REVIEW: ‘Madam’ by Phoebe Wynne

I remember being a kid and racing through hefty paperbacks after school and at the weekends. I used to read books in a single sitting, if my parents let me continue reading at the dinner table. I haven’t done that kind of reading in a long time. This week, though, I found myself with a bit of unexpected free time on a dreary day, and sat down with ‘Madam’ by Phoebe Wynne.

I had a suitably gothic storm going on outside while reading this book.

An updated gothic novel, it’s about a classics teacher, Rose, who arrives at a new school – but as with all these things, something isn’t quite right about the school, its staff and students… I ripped through this book – the secretive behaviour of the other teachers coupled with the knowing boredom of the students made me share the protagonist’s frustration at the mysterious institution she has joined. If the gothic is about balancing between pleasure and terror, the this book definitely did it for me – I vividly imagined the twisting architecture of the school and it’s twisted inhabitants.

I would have loved it to have been longer, to dwell on the details of the scenery and weather (much like it’s older gothic predecessors), but I know that kind of digression is not for everyone. There were some major departures from the gothic tropes too – most notably Rose, the protagonist, who is decidedly much less of the swooning, sickly variety of heroine. (Good.) 

I wasn’t sure what to make of the interleaving of classical stories with the main narrative – as someone who doesn’t know much about Greek and Roman mythology (much like Rose’s students in the book!), it was useful to have them there and spot their resonances in the narrative to follow. I’m not sure if I am convinced by some of the arguments made by the retellings, but then these sorts of discussions form a key part of the book. 

Overall it was a great read – I read it in a day, it was that gripping! As the book progresses the mystery unfolds in a really satisfying – and also horrifying – way. It’s not gory or anything – as Wynne makes clear, there are scarier things out there! For me, the real fear is in feeling that it’s a little bit too plausible, even in its gothic silliness… It was the perfect read for the cold and wet weather in Tier 2 lockdown.

‘Madam’ by Phoebe Wynne is out in February 2021, published by Quercus Books. I received this ARC while attending the virtual Quercus 2021 Word of Mouth Bestsellers Evening on Zoom.

REVIEW: Oxford Soap Company – Shampoo Bars and Soap

Have you ever watched one of those review videos on YouTube? One where a person gushes about a skincare product that they’ve only used once? Much as I love watching them, I’m always a little sceptical of the opinions being expressed. How can you know if a skincare product works for you if you’ve not used it for a period of time? I’m not talking about one-time-use products, like sheet-masks. I mean things like face-oils and moisturisers and soap – the everyday basics of avoiding lizard-skin. To me, taking a product out of a box, rubbing a little on your hand, proclaiming it to be a wonder-serum, and filming the whole procedure as evidence of its miracle properties – well, it just isn’t enough.

So today, I’m writing a review of some products that I’ve been using for the past year – the humble bar of soap, and its sister the shampoo bar. I’ve been trying to reduce the amount of plastic in my life in general – and making the switch from shower gel to soap, and from liquid shampoo to shampoo bars was an easy place to start. The Oxford Soap Company‘s products have been really helpful in getting me to change my spending habits, and think more about others when I buy things in the name of ‘self-care’.

The Oxford Soap Company designs and creates handmade soaps and cosmetics in Oxford’s Covered Market. All their soaps are handmade locally in small batches, and contain all-natural ingredients. The soaps are suitable for vegetarians and vegans, and come in attractive recyclable paper and cardboard packaging. They are perfect for anyone willing to explore zero-waste and plastic-free alternatives to liquid shampoo and shower-gel. Since the Oxford Soap Company opened up a shop in the Covered Market just over a year ago, I’ve tried loads of their shampoo bars and soaps.

Their soaps have all worked really well for me, and have left me with lovely moisturised skin. They come in two varieties – plain, and with poppy seeds. The ones with poppy seeds are great for exfoliating the skin, and really wake me up in the morning. The seeds aren’t too scratchy, and they wash down the drain easily, leaving the bath or shower clean with minimal effort. I generally prefer the plain ones – they have a lovely silky feel and lather up beautifully, leaving my skin feeling soft and clean, but not too dry or stripped of oils. The soaps are gentle enough to use on the face too, which the poppy-seed ones aren’t. They all look lovely, and make great gifts. (I’m currently in love with the striped while lily and ginseng soap, pictured above.)

The shampoo bars have been really great for my hair – they’re SLS-free and don’t dry it out. I get about 60+ washes out of a single bar, so they last me ages – far longer than a plastic bottle. I wash my hair twice when I do wash it (every 3 or 4 days), so they last just over three months. Using them takes a little getting used to – I wet my hair and then wet the bar, and run it over the top of my head a few times until it produces a lather. You don’t have to rub very hard to get lots of lovely bubbles! The shampoo rinses out easily, and doesn’t leave any sticky residue. The bars don’t contain anything like seaweed or flower petals (like, say, some of the Lush ones), so you don’t end up brushing them out of your hair once you’ve got out of the bath. I really like these bars – I’d already transitioned away from SLS in shampoos when I still used liquid products in plastic packaging, so it was an easy switch to make as my hair was already used to less stripping ingredients. I’ve heard some people say that they had an initial ‘transition’ period when switching to shampoo bars, but this wasn’t the case for me.

