Beowulf: a new translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

As Maria Dahvana Headley states in the introduction to this book, there have been a lot of translations of Beowulf, the Old English epic poem about a warrior fighting monsters. This is a new translation, focusing on updating the verse rather than preserving its antiquity and giving some of the female figures—particularly Grendel’s mother—a somewhat better treatment. Perhaps most notably, this version of Beowulf focuses a lot on the modern parallel of oral storytelling and frames the poem like some guy is telling you it in a bar (the poem’s opening word, ‘hwæt’, becomes ‘bro!’).

I’ve studied Beowulf both in translation at secondary school and in the original during my undergrad English degree, so the story and general feel of the poem are very familiar, but this translation brings something else to the poem. Possibly it’s the clash of old and new—modern slang like ‘Hashtag: blessed’ and archaisms like ‘wyrm’—and the use of swearing and colloquial phrases to get across the meaning of certain lines and phrases which feels quite different to the Beowulf people might be used to. Occasionally the use of ‘bro’ throughout gets a bit grating, but it’s interesting to see which parts could be translated into something much more modern and which stay sounding older.

There’s probably some clever things to be said about some of the translation choices and the way this translation is framed, though it’s too long since I’ve actually read another version of it for me to think of anything. I liked the fact that the repetitive nature of the storytelling in Beowulf is foregrounded by giving it the feel of some guy telling you a boring story, only the story is about fighting Grendel and his mother and a dragon.

As someone who loved Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey, it was enjoyable to get another modern translation that focuses on updating the language and making the concepts reverberate through time, rather than something that is a reimagining or retelling. This is a readable Beowulf in verse and one that really makes you think about why these warrior men spend so much time sitting around telling heroic stories to one another. I’m not sure what it would be like as an introduction to Beowulf but it’s fun if you already know it and can imagine rolling your eyes as some guy tries to tell you the story.

There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura

There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job is a novel about looking for meaning and escape in the modern world, as a young woman looks for the most suitable job for her. After burnout in her previous career, a woman asks an employment agency for an easy job: namely, one that involves no reading, little thinking, and is close to where she lives. She finds herself sitting for hours watching hidden camera footage of an author suspected of having contraband in his home, in a job that is opposite where she lives, but she gets drawn into the author’s life and also into how she can manage her own life alongside watching his. The narrative follows her as she moves between suitable jobs found for her by the agency, ending up in absurd situations like writing bus ads for shops that seem to appear out of nowhere, but it doesn’t seem like an easy job is so easy to find.

This feels like a thoroughly modern novel, a fresh look at ideals of workplaces and fulfilment and looking for meaning as a young woman without direction. It is translated from Japanese and set in Japan, but a lot of the issues are universal, as she needs to find appropriate times to be in if she wants to get deliveries and deals with weird workplace politics. The book also has a fantastical sense, with the absurdity of some of the jobs and the weird circumstances bringing a kind of dark comedy to burnout and to modern ideas of what you should want from a job. It is amusing and clever, and easy to enjoy the eccentric characters, but also feel for the narrator, especially as the book draws to a close.

I don’t really want to say this is a very millennial book that captures a moment of people being consumed by work in different ways, but it’s hard not to want to write that. It has a kind of darkly comic existentialism about looking for meaning, even when the narrator is mostly looking for maté tea.

The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar

The Henna Wars is a contemporary YA novel about a girl who starts a henna business for a school project and finds herself with a crush on her rival. Nishat has a lot going on: she’s just come out to her parents, who are having trouble accepting a Bengali girl could be a lesbian, and she’s determined to create a successful henna business for her school business project. However, hers isn’t the only henna business as part of the competition, and Nishat finds herself rivals with Flávia, a girl she used to know at primary school who’s now at the same Irish all-girls school as her.

This book has had a lot of hype around it, and it is certainly distinctive, both through the henna rivals premise and just the fact it is a YA novel set at an Irish school. Nishat is a good protagonist, with realistic teen flaws like a tendency to become focused on her own issues and goals at the expense of others’, and her relationship with her sister is a highlight of the book, as they support and bicker with each other. The reader gets to see a lot of Nishat’s emotions and delve into Bengali culture and ideas around cultural appropriation, and it’s good to see how much Nishat wants to stay true to herself.

Part of the plot later in the book does revolve around a forced outing to the whole school, which is a trope used in YA books that I feel doesn’t need to be used so often, and which often isn’t then dealt with in ways that feel supportive towards the character or teenagers reading the book. There’s a lot of plot in The Henna Wars, which meant there perhaps wasn’t enough space to deal more with how Nishat was treated at school after that, or even how her friends reacted. It also felt like some important conversations were cut off or skirted around, and it might’ve been nice to see these followed up on for more resolution.

A readable story with a great protagonist, The Henna Wars is a young adult novel that offers a powerful perspective about staying true to yourself and a teenage love story featuring characters who have to grow and try to learn from their actions.

