FEMINISM//Girls Will Be Girls- Emer O’Toole

Girls Will Be Girls (Mar):  Being a woman is a bit of a performance, isn’t it? Whether it’s debating how much makeup is acceptable for work, or pretending that you’re super confident as you walk home from work at night, keys tucked between fingers, there is a degree of ‘fake it til you make it’ in everyday life as a woman. It’s something we’ve been conditioned to and something that we talk to each other about.

Emer O’Toole is interested in this performance and what it means to us; her area of interest is the theatre and this book reads as part-memoir of growing up in Galway and part-exploration of how women are shaped by society. O’Toole writes about Halloween as an example. For years, she’d dressed up as ‘sexy’ characters, but one year decided to dress as a boy. She details how she felt physically and also how the men and women around her responded differently- women found her attractive, men found her threatening. It’s an interesting lesson on how our identity and the expectations of it are shaped by society.

Is there a lot new here? Maybe not. If you’re familiar with the work of Judith Butler and gender as performance, some of those ideas are challenged and expanded, but I think the book’s main selling point is as a coming-of-age story of O’Toole’s expanding feminism and acceptance of herself, her identity and her sexuality.

FICTION//See What I Have Done- Sarah Schmidt*

See What I Have Done (Nov):  I have been DYING to tell you about this book since I read it at the tail end of last year, but the publicist asked me to hang fire until March. It is now March. I can now tell you more about this novel other that the occasional tweet singing its praises.

Because OH MY GOD, it’s good. I see great things in this book’s future, I really do.

Everyone knows the poem about Lizzie Borden, right? ‘Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.’ I remember first reading about this case as a kid in a book of unsolved mysteries and I’m pretty sure it sparked my life-long interest in true crime. It’s a case many of us are familiar with, even if we’re not so sure about the ins and outs of it.

The crime is told from multiple viewpoints, including Lizzie and her sister, which lends the story an air of confusion and danger- exactly how I imagine the Borden house would have felt in the aftermath of such a crime. Unreliable narrators mean that this is often a gripping, if somewhat uncomfortable read. After all, if you can’t trust the characters who act as your eyes, who can you trust? NO ONE. Of course, there’s never been a definitive answer to whodunnit (Lizzie was tried but acquitted, because according to the all-male jury no woman, let alone a respectable middle class spinster, could ever be so brutal as to murder her pillar-of-community father and obedient step-mother), but there is a sense that Schmidt has an idea of who committed the crime. Ultimately, though, it’s up to you to decide.

What has stayed with me more than anything in the months since I read this book is the use of language. I have honestly never read a novel so creepy and unsettling. Little things like clocks and pigeons become threatening and defining. This is a novel that is as claustrophobic as the house in which the crime itself was committed. It’s also a clever way of conveying the sense of underlying madness and hysteria that the Borden sisters had to deal with as they closed themselves off from media sensation that was going on around them. You really understand the oppressive atmosphere in which the narrative takes place and the toll this takes on the already strained relationships between those who live in the Borden household after  the horrific murder.

It’s a quiet menace that runs through the novel and one that resonates eerily afterwards. That’s the appeal of this novel, I think. It’s not a big, showy novel that smacks you in the face from the first page, but one that slowly creeps up on you and, by the time you’ve finished, you realise that it’s firmly embedded in your brain. Good stuff.

Oh, and you’ll never look at mutton in the same way again. Promise.

 

ESSAYS//The Good Immigrant- ed. Nikesh Shukla

The Good Immigrant (Mar): I’ve wanted to read this for ages and was very pleased when it finally arrived at the library. I love essays and I have been trying to expand my world-view in light of the recent political landscape. One of the ways I became acutely aware of how things were shifting was through the conversations I was having with my students. I am incredibly privileged to work with kids from a huge variety of backgrounds (in my school we have a noticeboard that shows all the languages spoken by the students- there are about 35 in total.) I listened to their fears and how they saw themselves being treated, first after Brexit (I teach in a town which voted to leave) and later, post-Trump.
This book really should be in every secondary school library. The stories contained within it are important and reflective of a society that we may not recognise initially- many of us do not have to go through life worrying about the way our hair or our skin colour or religion affects the way the world sees us. Sex, death, culture, femininity and masculinity, fashion,the importance of representation across all areas of life, as well as the importance of the language we use is all covered here and I devoured every page.
I loved Bim Adewunmi’s exploration of pop culture , ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Tokenism’ and Nish Kumar’s exploration of his feelings after he became a meme in ‘Is Nish Kumar a Confused Muslim?’ Another standout piece for me was ‘Cutting Through (On Black Barbershops and Masculinity)’, where poet Inua Ellams travels around Africa exploring what it means to be a man in different countries. Kieran Yates’ piece ‘On Going Home’ explores the culture shock- not only from country to country, but also city to city when she visits family in India.
Riz Ahmed’s piece about airport security and performance, ‘Airports and Auditions’, has rightly received a lot of attention for its humour and blistering anger and it is one of the best pieces in the book. I also enjoyed Selena Godden’s essay ‘Shade’, which explores being ‘other’ in a society that doesn’t quite know how to deal with those who might be seen as ‘outsiders’.
The essay that spoke to me the most, though, was Darren Chetty’s ‘You Can’t Say That! Stories Have To Be About White People.’ As a teacher, Chetty found that pupils wrote stories from the perspective of white characters, regardless of ethnicity. As I read this, I realised that this was often true of my own students. As a result, I have gone away and thought about how I can encourage my students to see themselves in the world and in their work. And then I hope they can change the world for the better.
Everyone should read this book. Everyone.