The scents vary across the soaps and shampoo bars, but generally I prefer the floral scents – my favourites so far have been the jasmine-scented shampoo bar, and the matching body soap. I get a lot of compliments about how my hair smells when I use the jasmine shampoo bar – it’s subtly floral and fresh, and doesn’t come across as ‘old’ or overpowering. Every time I go to buy a new bar of shampoo I’ve been tempted to try some of the others, but the jasmine one is still my favourite. My first shampoo bar was the lemon-scented one, which smells of the real thing (rather than an artificial lemon scent) thanks to the essential oils in it. The grapefruit one was great too. I also really like the white lily and ginseng soap (prettiest soap ever!) and the lotus flower one, which a housemate gave me for my birthday.

Soaps in their soap-dish home.

Since making the transition to soaps I’ve found I’ve been spending a bit less money – the shampoo bars last about twice as long as a bottle of shampoo (and I was always parsimonious or stingy with liquid shampoo), and the bar soap lasts about a month if keep it in a proper soap dish. As bars of soap go, these are on the slightly more expensive side given my student-budget (£7.50 a pop, for a 120g bar; £7.99 for a shampoo bar), but I think they’re worth it. These are almost the only products I use in the bath now, other than the odd bit of almond oil for my hair (a lighter alternative to coconut oil, and quite cheap!), some oil cleaner for my face, and some moisturiser. I’ve accidentally become increasingly minimalist!

As someone that’s been trying to think more carefully about my consumer habits, I think the Oxford Soap Company has the right idea – offering high-quality sustainably-produced products which really work. The humble bar of soap has been given a gorgeous luxury feel. They help me scrub up well, at any rate.

***

The Oxford Soap Company can be found online and in the Covered Market, Oxford, where you can often see Ervin at work making soap in his in-store workshop. (Opening hours: Saturday 10am-5.30pm, and Sunday 11am-4pm.)

Disclosure: I was given the soap in the photos as gifts (#gifted); I bought the shampoo bar with my own money. I have bought lots of soap with my own money in the past and have the loyalty-card stamps to prove it!

(The speckled stoneware soap dish in the photos is from Clod and Pebble.)

REVIEW: “Exciting Times” by Naoise Dolan

I read most of Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times through my fingers. It’s so acutely observed that I almost couldn’t bear to keep reading – but I did, because the book somehow managed to tread the fine line between compelling and too awkward.

The novel is narrated by Ava, who makes a living by teaching English grammar to rich children in Hong Kong. She recounts her developing relationship with Julian, a wealthy and closed-off banker. She soon moves in with him, rent-free, leaving a grim and expensive house-share. He insists he doesn’t care about her – but when he gets called away to London for a few months, he lets Ava stay in the flat. During Julian’s absence, Ava then meets Edith, a lawyer apparently so busy that she sends emails in the middle of the theatre. But Edith makes time for Ava, and is soon round at Julian’s flat constantly, even buying flowers to put in the hallway. But Ava keeps quiet about the exact nature of her relationship and arrangement with Julian, so when he messages to say that he’s coming back to Hong Kong, all of Ava’s emotional gymnastics between her feelings towards both Edith and Julian threaten to be unbalanced. What will happen when both Julian and Edith find out about each other?

I read the book quickly, in a couple of sittings, although I had to keep putting it down when things got too awkward! I’ve had similar feelings with sitcoms like Peep Show – having to watch through my fingers, or pause the programme when it all becomes too awful. I’ve never had this feeling with a book before. This isn’t a criticism, though I could see how for some readers it might be off-putting: I enjoy a likeable protagonist too! But I was still compelled to pick the book up and finish it: Ava’s voice is gripping and deceptively cogent. Dolan’s writing is excellent – there are some very witty lines (you can’t really quote them out of context) and I enjoyed a lot of the verbal sparring between Julian and Ava.

I kept thinking that if I met Ava in real life I wouldn’t like her, or that she’d be the kind of friend forever at a distance, so much so that we might barely be friends at all apart from the repeated exposure to one another. My thoughts are telling though: I got drawn in enough by the book to feel as though Ava was fleshed out, her thoughts on display but still a bit inaccessible to me – much like a friend that isn’t really a friend.

To me, the book was a call to witness how awful some people can be – but that coming to that judgement is never quite as simple as it first appears. Like Ava, our narrator, we end up weighing up our options – am I:

a) seeing, witnessing the car-crash of another person’s relationships or

b) being seen, in wincing at the relatabilty of it all?

Disclosure: I was sent an Advance Review Copy (ARC) by W&N. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan is out in hardback in April 2020.