Cat Step by Alison Irvine

Cat Step is a gripping novel about how things can fall apart under pressure, after a single mother leaves her daughter alone in the car whilst she nips into the shop. Liz moves to Lennoxtown in Scotland with her four-year-old daughter Emily, to get a house ready for sale and give her mother—who they’d been living with—a break. She’s sure this can be a fresh start for them, but after an incident outside the Co-op, it seems everyone is in their business, and it’s not easy to go back to being unknown.

The book draws you in from the opening pages, in distinctive prose, as it unfolds Liz’s perspective and the incident with leaving Emily in the car that sparks off the narrative. I wasn’t quite sure why I was gripped so quickly from the start, but I was, and I read most of the book in one evening. The way people judge Liz, and the difficulty she has in improving circumstances once things start to go less well, feels very realistic, and Cat Step is a really interesting exploration of how motherhood intersects with other things, like mental health, community, and class. Judgement and advice are particularly notable, like Liz’s instinctive disdain for how she is offered advice and support in a patronising or forceful way, like being told she should go to parental support group.

This is literary fiction with a thriller-like need to read on and a moving look at a character trying to keep things from falling apart. The narrative isn’t trying to be sensational, but is sparse and almost claustrophobic in the ways Liz becomes trapped, making it an ideal one for sitting down with and reading all at once.

(Thanks to Dead Ink Books for the proof copy!)

The Hype Machine by Sinan Aral

The Hype Machine is a book about social media—about its power and influence, and about what might need to be done to lessen its negative effects. Sinan Aral defines ‘the Hype Machine’ as the digital social media technologies that have particularly taken off over the last decade or two and considers how they do what they do, helping us to interact, engage, live our lives, and do a whole load more, but also how they impact our decisions, elections, and lives. Aral then goes on to lay out proposals for what could be done to regulate these technologies in ways which might have concrete impact.

As someone who reads a fair few books about popular technology and social media, what made The Hype Machine distinctive (other than the insistence on calling social media ‘the Hype Machine’ throughout the book) was the amount of research cited and used throughout. Whether done by Aral and his team or by others, the book provides a lot of references to research and studies on the actual impact of social media and how it works in different ways, from our brains to network effects. This makes it a good choice if you’re looking for a book on these technologies which balances accessibility with linking to academic studies. It is also notably up to date, with a prologue specifically discussing COVID-19 and references throughout to social media in 2020, which in some ways can blur the lines in debates around privacy and digital technologies through pandemic measures and tech companies’ involvement in these.

This is also a useful look at the two directions social media is being pulled in: towards greater openness, but also greater privacy and security. Aral outlines some of the issues and debates around these, making it a useful introduction for people new to some of these ideas, as well as proposing ways of managing the two areas. The later part of the book focuses on the future and on what should be done in terms of regulation and people’s behaviour, which is useful for starting discussion though (probably naturally) I had some questions about some parts (and as the focus of the book is on the US, the regulation was mostly focused on there).

The Hype Machine is a handy book for my work personally, and an interesting read for anyone who wants to think about how social media works and the effects it has been having over recent years. For my tastes, it lets the tech companies off a bit too much and occasionally falls into thinking that technology can always solve technology’s problems, but Aral often gives multiple sides to a debate and makes it obvious that things often aren’t clear cut.

The Apparition Phase by Will Maclean

The Apparition Phase is a ghost story set in the 1970s which looks at the blurred lines between rational explanation and supernatural happenings. Tim and Abi are precocious twins obsessed with the macabre and strange, who see themselves as cleverer than everyone else at their dull suburban school. They decide to fake a ghost photo and test it on a girl from school, but what they don’t realise is that doing so is setting off something larger, something that will become entangled in their lives as their teenage years go on, and which leads Tim to become mixed up with a strange haunted manor in Suffolk.

Maclean combines a depressing early 70s suburban landscape with an old, supposedly haunted house to create a ghost story that also looks at trauma and escape. Tim’s narrative voice has a classic ghost story hindsight, and the narrative goes in a different direction to what I was expecting from the blurb, moving from weird adolescents to growing older amidst tragedy to ghost hunting and experiments. The characters who appear a bit later into the novel at the old house are an interesting collection, though it felt that from Tim’s perspective you never really got beyond hints of their stories.

The atmosphere of this novel is effective, an example of using a kind of listless 70s landscape to explore the supernatural, growing up, and trauma (70s British gothic should be a genre by now, if it isn’t already). There’s a good balance between actual malevolent spirits and what is realistic troubles from non-supernatural life, making it a book less focusing on jumpy scares than a lingering sense of bleakness. This probably made it an unintentionally good read for the week before Halloween at a time when there’s plenty of real life horrors going on.

Poor by Caleb Femi

Poor is a collection of poetry and photography exploring a Peckham estate and what it is like to grow up as Black boy surrounded by concrete. It is a powerful, fast-paced collection split into sections and broken up with photographs taken by Femi to illustrate the estate and the people found throughout the poems.