The Brontë Project//Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life- Samantha Ellis

Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life (Feb):  As I get older, Anne Brontë just makes loads more sense to me than her sisters. The sensible, shy and youngest Brontë sister was the only one who could make a job stick, who saw the world from the view of a working woman. Sure, I thought I liked Emily best- and she still has her moments, especially when it comes to her poetry- but Anne just grows more and more relevant to me as I grow older, even though she was younger than me when she died.

It’s in this spirit that Samantha Ellis writes this book. Sure, there have been tons of Brontë biographies and a few have made a good go at writing about Anne, even though there is scant evidence of her life outside of her work- none of the Gondal stories she wrote as a child with Emily survive, only five of her letters are known and there’s no existing manuscript of her masterpiece, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, that survives, possibly thanks to Charlotte destroying a lot of her work after her death. In truth, it would be easy to see Anne as some kind of a ghost, slipping her way through literary history. Ellis remarks in her book that staff at the Parsonage Museum state that they are rarely asked about Anne- more people apparently ask where Heathcliff is buried. (Bloody Heathcliff.)

In contrast to previous biographies, Ellis looks at Anne Brontë not through what is there and then filling in the awesome gaps left by the silence, but rather by exploring the different people in Anne’s life. Ellis is a playwright and these chapters feel almost like character studies- but they work. It’s a clever idea that allows her to weave in information about Anne’s life and the society in which she lived and how that is ultimately reflected back in the novels she wrote. A chapter on the Brontës’ beloved servant Tabby (always one of my most favourite people in the Brontë story, mainly because I imagine my own relatives being from good, honest Yorkshire stock like Tabby’s own family) allows Ellis to explore how Haworth and its surroundings shaped the work of the Brontës. A chapter on Anne’s father Patrick, much maligned by Gaskell and who to me has always seemed like a sweet man trying his best, means we get a look at the role of the clergy in his lifetime and how this shaped the upbringing of the sisters and their infamous brother. Each person in Anne’s life is here and the lessons that they bring to her work- and to us- feel like they have messages that are still relevant in today’s messy world.

Like her previous work, Ellis weaves her own exploration of Anne Brontë’s work. It’s a deeply personal tale of discovery for the author, too. Somehow, I think Anne would have liked that. She wanted her work to be a lesson for the reader, to help how they view the world. What she didn’t realise is the impact that she would keep on having nearly 200 years later.

 

FICTION//The Power- Naomi Alderman

The Power (Hardback)

Imagine, if you will, that thanks to a biological anomaly, women discover they have the ability to produce electricity. At first it’s a novelty, something that fascinates society. But then it becomes scary; girls and women start using the power against men and boys and world order is freaked out and threatened. There are protests and laws passed in order to curb the women, but they keep getting stronger and stronger. Men feel threatened. The world is turned on its head and, eventually, women become the ‘stronger sex’.

This is the story told in The Power, a futuristic feminist dystopian novel in the tradition of books such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Only Ever Yours. The world is seen through the eyes of some of the women: a religious mystic, a gangster’s daughter, a politician and her daughter; as well as from the viewpoint of a young male reporter who has documented the rise of the power and the overthrow of centuries of cultural realities. And, like a patriarchal society, this new world order does have problems. Resentment breeds terrorism. People get out of control. One of the most shocking incidents in the book is a scene in which there are war crimes committed against the most vulnerable. There’s no way that the writer of Zombies, Run would allow her creation to be a Utopia.

