The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
Pick up a kids’ book in aid of frontline workers, and find yourself absorbed in a very prescient pandemic read…
1. The Pull Of The Stars by Emma Donoghue is published in hardback by Picador. Available now
Emma Donoghue wrote this startling and extraordinary novel before the coronavirus pandemic hit – but it couldn’t be more prescient. The Pull Of The Stars takes place across three days in 1918, where on a makeshift, thoroughly understaffed maternity ward in Dublin, Nurse Julia Power is trying to support pregnant women through labour, while Spanish Influenza goes about its insidious, fatal work. Eerie comparisons with Covid aside (like the often bizarre and confusing government messaging, outrage of public coughing, and conspiracy theories etc.) Julia’s observations on the odds pregnant women in poverty already face, and the havoc wreaked on their bodies from having too many children, too young, is devastating – and fascinating – to read.
Donoghue deftly weaves in politics, policy, the impact of war, feminism, violence and the minutiae of changing bed pans and sterilising instruments, while dealing with dismissive male doctors and birthing babies. And that’s all alongside the awful things happening in Irish convents and children’s homes. But throughout, the pragmatic, thoughtful Julia keeps the overwhelming darkness she’s tackling, in abeyance – just about. A powerful, persistent, highly detailed and incredibly moving book that speaks through time. Donoghue is an absolute marvel of a writer.
(Review by Ella Walker)
2. Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce is published in hardback by Doubleday. Available now
The latest book from the bestselling author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is about an expedition to find the golden beetle of New Caledonia. Set in the stultified 1950s, Miss Benson’s Beetle considers female friendship in the unlikeliest of situations. Miss Benson, a frumpy, middle-aged domestic science teacher hiding a lifetime’s worth of emotional scars from herself, suffers one slight too many and behaves in a completely irrational manner. This prompts her to revive a childhood dream, in a ‘now or never’ moment to find the golden beetle. She advertises for an assistant and an unlikely candidate steps forward – Enid Pretty. The pair have nothing in common, but through a series of sometimes farcical, sometimes poignant adventures together, a redemptive bond is created between the women. But danger is never far away. To survive, the pair need to find their best selves. While a little uneven in tone, you’ll find yourself willing the pair to succeed, escape the chains of their previous lives, and find their true self worth.
(Review by Bridie Pritchard)
3. My Darling from The Lions by Rachel Long is published in paperback by Picador. Available August 6
My Darling From The Lions is the debut collection from poet Rachel Long. Founder of the Octavia Poetry Collective for Womxn of Colour, Long focuses on women’s experiences, race and heritage, all intertwined in the recurring motif of hair and wigs, used in the title of one of the collection’s three sections – A Lineage of Wigs. The collection also covers relationships, religion, family and school, skilfully highlighting the tension between the latter when describing day-long hair styling in Jail Letter: “Mum, my scalp burns!/Ungrateful! Look at you, beautiful as Winnie Mandela!/I don’t know who this is/but it doesn’t sound like someone Ben Clark will fancy.” Long’s use of dialect is one of her strongest points (“Gross, init, but I weren’t about to say no to 300 quid”), while one of the most effective poems, 8, uses form to indicate a skipping and speeding memory of abuse.
(Review by Laura Paterson)
4. X+Y: A Mathematician’s Manifesto for Rethinking Gender by Eugenia Cheng is published in hardback by Profile Books. Available now
This book does not so much rethink gender as (temporarily at least), remove it from the equation, thus sidestepping any issues of gender-based discrimination. Where it is useful though, is in shifting the debate in a way that allows a comparison of characteristics often associated with male or female, while avoiding the need to constantly qualify any statements with the awkward tag of ‘not all women’ or ‘not all men’. As the author herself states, this is a reframing of the debate, as inspired by her background in category theory. Her major shift is in the creation of the terms ‘congressive’ and ‘ingressive’ as useful shorthand for traits that might roughly be summarised as ‘caring and sharing’, as opposed to ‘competitive and individualistic’. In the end, however, Chen’s (very practical) solutions seem to rely on individuals without power, learning to be more assertive, and those with it, learning to act in ways that are more inclusive; rather than on any kind of structural change.
(Review by Lucy Whetman)
Children’s book of the week
5. Thank You, Heroes: A Celebration Of Our Key Workers by Patricia Hegarty and Michael Emmerson is published in paperback by Little Tiger. Available now
Bright, colourful and bold, this sing-song ode to frontline key workers is uplifting, inspiring and a celebration of the people who put their lives at risk for the benefit of the rest of us – and it’s not just relevant to life in a pandemic. From hospital staff to delivery drivers, volunteers and care workers, this short, snappy, diverse book shouts loudly and proudly about those whose work we’d be utterly lost without, and simultaneously captures a moment in time, recalling the Thursday night claps, teachers teaching over zoom, and supermarket workers wearing masks. Even better, all publisher profits on UK sales are being donated to NHS Charities. A fun read, and a brilliant cause.
(Review by Ella Walker)
BOOK CHARTS FOR THE WEEK ENDING JULY 25
AUDIOBOOKS (FICTION AND NON-FICTION)
1. Too Much and Never Enough by Mary L. Trump
2. Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
3. Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor
4. Mythos by Stephen Fry
5. Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
6. Becoming by Michelle Obama
7. Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection by Arthur Conan Doyle
8. The World’s Worst Parents by David Walliams
9. Atomic Habits by James Clear
10. Dracula by Bram Stoker
(Compiled by Audible)
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