Tag Archives: Book Reviews

A Wood of One’s Own by Ruth Pavey

A Wood of One’s Own By Ruth Pavey book jacket design of wildflowers against tree trunks in black an white with patches of muted colour, jacket design by Maddy Mould

“I showed them where the animals have made an opening in the old stock fencing through to the higher wood. Pleased to keep to myself what a ripping, stinging struggle awaited them. Throughout this exchange the man kept his head down. In my last glimpse of him he ducked lower to avoid a hanging curtain of ivy, stepped over the wire and followed the woman into the half-light of the ash wood. Into the selva oscura with them, thought I.”

A Wood of One’s Own by Ruth Pavey

Have you ever wondered what happened to Enid Blyton’s characters when they grew up? I think I might have found out. Having read A Wood of One’s Own by Ruth Pavey, I have strong suspicions that they might have bought a few acres of woodland on the Somerset Levels and written a memoir about their experiences with the queer folk they met in the land round there.

I was drawn to A Wood of One’s Own by Maddy Mould’s beautiful jacket design, the puffs from the cover endorsements suggesting that this would be a piece of nature writing to sit alongside Isabella Tree’s Wilding, or perhaps something by Robert McFarlane. I liked the idea of someone deciding to take a barren piece of land and plant their own woodland, and seeing what kind of voyage of discovery this would take them on. I’d still be interested to read a book like that, but Ruth Pavey’s A Wood of One’s Own is not it.

Having read it, I’m still not entirely sure who the book is for. It’s a curious mixture of non-sequitur anecdotes that arise in a way that seems entirely disconnected from the text that precedes them and are never resolved, and mildly poisonous pen portraits of people who have seemingly wronged the author. I wouldn’t go so far as to claim she goes full Rita Skeeter (except maybe as in with the quote above with her maliciously gleeful account of directing a woman who questioned whether there was a footpath through her land into nettles and brambles) but Ruth Pavey rarely has a good word to say about anyone in the book – be they the nurserymen she has bought the trees from, the fruitseller who seemed to expect payment for teaching her to graft apples, or the friend she decided to end a friendship with after their dog chased rabbits in her wood, the few people who are written about in favourable terms are her neighbour Ted and a man Andrew who helped develop the woods with heavy machinery, but all are written about very much with an air of the hired help, with side musings about what they meant by certain things and their tone.

For a book which must have been written at some years distance from many events, there’s a lot of umbrage and rumination coming through, written in the part clipped and part chipper tones that reminded me of Blyton novels, with the same tendency to use minor characters eg. “the Bosnian woman”, “the campground owner’s son” to hammer home some point about the putative hero of the piece.

For me it was an uncomfortable read, which dripped of the author’s position of privilege. Buying a woodland on a jolly, breezily remarking that you bought a second house and accidentally became a second home owner while not finding it difficult to remortage your London house, it’s no surprise that it was a Sunday Times book of the year… I suppose these criticisms could be made of Isabella Tree’s Wilding, you have to be in a privileged position to be able to firstly, have the land, and secondly, be able to not farm the land and experiment with rewilding. But at least at Knepp, that was an experiment that was paying dividends for society as an exemplar of how things could be improved. A Wood of One’s Own is a memoir of Ruth Pavey’s creation of a folly, which sees the author buy up a chunk of old orchard land, clearing scrub that was a habitat for wildlife (there’s a section in which her neighbour comments on how many robins had been raised in the wilderness she has ripped out to make a lawn and a leaking pond) to plant non-native species like tulip trees and cedar in a woodland while filling what might have been a wildlife pond with koi carp.

If you want to read a book that is well written and about a genuine personal engagement with improving an environment for wildlife I’d recommend reading anything by Kate Bradbury for the small scale, to Isabella Tree’s Wilding for the grand scale. But not this.

Witchshadow by Susan Dennard

I’ve been pre-ordering a few new releases recently, and have been so excited to have them turn up in the post a week or two ahead of the advertised publication date. The most recent of these has been Witchshadow the fourth book in the Witchlands series by Susan Dennard, which I’ve been itching to get my fingers on for ages.

