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Highlights in the Charts

How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman

Review by Natalie Joyce


As someone who has always been fascinated by the Victorian era, this book was a must-read for me. Ruth Goodman, a historian of British life and culture, travels back in time to see what life was like for ordinary people in the Victorian era.


The book consists of chapters of a daily routine beginning with “Getting Up,” “Getting Dressed” and “Personal Grooming,” going on to “The Main Business of the Day” before ending with dinner and a bath before bed. I loved that the structure of the chapters covered what a day in the life of a Victorian was like, and that it was full of detailed information, often documented from real experiences, which really brought the book to life and helped me envision what life in this period was truly like.


As well as being fantastic writing, what makes this book compelling is that Goodman has actually experienced much of what she has written about, writing about how long certain things took, such as laundry, personal grooming and sewing. She spent a considerable amount of time living the life of a Victorian, such as working on a Victorian farm, wearing the clothes and doing manual work which really enhances the authority of her book.


How to be a Victorian is impeccably researched and gives a comprehensive understanding of this period as a whole. I would recommend this book to researchers, students and those with an interest in the Victorians as it is truly captivating as well as entertaining.


My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Review by Cassie Waters


Trigger warning: abuse.


My Dark Vanessa has had a tumultuous reception into the world. On one hand, it has been showered with praise from industry giants such as Stephen King and Hilary Mantel, made it onto both The Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller lists and became a TikTok sensation. On the other hand, it has been the subject of a Twitter storm and was even dropped from Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club. The reaction to it has been as divisive as its subject matter.


Set between the early noughties and the #MeToo era of 2017, the novel switches between the story of fifteen-year-old Vanessa, abused by a teacher twenty-seven years her senior, and the story of her thirty-two-year-old self, experiencing the fallout from accusations of historical abuse that she wants nothing to do with. At first glance, it appears to be a book about an adult woman coming to terms with the abuse she faced as a teenager. But it’s more complicated than that. Vanessa doesn’t believe that she was abused. She believes that Strane, her former English teacher, was the great love of her life and that their romance was doomed due to the way society sees him.


The book is an uncomfortable read and at times Vanessa is an intensely dislikeable character. Strane is a textbook abuser. He compliments Vanessa and tells her how special and unique she is, even giving her a copy of Lolita. But Vanessa has blinkered herself to this. As an adult, she remains in contact with Strane and defends him even to herself.


The book is an uncomfortable read as we experience Vanessa twisting between delusion and understanding the truth of her situation. On one hand, it cleverly delves into the complexity and nuances of abusive relationships, on the other hand, it is a long and graphic encounter of trauma in which there is very little justice.


The Boy Who Steals Houses by C.G Drews

Review by Halimah Haque


Fairy-tale retellings are one of my favourite genres, so when I heard that The Boy Who Steals Houses was a gender-bent retelling of Goldilocks, I knew I had to read it. This novel follows fifteen-year-old Sam and his autistic older brother Avery. Abandoned by all their relatives, Sam tries to build a new life for them by breaking into empty houses when their owners are away, until one day he’s caught when a family returns home. To his surprise, this large family takes him in as one of their own – each teenager assuming he’s a friend of another sibling.


As Sam finds warmth, security and love amongst these strangers, he’s forced to face the consequences of his past choices – both good and bad. His many mistakes beautifully reflect the flawed nature of humans and it’s Sam’s overwhelming desire to protect his family that makes this story all the more heart-rending. Above all, the novel’s portrayal of autism is what makes this book shine. Drews’ characterisation of Avery is so respectfully done, creating a character that is impossible not to adore. He is not defined by his autism, but presented as an individual struggling to survive, like everyone else.


The Delaney’s chaotic family dynamics, combined with Sam and Avery’s innocence, are a joy to read. Laced with moments of heartache, excitement and at times tears, The Boy Who Steals Houses is a remarkable story of togetherness, family and redemption.


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