Tag: reading

March Reading Roundup & Recs

Being the kind of person who is both somewhat underemployed and also not a big watcher of TV (mostly due to my eyeballs being temperamental and full of demons), I read quite a lot. I try to talk about some of the books I’m reading on Instagram, particularly the ones I really like, or where I had an ARC, but since I stopped using Goodreads as a reader, I’ve pulled back from reviewing more broadly. I’m happy with that decision — there’s a weird power balance when you’re also an author which means your opinion is never just another reader’s opinion — but I do think it’s a shame that I’ve read seventy books already this year and not really talked about them that much, so here’s a roundup of some of those I’ve been reading recently. (I’ll probably make this a semi-regular type of post.)

All links in this post are Bookshop.org (UK) affiliate links, so if any of these books take your fancy, ordering from there will support both me and independent bookshops, which feels like a win-win situation. If a book isn’t available from Bookshop, I’ve linked Amazon — again, an affiliate link — for want of a better option.

I won’t be discussing / linking any books I actively disliked, because I’m not about that negativity — if I describe a book here as ‘horrible’, it’s meant as a compliment, because in those cases, I’m fairly sure that’s what the author was aiming for. But there were a few recurring themes this month that characterised all the books that won’t be discussed in this post…

This month, one of my goals was to read more thrillers. My debut is a YA thriller, so I figured I should better acquaint myself with the genre, having largely avoided it during the editing process in order to (a) give my brain a break and (b) avoid comparison. So far, this has been… honestly kind of a mixed bag. I’ve read some brilliant books, but I’ve also been struck by how many thrillers use sexual relationships as a major source of conflict. At best, these are toxic, unhealthy relationships between consenting adults, which can be interesting to read about, even if unpleasant. At worst, though, I’ve read two thrillers featuring sexual abuse of a minor, which was really not what I signed up for. Being a genre that prides itself on dark content, none of the books I’ve picked up in the past month have had any kind of content warnings, and I would probably have preferred if they did — at least I would know in advance what I was getting into, and whether I was in the right headspace for it.

Having said that, I did enjoy being utterly bamboozled by a few books where I could never quite figure out where it was taking me next. Mandy Byatt’s Just Another Liar really caught me out — initially, I’d been thinking maybe I was too young for the book in the sense of the “relatable” problems the characters faced not actually being relatable to me (because I’m young, queer, and single), but then it twisted on me and I lay awake that night thinking about it, putting all the pieces back together, because I realised I’d had them the wrong way around the whole time.

Sarah Bonner’s Her Perfect Twin also left me thinking about it after I’d finished — the way it switches narrator periodically to misdirect the reader and lead you to draw all sorts of conclusions about what, exactly, is going on is very clever, and means every time you think you’ve got to grips with where it’s going, it swerves and goes somewhere else.

I didn’t read any YA thrillers this month that I really loved, but in February I read Tess Sharpe’s The Girls I’ve Been, and really enjoyed that. It’s very twisty and clever, but it never sacrifices character and emotion, which I valued — I was able to get invested, and stay invested, in the characters. There’s some overlap with The Butterfly Assassin, which makes sense (my editor was the UK acquiring editor for this one, which is why I put off reading it so long, because I knew I’d end up comparing them), but the overall vibe is pretty different. Actually, it kind of reminded me of a real-world/contemporary White Cat by Holly Black, although maybe that’s a sign that I haven’t read many books about characters with con artist parents.

One thing I rediscovered while on my Read More Thrillers quest was that there is a difference between books that are good and books that I’ll enjoy reading at that particular moment. Girl A by Abigail Dean is brilliantly well-written — it’s compelling throughout. But it’s also bleak, and dark, and had me crying in a horrified (rather than cathartic) kind of way at one particular revelation. There was a time in my life when I loved that in a book, and anything that managed to emotionally gut me rocketed up my list of favourites. But I’ve mellowed in my old age, and these days I look more for comfort from books, so this one proved a little more than I could handle at this point in time.

If you want a horrible book about horrible people, I also found The Girls Are All So Nice Here by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn was one of those: compelling, but in an unpleasant kind of way. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s very good, but… again, it had some graphic content that I could have used a warning for (suicide/self harm imagery described at length), and left me rather unsettled.

So what have I been reading for comfort? Well, after I read Girl A I decided I needed a couple of days of reassuring books to help settle my brain, so I turned to KJ Charles, who is ever reliable in that regard, and I reread the Will Darling Adventures. It feels reductive to describe this trilogy as Romance, because while it absolutely is that, it’s also a pulp adventure story with spies, communists, secret societies, and all manner of other shenanigans, set in the 1920s. I love the way KJ Charles has these dual-genres going on. Some of her books will be romance novels… but also a fantasy book, or a murder mystery, or, in this case, an adventure story. I still mark them all in my spreadsheet as Romance, because I only have one genre box, but the vibe can vary considerably.

Anyway, I had a good time rereading the Will Darling books (beginning with Slippery Creatures), and I also reread another KJ Charles book, Spectred Isle. This one’s fantasy, as well as romance, with an archaeologist protagonist reluctantly going along with his employer’s superstitious interest in certain locations… only to find they are, actually significant, and that he’s getting all tangled up in a supernatural world he knew nothing about. It’s delightful. It has some dark moments and some tension, but the reassuring thing about a fantasy novel that’s actually a romance novel is that you know it’ll end up okay, because that’s what the genre requires. Perfect comfort-reading.

Speaking of fantasy, I was lucky enough to get an ARC of Rory Power’s adult fantasy novel, In A Garden Burning Gold, which comes out next week. Rory was my mentor during Author Mentor Match, and helped me turn The Butterfly Assassin from a mess into something that would actually be potentially publishable, so I am obviously biased towards her as an author. But Garden is genuinely great. I particularly loved the worldbuilding, and the magic system. It features peculiar, time-consuming, impractical magic — sewing the constellations each and every night, painting the shadows throughout the day — which is both bizarre and firmly integrated into the world it’s creating. I love that. I think more magic should be odd. The ending left me with some unanswered questions, but there’s to be a sequel, so that’s all right. The trouble with an ARC, though, is that it means waiting even longer for the next book…

On the romance front, I also enjoyed The Start of Something by Miranda Dickinson. One character is struggling with chronic pain and limited mobility following an injury, while the other is a Welsh single mum trying to keep her head above water after her ex-husband left her with a pile of debt. Although I don’t love misunderstandings/miscommunication as a main point of conflict, they made sense in this one, where both characters were extremely focused on how they would be perceived by the other, and wont to leap to the wrong conclusions. I also found the chronic pain narrative extremely relatable: what if this doesn’t get better? what if this is just how it is now? are questions I’ve asked myself repeatedly over the last few years, and I really felt that.

I took a detour into sci-fi via a Kindle deal and read A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, which I really enjoyed. I wasn’t expecting to, because I don’t often have the brainpower to manage lots of worldbuilding, but it was great. It reminded me a little of The Goblin Emperor: an outsider with a partial but incomplete understanding of cultural/social norms adapts to a complex political situation quickly and unexpectedly while dealing with their predecessor’s murder, and also there’s interesting linguistic worldbuilding. (In this case, the use of poetry as an essential part of a society’s transmission of information.)

Finally, a few YA reads, hopping back to February. I read Morgan Owen’s The Girl With No Soul, which came out this month, and fortunately, enjoyed it a lot. I say fortunately, because Morgan was incredibly nice about The Butterfly Assassin and I was terrified I wouldn’t like hers in return 😅 But I did, so we’re safe. It contains a great many things that fascinate me, and which I’ve written about or am writing about: souls, beasties made of shadows, guys with a white streak in their hair… (There were a few details where I had to message Morgan a passage from something I’d written and go, “Do we have the same brain?!”) If you want interesting worldbuilding in a YA fantasy that feels both classic and original, this is one for you.

I also read Hell Followed With Us by Andrew Joseph White, which comes out in a few months. This one is… a lot, in the best possible way. It’s a trans post-apocalyptic horror novel where religious extremists have wiped out most of the population. The protagonist is an escapee from the religious community; he’s also undergoing a horrific transformation and turning into a monster. It’s all about bodies, and power over yourself and your identity, and finding strength in community. It’s also, in places, extremely gross, and I had to take a break from reading for a few days because body horror and post-surgical nausea turned out to be a terrible combination. But if you’re not squeamish like me, you’ll probably find the body horror quite fun, and the rest of the book is full of feelings and it’s just… yeah, it’s a lot.

Then, this month, I reread Matt Killeen’s Orphan, Monster, Spy, because a while back I bought the sequel but didn’t remember enough of book one to read it. I’d forgotten how dark it is. It’s about a Jewish girl going undercover to spy on the Nazis, so it was never going to be a walk in the park, but it really doesn’t flinch from the horrors she witnesses. The violence is never gratuitous, I thought, but nor is it sanitised at all. Book two, Devil, Darling, Spy, is similar in that regard, grappling with the evils of colonialism and medical experimentation, among other topics. Both are powerful, dark, and concerned with the issue of whose stories gets told and who gets protected in times of warfare.

I had a couple of lighter reads in February, too. Rachael Lippincott’s She Gets The Girl is a college-set YA with your classic “I’ll help you win her over! Oh, crap, but now I’ve fallen for you” kind of plotline (I say classic not because it’s been overdone, because it hasn’t, but because it’s a solid and delightful trope). The emotional beats of the romance felt earned in a way that a lot of books don’t quite manage, and I believed in the emotions of it. Sophie Gonzales’ Perfect on Paper has a Sex Education vibe, and grapples with the question of whether it’s ethical for a teenager to be giving paid relationship advice; it has an important narrative about grappling with internalised biphobia, and I liked that the character’s sister is casually trans, too.

Finally, this month I reread CG Drews’ The Boy Who Steals Houses, in order to dive into her serialised-on-Patreon sequel, The Kings of Nowhere. I am loving the sequel so far, and having a great many feelings about it; I’m looking forward to the final chapters being posted tomorrow. While I’m late to the serialisation party, I’m glad I waited, because I’m far too impatient to read only a couple of chapters per week! So if you want stories about codependent brothers, found family, autism, and healing after trauma, I recommend checking those out.

Not a lot of nonfiction in this post, mostly because I’ve been cheating on the two nonfiction books I’m currently reading with all of this fiction. I’m hoping to talk more about Fierce Appetites by Elizabeth Boyle (my current read) once I’ve finished it — it might even get its own post, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been reading lately. How about you? Any recommendations for me?


With less than two months to go until The Butterfly Assassin comes out, now is a great time to preorder!

Generic Observations

I’ve been thinking a lot about genre recently.

One of my aims this year is to read a more varied mix of genres and categories than last year. In particularly, I’m aiming to read more nonfiction, although I keep screwing myself over on that front by choosing Extremely Large History Books as my nonfiction choices, which then take me months to get through and require a great deal of concentration. Devil-Land looks like a fascinating take on 17th century England, for example, a period I’ve been hoping to learn more about… but it’s also more than 700 pages of tiny print, and, well, I’m very tired, all the time. I can see it taking me a while.