The novel focuses on Iseult det Midenzi, on the run from the Hell-Bards with Owl and a weasel who isn’t a weasel, following a foiled scheme to save Safi’s uncle Eron by marrying her to Emperor Henrick. In theory it picks up where Bloodwitch left off, with the major characters scattered across the Witchlands as they mobilise for war.

I say in theory, because it took me a little while to gather the threads of where things had left off… what happened to Aedun? Becoming possessed by an ancient being feels like something the reader needed to be shown but I missed that. I’ve loved the Witchlands books so far, but for me this was a little chaotic. I was struggling to keep up with who and what was a Paladin and the Witchlands lore at time, and I think that may be because I have yet to read Sightwitch which was billed as being a separate non-essential novel in the series but I suspect might actually be key to some of the passages in this book making instant sense as supposed to sense that you have to work for. The novel was still enjoyable without the context, but I suspect that it would have helped contextualise the sections with Stix and Ryber in Baile’s Slaughter Ring.

Having said that, despite the chaos and the occasional moment of feeling like I was struggling to grab at the threads that flew everywhere, I really enjoyed getting back into the Witchlands novels. I think Susan Dennard writes action scenes really well, so while the mythology could have been clearer, when the time came to initiate and complete, the writing was on point.

If you haven’t read any of the Witchlands series, I’d strongly recommend them, especially if you’re a Leigh Bardugo fan looking for somewhere to bide your time for the next Grishaverse novel, the Witchlands series is a little less dark, in my opinion, and probably well suited to readers who are maybe a little young for the Grishaverse novels, but at the same time, there’s nothing light about them and the characters have a slipperiness and moral greyness in many cases that leaves you wondering where the series will take you. Just read them in order and probably don’t skip Sightwitch!

I’m just wondering when I’ll be able to pre-order the next book now, I understand it’s the last in the series and there’s a lot to bring together. Eeeeek.

A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer

“Rhen,” she calls after me.
I pause in the doorway and face her.
“I’m not going to fall in love with you,” she says.
Her words are not a surprise. I sigh.
“You won’t be the first.”


A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer

Prince Rhen of Emberfall has been eighteen for over three hundred seasons. Cursed by a sorceress to repeat the Autumn of his eighteenth year until he manages to convince a woman to fall in love with him, Rhen sees the curse as a game at first. But at the end of the first season Rhen begins to turn into a monster, and as he does, he forgets who he is. As a beast, he has no control, and murders his entire family, before coming back to himself for the final hour of the season to see the havoc he has wreaked. For three hundred seasons he has turned into a beast, his murderous rampages decimating his kingdom leaving his guard Grey as his only company. And his memory of each season never fades. In his final season, Rhen is ready to accept that he will turn into a monster forever, until Grey is attacked by a young woman who witnesses his attempt to kidnap Rhen’s latest conquest, and he accidentally brings her to Emberfall instead…

On the surface, A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer is hugely problematic. How could it not be when the obvious slap slap kiss love story at the heart of it centres on a handsome prince who with the assistance of his trusty guard kidnaps hundreds of women to use in an attempt to break a curse each season. Details are hazy on what happens to the women (selected for being what the agents of Criminal Minds would call high risk, no family, no support network, no one to miss them when they’ve gone…) when the season is over. Rhen says they return to their world, but it also sounds like he ate a few of them in monster form, so it looks like at least a few of them are now forever Emberfall, as it were.

So yes, a romantic fantasy which starts with two men kidnapping a young woman and keeping her locked up in a castle should set alarm bells ringing, and neon signs flashing problematic, but I actually really enjoyed reading Brigid Kemmerer’s A Curse So Dark and Lonely.

By bringing the reader in towards the very end of the curse skips over the worst excesses of Rhen’s former character that the novel hints at and lets us see him at his most vulnerable. He’s lost everything, and despite his own morbid curiosity about the limits of his curse (he’s tried to end his own life several times, and tried to persuade his Guardsman, Grey to behead him) he’s resigned to his fate, a broken man who is now only concerned about his citizens and owning his failure… And then there’s Harper.

