NON-FICTION//Animal- Sara Pascoe

Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body (May):  I like Sara Pascoe, but I’ve been a bit wary of this kind of book- there seems to have been a trend started by Caitlin Moran and it’s one that can be a bit hit and miss. However, a few people had recommended this to me, so I duly reserved it from the library.

This is a book that’s part memoir, part feminist manifesto and part scientific exploration of what it’s like to live in a female body. The book is split into three parts: love, body and consent, and Pascoe deals with each in a funny, frank way. One friend told me that she found the audiobook difficult and I can see this- there are lots of asides and footnotes that probably don’t translate well off the page. On the page, however, these mostly work well, although sometimes it did feel a little like overkill.

I found the science fascinating; Pascoe describes how our modern behaviour has evolved from essentially needing a mate and protection in the early evolution of humans and how this has been manipulated to essentially suit the needs of men. She also skillfully weaves in stories from her life- the breakup of her parents, an abortion on her 17th birthday, how she reacts in relationships. Rather than feeling heavy handed or easily dismissed, they make sense within the structure of the book. Throughout Pascoe is likeable and chatty- as if you’re having a conversation with a mate down a pub (albeit a mate who likes to burst into impromptu sketches every now and then.)

 

FICTION//After Alice- Gregory Maguire*

After Alice (Aug):

People who know me in actual real life know that I collect Alice in Wonderland books and memorabilia (although it has dropped off since D was born and my disposable income was eaten up by a small boy and his train obsession…) The jewel in my crown is a very battered, foxed first edition of Through the Looking Glass which I picked up very cheaply via the man who is considered the world expert when it comes to Lewis Carroll.

As a result of this obsession, it is almost guaranteed that I will read a book with an Alice connection and I jumped at the chance to read this (I also have my eye on the Chronicles of Alice series.) I remember reading Wicked years ago and really enjoying Maguire’s take on the Oz story; the unusual viewpoint and writing style hooked me in and I hoped for more in After Alice.

The action in the novel takes place in the dual worlds of Wonderland and Oxford after Alice has gone missing. Her friend, Ada, goes looking for her and finds herself caught up in the madness of Wonderland, meeting all of the characters we’re familiar with. At the same time, her harassed governess and Alice’s sister are looking for the girls above ground. There’s also a cameo from Lewis Carroll himself, although it’s not obvious who is unless you know a bit about him.

This is a story that takes the original narrative further (Maguire gets the tone and insanity of the original books just right- Carroll would be proud, I think), but also challenges the ideas of Victorian society: disability, slavery, class, the roles of women are all explored. Charles Darwin even makes an appearance. All the things we think we know about the 19th century is here and dissected with a light touch and a streak of humour running through.

And yet. This didn’t feel as satisfying as Wicked and I can’t figure out why. Maybe the switching between the two worlds meant that something was lost, I’m not sure. However, it was an interesting, fairly quick read and one that fans of the original Alice will enjoy.

 

FEMINISM//Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman- Lindy West

Shrill (Jun):

I’ve always enjoyed reading Lindy West’s work since I first discovered her on Jezebel. Her writing was sharp and witty and always felt exciting. It’s these qualities that she brings to her new book- and she makes absolutely no apologies for this.

This is a memoir that takes in various parts of West’s life: growing up as a fat person (she does not want you to refer to her as ‘big’), her life on the comedy circuit in Seattle and her rejection from it after challenging the use of rape jokes, her ongoing battle with online trolls and her relationship with and death of her father are all key themes within the book. All topics are covered with the humour and warmth I expected as a fan of West’s writing.

Before reading the book, I felt like I knew a lot about West- she writes extensively about her life for many publications and websites- but I was surprised at the depth she approached each topic, especially when discussing her encounter with an online troll who impersonated her dead father. In this essay particularly, I felt that she wrote with great emotion and even kindness for the man who had tormented her. She writes openly about her abortion and encourages other women to do so. In fact, all through the book, women are encouraged to find our voices and stick up for ourselves at every opportunity, in every situation. It might not sound like a big deal, but it is.

There are funny bits, too- the chapter in which she discusses fat role models from her childhood made me laugh out loud (I was once told that the Disney character most like me was Madame Cluck from Robin Hood. Not. Impressed. Mainly because I’m CLEARLY more like Roz from Monsters Inc., all glasses and knitwear.) The tone throughout is warm and confiding and I felt like I was reading about a friend- albeit a quite sarcastic and funny one. Her feminism is serious, but presented with a deft touch. I liked this book an awful lot.

 

 

ESSAYS//Making It Up As I Go Along- Marian Keyes

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Marian Keyes’ work has always been a bit of a safety blanket for me- I remember reading Sushi for Beginners (my first of her books) units entirety at Leeds Festival. I read her novels during my first big bout of depression in my third year of uni after a bad breakup (there was a secondhand bookstall in Preston market that bought and sold paperbacks. I’d go every week, buying and selling Jackie Collins and Minette Walters books, after lectures. Then I’d buy a heap of junk food, go home, read and sleep until I had to leave the house for more uni work.) There was something comforting about Marian’s novels-characters were friends, I could relate to them. Slowly, I got better and knowing that there was a writer who understood made a difference, I think.