(By comparison: I raced through Did Ye Hear Mammy Died by Séamas O’Reilly in an evening, and had a great time. It’s a memoir that, as the marketing info says, is a lot funnier than the title makes it sounded. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some pretty poignant observations about grief — but it also made me cackle aloud repeatedly. I need more nonfiction like that in my life.)

Even on the fiction front, which is always going to dominate for me, I wanted to aim for more variety. Last year was very dominated by fantasy and romance, and I was hoping I could shake things up a bit. I’m aiming to read more thrillers now that I’m not so deeply mired in edits for The Butterfly Assassin, and I’ve got a few on my Kindle waiting for me, including a couple by my fellow 2022 debuts. I already read a lot of SFF, and I know from past experience that I don’t do well with creepy books, which largely rules out Horror, so I’m not sure how much I can branch out there. But as I read for comfort rather than heart-pumping excitement most of the time, I’m wondering if I should try and get into cozy mysteries or something. (Recs and genre suggestions welcome!)

Anyway, January was a strong month for reading, mainly because I’m under-employed and still recovering from the absolute wall of fatigue that hit me in December after finishing my MA, moving back to the UK, adjusting to no longer living alone, and dealing with Christmas etc. One of the things about spending large portions of every day in bed and being the kind of person who finds TV gives them photosensitive migraines is that you end up reading a lot.

On the face of it, though, the twenty-eight books I read in January look like they’re not too far off conforming to last year’s pattern. I did reread the entire Alex Rider series for various reasons, and since those are classified as “Action/Adventure”, that threw the genre balance off somewhat, but the rest were predominantly Adult Romance, YA SFF, and one or two Contemporary YAs thrown in for good luck.

But the thing about my reading statistics is that they’re based solely on how I input a book into my spreadsheet. If I’m not sure how it’s classified, I’ll google it to double check, but if it gives me a range of genres, I have to pick one, and I’ll go for whichever seems like a better catch-all term. I decided early on I wasn’t going to go for giving things mixed genres because it would make things too confusing, nor was I going to get into the nitty-gritty of subgenres (not even easy things like distinguishing between “historical” romance and “contemporary” romance), because it would complicate the process of collecting stats.

And that means that the simple one-genre answers can conceal a lot about what a book is actually like. I know that sounds obvious: “not all books within a genre are the same or even similar”. Well, duh. But I read a bunch of KJ Charles books this month, as I often do when I need comfort reading, and I was really struck by how, although they’re primarily historical romance novels and they’re listed in my spreadsheet as Romance, they have other, completely different genres going on in the background.

For example, Think of England and Proper English exist in the same universe, and have overlapping characters. But Proper English is partially a murder mystery novel, with all the tropes that entails: an isolated country house, a body, a houseful of suspects who can’t be allowed to leave, and a heroine intent on solving the murder before the police arrive (in part, to conceal the non-murdery secrets of those in the house). Think of England, on the other hand, isn’t a murder mystery, but it does have espionage and blackmail, giving it a tinge of a thriller’s tension alongside the romance.

And then I read A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske, which is listed in my spreadsheet as Fantasy. I had a great time with it — but what it reminded me most strongly of was KJ Charles’ Charm of Magpies series, which would show up in my spreadsheet as Romance. Both contain magic, gay romance, curses, and perhaps most noticeably, a magical bureaucrat dealing with a nonmagical aristocrat who is nevertheless unwillingly connected to the world of magic, set against a backdrop of historical England. So what’s the difference between them? Why is one listed as Romance and one as Fantasy?

Romance is a particular genre with its own conventions, a fact a lot of people seem to overlook when they’re classifying anything and everything with a love story as Romance. (For the last time, The Song of Achilles is not a romance novel, it’s a novel with romance.) I read another fantasy novel this month with a queer romance in it, and despite its happy ending, I wouldn’t have said that one felt like a romance novel. It didn’t have the same rhythm; I didn’t find myself anticipating the beats in the same way that I do when I’ve been reading a lot of historical romances in close succession.

When I say I anticipate the beats, I don’t mean that the books become predictable or that I know what’s going to happen, but there are certain emotional rises and falls that you begin to get used to, and if a book misses one of them — as can be done effectively when the author is deliberately trying to subvert your expectations — it can feel like you’ve missed a step going up the stairs. There are patterns, and there are tropes they have in common. (Queer historical romance novels, for example, will very often have a scene early on where one character recognises that the other one is also interested in their gender, something that has to be ascertained subtly in most time periods if nobody’s going to end up arrested. Later, there’s often a misunderstanding or mistake that leads to a temporary rupture in the relationship which feels irreparable (but won’t be). I could go on, but you get the idea: there’s a particular vibe that you start to recognise over time, if you read a lot of books in the genre in close succession.)

And those tropes and story beats, those narrative rhythms… A Marvellous Light has them, including the happy ending. Maybe they’re not foregrounded in the story the way they would be in one of KJ Charles’ fantasy romance novels, but A Charm of Magpies is still the closest comp I’ve got for it, and it’s what I’d recommend to someone who told me they’d read A Marvellous Light and wanted something else with a similar dynamic. Honestly, I think insofar as there’s a difference of genre at all, it’s simply a matter of marketing.

Again, I know, I’m coming up with all sorts of profound observations here: “genre/category is a marketing tactic, not an intrinsic fact of storytelling”. Wow, Finn, can you bottle this stuff and sell it? It’s not like everybody’s known that since, I don’t know, forever. But there are times when it’s a lot more noticeable than others — such as when you read two books back-to-back in the same genre and realise they have an entirely different vibe, or read two that are supposedly a different genre, and find they’re not so different after all.

Another thing that got me thinking about genre was that I participated in a panel discussion about YA thrillers over on the UK YA Instagram. I’m lucky that there seems to be a big appetite for thrillers and the like in YA at the moment — probably much more than there was in 2014 when I wrote The Butterfly Assassin, since we were still in more of a fantasy boom at that point. But I’m also profoundly ignorant of the genre, not least because there was a lot less of it around when I was a teen (my teenage years were dominated in publishing by post-Twilight paranormal romance, then post-Hunger Games dystopia, then edging into Big Fantasy again towards the end). Add to that the fact that I read almost no thrillers last year because I didn’t feel I could read them while working on The Butterfly Assassin without finding it either distracting or dispiriting — as I said, I hope to change that this year — and I find that currently, when asked for recommendations in my own genre, I have no idea what to suggest.

If I’m honest, I feel guilty about that ignorance! How dare I write a genre I rarely read? I’ll be honest with you: I didn’t know I was writing a thriller when I started. If anything, I thought it was going to be a dystopian novel, and I guess there’s some overlap with that genre when it comes to the worldbuilding, but it wasn’t until I was trying to query and so on that I really had to figure out exactly how to classify it. I found myself particularly looking at people who said they were interested in genre-bending stories, because I wasn’t convinced I was doing a good job of sticking within the bounds of any specific category. It’s far from the only book where I’ve had that problem: I’m a “story first, genre later” kind of writer, and I think that’s probably the way it has to be, unless you’re the very commercially-focused type who can think in terms of marketing from day one. Because that’s what genre is. Marketing.

That marketing shapes titles, cover designs, graphics, advertisements, so to some extent, it must impact on a reader’s perspective of a book. But my book’s being pretty firmly marketed as a thriller, with that dystopian angle coming in from the visual similarities to some of the covers for The Hunger Games, and there are still people shelving it as “fantasy” on Goodreads. At this point, I don’t know what I can say to convince them otherwise. It has the word “assassin” in the title and it’s slightly speculative, and that seems to be enough. They’re going to be disappointed, though, if they’re expecting magic.

(No, I have not yet learned to stay off Goodreads. Yes, I have been haunting the page that tells me what shelves people have added the book to, because it’s currently more or less the only metric by which I can measure how people are responding to the book. I’m also concerned that those adding it to shelves labelled “sapphic” and “wlw” are going to be profoundly disappointed by the total lack of romance — while the central relationship is two girls, it’s definitely presented as a platonic one. But I’ve made no secret of the lack of romance, either, so what else can I do? Absolutely nothing.)

I think the majority of readers think a lot less about genre than writers do. They know the kinds of books they like to read, but they wouldn’t necessarily slot them into a specific box. They’d recognise them unconsciously by those very same marketing decisions — the cover design, the title, the way the blurb is worded. Which works great, until you get a book where genre-dissonant cover choices were made, and suddenly all the reviews are people saying, “This wasn’t what I was expecting…”

I see that happening a lot too: readers judging a book on how closely it matches what they expected of it, rather than by how well it succeeded at doing whatever it was actually doing. I’ve done it myself, I’m sure. If I wanted a comforting low-stress romance novel, I won’t be thrilled if what I get is a dark, gritty story where I have to wade through a character grappling with transphobia and bigotry. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad book, or that I wouldn’t enjoy it at another time, if that’s what I was looking for — but when I pick something up expecting it to feel like a hug, it can be jarring when instead I get punched in the face.

And those darker themes don’t mean the book stops being a romance novel, which is an important point to note. A book can be the genre it’s marketed as, and still not be in the least bit what you’re expecting when you pick it up. Genre only goes so far to telling you what you’re holding in your hands, because as I oh-so-profoundly observed above, it’s almost like not every book in the same genre is the same and a book can fulfil the conventions without following the same template. Radical.

All of this to say: my spreadsheet tells me I read a bunch of romance novels last month, both historical and contemporary. I did. But one of them was also a murder mystery novel. One of them was about grappling with anxiety and depression. And one of them was marketed and classified as fantasy. Because genre’s… well, I was about to say it’s only half the story, but it’s a lot less than that. It’s only a fragment. Only the door we walk through to get to the book inside. And sometimes there’s more than one door leading to the same story, and sometimes we get lost on the way because we were actually looking for a totally different door, or they’ve re-labelled the floor plan without telling us.

Still. I hope this year my spreadsheet will have a wider variety of doors. But I’m not going to let myself be embarrassed about any of the ones that are already on there, because for the most part, they led me to places I very much wanted to go.


If you enjoyed this post, please consider pre-ordering The Butterfly Assassin, which is definitely not a fantasy novel, or support my book-buying habit by tipping me on Ko-Fi.

2021 In Books

A few months ago, I wrote about my discomfort with the impulse to gamify everything in life, making hobbies like reading into a competitive sport that had to be done every day or risk losing a “reading streak”. This remains: I still mislike how much information my Kindle collects about my reading habits, and I’m trying to curb the impulse to make number-based goals and lists of what to read in 2022.

I did, however, take the time to transfer my typed list of what I’d read this year into Excel and fiddle around making graphs. Not to find out what the longest book I’d read was, or the most popular, nor to compete with anybody about the total number at the end, but to get a sense of the breakdown of age categories and genres, so that I’d have a better understanding of what I’ve been reading.

This proved to be a useful tool. Although I had some vague ideas about what the results would be, it wasn’t until I actually saw the percentages laid out in pie charts that I was able to judge whether or not I was right. Some of them, my impressions were accurate; others, not so much. Seeing what had changed over the past year compared to the years that went before it was particularly interesting: living abroad, the pandemic, the need for comfort in a stressful world, the general process of growing up, and spending a lot of time editing my debut novel were all factors in my reading choices.

