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.

FICTION//Into the Water- Paula Hawkins*

Into the Water (Apr):  I’m aware how lucky I am to be given a copy of Paula Hawkins’ much anticipated second novel; after the huge success of The Girl on the Train, everyone is going to be looking at this. I remember being vaguely ambivalent about The Girl on the Train- I neither loved nor loathed it- so I went into this with an open mind.

The narrative features around the death of Nel Abbott, a woman known in her town as an artist obsessed with the Drowning Pool, a local beauty spot known for the high numbers of dead women turning up in its waters. In the novel, we’re told the stories of these women,  from a young woman drowned for witchcraft hundreds of years ago, the wife of a respected policeman in the 80s, up to Nel and, a few months beforehand, a fifteen year old girl, who happens to be Nel’s daughter Lena’s best friend. All of these deaths may be connected, but it takes a while for the story to unravel.

One of the reasons for this is that there are FOURTEEN narrators, their stories told in a mixture of first and second person, past and present tense. This can take a bit of getting used to and I did wonder if all of these characters were necessary; I wasn’t sure if they were all useful to moving the plot forward and it did feel a bit wearying to try and remember who said what when I read the book the day before. However, towards the middle of the book, three voices become stronger and easier to follow: Jules, estranged sister of the deceased Nel, who finds herself in loco parentis of a niece she’s never met; Lena, the fifteen year old daughter of Nel, who hides more secrets than anyone ever should; and Erin, a policewoman who’s new to the area and has no idea of the town’s dark past. Once you untangle the confusing web of subplots, unreliable narratives and pile of themes, these three women come across as strong voices. I wish that the novel had focused on these three from the start- although I do understand what the author was trying to do, but it’s sometimes hard to pull off and some voices get lost in the mix.

The story is an interesting one, and one that I’m glad I persevered with. I also know that this book will be huge and that many people- especially those who enjoy twisty, dark thrillers with complex plots- will love it.

NATURE//Foxes Unearthed: A Tale of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain- Lucy Jones

Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain (Apr):  I love foxes; I always have. I think is especially because I grew up in inner city Leeds and, alongside the magpies, starlings and sparrows, they were often the only ‘natural’ thing I came into contact with as a kid. Inner city kids tend to have a distrust of anything to do with nature, but I was interested in animals and flowers at an early-ish age, even if I didn’t know what to do or how to do it. I just knew I liked foxes. Even now I wear a silver fox pendant everyday. I’m disappointed by the fact that, even though I live (literally) on the edge of the woods, I’ve only ever seen one mangy fox in our garden in the three years we’ve been here.

Of course I was drawn to this book- not only was it on a topic dear to me, but LOOK AT IT. Isn’t it beautiful? I’d love a print of this fox on my wall.

The book is an exploration of foxes in British life- how historically they’ve been viewed by us, right through to their redemption via Fantastic Mr Fox and Springwatch and then through vilification by tabloids (‘Foxes bit my baby!’) and the pro-hunting lobby. As a result, Jones speaks to a variety of people from all sides of the debate; Chris Packham is entertaining.

I was fascinated by the way Jones was treated by the different factions- welcomed by hunt saboteurs, shunned by the hunters (despite being from a family with hunting connections) and accompanying a city pest controller. She manages to present all of these differing views in a fair, balanced way- although I came away depressed that what with politics as they are, we’re probably very likely to see a re-introduction to legal hunts; I’m pretty sure there are illegal hunts and, even though in this book there are stats that show that evidence that hunts help farmers is somewhat sketchy. I was also interested in the idea that if we were to eradicate foxes, we’d have a bigger problem with rats and mice, so it’s kind of swings and roundabouts.

The overriding message, though, is one of fascination and-maybe- even love. Yes, they’re a pain sometimes, but foxes are remarkable animals; Britain’s last large predator and one of its most adaptable native species, it seems like the fox is here for the time being at least.