Over the years, I kept reading, although not with the frequency I had been. Then I saw this book and, following on from my newfound enjoyment of reading essays, I picked it up. It’s a collection of published and non-published work from magazines, newspapers and Marian’s website. I did wonder if the tone would have changed from the last collection of Keyes non-fiction.

Nope, it is a complete scream. If you follow Marian on Twitter (we have had conversations about our mutual love of Pasha off Strictly and I swear my current, raging addiction to interestingly flavoured Magnums is her fault), you will know what you’re getting here: plenty of funny anecdotes about family, friends and generally being Irish. It’s also written in a way that I can imagine Marian is talking (if you’ve ever seen her on TV or watched her YouTube videos, you’ll know what I mean!) That’s really her USP: friendliness and it shines through this book in droves.

For me, the highlights were the travel writing; I’m not sure if anyone else on this earth could persuade me that going on an Antarctic cruise to see penguins-even though I BLOODY LOVE PENGUINS- is a good idea. I also enjoyed the beauty section (obviously) and the account of actually meeting Aung San Suu Kyi. Actually meeting her!

Most of all, this book makes me want to go back and revisit those novels I read and rediscover those characters that helped me through dark times. Thanks, Marian.

Review: The History of Mr Polly- H.G Wells

The History of Mr. Polly (Nov):

This was the companion book to Warm Vellum Books’ October choice for me (the other was The Darling Buds of May) and it’s definitely an interesting one.

I’ve never read any H.G. Wells before, so I had no preconceptions of what this might be like. It’d be overstating it to say that I enjoyed it; for quite a small book, it was a bit of a slog. It probably didn’t help that the typeface was tiny.

The book itself does as it says- it tells the story of a man who is a bit of an Everyman. Most of his life is spent muddling through, with one or two extraordinary incidences (a fire he sets himself ends with Mr Polly being hailed as a hero; he later fights off a scallywag with a range of ever-increasingly bizarre methods) and he often questions what he’s doing with his life.

I found it quite interesting that a lot of the novel was based on Wells’ own early life, but I couldn’t really connect with any of the characters. Polly himself is a pompous ass for most of the book and he makes up words in that way that some people who think they’re cleverer than they often are do. It took a while to get used to! Not my favourite book of the year!

Queen Lucia- E.F Benson

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I’d never heard of the Mapp and Lucia series of novels until I watched the wonderful adaptation on the BBC at Christmas. I loved the world of 30s domestic intrigue in the little town of Tilling, based on Benson’s hometown of Rye, Sussex. The BBC tie-in book had the three novels that Steve Pemberton adapted for the series: Queen Lucia, Miss Mapp and Mapp and Lucia. (As an aside, I am genuinely jealous of Steve Pemberton’s talent. I will watch/read anything he is involved in and thought he was wonderful as Georgie.)

Queen Lucia, the first novel in the series, tells the story of the self-proclaimed queen of culture in a small Elizabethan town, Riseholme (Tilling comes later.) Lucia and her husband preside over all events and gossip in the little town and have done for the ten years since they arrived. A typical evening consists of Lucia playing the easiest movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata- the second and third movements do not have the same beauty, she insists; a tableaux in which Lucia is the star turn; and general hobnobbing. Lucia’s friend, partner in ridiculous baby-talk/pidgin Italian and dandy is Georgie, a pleasant and dapper bachelor who spends a lot of the novel trying to keep up with the social demands of the surprising whirlwind that is a quiet English market town.

However, the peace and ruthlessness of Lucia’s social life is disrupted by the arrival of a yogi/guru who isn’t all he seems and a particularly dodgy ‘Russian Princess’ claiming to be a world-class medium. But the biggest upheaval for her contented existence is the fact that a very famous and beautiful opera singer- and early prototype flapper- Olga Bracely moves in across the green. This event is catastrophic for Lucia’s hold on polite society. What ensues is polite, orderly chaos in which loyalties are tested, bad Italian is exposed and lots of war metaphors are used.

The novel was first published in 1920 and Lucia is essentially the Twenties equivalent of today’s hipster; she likes everything to look vintage, but with mod-cons attached; she’s quick to take up anything that seems a bit trendy (but not too trendy) and she’s quick to move on to the next thing. I love anything that’s very British and slightly frivolous set in the inter-war period; I’m a big fan of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh. This is definitely in that mould.

I liked the novel, but the type it’s printed in is TINY, which is obviously a publishing issue. I also found I had to be in the mood to read it. There’s lots of wordplay and clever humour, which is not brilliant when I’m absolutely shattered and a bit stressed. It’s definitely a book to read when you’re relaxed and feeling sharp. As a result, I’m saving the other two novels for the summer holidays! And if you have yet to see Mapp and Lucia, I urge you to get hold of a copy of the DVD.