So many of the poems have really memorable lines and turns of phrase, witty and cutting deep to the truth of reality on topics like class, race, and gentrification. The ongoing theme of the impact of concrete and the design of estates is really interesting, whether in found poetry or through a clever look at the make up of concrete. 

Reading Poor, you get a real sense of the importance of the world you grow up in, the good, the bad, and the mythologising. It is a brilliantly written collection that feels immediate and emotional and explores how where you live can live and breathe too.

White Tears / Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color by Ruby Hamad

White Tears Brown Scars is a look at white feminism and its impact upon women of colour, from stereotypes of non-white women throughout history to the modern impact in the workplace and media. Combining the history of colonialism globally with specific examples particularly from Black and Indigenous women, Hamad exposes the ways in which feminism contributes to white supremacy and upholds racist power structures, and discusses the need for white women to actually understand and act upon intersectionality, by being aware of the inability to separate race and gender (and, as Hamad points out, class too).

This is a powerful and insightful book, that covers a lot of ground and uses a broadly global range of examples with some focus on Australia and the US at times. Hamad starts by looking at pervasive stereotypes about different groups of women of colour and how these have been created as a kind of binary with white womanhood, and then moves on to look in more depth at the actions and ideas of white womanhood, particularly the idea of ‘white tears’, or when white women react to criticism by people of colour by crying. It’s a concept I’ve read about in other places, but the in-depth focus is interesting and incisive, giving material examples of the effects upon women of colour this can have, for example in the workplace.

An important book for thinking about intersectionality (and then practically acting on those principles), White Tears Brown Scars focuses on an area of white supremacy that a lot of white people might not have considered much, and gives depth and history to an issue—white women’s tears—that has been discussed online (including by Hamad) in recent years. Drawing on a lot of previous work in the broader areas around colonialism, white supremacy, and stereotypes, the book will hopefully push people—especially white feminists—towards more that has been written on these topics as well, and, mostly importantly, to emphasise that change needs to happen.

The System / The Tangled Web We Weave by James Ball

This book, published as The Tangled Web We Weave in the US and The System in the UK, is a look at the internet and how it works, from its inception and the physical infrastructure that makes it work to the companies and money that control many of the platforms and interactions we have with the web. Ball outlines how the internet is a result of decisions, market forces, and government actions, and concludes by looking at the action that can be taken to try and change it to ensure it works for the vast majority, not the few who control it.

Ball provides a useful summary, in different chapters, of different areas of the system that is the internet, starting with its origins and then looking at the physical cables and service providers, then at the tech industry and possibilities of government and other surveillance. The book is designed for complete beginners to reading about these areas, trying to avoid using jargon that isn’t explained and not going into technical depth. This makes it particularly useful for people either looking at the internet from more of a social science viewpoint but wanting to know how it works, or for people who want to know more of the history and issues surrounding the internet and how it is controlled.

A useful starting point or general overview for anyone interested in the internet and how it works and is used, this book is an accessible option hopefully likely to inspire further reading or action, particularly as Ball concludes with a call for change, for fighting for tech companies actually paying the taxes they should and not being allowed to use unfair labour conditions as well as for better treatment of people’s data. What probably is needed next is more accessible information on how this might happen, but it is important that books like this, aimed at people not necessarily up to date on these tech issues, are published.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

Earthlings is a dark novel about what it takes to survive and how to rebel as an outsider in Japanese society, with black comedy and shocking scenes that will likely divide readers. The book opens with eleven-year-old Natsuki, who believes she can do magic thanks to the help of a hedgehog toy from another planet and spends her summers with her cousin Yuu, who believes that he’s an alien who will one day find a spaceship and leave Earth. Underneath, the realities of their lives, including mental, physical, and sexual abuse, linger, and the cousins are parted. When Natsuki grows up, she lives in a marriage of convenience, trying to hide her past trauma, but she and her husband seek to escape what they call the Factory, or the regimented society expecting people to become good workers and have children, and to leave this behind, they are reunited with Yuu, to take whatever steps are necessary.

This is a novel about trauma, but not necessarily in a redemptive way: instead, it is a look at surviving trauma and defying societal norms in ways which may seem shocking, horrifying, or ridiculous. Murata uses this to make the book deeply uncomfortable at times, which works well to get across how hard it is for Natsuki to survive and escape in different ways, and this is tempered with a kind of black comedy, particularly around the ways the main characters frame themselves as magical or alien, especially as the novel builds to its conclusion. Particularly the earlier chapters around Natsuki’s childhood can be difficult to read due to the abuse she faces and the ways her coping mechanisms and trauma are framed (the later part of the book has more body horror than abuse), so it’s definitely a book for people to go into aware of some of the content warnings.

Gripping and horrifying in ways similar to other novels, Earthlings cleverly combines the fantastical with the terrible to explore effects of childhood trauma and the desire to escape from the society you see yourself trapped in. It’s not a light read, but it has a feeling of a cult favourite, whilst also looking at the complexity of mental health and survival.