So I figured I’d share a few of those trends and changes with you. I’m interested to know if others have seen similar shifts in their reading, or if your year was completely different. I’m not going to be sharing specific numbers, just percentages; this is partly because once you start making it about how many books you’ve read, competitiveness can easily seep in, but also because I think they’re more useful for identifying those broader patterns.

I’ll start with a guess that was completely wrong: I thought that I’d been rereading a lot this year — there were a couple of books I reread even within the year, and counted twice. But I’d failed to take into account that being separated from the majority of my physical book collection until late November seriously curtailed my rereading, and that for most of the year I’d instead been reading anything I could get cheaply as an ebook, so that the end result was that only 22% of my reads this year were rereads.

This is probably still more than most people, but I’ve always loved rereading, and my poor memory means I can get a lot out of it: having read a book doesn’t mean I’ll remember any of the plot, and even if I do, there are always details to notice. I’m very much a character-motivated reader (and writer), so coming back to a familiar book is like meeting up with old friends — the point is the people I’m with, not where we’re going. Sure, I’ll have more fun if we’re going somewhere I like, but it’s not the destination that makes the outing.

I’d suspected that I was reading more Adult than YA fiction, and that was true: my fiction reads were 56% Adult, 36% YA, 7% Children’s and 1% NA. That last 1% is another result of the dominance of ebooks, since NA is a rare category to find in trad publishing, and although I’m not sure, I’d suspect both of those books were self-published or by small presses. If NA were a properly established category, I think that YA percentage would be smaller: many of these were upper YA books, with 18-year-old protagonists, and there were a fair few that I felt belonged as much in Adult, their inclusion in YA solely a matter of marketing. It was also noticeable that a lot of my YA reads were rereads, though my Excel know-how is not sufficient to enable me to break down the charts by more than one category, so I can’t be exactly sure of how that compared.

There are a few reasons why my reading has skewed older this year. Partly, it’s that I’m fast approaching 26: I’m aware that YA is not written for me, and with every year that goes by, I find it harder to relate to. It’s a natural part of growing older, and while I can still enjoy great YA books and will continue to read them (I write them, after all), they’re not going to be as dominant anymore. It’s also a matter of practicalities — as I mentioned, I read a lot of ebooks, and many of my choices were the result of browsing sales and deals for discounts, because I wouldn’t be able to afford to keep up with my reading speed otherwise. I’ve noticed that YA books are often weirdly expensive on Kindle (the ebook market isn’t as strong for kidlit, so maybe that’s why?) and have fewer deals, which is partly why I’ve always been a library reader for YA. Pandemic restrictions have made that challenging, and that’s influenced my choices.

Finally, it’s a matter of genre. This is an area where the percentages really surprised me. Admittedly, these numbers are super approximate, because they’re based solely on what I inputted as the genre of a book when I put it into a spreadsheet, and for each book I only gave it one genre, and some of them were slightly nebulous. There were a fair few adult books that I would call “contemporary” if they were YA, but I’m not sure that’s a term that’s really used in Adult books; they’re not quite “literary”, but possibly they’re “uplit”, which is one of these terms I don’t really understand and am not convinced means anything concrete. Usually they get shelved simply in “Fiction”, which is fundamentally unhelpful.

Approximate or not, I was pretty sure I was reading less fantasy these days, but my pie charts inform me that 46% of this year’s fiction was fantasy, vastly outweighing any other genre. True, that includes everything from urban fantasy and paranormal to epic fantasy — and I read way more of the former than the latter — and true, a few years ago that percentage would have been way higher, but it still surprised me. I’ve been particularly struggling to vibe with YA fantasies recently, and I had begun to wonder if the category was no longer for me, but when I look at the stats, the proportion of YA fantasies is so skewed compared to other genres that I can’t help but feel I’ve probably just read more mediocre ones because I’ve read more overall.

The surprise runner-up is romance, at 25%. Okay, so this isn’t a surprise to me — I knew full well that I read or reread most of KJ Charles and Cat Sebastian’s entire backlist this year — but it’s a surprise to anyone who has seen my previous years’ reading habits. I’d dabbled in queer romance in the past, particularly when I used to review a lot of small press books, but it was during last year’s lockdowns that I really discovered the comforting nature of queer historical romance novels, and this year I reached for that comfort repeatedly. No wonder, then, that it makes up almost a quarter of my total reading. There were a few contemporary romances in there too, and even one or two books that weren’t queer (though I found that Relentlessly Heterosexual Romance Novels were not to my taste) but for the most part, queer historical romance stole the show.

(At one point, I even considered writing my own, but it quickly became apparent that the amount of research required to write any historical period other than “dubiously historical mythological Ireland” with any accuracy would be too much for me, since that is the only era I know anything much about. And while I think a tropey queer romance novel set in the Ireland of the Ulster Cycle would be a delight, I suspect the audience for that is about three people. Maybe one day…)

I won’t bore you with the full breakdown of genres — it’s the broader trends that I find interesting. I will note that I read very few thrillers (1%), which is possibly surprising considering I have one coming out in May. Partly, though, it’s because I have one coming out in May. I spent most of the year editing The Butterfly Assassin, and so I avoided anything too similar to it. I figured if a YA thriller was too good, it would put me off and make me paranoid about my own work; plus, after reading my own book at least once a month all year, the last thing I wanted was something that felt too similar. I gravitated instead towards books that were nothing like any of my current projects, as a way of giving my brain a break.

I’d like to change that in 2022: I have a few YA thrillers on my Kindle that I’ve been waiting for the right moment to read. But I still think I’ll be reading for comfort more than for excitement (the pandemic is not over, it’s my debut year, and I have a bunch of other life uncertainty and big decisions going on: I don’t need any more stress), so high-tension books probably aren’t going to be my first choice. There’s a reason I got so into romance novels, and it’s because there’s something immensely comforting about knowing that no matter what else happens, the characters will wind up together and safe and okay.

I’m imagining teen me reading that sentence. I think they’d be disgusted by how much I’ve mellowed. I’m not, though: I’m proud of it, because it means I’m actually trying to seek out things that make me happy instead of wallowing.

Probably, if I had more time and Excel skills, I could see how many different authors I’d read, and figure out how many of them were new to me. I suspect that’s an area where this year would be different, because of my ebook browsing and willingness to try new things so long as they don’t cost me more than 1.99. (My book budget was still my third-highest cost this year, after rent and food, which is exactly why those sales were so important, but hey, it’s not like I was going out or spending any money on anything else.)

But with the info I’ve got, I think I have a pretty good picture of my reading year, and as 2021 provided very few opportunities to enjoy my other hobbies, like dance (thanks, pandemic + injuries), that represents a fairly large chunk of how I spent my time this year when I wasn’t studying or editing. Granted, these stats don’t reflect how many times I read The Butterfly Assassin (probably at least 15, if I’m honest) or any of my other books. Nor do they say anything about my fanfic consumption, which still remains strongly skewed in favour of very long fics about Bucky Barnes slowly learning how to be a person again, sometimes with a detour to have feelings about Natasha Romanoff.

(My type is traumatised ex-assassins trying to learn how to be a normal person in a world that seems determined to make a monster of them, and I will not apologise for this. If this is also your type, may I humbly suggest adding The Butterfly Assassin to your TBR?)

I’ve enjoyed keeping the exact details of my reading to myself. I’ve enjoyed the freedom to read and reread whatever I like. I’ve enjoyed not needing to rate books on an arbitrary star scale that always had me overthinking the difference between “quality” and “enjoyment” (sometimes a book is good but I didn’t like it; how do I rate that?). No, I probably couldn’t tell you what my “favourite” book was, nor can I tell you what the “best” book was (not necessarily the same thing), but I’m okay with that. Life without Goodreads? Honestly, pretty chill. Yes, so I had to compile all my stats manually, but that meant I could focus it on information that was useful to me, not what Amazon decided I needed to know and compare with others.

2022 will be quite a different reading year in general. It’s my debut year, and I’ll be making an effort to read books by my fellow debuts. I can’t possibly read all of them, and some are in genres I don’t vibe with or about topics that stress me out: no matter how much I want to support somebody, it’s not worth making myself miserable. (I’ll focus on recommending them to others who might like them more, instead.) But that’ll mean buying more new books, rather than waiting for a convenient sale, and probably branching out in directions I might not have tried otherwise. Perhaps next year, my genre breakdown will be a lot more varied.

I also want to read more books by other marginalised authors, especially those whose experiences are similar to my own. Ocean @ Beyond The Binary compiled this great list of 2022 releases by trans and nonbinary authors: there are so many of us that it had to be split into two, one for each half of the year. Some of these are already on my radar, but I look forward to discovering more of them. It’s fantastic to see how many of us there are, especially in a very trans-hostile world… strength in numbers, right? And while not all of the books on the list have trans characters (The Butterfly Assassin is there, and doesn’t have canon trans rep in book 1), lots do.

Likewise, I want to read more books by disabled authors, though I haven’t yet identified a handy list (I’m sure there are many out there, I just haven’t gone looking). In both of these cases, there are probably any number of books that I won’t know about because those authors aren’t comfortable sharing these marginalised facets of their identities. And that’s fine, and I don’t think they should have to. By seeking out those experiences, I’m simply trying to find others who face some of the same systemic hurdles as me, to offer what little support I can as a reader. I can never find all of us, but I’m glad there are enough of us to make that true.

Another thing I’d like to do differently in 2022 is the fiction vs nonfiction balance. My reading this year was 91% fiction, despite the fact that I was doing an MA and a number of academic books made it onto the list. That’s partly because I was spending a lot of time reading academic articles, which don’t feature on my list, and I didn’t have the brainpower left for degree-irrelevant nonfiction. I don’t have that excuse anymore, and I want to read more “fun” nonfiction (I feel I’ve been saying this for years), and to learn things that aren’t only about medieval Irish literature.

Mostly, though, I want to read books that I enjoy and that make me happy. I want to read for fun. I want to share the books I love, and keep quiet about the ones I don’t, because the world has enough negative energy in it without adding more. I want to read the kind of books that inspire me to be a better writer, and reread the ones that set me on this path in the first place. And maybe when I come to compile some stats for myself at the end of next year, they’ll look completely different from this year’s, or maybe they’ll look almost the same, but that’s something that only time will tell.

My parents gave me a jumper for Christmas that says READ MORE BOOKS. I don’t think I need the instruction, but I’m sure I’ll be following it anyway.

So, now it’s your turn. Any surprises in your reading this year, any dramatic shifts in genre preference or age category, or have you found what you liked and stuck to it? Where do you hope 2022 will take you, in terms of books? Let me know in the comments — I’m always down to hear about other people’s reading.

(And if you’ve found you’ve read very little: that’s totally fine too. I read for comfort and distraction, but not everyone does, and the ongoing state of the world has made it very hard for some people to focus on that kind of thing. No judgment here! This is a judgment-free reading zone.)