I think I read this book at the right time: we’re living in an age where politicians are threatening to roll back hard-won rights for women and we have a president in the White House who is considering all kinds of problematic policies relating to reproductive rights. Women are marching and making their voices heard (albeit without using electric shocks). It’s tempting to think about what would happen if a woman was in the White House, if for whatever reason, patriarchal society was turned on its head. One of the things Naomi Alderman’s work does for me is that it makes me think very hard about what I would do in certain situations (I am still plotting how I would survive the zombie apocalypse and I haven’t played Zombies, Run in ages. My answer would be: I’d survive on nettles and other bits that grow near by; offer my knitting skills to make socks for those more equipped for fighting; loot other people’s houses/Waterstones for books at the first chance. I’d probably not survive long, to be honest.)

But what would I do if I suddenly came to possess a strange new power? Would it alienate me from my husband and son? Would I use it for good? I honestly don’t know. But I do know that I am watching the world with bated breath and I just can’t get this novel out of my head at all.

 

FICTION//His Bloody Project- Graeme Macrae Burnet

His Bloody Project (Feb):

Well, this is a clever little book- sort of like a Scottish version of Rashomon. What is the truth? Who do we reveal the truth to? Do we hide it from ourselves?

In this novel, Burnet creates a murderous ancestor of his own- seventeen year old Roderick Macrae, a boy whose entire world is contained in the tiny Highland village he has lived in all of his life. Caught up in one of those feuds that seem to be woven in Scottish legends, he finds himself accused- and admitting- a terrible triple murder. So far, so typical murder novel. Except that Burnet has created archival documents- witness statements, trial transcripts, newspaper articles and, most intriguingly, Macrae’s confession document, ‘written’ at the behest of his defender and counsel. In it, Macrae admits what he has done and why, but other pieces of the puzzle come to light as you read that make you wonder whether what you believed earlier is the God’s Honest Truth.

I liked the piecemeal feeling to the book; I’m a huge fan of non-fiction work and I admire the fact that this feels very authentic. The author has had to weave in viewpoints and voices from a range of characters, as well as create the harsh landscape of 19th century Highland Scotland. It’s a brutal way of life that’s not without some hope (Roderick is a gifted student who does have a chance at a different life.) Events in the novel are explored from different viewpoints and I found myself guessing and my sympathies constantly shifting. I also found myself feeling heartbroken for the women in the novel; life on a croft was apparently hard, brutal and short and so much is left to the reader to infer.

The quote on the cover says that this is ‘Scotland’s answer to Scandi noir’, and I’m not sure that’s true. (Also, can we stop comparing stuff to Scandinavia?) What it is, though, is an exploration as to what it is to be honest, and of the ties of family, loyalty and community. It’s a short but dense novel and one that I’ll be recommending to anyone who will listen.

FICTION//A Dangerous Crossing- Rachel Rhys*

A Dangerous Crossing (Feb):  I’ve always found the 1930s fascinating- a glamorous world on the cusp of irreversible change and the lives of people unwillingly  hurtling towards that change always makes for fascinating reading. This book is a story of people on a life-changing journey: physically, as they leave for Australia for new lives and metaphorically, as war looms and follows them wherever they go.

Lily, a young woman travelling on an assisted passage ticket, is leaving her life as a waitress and her secrets behind in a bid to start a new life in a strange on the other side of the world. As she becomes used to life on-board the ship, the old ways of class and privilege become blurred and allow Lily to socialise with people who would not usually give her the time of day. She becomes embroiled in scandal, love affairs and a mysterious disappearance during the course of the voyage, as well as confronting her past and the realities of her future.

The characters are relatable, yet somewhat unpredictable; there was a point about halfway through where I gasped when I suddenly realised that one character was not at all who I thought he was, although I was not entirely sure until the end what that meant. The novel is full of things you think you know with certainty, only to suddenly find the rug very cleverly and swiftly pulled from beneath your feet. I loved not being able to predict the who/what/when/where/how of this book. It really is stellar writing and not at all what I was expecting (I think I was ready for a Poirot-esque drawing room mystery on a ship…) Imagine a Golden Age of crime story, but brought up to date for an audience hooked on tense thrillers and you’ll have this book.

I loved this book whole-heartedly. Rachel Rhys is the alter-ego of Tamar Cohen, a writer whose dark psychological novels I have read and enjoyed. What amazes me is how effortlessly she has slipped into her Agatha Christie-esque other self; this really is like reading a completely different author and I enjoyed every second of reading it. I honestly didn’t want it to end. I am very jealous of those who have yet to read it.