you get when you read old Facebook statuses from five years ago.

The ‘will-they-won’t-they’ between Jesse and Suze is not enough to fuel your curiosity and the ghost-busting sprinkled in, now feels like a plot drive to move it along.

Reading the book now, in my late twenties, I almost wished there was more of the mediating; especially as she realises she’s not alone anymore. It would also iron out some plotholes – like how does a ghost appear, is it the form they had before they ‘stopped functioning’ as said in the first book, or is it at their most vital (as said in this book)?

Had this aspect been fully realised and planned out, it would become a powerful main feature for this series, rather than the love between a teen and her ghost. Particularly as there as some great characters and relationship pairings here, which could have been fantastic had they been built on further.

I adore this concept, but it definitely needed more workshopping to fully develop it. Maybe a little less drama too, and this would have made it a more enjoyable trip down memory lane.

My rating: 3.5/5 stars (0.5 solely for nostalgia).

The Art of Drag by Jack Hall, Sofie Birkin, Helen Li and Jasjyot Singh Hans

A handy guide to the history of drag, long before it hit our TV screens, we explore its immersive history. We look at how fashion, theatre, sexuality and politics converge to create Drag in all of its art forms.

Words cannot describe how beautiful this book is! It’s stunningly designed, with some really thoughtful and insightful pieces on the history and culture of drag; it felt a true reflection of the art it speaks of.

This book helps you delve into drag long before it appeared on our screens. The beautiful re-telling of its history covers everything possible aspect, shining a spotlight on early pioneers.

I devoured this book in a single sitting. It was that good. The artwork is an extension to drag. It’s bright, powerful and awe-inspiring. That alone is a highlight for this book, as each one complimented the story being told. It made each section hit that next level.

It marries well the information that has carefully been compiled and woven in. It’s very apparent that each of the authors brought great care and attention to each section. I learnt what falls out of the standard mould of this art, ones that may not neccessarily be captured or represented in film or on our TV screens – think about Drag Kings for example. Even drag from different cultures, such as Kabuki.

Each segment was concise, mentioning key moments such as Stonewall as well as key themes like the future and politics. It’s a great portrayal of this community, told by those within it. I think it definitely helps you understand more, whilst prompting you to delve deeper.

This book is the perfect stepping stone to learn more and to be a better ally, as well being told with such love and care that it radiates on each page.

My rating: 5/5

While We Can’t Hug by Eion McLaughlin and Polly Dunbar

Hedgehog and Tortoise are best friends, but they can’t touch. So the two learn how to show their affection to one another while social distancing.

Some may have purchased this for a little human to help them understand the world we find ourselves in; others may have bought it as a collector’s item as reflection of the times. Me? I bought it because I love hedgehogs!

Despite that, I think it’s a beautiful book to help children understand that while they cannot hug loved ones, there are other ways to love. You can draw, sing and dance with them to show how much you care. It’s a positive way to see that whilst things are different, particularly in these challenging times.

It’s given me a much more positive way to view things, as well as help me with my nephews who want to know when the virus will go away. I am lucky I stumbled upon this ray of sunshine as the story was so heartfelt and the drawings only added to that.

Whilst I came for the hedgehog, I stayed for the positivity it gave.

My rating: 5/5

Gone at Midnight: The Mysterious Death of Elisa Lam by Jake Anderson

This focuses on the mysterious death of Elisa Lam, a 21 year old college student, who stayed and sadly passed in the infamous Cecil Hotel. Jake Anderson investigates the strange circumstances surrounding her death and the investigation after it.

After watching Netflix’s Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel! I was disappointed. It left a lot unanswered and a lot to be desired.

The documentary seemed to make big dramatic moments which led nowhere (such as the men carrying the box for Elisa), without answering key questions. With interviews seemingly rehearsed and the sumation at the end, half-hearted at best. How can you be a crime documentary and then conclude there’s no crime?

It raised some serious questions as the documentary didn’t sit right with me. After doing some research, I came across this book.

It offered a lot more insight by breaking down the complexities of the case; as well as highlighting the inconsistencies hinted at in the Netflix show (such as the handling of the case by the LAPD, the hotel management and their accounts). Not to mention, giving a more personable account into mental health and how this had a factor in Elisa’s death.

The attention to detail and the similarities between Elisa and Jake were heartfelt and gave a genuine human connection. I felt like the time and attention to each strand of this mystery were explored thoroughly and explained in more detail. Unlike the documentary which offered a standard ‘corporate’ line and version of events.

Whilst I, like many others, will always feel unsatisfied with the conclusion to the Lam case; this book, I believe offered stayed true to the mystery of the case and to Elisa, because not only did it walk you through the case with great detail, it did so by giving more humanity. It’s not just another case, another conspiracy theory or viral video – it’s her story.

I would thoroughly recommend this book, even over the Netflix investigation, if you are interested in true crime; with more detail and humanity too.

My rating: 4/5

Stay tuned for the next instalment!

~ E

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