If you don’t know what to read in 2022, please consider pre-ordering The Butterfly Assassin. If you want to help fund my chronic book-buying problem, you can buy me a coffee instead :)

All Murder, No Sex: Why “Upper YA” ≠ “Sexy YA”

It’s still Ace Week, until Sunday, so following on from my last post about asexual representation in The Butterfly Assassin, I figured I would talk some more about sex and YA. More specifically, the clear and important difference between “upper YA” and “sexy YA”: terms with considerable overlap that are nevertheless not synonyms, and shouldn’t be considered as such.

There’s an uncomfortable habit that some people have of referring to books without sex as “clean”. This is particularly common in YA and romance — romance, because it’s a genre where distinguishing which books contain explicit sex is particularly relevant, and YA, because it’s a category where gatekeepers worry about what exactly they’re giving young people to read.

Of course, by categorising some books as “clean”, one automatically categorises others as “dirty”, whether or not that’s the intention, and implying that all explicit sex in books is somehow dangerous or inappropriate is a Whole Thing. It’s also something that’s disproportionately weaponised against marginalised creators. For decades, explicit queer content in books was considered illegally pornographic, and even now, LGBTQ+ books on Amazon get classified as “erotica” and hidden from lists and adverts when they don’t even vaguely fall into that category.

My experiences as a queer YA reader will be forever shaped by the fact that the first book with queer characters that I ever encountered — when I was twelve — had a label on the back saying “Advisory: Adult Content”. A label that wasn’t applied to the sequel, which contained substantial amounts of drug use. Only to the book with the gay characters. And I’ll always be shaped by the fact that when I was eighteen, I owned a grand total of three books containing queer characters. I can only recall two of the books, but in both of those they’re cis male secondary characters.

In other words, I never saw myself in books growing up. If I stumbled on queer characters in library books it felt like a strange kind of secret I was sharing with the author. Section 28 was repealed while I was still in primary school, but my county kept a version of it until I was halfway through secondary school, and in 2014, when I finished school, 29% of teachers still didn’t know whether or not they were allowed to teach about LGBT issues in schools.

This was a world of silence. Of not talking about it. Of “think of the children”. Of being treated like someone who was only allowed to exist after the watershed.

As an adult, it’s strange to think how recent this was, though sometimes, being trans, it can feel like little progress has been made. I remember when I first started getting queer books to review, I felt like I had to give all of them extra stars just because they bothered to include queer characters, which I’d seen so rarely. Now, there are enough of them that I don’t have to read any books featuring only straight people, if I choose not to. Now, there are enough that I’m allowed to dislike some of them.

I try not to take that for granted. I try to keep things in perspective. I remind myself that twenty years ago, most of the YA books I read now would have been illegal to display in school libraries.

It isn’t a world we should go back to.


There are constant conversations these days about sex in YA books, and the nature of upper YA, and where the line is between YA and Adult and whether it’s become too blurred, and whether YA is really written for teenagers anymore. Discourse is cyclical; the same discussions happen every few months, nothing changes, and everybody sinks into an ever-deepening pit of despair.

My take? The vast majority of YA books are written for teens. A few aren’t, but end up marketed that way because of the author’s prior readership or because publishers think they’ll do better there. Some of those that fall into this latter category happen to be really popular with older/adult YA readers, who have the purchasing power that makes publishers care about them, and therefore those books dominate the conversation because that’s what happens when money gets involved. Sometimes, I think both readers and authors would be happier if they made the jump to certain adult genres instead of squashing their books into the YA category by default. Other times, I think people are patronising teenagers and thinking them incapable of making up their own minds about anything. A lot of the time I’m feeling both of these things simultaneously.

One thing I find reductive about the conversation is how it always comes down to sex.

I think I have strong feelings about this for two reasons. One, I’m somebody who writes upper YA and adult fiction and often struggles to determine on which side of the line a book should fall. Two, I was a kid who read ‘above’ my age category from a fairly young age but who hated romance in books.

I was a teenager during the paranormal romance boom. Shaped by the Twilight era so much that I wrote one of my GCSE coursework essays about the impact Twilight had had on teen fiction as a whole. You know what I complained about in that essay? That it flooded the market with copycats and love triangles so that those of who didn’t like them had to go hang out in the adult section to find literally anything else.

I was probably being hyperbolic. I’m sure there were plenty of other YA books in the late 00s and early 10s that weren’t fixated on heterosexual white girls and their awkward supernatural love triangles. I probably read a lot of them, and loved a lot of them. But it felt, at times, like every book I read was trying to give me the same story, and it was a story that had romance at the centre, where kissing was a huge, life-changing big deal that everybody was desperate to experience.

And I… wasn’t interested.

Not only was I not interested, but throughout most of my teens I found sex not only uninteresting but actively horrifying and repellent to think about. I looked away during sex scenes in films. I skimmed them in books. I’d retreated to the adult SFF section to get away from ubiquitous YA love triangles, but I’d found the sexual violence of A Song of Ice and Fire (also gaining popularity at the time) to be a pretty poor alternative.

I wanted difficult books. Angsty books. Books with tough choices and sad endings where not everything turned out all right. I didn’t want the kind of kidlit where everybody’s safely home for tea at the end; I wanted books that would make me cry. But the older I got and the further along the YA category I got, the more the world only seemed to want to give me books about sex.


My debut, The Butterfly Assassin, is an upper YA book. It’s a book where I find myself mentally justifying its classification as YA because I don’t feel secure in it. It’s a book where my editor has periodically said, “I’m not sure if we should put that in a YA book,” or, “Should we maybe avoid this detail?” (And most of the time I’ve justified keeping whatever the detail was on the basis that I have 100% seen worse in popular MG and YA books.) It is a book I will not be letting my mum read.

It is also a sexless book. A book with no romance. A book where romance doesn’t even enter into the protagonist’s mind, and she shows absolutely no interest in sex.

It is not a ‘clean’ book.

It’s not a clean book because the protagonist kills somebody in the first chapter. (This isn’t a spoiler. It’s in the blurb.) It’s not a clean book because there’s more than enough swearing to ensure my parents will be vaguely disappointed in me no matter how well it sells. (Sorry.) It’s not a clean book because there’s violence and trauma and the messiness of trying to take control of your life when literally everybody around you thinks they know better than you how you should be living it.

But hey, there’s no sex.

That was a conscious choice, for the record. When I planned this book, way back in 2014, that was one of the first things I knew about it: that it was going to be all murder, no sex. I was eighteen and sick of sexy assassins, sick of ’emotionless’ characters being humanised by their libido, sick of romantic or sexual attraction being positioned as a redeeming feature.

I was sick of being told, implicitly, with every book that I read, that my lack of interest either made me a sociopath or a child.

It was a pattern I saw again and again. A remorseless, dark character is portrayed as emotionless and their capacity for redemption is in doubt, right up until the moment they fall in love and suddenly reveal themselves to have a heart. It didn’t seem like these protagonists were allowed to be softened by friendship. Nor did it seem that dystopian protagonists were ever allowed to motivated to save the world by platonic bonds of affection.

Because if they were, that wouldn’t be YA. That would be MG.

I wanted upper YA. I wanted books that were dark and morally complicated and that asked hard questions and that my parents would probably disapprove of. I wanted books that didn’t pull their punches (but authors seemed intent on not letting their characters actually die, which infuriated me). But it felt like I was only allowed those books with a solid helping of romance. And the ‘older’ the books got, the sexier they got.


It’s not that sex doesn’t belong in books. During the course of the pandemic, I’ve developed a taste for queer historical romance novels and I’ve read some of them three times or more. Some of them have explicit sex, and if it’s well-written, that can be a plus. Have I read a few that squicked me out? Yeah, because bad sex scenes are The Worst. But it’s not the sex that’s the problem. It’s an important reminder that I want from books as a 25-year-old is very different from what I wanted from books as a 16-year-old — something I try to bear in mind when I write YA. Some people’s tastes don’t change so dramatically, going from being utterly repulsed by sex to having a collection of favourite romance novels, but it’s still important to remember that teens and adults often want pretty different things from books.

But that doesn’t mean that sex doesn’t belong in YA, either. Even if it wasn’t to my taste, a lot of teenagers are interested in sex. A lot of teenagers are having it, too, though possibly not as many as the media would have you believe. (Most of my friendship group wasn’t. Side effect of being late-blooming queers: nobody was getting laid.) If they don’t find it in the books aimed at their age group, they’ll look for it elsewhere. In fanfic. In romance novels. In whatever they take off their parents’ shelves.

(I have friends who read wildly inappropriate books from a very young age by virtue of raiding their parents’ bookshelves. The fact that I wasn’t one of them was probably less to do with my lack of interest and more to do with the fact that my parents’ shelves contained things like Kafka in the original German, and three copies of CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity. The “Advisory: Adult Content” YA novel I read at twelve was sneaked from my sister’s shelf instead.)

Sex has been in YA books for as long as YA has existed as a category. It’s not a new trend, nor is it at odds with themes and ideas that many teenagers are looking for. And it’s not responsible for the ways that the category is pushing older and older and marketing more to adults than to teenagers. That, as far as I can tell, is about money. It’s about who buys hardbacks and subscription boxes and collects special editions versus who is waiting six months for the library to get a copy of the book. Which one do the publishers care more about? And which one of those is the teen?

But listening to the conversations about upper YA, you’d think that sex was the only thing that defined that category, just like manufactured love triangles and creepy, controlling love interests seemed to define the bestsellers in the genre when I was a teenager. And it’s not. There are — and should be — other factors at work. There are ‘sexless’ books that skew older than any of the contemporaries exploring a character’s first time; books that centre friendship aren’t automatically closer to MG than to adult.

I realise that for a lot of people, romantic and sexual firsts are a major part of the process of growing up. But often — and maybe I’d even say increasingly — that doesn’t necessarily happen in one’s teens. A lot of my friends didn’t have their first kiss until their 20s. The YA books we grew up with taught us that that was weird and unusual. It’s not. Especially not for queer people of our generation, who didn’t necessarily have the freedom to explore our sexualities as teenagers.

By reducing the YA category to the types of relationships depicted, we do it a disservice, and we do teenagers a disservice. By making conversations about appropriate age ranges focus on how much sex there is or isn’t in a book, we exclude people from the discussion. There are teens who are interested in sex, yes. And I recognise that “teens want this” is an important weapon against gatekeepers who would treat seventeen-year-olds like seven-year-olds if not for the constant pushback of authors and creators.

But. But. Conversations about sex in YA and conversations about there not being enough books for fourteen-year-olds are not the same conversation. There are fourteen-year-olds who want romance-focused books with a certain amount of steaminess. And there are eighteen-year-olds who want dark, messed-up books with no sex whatsoever.

And these books exist. There’s upper YA that pushes the boundaries of what it means for a book to be YA and they don’t do it by including graphic sex scenes. But when we make the conversation “who is YA really for” to be about how much sex is in a book, we miss the point, because those are two separate things.


I know that people say that authors need to be writing for real teens, who are reading now. Not for their own past self, who lived in a different world.