Harper is to A Curse So Dark and Lonely as Clare Randall/Fraser is to the Outlander novels. An intelligent, loyal and empathetic heroine who acts rashly but always with the best intentions. A teenaged girl living in poverty in Washington D.C., she accidentally makes the trip to Emberfall when she sees Grey attempting to kidnap a young woman outside a nightclub, and barely hesitates to rush in and attack him with a tyre iron despite that being even more challenging for Harper than the average woman, because Harper has mild cerebral palsy that affects her balance and movement in one leg.

I haven’t lived with cerebral palsy personally, but I have taught students with mild CP, and I found the portrayal of Harper really refreshing. Finally, a heroine in a YA novel with a named disability that places realistic boundaries on her physical capabilities who isn’t portrayed as a burden, a damsel in distress or in need of fixing. She might take the role of the warrior woman, learning to throw knives and shoot a bow, but what sets her apart is her empathy and fierce intelligence. She’s easily the equal of her kidnappers, and while she doubts she will ever fall in love with Rhen and break the curse, her strong sense of social justice allows her to see that there are plenty of ways he can still help the Kingdom of Emberfall in the meantime.

Part of the reason that the highly problematic kidnapper/captive love story doesn’t become as problematic as it could is the dynamic between Rhen, Grey and Harper. Rhen is an overthinker, always calculating with the need to feel twenty steps ahead of any scenario, Harper is rash and impulsive, Grey acts as the balance between them, and in a move that has shades of Outlander again, teaches Harper to defend herself with a dagger when she tries to attack him. Both young men treat Harper with the utmost respect at all times, almost to the point of deference, and this leads Rhen to quickly drop any pretence of seduction and be honest about his plight.

It was good to see a YA novel where a relationship grows out of total honesty, though despite Kemmerer’s best efforts, I have to admit I struggled to feel much empathy for the Rhen, I found his character fairly brittle even when the ultimate Big Bad, sorceress and magesmith Lilith was brought out to torment him (in fairness it’s hard to blame someone for wanting revenge on a man whose family were responsible for the genocide of her people). In comparison to Rhen, Harper and Grey were far more interesting characters to read about, even though the novel is narrated from Harper and Rhen’s points of view, and I suspect that Kemmerer may have enjoyed writing them more too.

There’s a lot going on in A Curse So Dark and Lonely – deeply troubled families, dying parents, broken kingdoms, debt, bad choices, the weight of the crown and the responsibility that comes with it, but Brigid Kemmerer has woven it all together beautifully in a fantasy novel that does the hard work for you and doesn’t shy away from embracing its characters vulnerabilities.

The Friendship Cure by Kate Leaver

The Friendship Cure by Kate Leaver, a confusingly packaged but interesting read on the role of friendship in the modern world

They used to say that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover, but modern publishing relies on shelf appeal -be that in a physical or online shop- an invests so heavily in cover designs that generally you can do just that. For bigger releases, editorial, marketing, design and sales will all pitch in about the final cover and title of a book to make sure that it’s discoverable to the readers who are likely to be looking for it. They want you to know what to expect.

With that said, it’s rare these days to pick up a book and find that it’s been somehow mispackaged. The Friendship Cure: Reconnecting in the Modern World by Kate Leaver positively screams self-help book, from the title, to the subtitle, to the girly pink and purple crushed tablet of glitter which has bled into the font. But wait, why is the endorsement on the cover calling the author the new Jon Ronson?

The Friendship Cure by Kate Leaver, despite its confusing title, isn’t a self-help book at all, but a treatise on friendship in the digital age. Touching on a wide range of friendship related topics, it draws on social psychology, anthropology and a healthy dose of personal experience and annecdote to explore why most people’s social networks hover around the 150 mark, looking at different categories of friendship like the Bromance, The Work Wife, The Toxic Friend, The Virtual Friend and Friends with Benefits to resulting in an enjoyable exposition on why friendships matter as much as ever in our disconnected world.

Leaver has serious experience as a journalist, and the book tackles head on the hugely topical issue of the loneliness pandemic, and I’d say it does it very well. The writing at times leaned towards excessive self-deprecation, and there were a few sweeping generalisations in the chapter on whether men and women can ever just be friends which seemed to lend more than a little credence to the films of Nora Ephron, but I enjoyed reading this and found it informative. A solid book.

