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Highlights in the Charts

Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It by Janina Ramirez

Reviewed by Daisy Young

Historical non-fiction is a genre that, to me, can be read two ways. Either it’s densely packed with information and reads like an academic essay, which can sometimes overwhelm you with facts and figures, or it's a passionate and informative story that brings to life the people and atmosphere lost to the ages. Janina Ramirez’s Femina is definitely the latter. 

Fiercely feminine and unabashedly powerful, this work examines the influence and voices of the women who helped shape the Middle Ages. From famous warriors to religious influencers, Ramirez takes us on a journey that not only travels across the globe, but also spans decades of one of the most diverse periods of history.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this book was its structure. The chapters are broken down into case studies that focus on archaeological discoveries centred around women in the Middle Ages. While factual, the writing is upbeat and highlights the importance of such discoveries and their rebuilding of past societies. Then, through sensory writing (and a little bit of time-travel hijinks), the reader is transported back to the events that led to the case studies. My favourite chapter was the one focusing on Birka Warriors, as it debunks the ideology that women were subservient and non-violent in times gone by. The same can be said for the chapter focussing on Margery Kempe, whose mystic writing inspired many men and women alike. This was another unique part of Femina. Though focused on women and written about women, it never ignored or dismissed men in the Middle Ages from their shared history.

Ramirez’s writing is bursting with passion and enthusiasm, and it is very clear that she loves laying out this period of history for readers. She takes pride in her ability to recognise her own bias, something many historical non-fiction writers try to dismiss in their work. Not Ramirez: instead, she highlights her standpoint from the beginning; she feels women have been written out of this period in history and she is here to set the record straight. Her enjoyment and fascination with these women and artefacts is what makes this book so enjoyable, and her humorous tone makes light of some of the dense subject matter. Not once does she exaggerate or overextend her knowledge, and she is quick to cite her sources and show respect to those who have delved further into the history than she.

I would urge every history lover to give this book a go, and highly recommend the audiobook edition of it – read by Ramirez herself. In the wake of International Women’s Month, Femina was a delightful discovery.

The Real Deal by Caitlin Devlin 

Reviewed by Becky Connolly 

The Real Deal is the debut novel by author Caitlin Devlin, which follows the life of Belle Simon: a childhood reality TV star in a hit show of the same name. The book begins years after the show shut down, and Belle is being invited back for a reunion. But what happened at the end of the show? Why is Belle so hesitant to come back? These are questions that tease the reader throughout the novel. 

Reality TV, childhood fame and its ramifications are hotly debated topics recently. Jeanette McCurdy’s I’m Glad My Mom Died has an incredible rating of five stars, and TV shows such as Dance Moms and the new Quiet on Set are eagerly devoured by viewers. So how does this novel fare in exploring the complex world of child stardom? 

Belle Simon is only twelve years old when she is chosen for The Real Deal. We see her before, her mother’s hesitation, and then watch as she is thrust into the world of stardom. Plucked by superstar Donna Mayfair, we watch with fear and anxiety as the complex and dangerous world of fame eats away at Belle’s childhood. Belle is picked with five other girls, who all represent a different aspect of the struggles in the world of childhood fame. Our sympathies fluctuate with the characters throughout the novel as the truth comes out – truly building up the toxic, confusing, messy world of fame. 

The book has a dual narrative: while we see Belle go through the reunion and explore how the show affected her personal relationships, we simultaneously dive into the past, season by season. I found this narrative incredibly compelling, as undeniably the show moulded her life and her reactions in the present day. Fairly early on we understand that something happened right at the end of the show; however, this is not the only thing that maintained the tension throughout the novel. The tension was furthered by the relationships, the smaller plots between the characters and the intrigue as to how the reunion would pan out. 

Devlin’s writing style is truly what made the book spectacular, however. She writes with a lyricism and beauty that goes well beyond her debut writer status; all the characters were so well-crafted and psychologically complex, with the world of reality TV so intrinsically built that I was always absorbed whenever I picked up the book. An ideal read for any fans of Taylor Jenkins Reid or Lianne Moriarty, The Real Deal is an addictive and compelling story. 



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