But they also say you should write the books you want to read, if you can’t find them on the shelf.

When I was seventeen, I wanted a book that was all murder, no sex. I wanted a book that was aimed at my age group, that didn’t pull punches or patronise me, and I didn’t want the cost of maturity to be romance. Because even then I was sick of an amatonormative world that treated friendship as something childish and romance as the gateway to adulthood.

And I’m willing to bet there are still some teens out there who want that too.

The Butterfly Assassin is upper YA. It contains no sex. That doesn’t make it any less upper YA and it certainly doesn’t make it any less likely to get complaints from parents and school librarians — though I’m convinced it’ll be the swearing that bothers them more than the corpses.

I started out by talking about the silence of the world I grew up in, one that only gave me heterosexual options and where anything else was shocking and rare and transgressive, because it’s been 13 years and I’m still angry that a book with a gay character got stamped with ADVISORY: ADULT CONTENT but a book with repeated drug use didn’t. Because being queer was considered more mature, more ‘inappropriate’. Because simply by virtue of containing a character who was explicitly gay, the book’s target audience was considered older.

This is why I’m wary of conversations that position sex as the defining feature of upper YA. This is why I’m wary when conversations about YA not being written for teens start and end with the amount of sex that’s in a book. It is always weaponised against marginalised groups first.

But it’s also why it bothers me that books without sex are automatically considered suitable for younger readers than those that contain it. For years, graphic violence was considered more suitable for kids that consensual queerness. Why are we more okay with letting a thirteen-year-old read about murder than letting them read about sex?

There are so many levels to this problem, and it helps nobody if we treat sex as the definitive factor in a book’s target audience. It is only one factor, one that’s tied up in cultural ideas about maturity and what it means to grow up, and one that’s dominated the conversation for way too long.

YA is about so much more than romantic and sexual relationships. But it’s easy to forget that, when that seems to be all anyone ever talks about. Maybe it’s time we moved on.


If you enjoyed this post, please consider buying me a coffee or pre-ordering The Butterfly Assassin.

The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think (Book Review)

When I first saw the title of Mark Williams’ new book, The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think, I have to admit, I was… concerned. If it weren’t for the fact that I know and trust Mark when it comes to medieval literature (he was my second year Old Irish teacher and dissertation supervisor), I might have thought it was a pop psychology book about the inherent mythic structures in our brains, or something similar.

However, I do trust Mark, and I also know first hand that authors don’t always choose their titles, so I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. And the blurb makes it pretty clear that we’re not talking about any mythic brainwaves: if these stories have shaped the way we think, it’s in the sense of shaping how we think about Irish and Welsh myth/culture, not in the sense of defining our daily approach to interpersonal relationships.

(Which is… good. Because I seriously worry about anyone who bases their approach to interpersonal relationships on the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, since, uh, yikes.)

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed Ireland’s Immortals and still find it a super useful reference book, so I figured I would get my hands on Celtic Myths and see what Mark had to offer on this occasion, hoping for a new go-to recommendation for people who come to me looking for guidance on what to read to learn more about medieval lit. I finished the book this afternoon, sitting on my landlords’ roof (… don’t tell them), and I thought I’d give you my thoughts.

The tl;dr is that this is a great introductory read, but if you’re expecting short blog posts, you’re definitely in the wrong place, so you’re getting way more detail than that. No, I was not paid to write this review; yes, I bought this book with my own money, etc. Though if anyone wants to give me a sponsorship deal for yelling about medieval literature on the internet, my DMs are open…

A photograph of "The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think" by Mark Williams. It's a bright sunny day, and there's a tree turning autumnal red in the background.
Rooftop reads: climbing out of the window with a book is my new favourite hobby on sunny days.

First of all, Mark makes it very clear from the beginning that this is a book aimed at the general reader. Unlike Ireland’s Immortals, which sought to hit that sweet spot between being an academic/scholarly book and also an accessible work that the general public might enjoy, that means Celtic Myths doesn’t contain footnotes (though there is some ‘further reading’ listed at the back). Quotes are given only in English translation, and technical terms are kept to a minimum; generic “Celtic scholars” are referenced rather than bogging the text down with names. This may be frustrating to those who want to follow up on specific points, but probably makes for a much easier and less daunting read for the newcomer.

Each chapter explores a different story, giving a rundown of the original material and then discussing its afterlife over time, and some of the ways the story has been reworked and developed. Throughout the book, there are pictures (including a number of full-colour plates), showing how characters and stories have been conceptualised over time, from fourteenth-century manuscript illustrations to Hellboy II.

Since I’m not a ‘general’ reader, I found that I was already familiar with almost all of the book’s content; though I’m not an expert on the Welsh side of things, I’ve done enough Welsh lit to be passingly familiar with the stories and poems in question, and there was nothing in the book that I’d say was brand new information. Of course, some of that is because Mark himself was my lecturer for a while: in chapter 3 (“Merlin: From Wildman to Wizard”) there were a number of details I was pleased to find I already knew, only to realise a few minutes later that that was because I got them from Mark, in a lecture he gave about medieval ‘wildman’ stories, Merlin, and Suibhne.

This is great, though, because now it means I finally have an alternative to trying to cobble together explanations for people based on my own undergraduate lecture notes, which are frequently chaotic if they exist at all — I can instead pass them this book, knowing that it covers the same material in a far more coherent way. I get a lot of people asking me questions about medieval literature (mainly Irish, but occasionally Welsh) or looking for reading recommendations, and I’m always looking for books that I trust to be both accurate and accessible.

(Obviously, having been taught by Mark means I’m also inclined to agree with a lot of his interpretations, since he played a significant part in shaping my own approach to Celtic literature. I wouldn’t say we agree 100% of the time, and there are a couple of details in the Cú Chulainn chapter where I’m inclined to quibble with the simplified explanations given, even though I know you can’t go into all the complexities in a general-purpose book like this. But it does mean I’m predisposed to find his conclusions believable: we belong to similar schools of thought.)

I had hoped that I’d be able to make use of the book myself as a sort of general-purpose reference book — sometimes I find it useful to have more ‘introductory’ material around when I can’t remember where I found something, because it can save me time hunting. Unfortunately, since this book has no footnotes and few direct quotes or citations, I don’t think I’ll be adding it to that particular shelf in my library, because unless it’s something where I can cite this book directly, I’d have to go off and do my own detective work to get a more detailed reference. However, as a scholarly reader, I am well aware that I am not the target audience, and this isn’t meant as a criticism — just a note for anyone thinking of picking it up who is wondering whether it’ll suit their purposes.

So who is the target audience? Well, I admit I have no sense of how easy it would be to follow if you came to the book with absolutely zero familiarity with any of the content, because it’s now too many years since I can remember what it was like not to know who Cú Chulainn is. But I’d say this is a really great book if your primary exposure to this material is via T.W. Rolleston or Peter Berresford Ellis or anyone else who offers “Celtic Myths & Legends” in one convenient volume, and you’re looking to understand why actually, it’s all a little more complicated than that. It’ll probably also suit people whose exposure to Celtic myth has been through retellings or reworkings in popular culture, and who want to know whether Neil Gaiman’s Mad Sweeney or Guillermo del Toro’s Nuada really bear any resemblance to their medieval namesakes — people who are trying to figure out what the “real myth” is behind the retellings.

Spoiler alert: “real myth” is both an oxymoron and a complicated metric to apply to anything Celtic, as Mark demonstrates. He uses the word “myth” critically throughout the book, explaining some of the difficulties with using this term for Celtic material. Some scholars use it pretty freely, even for late material, while others try not to use it at all, and still more are somewhere in the middle — Mark generally falls into the third category, acknowledging the mythic content in texts while also foregrounding their medieval or early modern literary context and origin. He discusses the dates and contexts of different texts, looking at how some of the most famous “mythological” material is actually the product of named authors centuries after when most people would have imagined it to be composed, and examines the tension between “pagan” ideas and the Christian context in which our medieval literature was produced, and how contemporary events shaped the literature as we have it.

He does this in a non-judgmental way, acknowledging that many people feel a personal and/or spiritual connection to material, even if it isn’t ancient, and exploring the ways that “late” material may still be an authentic part of a country’s literary and cultural heritage. But he’s also frank about aspects of popular “Celtic” culture that are modern inventions, and how they came to be, looking at the lasting impact of Iolo Morgannwg (Edward Williams), James Macpherson (inventor of the poems of Ossian), and others who shaped our modern conception of Celtic literatures.

I think the Introduction of the book in particular is vital reading for those new to dealing with Celtic material on anything other than a surface level. Mark points out how many popular treatments are second- or third-hand information, often a long way distanced from their source material, regurgitated uncritically (particularly online). I see a lot of misinformation online, where people misinterpret what the Irish texts say or even just make stuff up from nowhere, and it spreads powerfully quickly, including ending up in published books and guides. Mark doesn’t dismiss the value of these stories as creative works and folk traditions, but warns readers to be aware of what is and is not a genuine part of the historical tradition.

“The upshot is that the afterlife of a given story tends to dominate, to the extent that it completely obscures the medieval original behind a heavy veil of romantic nationalism and, in a few cases, outright fraud. As a result, popular handbooks often depend on retellings of retellings, in which dubious ‘truths’ about Celtic myth are endlessly recycled: these retellings can lie a long way from the primary sources and take on a facticity of their own. People may want to include elements of such retellings in their own creative endeavours or spiritual life — which is of course absolutely legitimate — but some of these ‘well-known facts’ rest on fragile evidence.”

Mark Williams, The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think, p. 12.

In each chapter, Mark considers some of the uses to which the medieval stories have been put. If I’m honest, I would have liked more detailed analysis of some of these — particularly in the Cú Chulainn chapter (how predictable of me), where he touches on the use of images of Cú Chulainn for political purposes. The image of the dying Cú Chulainn has been utilised for both republican and unionist causes, with the same image being used for the statue in the GPO as in loyalist murals in Belfast. I’ve read a couple of really interesting articles on the topic, but it’s something I’d love to know more about, and Mark only gives it a glancing treatment. But, that’s my background speaking — the very fact that I’ve read some academic articles on the subject is a sign that I’m not the “general reader” here.

Still, I’d have liked to hear more of Mark’s thoughts on some of the pop culture he discusses (The Owl Service as a reworking of the Fourth Branch, The Call as an interpretation of the Túatha Dé, etc). I suppose that would be a different book, one focused on textual reception for those already familiar with the stories, rather than one aimed at introducing newcomers to the tales behind the pop culture they’re familiar with. I do think that’s a book the field needs (though I know there has been some work on this already) and when I initially read the blurb of this one, I hoped maybe this might be it, but on most levels, it’s not.

There is slightly more Welsh material than Irish material in the book: five chapters about specifically Welsh material, four about specifically Irish material, and one about Brutus and origin legends which explores both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Lebor Gabala. Where there are parallels or relevant examples from the literature of the “other” country, Mark draws them in, but he’s keen to stress that Irish and Welsh material are not interchangeable, nor as similar as they’re often painted to be in popular thinking. And for those wondering why a book about “Celtic” myth seems to make little mention of Scottish, Cornish, Manx or Breton material, Mark addresses this in the introduction: the bulk of the early literature that we have is from Wales and Ireland, making them his primary focus, though other Celtic-speaking areas are referenced where relevant.