All the while I was reading it though, I couldn’t help but thinking that if this was a male journalist writing about the importance of friendship, reflecting on his own experience of friendship with men and women and how that had shaped his sense of self, the publishers wouldn’t have gone full throttle on the heavily gendered packaging. The non-fiction market is going from strength to strength in the UK, and it would be nice to see women’s writing being given the same consideration as men’s when publishers are thinking about how they promote books to readers.

We do tend to judge books by their covers after all.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

To some extent I’ve been putting off writing about Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. What do you say that the hype surrounding the book hasn’t already said? When if it hasn’t quite won every prize going, it’s certainly been shortlisted for it?

In truth, even though I’d asked my partner to buy me the book for my birthday in December, I’d put off reading it until this month unsure, having lost one of my own twins, how well I’d cope with a novel about another woman losing one of hers, even after six years.

In the end, I needn’t have worried about this. Although Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet is anchored by the death of Shakespeare’s son, exploring the family’s grief in the aftermath of Hamnet’s death, this is a novel about life, not death. Maggie O’Farrell gives life and character to the shadowy family that history has left behind in Stratford. For once, William Shakespeare isn’t named, the Latin’ tutor, the glovemaker’s son, he is the distant figure and the myth is woven instead around his family. Calling it a domestic drama doesn’t do it justice, but it’s undeniable that in Hamnet Maggie O’Farrell’s prose elevates the forgotten incidents of the lives of Elizabethan women to poetry, writing lovingly and with heart about birthing and raising children, about carving out your own destiny in a society which at best will only ever see you as second class.  

It’s a beautiful novel, but as a portrait of a family’s shifting relationships following a bereavement, and a couple struggling to relate to each other in the wake of it, it’s completely breath-taking.

The Mask Falling by Samantha Shannon

“It is a beautiful mask, but all masks fall. In the end.”

The Mask Falling by Samantha Shannon

Such were the joys of home schooling and working around the children that I didn’t realise that the fourth book in Samantha Shannon’s Bone Season series The Mask Falling  had published until two months after the release date even though I had been counting down to the release date.

It felt as though I had been waiting for the fourth book forever though it’s all relative, cough cough, Patrick Rothfuss . I’d managed to feed my series addiction with forays into Samantha Shannon’s Bone Season spin off novellas The Pale Dreamer (really good, a pacey and exciting prequel to the series) and The Dawn Chorus (which bridges the events of novels three and four) in the summer but I was looking forward to getting my teeth into what happened to Paige Mahoney after she’d escaped the clutches of Scion in London and headed off to Scion Paris with the enigmatic Arcturus Mesarthim.

I found The Mask Falling quite different to the others in the series, as the first section had a slower build and concentrated quite closely on the relationship between Paige and Arcturus as she was stripped of her usual affiliations and networks in Scion Paris, which I’m sure will be welcome to many but at the same time, albeit necessarily, retrod some ground covered in The Dawn Chorus. The pace builds though, and it isn’t long before Paige is running around Scion Paris, exploring catacombs and subterranean cities, not to mention infiltrating the heart of Scion Paris and running into old friends and acquaintances along the way.

I felt at times as though The Mask Falling lacked the full punch of other books in the series – it had the slightly stretched feel of the classic middle novel in a series that has to fit just so much in that the final books will depend on – but for all that it was a really enjoyable read and I’m now frustratedly wondering when the fifth book will be released because what the hell sort of a cliffhanger was that to end on?! I suspect that the follow up novels will reveal the importance of lots of tiny details from this book.

If you haven’t read the first novel in the series but are interested, you can read my review here.

Spoilers, Theories and Questions about The Mask Falling by Samantha Shannon

Okay, so what’s with the bears? Paige Mahoney, Cade Fitzours and Emma Orson… the dreamwalkers all have Bear names, and Arcturus apparently means guardian of the bear. Fitz means son, and there’s also the suggestion that Orson is son of the bear…. so are they all descended from a common relative? Is that why the Poltergeist in Senshield (presumably also a dreamwalker since Nashira needs Paige to make Senshield work) marks Paige as kin? And if it’s not too much of a leap, is Arcturus the guardian of the bears because he fought in support of the Mothallath and has never had an issue with the concept of “flesh treachery” guarding the ancestors of a Reph/Human hybrid that has resulted as the result of the previous contact between humans and rephs that caused the waning of the veils? Is that otherness part of what makes Paige’s father call her a changling under torture?

