FICTION//Gather the Daughters- Jennie Melamed*

Gather the Daughters (May):  Sometimes, a book seems to just capture the mood and Gather the Daughters feels like one of those books. It’s a book that’s unnerving and hard to pin down, but one that feels relevant right now- a gripping cross between The Handmaid’s Tale and Lord of the Flies, but with elements of the paranoia of The Hunger Games too.

A religious society lives on an isolated island, controlled by a group of men known as wanderers; these men are the only ones allowed to leave the island, to visit a place known as the wastelands- a place destroyed by war, disease and environmental disaster. Cut off from the world, the women on the island suffer a hard life as secondary subjects, brought up to be obedient from birth, pliant and available as wives, as taught by the ‘ancestors’, using biblical rhetoric to control the small population.

People are only allowed to have two children and are  Children are allowed to run feral in the summer and young women marry at the end of their ‘summer of fruition’, after their period. This way of life remains largely unchallenged until one of the girls witnesses a catastrophic event as her summer comes to a close, which leads ultimately to large scale rebellion.

The novel is told through the eyes of various women on the island: Amanda, a young woman pregnant with her first child; Vanessa, the intelligent daughter of one of the wanderers; Caitlin, an abused daughter of one of the few families to migrate to the island in recent times; and Janey, a rebel against the restrictive life prescribed to her. Through these narrations, we become aware of the disturbing lives these young women lead (at one point, it dawned on me that the girls are expected to do something pretty horrifying from a young age- it kind of creeps up on you.) It’s a claustrophobic atmosphere that not only shows horrendous oppression but also the enormous strength women can have in such situations- and the amazing defiance of young girls.

I found the novel quite similar to Station Eleven, even down to its ambiguous ending (how I would love to read a sequel!) but it’s also one that has stayed with me. Although not clear when the novel is set, it has the feeling of a dystopia that’s all the more scary for feeling quite possible.

BIOGRAPHY//The Rival Queens- Nancy Goldstone

The Rival Queens: Catherine De' Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite De Valois, and the Betrayal That Ignited a Kingdom (May):

It’s a rare thing for me to read historical biographies these days, but once upon a time these were my bread and butter. So much, in fact, that I once wrote about how difficult I found reading novels. Thankfully, my reading diet is a bit more balanced these days- but I do still love a biography of scandalous and/or outrageous women from history.  And I’ve always enjoyed reading about the French court, an obsession that’s been fuelled by my unashamed obsession with Versailles. However,  the events in Rival Queens happen the century before the glory of the Sun King (I recommend Antonia Fraser’s excellent biography of him, by the way) and focuses on another colossal figure from French royal history- Catherine de’ Medici.

Catherine was ruthless, especially when it came to protecting her power and her favourite son. The mother of three kings of France, she was a complex woman and one who would stop at nothing to ensure she maintained her grip on the throne. Unfortunately, this involved regularly throwing her children, particularly Marguerite and Francois, under whatever the sixteenth century equivalent of a bus would have been. She was not a nice woman, but then maybe it’s wrong to expect that she would be. You have to make hard decisions when you’re in charge of a nation state, I guess. Goldstone examines Catherine’s life as it entwines with that of her children, especially her youngest daughter, the feisty and rather wonderful Marguerite de Navarre (who is now my new favourite person.)

After being forced into a marriage with a man she didn’t particularly like, who was of the wrong religion, who apparently smelled permanently of garlic and who made no secret of his mistresses, Marguerite not only saved his life THREE TIMES, she also became a force to be reckoned with in her own right. As queen of Navarre, she took on her formidable mother and spoilt elder brothers with aplomb. Despite tragedy, imprisonment, a loveless marriage and a quite frankly horrendous family background, Marguerite’s humour shines through in the memoirs she left behind and that are quoted from here.

This is a biography with humour and wit within in. It’s not a dusty, dry book at all (some of the footnotes are knowing and wry) and Goldstone allows Marguerite’s voice to shine through; her historical personality is one of a silly woman led mainly by love (a similar fate to that of her long-suffering, one-time sister-in-law, Mary, Queen of Scots) and there is a clear attempt here to rescue her from this representation. I’m not sure how Catherine can be rehabilitated; indeed, her reputation seems to be going backwards as her daughter’s moves forward. She comes across here as an indecisive, untrustworthy and manipulative woman in thrall only to power and her favourite sons.

The only gripe I have about this book is that the illustration plates were shockingly pixellated, which is not cool. I like to actually see the faces of the people I’m reading about. However, this is a minor issue and should not put you off reading one of the most readable and accessible biographies I’ve read in years.

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.)

 

FEMINISM//Dear Ijeawele, or a feminist manifesto in fifteen suggestions- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Dear Ijeawele: Or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions (May):  It’s no secret that I’m a huge Adichie fan and I was very pleased when Benn took my hints and bought this for me for my birthday. It’s a slim book, but it offers many things.

Asked by a friend for advice about how to raise her newborn daughter as a feminist, Adichie wrote her a long, detailed letter that became this book. It’s a funny, honest little book which shines with a love for girls and women and the desire that they soar in a world that can seem harsh and dangerous. I found myself nodding along as I devoured the whole thing in an afternoon- there is so much good sense in it.

Although there’s humour and grace, it contains some deep messages. Some we’ll be familiar with- let girls choose what they like at the toy shop, regardless of whether it’s marketed at boys or girls; teach them to value themselves and be careful of the language we use when talking about genders. Adichie also touches on race and what it is to be a Nigerian woman in the modern world.

This is a book that has good advice for all of us, not just mothers (and not just mothers of girls.) We could start changing the world by reading more books like this.

ESSAYS//Nasty Women- A collection of essays and accounts on what it is to be a women in the 21st century

Nasty Women by 404 Ink (Editor) | A Collection of Essays + Accounts On What It Is To Be A Woman In The 21st Century:  I was so excited when this collection was announced; I think I pledged to the Kickstarter campaign within the first two days (and I’m not going to lie,  it is quite thrilling to see your name in the back of a book with people that you know and authors you admire.) A collection of essays that explores different areas of feminism and life as a woman, this is one of those books that felt sorely needed  in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump and the uncertainty of the impact of Brexit.

The collection of essays is pretty varied and I would say that most women will identify with at least something in the collection. For me, it was Laura Waddell’s essay about working class girls and their representation, which spoke to me about my very working class childhood and adolescence (and the prejudice I still experience today because of the sound of my voice or the after-effects of my northern, working class background- even at the age of 33), or Becca Inglis’ ‘Love in the Time of Melancholia’, which explores the legacy of one of my teenage idols, Courtney Love.

But my eyes were opened up, too, to the issues facing the LGBTQ community and women of colour, of the limbo in which society places those considered ‘other’ or ‘different’, and how this is currently going through a period of change, and often not a positive one. It is important, this book is saying, that we work together and embrace each other if we want to affect change in a scary world.

One of my favourite essays were Laura Lam’s exploration of the generations of women in her family and the trauma that echoes through the years, which she and her mother are working to heal. Another, Zeba Talkhani’s ‘The Difficulty of Being Good’, explores the way in which she has navigated societal expectations of Muslim women in different countries and how this has helped her discover her own sense of self and acceptance of who she is. Both are beautiful essays touching on very different subjects; both made me feel that I had read something profoundly moving and important.

As it is, I have already bought another copy of the book for a friend. She’s busy and doesn’t get to read much, so I’m hoping she can dip in and out of the essays as and when she has time. I hope she finds something of comfort and anger in there, too.

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.