So that’s the content, but what about the style? Well, while this one doesn’t include either the word “sexcapades” or the word “glitterati”, both of which showed up in Ireland’s Immortals and helped secure it a place on my “favourite academic books list”, it’s still plenty entertaining. The humour is often understated, but undeniable, and it definitely doesn’t feel like slogging through dense academic prose. The pictures also help, as does the fairly large print…

(Listen. I’m in the middle of Thesis Hell. I need all the help I can get when it comes to actually absorbing any information.)

So while as a scholarly reader I found myself wanting more — more detail, more discussion of textual reception, more direct quotes — I would have no reservations about recommending this to any general reader looking for a solid introduction to some of the most famous figures in Irish and Welsh literature: Taliesin, Merlin, Finn, Deirdre, and so on. If you want a way in to Celtic mythology that’s grounded in actual sources and up-to-date on recent scholarship and academic interpretations, this is it, and a much better starting place than most of the “Celtic Myths” books on the market.

If, however, you’re looking for a more detailed scholarly investigation into the mythological side of the Irish tradition, go for Ireland’s Immortals. Almost five years after its publication, it’s still one of my go-to recs — but this one is a great addition to the list, particularly for those who are brand new to the material.


You can buy The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think on Amazon UK (affiliate link; if you buy via this link I earn a small commission) or at your local bookshop or wherever you normally buy books, and likewise with Ireland’s Immortals.

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Streaks and Statistics

These days, I primarily read on my Kindle, a trusty Paperwhite that I bought in 2015 when my old Kindle Keyboard shuffled off this mortal coil. The case is cracked and falling apart, but I’m wary of replacing it, in case the Kindle itself follows suit shortly afterwards; the device itself is hanging in there at the moment, but occasionally has its glitches.

Since I first got a Kindle in 2011, I’ve continued to read a mixture of paper books and ebooks. In recent years, I’ve shifted towards the ebooks for fiction. When I was struggling with my visual stress, before I got my tinted glasses, it was easier to tape an orange plastic overlay to my Kindle screen than continually move one from page to page of a paper book. Now, although I can read paper books more easily again, I’m separated by a few hundred miles from the majority of my collection, with only ten fiction books here with me in my flat.

So it’s practical, it’s convenient, and the number of books I’m able to pick up at discounted prices mean that I can feed my reading habit without having to sacrifice the ability to feed myself — all good reasons to rely on ebooks.

Part of me, however, resents that my naive 2011 self locked myself into an Amazon-dependent Kindle, my extensive library of ebooks difficult to transfer to another system if I decided to steer away from Amazon when this device eventually breaks. I don’t like giving money to Amazon, if I can help it: I disapprove of their treatment of workers, their failure to pay taxes, and the impact they’ve had on independent bookshops. But when it comes to ebooks, it feels like a necessary evil, and if that’s a rather more significant portion of my monthly budget than it should be, at least I try not to buy from Amazon in other areas of my life.

(I recognise that obviously, buying from Amazon is crucial for some people in terms of accessibility. This isn’t intended to pass judgement on those people, just to remark on my own choices as a consumer.)

Because I have an actual Kindle, and I prefer reading on the “e-ink” screen rather than on my phone or another backlit device, I rarely use the Kindle app, but I have it on my phone in case I need to quickly reference a book while I’m out and about. The other day, however, I went into the app to check something for a friend, and discovered a whole new function I’d never seen before: “Reading Insights”.

In these Reading Insights, my Kindle told me how many books I’d read this year, my “reading streak” (22 weeks, but only 6 days in a row at present), how many days per month I was reading (23 in September, down from 26 in August but significantly up from 14 in May) and my “records” — “wins and bests from your reading activity”. Reading, like Duolingo, was something to be done and recorded every day, to maintain a “streak”.

Obviously, my Kindle only knows about the books I’ve read as purchased ebooks — not paper books, library ebooks, fanfic, or anything else that I don’t read through its app or devices. However, since this year, 128 of my ~170 reads so far have been Kindle books, this still represents a pretty large proportion of my reading.

I knew, of course, that it tracked me. That’s how it’s able to recommend me books similar to my recent reads; that’s why I occasionally get Amazon recommendations that are made entirely of KJ Charles novels; that’s inevitable when the purchase and the mechanism for interacting with that purchase are so closely integrated. But I still found it somewhat unsettling to see a calendar of my reading activity, to see days marked in blue where I read something. For a moment, I imagined someone looking at that data and thinking, “Wow, this person has seriously messed up sleep patterns. Look how often they stayed up until 2am.” For a moment, I wondered what other uses it could be put to.

It used to be that I’d track this stuff myself, on Goodreads (also owned by Amazon, whose fingers are in nearly every bookish pie these days). My reasons for quitting Goodreads were many, and few of them were to do with data privacy, although there’s been a level of relief about not having to share my opinions all the time. I track my reading in a text file and leave myself a short note about my feelings on a book, to let me know whether it’s worth rereading in future; I can be as caustic or bubbly as I like, and nobody can judge me on it. But I had thought that a pleasant side-effect of leaving was that the internet wouldn’t be quite so aware of everything I’d read, in order to use it to advertise at me.

Except that Amazon knows. And Amazon is in the internet. And Amazon not only knows what I’ve bought, but whether I’ve read it, and on what day I read it, and maybe how long it took me or how long I paused on certain passages or whether I reread a section. What else do they know?

Unsettling.

But, I’ll be honest, I’m part of the internet generation, and while I make a few attempts at maintaining some privacy online — using Firefox and Facebook Container and uBlock and so on — I know that in the end, I’m fighting a losing battle. I can avoid Google Chrome all I like, but my phone is Android, so Google knows too much about me already. I can stop Facebook tracking me on other sites, but that doesn’t change the fact that they get enough info from Facebook itself, and Instagram, and WhatsApp…

My data is out there, whether I like it or not, and I’m not committed enough to burn it all down to eradicate those pieces of my online self, so I just have to live in this constantly-surveilled world. I’ve made an uneasy peace with that. Accepted that in our imperfect reality, that’s the price of convenience. I should probably be angrier about it, but I’ll be honest, it feels like we have bigger problems, and I have a finite amount of energy. I’m still unlikely to ever have Alexa or whatever in my home; I don’t want something listening to me on purpose. But I’m not putting on a tinfoil hat just yet.

No, the thing that really bothered me about these Reading Insights was the fact that reading, like everything else, had become something … almost competitive. “Bests and wins”? Really? Is maintaining a daily streak of reading a “win”? For me it usually means I’m fatigued and spending a lot of time in bed: the less energy I have for other things, the more time I spend reading. Do we need to measure these things?

Part of the reason I left Goodreads, and stopped doing bookstagram, and generally took my reading offline, was because I felt like after a while it became about the numbers and statistics. It was a race: how many books could I read? How many likes on that photo? Could I complete this challenge, that readathon, this bingo card? Did I have a TBR? Was my TBR out of control? Would I like it to be? Did I have a list for this month, next month, next year?

It wasn’t me. I wanted to read what I wanted to read, when I wanted to read it. I’ve never struggled to motivate myself to read, partly because it’s sometimes the only thing I have energy for, so a yearly reading “challenge” seemed superfluous. Plus, I’m what the bookstagram types call a “mood reader” — I read things when I feel like reading them. I actually don’t have a TBR (to-be-read list), except in the vaguest sense of “oh, I’d like to read that sometime”, or my wishlist of books I want but can’t afford.

That’s without getting into all the ways I couldn’t handle consumerist book culture, or the books-as-sacred-object mindset that I encounter so often online. I eventually came to the conclusion that while I was a booknerd and a very voracious reader, I was simply not a Book Person in the internet sense of being a Book Person. I had no interest in collecting six versions of the same book, I didn’t want character-themed scented candles, I think a lot of books actually smell pretty bad, and I really don’t care if people break the spines of their own books, or dog-ear the pages, or write in them, because they’re just books.

(If you do this to my books when I lend them to you, I’ll end you. But that’s a completely different thing.)

So, I thought, I’ll opt out. Go offline. Forget the streaks and challenges. I’ll track my reading in a text file because I have a terrible memory and I need a record of what I’ve read; I didn’t track it at all last autumn after leaving Goodreads in August, and now I have no idea what I read then. But I’m not going to bother about statistics or numbers or challenges.

And all the while my Kindle is sitting there going, “You have a 22-week reading streak!”

I’ve discovered that I can opt out of these insights. I probably will. Because even in the few days since I discovered them, that competitive instinct has ignited in my brain. “I have to read today, to continue my streak,” I find myself thinking. I probably would have read anyway, but not in such a self-conscious way. Not in order to fulfil some meaningless obligation to a chart I didn’t ask to have created. Not to give a corporation more information about me and my habits.

I have a 1000-day Duolingo streak and a 4-year+ Timehop streak. The former is a helpful pressure to keep me hacking away at the mountain of language-learning, even when it seems insurmountable; it tells me that a little every day is better than 3 hours and then a month of inactivity. The latter is honestly a coincidence, the result of my fun mixture of nostalgia and memory loss, that keeps me looking back at old social media posts every day to recall parts of my life I’ve lost. Timehop is forgiving of missed days, I suspect; I know I’ve missed some in the past four years, but it keeps my streak nonetheless.

But reading? Do I need a streak for that? Do I need to be pressured into doing something that for years has been my most consistent and least demanding hobby? Do I need to make that a numbers game too?

Last weekend I was reflecting on the fact that writing, which has always been my emotional outlet, is transitioning from being my hobby to being my career. I can no longer abandon a project to write something else that better reflects my current mood, not if I’m under contract for it, nor can I stop writing for weeks because I’m depressed (unless I’m willing to explain that to my editor). In the light of this, I figured I would probably need a new emotional outlet, a new hobby, ideally one that I couldn’t possibly monetise or make into a career.

These days, it feels like we’re discouraged from having “unproductive” hobbies. We’re told to have a side-hustle, encouraged to sell the things we make. If you’re good at something, there’s an increasing expectation that you’ll find a way to monetise it. Personally, as a perfectionist who has always dreamed big, I’ve always struggled to have hobbies I wasn’t way too serious about. Within weeks of taking up Irish dance as a teenager, I was imagining going to the World Championships; I imagined going to vocational ballet school before I’d even resumed taking classes. These were impossible, implausible dreams, but symptomatic of my inability to do things casually, a mindset that society these days only encourages.

I asked on Twitter and Instagram what people did just for fun, and received more answers than I’d expected. A lot of people found video games helpful — lots of small achievements to keep the brain ticking over and happy. Some watched a lot of TV and films. There were lots of crafty types: knitting and crochet were popular, but also art. Some people played music, or baked, or went for long walks in the countryside.

And then there was reading.