Speaking of her father, what had he left her in his will? Sounds like a possible future plot point.

Paige gets to meet one of Arcturus’ exes when she meets the chained Kornephoros in the basement, and it’s surprising that he lets her go and doesn’t harm her, after she failed to keep her promise and free him. Which makes me wonder which oath is more pressing to him than getting his revenge on Paige? And who let him go? Cade would be the most obvious, but why wouldn’t he have had his head ripped off as promised? Though Cade has presumably been in Arcturus’ head at this point… what happened when he was in his Dreamscape?

Cade/David’s allegiances are still unclear. Why does he attack Paige? Because she’s realised he’s a dreamwalker? If he wanted her gone it would have been easier to get rid of her by in other ways surely, and then why chain her up. He seems to be working with Nashira but didn’t sell Paige out in the first novel, or deliver her to Nashira in this one. And when Paige attacks the Rephs while Arcturus is possessed, she says something along the lines of she called to the aether and something answered. At the same time, she seems Arcturus return to his eyes – did Cade leave Arcturus to help fight off the Rephs? All kinds of confusion around his true intentions.

And speaking about confusing people. Dearie Lord, Jaxon, what to make of you…. An interesting twist in their relationship as it seems that Jaxon is now trying to impress Paige in the ways she used to try and impress him.

And who is Cordier working for? She’s basically saved Paige’s life, but is painted as likely the person who sold out Paige and Arcturus…. And now she’s rocking up in a war zone to chloroform Paige when she was nearby and vulnerable to the Rephs if any had survived the bomb falling.

My guess, for what it’s worth, is that Arcturus is still alive. Provided the Rephs can take aura and aren’t touched by the red poppies when injured, they seem to recover pretty well from most things…. And was it just me or did he seem to know that the bomb was going to be dropped?

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

“The only way to learn is to live” The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Nora Seed has had enough. Ground down by bereavements and break ups, we meet her on what she decides will be the last day of her life, which sees the death of her cat, the loss of her job, and rejection by the friends and family she reaches out to. Reaching rock bottom, she takes an overdose and finds herself waking up in the Midnight Library.

In the Midnight Library, the time is always frozen at midnight. And the miles and miles of shelves contain all the possible lives Nora Seed could have live had her choices been different. If she hadn’t broken up with her fiancé. If she had gone to Australia with her best friend. If she hadn’t quit the band. If she’d kept swimming. If she’d gone for that coffee.

I loved the concept of The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. I think it’s a thought experiment that everyone has played, if not a fantasy harboured by many, to think what your life might have been like if you’d made a different choice at key points in your life. In some ways, this is a self-book masquerading behind the thin veil of a novel, showing the reader that everyone is more valued than they realise; that their lives have meaning, if not in the way they might have planned as teenagers; that you might find, if you were totally omnipotent, that some of your most nagging regrets are misplaced.

And in The Midnight Library, Matt Haig does that very well. For all that its message is worthy and necessary, the novel is really enjoyable, and I was invested enough to keep reading until I finished the book to find out what ultimately happens to Nora Seed. While there’s an argument that at times Matt Haig has left the plotting a little on display – there’s a lot to set up in the opening chapters to allow Matt Haig to draw out Nora’s possible lives as she explores the Midnight Library later in the novel –  I don’t think that stops the potential of the idea being brilliantly executed.

I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who is looking for a gentle and ultimately affirming and upbeat read. Novels steeped in positivity and hope are what I need on my TBR list right now.

The Flip Side by James Bailey

$R0Z7HUDIn The Flip Side by James Bailey, Josh experiences his own personal 2020 slightly ahead of the rest of us. Picture the scene, it’s New Year’s Eve and 135 meters above the ground in a pod on the London Eye, Josh proposes to his girlfriend, only to find out that she’s been having an affair.  In the twenty nine minutes it takes for the pod to come down to the ground, Josh loses his girlfriend, his job and his home.

With his faith in his own judgement shaken, Josh decides to outsource his judgement to a 50p coin – resolving that for a year he will flip the coin to make every decision, in the hope that the coin can help him find direction, and perhaps true love.