FICTION//Homegoing- Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing (Apr):  Homegoing is a lush, far-reaching novel that tells the story of a fractured family tree across two continents and seven generations: a beautiful girl, born on the Gold Coast (modern day Ghana) on the night of a devastating fire, grows up to be the ‘wench’- or unofficial wife- of a British officer whose job it is to procure slaves for the late 18th century slave trade. At the same time as she lives a life of relative luxury in a fortress called ‘The Castle‘, her unknown half-sister  is suffering horrifically in the dungeons below, waiting for the day she will be shipped halfway across the world to work on American plantations. Each of the following chapters tells the story of the descendants of these two women: the loves, lives and choices each generation makes. Although this is a novel and each story is presented as a chapter, each felt more like a complete short story in its own right.

This is a novel that literally took my breath away at points; I found myself rushing home from work to snatch five minutes to read it whilst the house was quiet. I wanted to give this story my full attention. The struggle for survival, the theme of resilience and resistance runs deeply throughout the novel. The characters survive a multitude of challenges: slavery, racism, drug abuse, domestic violence, mental illness. But there is also hope in this novel- a young girl learns where she comes from, thanks to her grandmother; a young man convicted thanks to racism goes on to make a life for himself and his family. Like life, this novel is a rollercoaster and I loved every second of it.

The writing is wonderful- poetic and evocative. The family legacy runs deep within the narrative- it is not always obvious, but it’s there.  This is a rich novel that teaches as much as it engrosses. It has the potential to become very important indeed.

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.

FICTION//The Many Colours of Us- Rachel Burton*

The Many Colours of Us (Mar):

Full disclosure: Rachel is a Twitter friend of mine and I’ve seen her go through part of the process of getting her novel to publication. It’s a huge thrill to see her book finally come to print- and OF COURSE I wanted to have a read of it before it’s released.

Julia is in a rut that most of us find ourselves in at some point in our lives: she hates her job, her relationship is stalling and her relationship with her mother is strained. Everything changes, however, when she finds out that she is the sole beneficiary of the will of a man she has never met- her father. Suddenly finding herself single and wealthy enough to do whatever she likes, Julia begins to really learn who she is and what- and who- she wants in her life. Unfortunately, though, life is messy and the course of… well, pretty much anything, never did run smooth.

I read this novel quickly; I was stressed at work and it was the perfect antidote to that stress (I strongly believe in the right book for the right time, by the way.) On days where I felt I could cry with workplace frustration, I would come home and read a chapter with a cup of tea. It’s the sort of novel that just feels like a hug, a welcome relief and escape from the outside world. AND it made me wish that I was better at sewing. Again.

This is definitely a book that I’d recommend if you’re feeling a bit fed up and fancy a bit of summer-time romantic escape. It’s sweet, rather than raunchy, and would go well with a nice cold g&t (but maybe that’s just me…) It may also just make you evaluate your life- what would YOU do if you suddenly got a no-strings attached at a fresh start?

 

FICTION//Fierce Kingdom- Gin Phillips*

Fierce Kingdom (Mar):

What would you do if your life was turned upside down in a second? If everything was OK until you heard a sound that changed everything? This is the premise in Gin Phillips’ novel, Fierce Kingdom.

Joan and her four-year-old son, Lincoln, are enjoying an early evening visit to the local zoo when gunshots ring out at closing time. Over the next couple of hours, Joan must protect herself and her son from a massacre. How can you persuade a pre-schooler to behave in a situation like this?

As the mother of a four-year-old boy with the same obsessions as Lincoln, I really did find myself wondering at how I would respond to such a scenario (although I *did* slightly wonder at some of the language Lincoln used and the wisdom of Joan’s admission that she let him watch Predator, even without the swearing. I’m a fairly laissez faire parent, but that was a bit weird, even for me.) I also found myself wondering how my son would react. These are not comfortable thoughts, but they are compelling ones that meant I raced through the book. There were moments that Joan makes really difficult choices (including one that made me very uncomfortable) and although she’s not likeable, per se, you do see the logic of her actions.

Although Joan’s the main narrator, we also see glimpses of other characters- a young girl working in a cafe, one of the shooters, and a retired teacher- who happens to have taught Robby when he was in junior school. I would have liked more of this side of the story to have been explored, maybe because I know four-year-olds can be pretty boring sometimes (even in high-danger situations, probably) and also because as a teacher myself, I know that there are kids you look back on and think about what might have made them into the adults they ultimately became. It’s often the quiet ones that surprise you the most.

Overall, this is a compelling read that will make you question how you would respond to a dangerous situation: would you run, or would you hide?