Reading’s a weird one as a writer. Not only do you end up reading books by friends and colleagues and acquaintances, it can also be hard to turn off the analytical part of your brain that reads as a writer reads. I find this is particularly hard when I’m in the middle of edits — copyedits, in particular, made me judge everybody’s punctuation choices, and made it a lot harder to get immersed in anything because I was primed to nitpick. But still, when my pain levels are flaring or my fatigue is bad, it’s always the hobby I come back to. When my hands don’t work well enough to knit and my eyes can’t take the flashing lights of TV and my body won’t let me go for walks, it’s always, in the end, reading.

Not for the numbers. Not to maintain a streak. Not to reach a new personal best of number of books read in a year.

But because books give my brain a break from the world for a couple of hours, and sometimes, that’s all I want from a hobby. A chance to stop being inside my own head for a little while. A comfort when I don’t have anyone to spend time with, or the energy to spend time with them.

As a writer, I don’t always read casually. I often read critically, and analytically, and with an eye to improving my own professional skills. But that doesn’t mean I have to read competitively, as though my reading streak might be marked up on a leaderboard to see where I rank among similarly bookish friends. That doesn’t mean I have to give in to the internet’s desire to categorise and track everything with streaks and trends and statistics, to make me a more ‘productive’ reader.

I probably can’t stop my Kindle collecting that information. But I can ask it not to tell me, and I will. Because sometimes, I want to read because I’m sad or tired or lonely or bored and I want the comfort, distraction, and joy of disappearing into somebody else’s head and somebody else’s world. And that isn’t a numbers game, and never will be.


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Understanding Standish

The nineteenth century was remarkable for many reasons, but one of them was that it managed to produce two men named Standish O’Grady who had an interest in medieval Irish literature. That they were cousins makes it perhaps marginally less remarkable than it would otherwise have been, but it’s still a singular achievement, as I’ve yet to encounter any other century that had produced a Standish O’Grady at all, let alone one who is a Celticist.

No, I haven’t actually looked. But that, dear friends, is beside the point.

On the one hand, then, we have Standish Hayes O’Grady — a scholar responsible for the Silva Gaedelica, and a founding member of the Ossianic Society. And on the other hand, we have Standish James O’Grady, whose writings were considerably more in the creative direction. It would be reductive to say that he wrote fanfiction, but he certainly wrote retellings, and transformative fiction of a kind, so it wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate either.

It is evidently important to know which O’Grady you’re talking about at any given moment, but I have more than once been reading something and come to the conclusion that the author had not, in fact, realised that there were two of them. These mistakes happen, though it’s a little more embarrassing when they happen in an academic article. So, to remove any doubt, it is very much the second of these two Standishes that I’ll be discussing today — the one given the title “the father of the Irish literary revival.”

Everything I know about Standish James comes from his Wikipedia page, so I won’t pretend to have any new insight or information on that front. My interest is less directly in the man himself, and more in his works. Most specifically, in The Coming of Cuculain.

I’ve been aware of The Coming of Cuculain for a while now — it’s been entertaining my medieval group chat since some time during the first lockdown, primarily on the basis of how delightful and homoerotic many of the scenes between Cú Chulainn and Láeg are when taken out of context. But what about in context? And what can we learn from O’Grady’s portrayal of Láeg?

For those who might have stumbled on this post unawares, I should briefly point out that my MA thesis (currently a work in progress and very much supposedly my main priority right now) is focused on the character of Láeg mac Riangabra as he appears in selected medieval and early modern Irish texts. In my experience, he’s a fascinating and weirdly neglected figure, the subject of so few articles that I can count them on my fingers despite his many textual appearances. I’m endlessly emotional about him — I have a soft spot for the loyal sidekick, particularly when they’re sarcastic as well as beloved — and deeply intrigued whenever he comes up in retellings or re-imaginings. Which is not wildly often. But this novel of O’Grady’s offers rich pickings for a Láeg enthusiast, and my main impression on encountering it was that it’s a pity there isn’t more of a “reception studies” tradition in our field, because this book would be a fascinating one to discuss in that context.

(I should note here that some work has been done on O’Grady’s work — a book named Standish O’Grady’s Cuculain combines excerpts from his History of Ireland with a few articles about his work. But there is far, far more that could be said.)

Then it occurred to me that I could be the one to do this. Perhaps I have neither the grounding in 19th century literature and history nor the time to try and approach it academically, in articles or conference papers — but that kind of academia-adjacent musing is half the reason I have a blog. And why not discuss it here? The Coming of Cuculain is accessible, in the sense that it’s in English and in the sense that it’s available via Project Gutenberg. Anyone who wished to read along with me could do so. And in the meantime, I’m well-positioned to comment on O’Grady’s approach to Cú Chulainn, because I’ve spent the last four years nerding out over him. Even better, I’m perhaps uniquely positioned to examine how he portrays Láeg, by virtue of being one of the only people who has ever paid Láeg any substantial academic attention.

And so, I thought, this would provide an excellent way to procrastinate on writing my thesis while still feeling like I was doing something academic and productive. Perfect. Exactly what I need as a formless summer without externally imposed structures stretches out in front of me — more ways to avoid the many, many things which require my attention.

O’Grady seems genuinely interested in Láeg: he gives him backstory, autonomy, and character development in a way that goes far beyond his source material. But is there any textual basis for his inventions, or are they purely his own creation? What picture do these choices paint of Láeg?

Over the next few days/weeks, I plan to read through The Coming of Cuculain in detail and examine how O’Grady portrays Láeg. Where I can identify sources, I’ll discuss those; where I can’t, I’ll consider some of the factors that might have led to O’Grady’s narrative choices. If you’d like to read along with me, please do! I hope, however, to provide enough context in these posts to make them comprehensible without needing to read O’Grady’s work directly.

(And yes, I will try and spread the posts out, and I won’t be blogging exclusively about this, because I have no idea how long it’s going to take me. Could be 2 weeks. Could be 2 months. It depends how much there is to say.)

Before we look at The Coming of Cuculain, however, I want to briefly examine The History of Ireland, which O’Grady published about fifteen years earlier. This would warrant a whole series of blog posts in its own right, but for the moment, I only want to consider the ways it contextualises The Coming of Cuculain, and the clues it offers as to how O’Grady was approaching his material.

Firstly, he explicitly tells us that he’s drawing on Keating. This makes a lot of sense — Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, Keating’s 17th century narrative history of Ireland, is a source for a lot of of pre-20th century authors. I assume this is because its language was a lot more accessible than medieval Irish, it was widely available, and it provided a temptingly ‘complete’ source without need to make reference to lots of different stories scattered all over the place. My knowledge of Keating is actually woefully incomplete (by which I mean I haven’t read it, although I’ve ctrl+f’d my way through on occasion), but the references to him suggest that any extended study of O’Grady would warrant an examination of Keating as well, to identify what aspects of O’Grady’s characterisation derive from his work.

Secondly, The History of Ireland gives us a few clues to some of the misconceptions underlying O’Grady’s work. One that stuck out to me on a brief page through is the fact that he doesn’t seem to know what Táin means. There are references to “warriors of Tân” (occasionally with the definite article), as though it’s a place or people-group rather than an event/activity. A táin is a driving, a cattle-raid, but repeated “incorrect” uses of the word make it apparent that in 1878, when The History of Ireland was published, O’Grady wasn’t aware of that. And so we get quotes like this:

There was the exiled might of Fergus Mac Roy, who, under Meave, ruled all the host of Tân, a shape gigantic of heroic mould, holding a joyless majesty and a spirit in ruins.

Standish O’Grady, The History of Ireland Volume 2, p. 126. (Via Google Books)

Which brings me to the third thing we learn from The History of Ireland: O’Grady can write. Whatever else is going on in his work, there’s a certain poetic brilliance to his descriptions. A joyless majesty and a spirit in ruins — what a way to describe the exiled Fergus! It’s easy to see why his work would have caught the attention of his contemporaries, and why it had such an influence on other writers like Yeats.

Like I said, there’s a lot that could be discussed about The History of Ireland, but today let’s look only at its portrayal of Láeg.

Two things interest me here: where Láeg comes from, and the manner of his death. These are both things I’ve been researching recently, and I’m interested to know how authors handle them. The first, because the medieval sources give us virtually nothing on this topic. The second, because it changes considerably over time.

In his introduction to volume two of The History of Ireland, O’Grady actually expresses confusion about Láeg’s role in Cú Chulainn’s death-tale — one moment he dies, the next he’s riding away on the Dub Sainglend, so what’s going on? The answer is that this is a confusion of the medieval and early modern recensions of the story: in the medieval text, Láeg dies, while in the early modern one, he survives to take the news to Emer. O’Grady, however, is not aware of these divergent traditions and that each is internally consistent unless combined, so on the basis of this contradiction and other inconsistencies, writes:

I conclude that the distance in time between the prose tale and the metrical originals was very great, and, unless under such exceptional circumstances as the revolution caused by the introduction of Christianity, could not have been brought about within hundreds of years.

Standish O’Grady, The History of Ireland Volume 2, p. 26.

Hmm. Questionable. His reference to ‘metrical originals’ is because he’s convinced the stories belong to a bardic tradition. While many of them may have had oral elements and also subsequently went on to have a poetic afterlife in the early modern period… the oldest stratum of the stories as we have them is largely prose. Moreover, his point about the introduction of Christianity is a sign that he’s dating these texts a lot earlier than we generally do these days. Even the medieval version of The Death of Cú Chulainn can only be dated to the eighth century at earliest, by which point Ireland had already been Christian for a good couple of centuries. The early modern one’s more like fifteenth century. And, in the case of this particular “inconsistency”, the confusion can be attributed to the reckless conflation of different recensions. Whether this is Keating’s fault or some other source of O’Grady’s, I’m not sure, but I appreciate that at least he noticed Láeg’s death/survival, since this divergence is so often overlooked.

On the question of Láeg’s origins, however, The History of Ireland is fascinating. Following the account of how Cú Chulainn got his name, we’re told:

It was about this time that he was presented with a companion and attendant, Læg, son of the King of Gowra, for Rury More had brought his father a captive to the north, and his son Læg, born to him in old age, in the north, was given to Cuculain when he returned to Dûn Dalgan for the first time from Emain Macha, and he was four years older than Cuculain.

Standish O’Grady, The History of Ireland Volume 1, p. 113. (Via Google Books)

This fascinates me, because I have absolutely no idea where he got this from.

Some parts, I can guess at. Son of the King of Gowra is clearly derived from the name mac Riangabra, though it’s an interesting approach at etymology. He’s split the patronymic into “Rí an Gabra”, and if you’re the kind of person to pronounce a lenited b as w, I suppose Gowra‘s not too unlikely an Anglicisation of that. (Personally, I’d pronounce it with a v sound, but this is far from the most idiosyncratic of O’Grady’s spellings.)

This is not how Láeg’s name is broken down in the two texts I know of that provide a glimpse of his parents. Both the version of Compert Con Culainn from RIA MS D.iv.2 (a ~12th century text in a 15th century manuscript) and the Old Irish text Fled Bricrenn ocus Longes mac nDuil Dermait split it into two, with Srian as Láeg’s father, and Gabor as his mother. They seem likely to be Otherworldly individuals — in the Compert they’re encountered at Síd Truim, and in Longes mac nDuil Dermait they live on a probably-Otherworldly island. The Compert also suggests a connection with Connacht.