If I’ve said it once, I’ll say it a thousand times, big public proposals bring me out in hives. I think they’re manipulative, unless you’re with someone who is definitely into performing a relationship in public, they feel like a way of coercing someone into saying yes when they’re borderline. So I have to admit I really enjoyed the cringe factor of the opening scene of The Flip Side by James Bailey in which Josh’s proposal crashes and burns.

And this is a novel of cringe, and really good fun if you like awkward humour. It’s been compared to The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary, but I’d say that this is more sitcom than romcom, with the awkward situations Josh finds himself in with his friends and his family being some of the funniest parts of the novel, though I did quite like Josh’s search across Europe for his manic pixie dream girl.

I found reading this novel quite bittersweet at the moment. So much of the action takes place in pubs, at family parties etc. it was an odd sensation reading it in lockdown, especially with a looming Brexit which could make a plane hopping trip across Europe an impossibility for Britons before too very long.

Despite that, it’s a light and bright read which is a nice distraction from the state of the world at the moment.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi lives in the House. He supposes he always has. Only one other person lives in the House, Piranesi calls him The Other as he has never known anyone else in the house, though he has found evidence of other people in the forms of their skeletons and makes a point of tending the fourteen dead. But one day a stranger comes to the house, and the knowledge she brings will turn Piranesi’s world upside down.

Susanna Clarke writes wickedly clever books. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was wickedly clever in skewering the style of a 19th century novel, while creating an epic fantasy. Piranesi, by contrast feels far more restrained, a focused, almost academic novel that defies categorisation – part allegory, part travelogue, part personal philosophy.

For me, Piranesi felt a bit like a refraction of Plato’s Cave allegory through the lens of Robinson Crusoe. Instead of watching shadows on the wall, Piranesi sees the statues of the house which represent lost knowledge that have flowed from our real world. In his Crusoe-esque travelogue, he tries to make sense of his world, his lost past repressed by the amnesia inducing powers of the house, believing that he infers the existence of large numbers of people from the existence of the statues, and marvelling that he can makes sense of the idea of a university without the existence of one in his world, The House.

For all it’s relative brevity, Piranesi is one of those books that I could see would stay with you. It leaves you with so many questions, so many things to find an explanation for. What are we intended to take away from Piranesi’s reverence of the house? Are the birds truly augurs, and if so what is the significance of the presence of the albatrosses and their chick? Is there an environmental/ecological analogy in Piranesi’s rejection of the quest for the Great Knowledge and appreciation of the house itself? What is the house in Piranesi? While the other sees the house as Piranesi’s prison and a threat, Piranesi sees it as a sanctuary, a protective force; does the inhabitant project their own character onto the house? Is it in that sense a sort of crucible? And who is the skeleton of the little girl with the necklace?

Have you read it? What did you think?

Here is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan

$R86Z4GI        “ She had discovered us.

This was her way of getting in touch,

     of punishing me”

Here is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan

Ana Kelly is in love with Connor Mooney. They met at her legal practice when Connor came in to draw up his will and started an affair. One day, shortly after the couple have argued, Ana receives a phone call from Connor’s wife, Rebecca. Unaware of their affair, Rebecca tells her that her husband has died and she needs to organise the legal affairs relating to his estate. Bereft without the man she loved, and unable to share her grief as a result of the affair, she transfers her obsession to the woman who stood between them.

Here is the Beehive is a short novel written in blank verse, narrated from the perspective of Ana Kelly as she struggles to come to terms with her lover’s death. Crossan makes the most of the narrow focus of her narrator, the story, despite its brevity, becoming increasingly complex as Ana’s focus shifts in increments and we learn more about her own circumstances, and the increasingly complex world of her affair. I did wonder if Connor’s wife was named Rebecca as a nod to the Daphne Du Maurier novel of the same name.

I thought the book was skillfully written, but I struggled to empathise with the main characters, at times feeling incredibly hostile towards them, a testament to the author’s skill but not a recipe for the most relaxing read! In terms of style, despite the blank verse, I’d say it’s a little bit Sally Rooney’s Normal People, twenty years after university and lacking (for me) the emotional hook and goodwill the characters in Normal People engendered.