But since srían means “bridle” and gabor means “horse, mare, esp. a white one”, in origin the name probably didn’t refer to people at all. Instead it’s a reference to his profession as charioteer: bridle-of-a-horse. That would explain why we encounter other charioteers with the same name, mainly Id and Sedlang mac Riangabra, who show up in Fled Bricrenn (a distinct text from Longes mac nDuil Dermait, despite the similar first part of their names). In this text, Id is Conall Cernach’s charioteer, but in the Stowe version of the Táin he appears as Fer Diad’s charioteer. It seems likely that it’s originally a name/title given to charioteers, but it’s subsequently understood as a patronymic and broken down into personal names.

Rationalising it instead as Rí an Gabra is an interesting approach. It’s not the first time I’ve seen it, but it’s the first time I’ve seen that etymology turned into story: a king of Gowra, taken as a hostage in Ulster, whose son (no mention here of Láeg’s brothers, though their names are referenced later in the text) is “given” to Cú Chulainn as a companion. This suggests Láeg is unfree — probably not enslaved, per se, but as a hostage’s son, not entirely autonomous, either. The power dynamic there is an interesting one, and one I’d like to come back to in future.

I also enjoy that O’Grady has specified Láeg’s age: four years older than Cú Chulainn. This is, honestly, roughly what I would have guessed myself if not given any other clues; he has that “older brother” feel to him, but he’s still young enough to chase around after Cú Chulainn. In the D.iv.2 Compert, we’re told that Láeg is still young enough to be “on the breast” when his mother, Gabra, nurses the newborn Cú Chulainn; the two then grow up together from infancy. This narrows the age gap between them, and gives them a different, and more equal, kind of relationship (something I’ll be discussing at length in my thesis, so I won’t go into great detail here). But this text is unusual, and other accounts rarely align with it — O’Grady’s four-year gap is plausible enough, and I appreciate that he even bothers to specify.

Because that’s the thing that keeps striking me — O’Grady bothers. O’Grady asks, “How did Láeg end up as Cú Chulainn’s charioteer? Where is he from? Is he an Ulsterman? What is their relationship? How old is he?” He asks the questions the medieval texts don’t answer, and attempts to come up with responses to them. These are the same questions I’m constantly asking myself, and to know that I’m not alone in that — that somebody else has asked them before me — means I feel connected to O’Grady’s work even before reading in depth. For some reason, he was interested in this particular pairing of characters, and what it meant.

But finally, the thing that’s really interesting about this backstory is that it’s completely different from the backstory he gives to Láeg in The Coming of Cuculain. Clearly, he wasn’t satisfied with this account of the King of Gowra, or a charioteer who was simply “given” to Cú Chulainn, so he started again — and this time, Láeg gets a lot more autonomy, and their friendship is emphasised. And it’s that second approach to Láeg that I’ll be talking about over the next however long.

So if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a novel from 1894 to read. Please feel free to join me.


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Rereading Katniss

Over the last few days, I’ve been rereading the Hunger Games trilogy for the first time in years.

I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, but with the libraries closed and my copies in London, there were a number of significant barriers in the way. However, when I found myself back in the UK temporarily for medical reasons (essential travel) and therefore reunited, in the short term, with my books, I decided now was the time.

The Hunger Games was, of course, a massive phenomenon in the world of YA fiction, impossible to ignore. I won’t pretend I was ahead of the trend on that one, because I wasn’t; there are very few major YA books from the past 15 years where I’ve been an early adopter, especially since teen me was often snobbish about anything that seemed too popular. But I vividly remember the first time I read the books, racing through all three of them in the space of about a day and a half. I never bought into the ironic, Capitol-esque marketing ploy of “Team Peeta or Team Gale?” because as far as I was concerned, that wasn’t at all what interested me about the books.

I wanted to reread because I found, recently, that I couldn’t remember them in detail; I was also interested because of comparisons others had drawn with my own work. Obviously, I’m not about to start using THG as a comp title — it’s old enough now that doing so would only make me look like somebody who hasn’t read any YA for a decade, for a start — but I wanted to see how apt those parallels might or might not be, and whether I could learn anything from it.

I don’t know that what stood out to me now was what appealed to me as a teenager; I don’t have a strong enough memory of my sixteen-year-old self to be sure. But I definitely found myself engaging with the books both as a reader (emotional investment) and as a writer (analysing Collins’ craft and narrative choices).

I was struck by Katniss: how unlikeable she is. How uncompromising. Not because she thinks she’s better than the other characters or prides herself on being different or anything like that, but because her response seems to be, I don’t know how to behave the way you expect me to when it’s so antithetical to my experience of the world. Is that a neurodivergent vibe I get from her? Perhaps. It’s obvious, of course, that the way the Capitol expects her to behave is irrational and artificial, for a girl from her background — perhaps any of the District 12 girls would have reacted the same way. I’m not sure.

But the thing about Katniss is that no matter how calculating, how selfish, how violent she becomes in her attempts to survive, she doesn’t stop being a sympathetic character. This fascinates me, as somebody who tends to write morally grey characters who do terrible things but still wants my readers to care about them. Part of it with Katniss is the old tried and true method — if everybody around them is worse, you root for the awful character regardless. Part of it, I think, is that she feels such self-disgust and is so unflinching in her cruel assessments of her own character that she almost absolves the audience of any responsibility to do the same. You don’t need to judge her, because she’s already done it.

The fact that she sees herself in this way helps, obviously, with maintaining sympathy even after she’s killed and so on: it would be harder to root for a character who enjoyed it. You constantly have this sense with Katniss that she’s trapped, and has no other choice, but somehow this doesn’t translate into her feeling like a passive character who only reacts — even though a lot of the time, that is almost the case. She isn’t given the information she needs to make choices, and she isn’t given the power, either. But she never reacts the way people around her are expecting her to react, which I think is what helps the plot avoid becoming predictable.

I was also struck by the intensity of emotional consequences in the books. I’m not about to suggest THG is unique among YA dystopias in portraying trauma and depression — but I do think there’s something unusual in how profoundly events affect Katniss. In how it depicts her nightmares and panic attacks and depression, which pervade books two and three. Some of it’s obvious, and some of it’s more subtle, but no traumatising event is ever allowed to pass without consequences. Even when physical damage is ‘repaired’ by Capitol doctors, the mental scars remain.

Too often, I think, characters aren’t given the space to be screwed up after what they go through. After a book’s worth of trauma, they then go on to lead a revolution, and somehow they hold it together. But Katniss… doesn’t. And I feel like this gets overlooked in popular discussion of the series, possibly because the films were less able to portray those aspects than the books, or because of the media focus on the ‘glamorous’ and ‘romantic’ elements. People talk about how Katniss is a badass, and yeah, she is, but how often do we talk about how she’s also depressed, haunted by nightmares, intensely traumatised…?

As a friend put it in a conversation yesterday, there’s something defiant about Katniss’s emotional responses. The Capitol doesn’t want her to be visibly traumatised. The revolution doesn’t want her to be taking depression naps in a cupboard somewhere. They all want her to pretend. And she doesn’t. Not enough, anyway. There’s an “understated and bleak rebellion of I Am Going To Continue To Be Screwed Up About This, Actually”, as my friend said — Katniss’s refusal to be “just a piece in their games” continues in her unwillingness, or inability, to let it be just a game. And once you acknowledge the horror and the violence of the murder of children… it’s hard to leave it behind.

This trilogy stands out to me because it allows Katniss not only to be unlikeable and closed-off right from the very beginning, but also because it allows her emotional responses to be so powerful and all-consuming. I wonder if this is why a lot of people were less keen on the third book. Yes, some of the choices she makes are illogical, irrational, unwise. Yes, she spends a lot of the book doing not very much (although I have to say I can relate to the depression naps). But that’s because she’s traumatised. And seeing that on the page — seeing the way that nothing Katniss went through can be brushed off — gives the narrative more weight, and makes the losses and the suffering more powerful.

Katniss doesn’t soften, or become more likeable. She fractures, and turns her broken edges outwards because that’s the only way she knows how to survive. And I admire that, actually. I see it in some of my own characters, and I found myself thinking how books like THG created a space on the shelves where my own stories could exist. Stories about screwed up, unlikeable, bitter teenage girls who do awful things because they want to survive. THG didn’t invent those stories. But it definitely gave them a foothold in YA that I’m not sure they’d have had otherwise.

And then there’s the ending. As a teen, I hated it. I didn’t know why Katniss had to end up with anyone. As an adult, I feel differently. There are still elements of it that bother me — I don’t love that Katniss ended up having children, somewhat reluctantly, after having been adamant since book one that she didn’t want them. I’ve always read her as somewhere on the asexual spectrum, and that hasn’t changed either.

But: where teen me saw her eventual relationship with Peeta as a disappointing inevitability, adult me sees a traumatised figure finally allowing herself to heal enough to love somebody. Where teen me saw obligation, adult me sees choice. After losing so many people that she cares about, Katniss allows herself to care about somebody again. She allows herself to love, even after so much loss. She allows herself to take the risk of loving somebody, when she could have closed herself off as a way of defending herself against future loss and pain.

And of course it would be Peeta. Nobody else can meet her where she is; nobody else understands, really, what she’s been through. Peeta, like Katniss, knows how it feels to trust nobody, not even himself.

I don’t know if I read it as romantic, or if it’s more of a queerplatonic intimacy that I see between them, but on this reread, I didn’t see compromise in that ending, I saw healing, alongside the only person who could ever see Katniss for exactly who she is. Since book one, Katniss hasn’t trusted anybody with her heart. Not because of the Games — it goes back further. After her father’s death, her mother’s depression left her feeling abandoned; in that we see the roots of Katniss’s determined and defiant self-sufficiency. Gale says, She’ll pick whichever of us she thinks she can’t survive without. She’s known since she was a child that she could survive alone, because she’s had to know that.

For some characters, choosing to go it alone would be empowering. But not for Katniss. Because she’s had to, always, so choosing to rely on somebody else in any way? That’s growth. That’s healing.

The Hunger Games was a phenomenally successful trilogy, boosted by the film adaptations. There’s a lot to be said for its plot and structure and how Collins avoids repetition between the first and second book, even when ideas/situations recur. No doubt there are dozens of long reads about what made it so popular, and all of them will have different takes.

But what stood out to me on this reread was Katniss, and how raw and unfiltered her experiences get to be on the page, even while her camera crew — and the film adaptations — try to polish them into something palatable.

I don’t know if The Hunger Games was a direct influence on my own writing. I wouldn’t have pinned it down as such, but I suppose it’s inevitable on some level: everything I’ve ever read has become part of my mental landscape and will have had its effect on my writing, whether tiny or significant. I suspect there’s more unconscious influence there with THG than I might have thought before this reread. I do think, however, that whether or not it influenced the way I wrote them, The Hunger Games created a space where my stories can exist and be read, and for that, I’m grateful.


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