“Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (And Other Lies)” curated by Scarlett Curtis (2018)

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“I didn’t know I was a feminist until I was fifteen.”

A few years ago, I found myself at a picnic for people interested in the newly formed Women’s Equality Party. A woman was going around with recording equipment, asking those present – mostly women, but more than a few men, too – about their views on feminism. After my female friends and girlfriend at the time had given their answers, I was asked, “Do you consider yourself a feminist?” My response was quite a simple, “Of course, why wouldn’t I be?” She noted that a lot of people still weren’t, and I guess for the first time it struck me that I really couldn’t understand why people didn’t believe in sexual equality.

I come from a matriarchal family, for one. The vast majority of my friends are, and always have been, women. I’ve worked for twelve years, but until this year, I’d never had a male boss. Most of my teachers (and certainly most of the better ones) were women. I was born in 1988, when there was a female Prime Minister, a queen on the throne, and Kylie Minogue was top of the charts. I’d never for a second doubted that women couldn’t do anything that men could. I never understood how people could say that women weren’t clever, when most of my friends graduated with better degrees than me. I was saddened when people said women weren’t funny, as it meant – in my eyes anyway – that they’d never seen any of Victoria Wood’s work. Or probably actually met any women at all. But we’re still fighting, and it’s insane.

It’s not as clear-cut as that, though. Sure, there might again be a woman in Downing Street, and the queen might still be on the throne, but are they actually doing anything for the betterment of women? You’d hope so, but it rarely seems to be the case. Oprah appears to be the most worshipped woman in America, yet why are her fellow women still treated less fairly? It’s baffling. But this is a book review blog. So on we go.

This book is a collection of short essays and poems from a wide swathe of the female population regarding their journeys through life as women and what feminism means to them. Contributors include Whitney Wolfe Herd, the founder of Bumble (the dating app where only women can instigate conversations), the newest Doctor, Jodie Whittaker, a very furious Keira Knightley, a hilarious Lolly Adefope, the inspiring Alaa Murabit and Youtube sensation Zoe Sugg, to name a few. Even Bridget Jones gets into the swing of things, as Helen Fielding gives us some new entries from the famous diaries as Bridget looks back at the nineties and wonders why she put up with everything she did from Daniel, Mark and many other men.

A powerful treatise that should immediately make its way into the hands of every woman and man on the planet, the book covers topics of women in the workplace, periods, the ever-present threat of attack, beauty standards, the tampon tax, female genital mutilation, parenthood and pregnancy. Evanna Lynch talks about worrying if she’s going to leave a bloodstain on the casting director’s couch when she stands up. Kat Dennings relays an alphabet of ways her mother thinks women can get kidnapped. Scarlett Curtis gives us the answers we need to the questions people ask when they don’t understand feminism. Jameela Jamil explains why men should be included in the battle, and how to get those who still don’t identify as a feminist to do so.

Curtis has done great work by gathering up these diverse voices, and it was a pleasure to read every single page, even if some are tougher to get through than others in their brutal honesty regarding what women have had to put up with for millennia. Let’s hope that feminism will soon be a thing of the past – by which I mean that we won’t need a word for it, because it’s just how things are. It’s vital reading because we can all be doing better. I know I’m not perfect by any means in this area, but I like to think that I treat people of all genders with the same respect, and I don’t judge on something that is, ultimately, pretty trivial. But I’m always learning and happy to be doing so. We need everyone on the same page, and I can’t think of a single reason why sexual equality shouldn’t be normality.

Do I consider myself a feminist? You bet I do.

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“Conversations With Friends” by Sally Rooney (2017)

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“Bobbi and I first met Melissa at a poetry night in town, where we were performing together.”

A friend of mine raved about this book for months before I got hold of it. She kept sending me passages and telling me how great it was and, intrigued, I bought it and settled down. Another friend said that the title sounded like I was revising for social situations. But no, just a piece of fiction from a new Irish writer.

Frances is a university student in Dublin, who spends her evenings performing spoken word poetry with her best friend (and ex-girlfriend) Bobbi. Frances is considered by some to be a little aloof, but she’s just an observant person who doesn’t always feel like she has much to say. The pair meet photographer and journalist Melissa. She loves their performances and wants to write a piece about them, with photographs to match, so the pair visit her house. She’s sixteen years older than them, and married to the effortlessly handsome Nick, a jobbing actor, and so begins a four-way friendship.

Things get complicated, however, when Frances begins sleeping with Nick and can’t work out exactly how she feels about him. She decides not to tell Bobbi about it, and hopes that Melissa doesn’t find out. They communicate mostly via e-mail, and Frances isn’t begins to doubt whether she can keep it up. Unfortunately, she and Bobbi have just been invited to Melissa and Nick’s holiday home in France, so the relationship takes on a new turn on the continent. The relationships between the four main characters drive the plot along as everyone tries to work out what they want and how to get it.

First up, the writing is beautiful. It sings. That was the overwhelming takeaway I had from the book, even early on. It’s no surprise to say that none of the characters are especially pleasant, but the Sally Rooney has something special going on. Her prose is finely balanced, startling and charged with emotion. In many ways, it’s quite poetic. Among these, I don’t think there’s actually that much plot happening. It’s mostly about a couple having an affair – a common plot point in fiction – but it’s explored with great pathos and I found that, somehow, I couldn’t entirely hate the characters. Bobbi and Melissa are more unlikable to me, and I wouldn’t particularly want to be friends with either of them: Melissa is snooty and selfish, Bobbi is pretentious and thinks she’s more alternative than she is. Nick starts off simply being dull, but redeems himself with a collection of interesting traits later on. Frances is the most intriguing character, perhaps simply because she’s narrating. She is always watching people and is quick to judge, even if only inside her own head, but she’s evidently talented. She is, however, also irritating, lacking any direction or indeed any desire for direction in her life. She’s one of those people who blunders along assuming that everything will sort itself out without any input from her. It’s a trait I know well – it describes me too. In fact, like with Not Working that I read the other week, there are a few too many home truths here.

There are some pretty uncomfortable scenes, too. These range from emotionally uncomfortable incidents where Frances and Nick try to work out what the other wants, but both are equally incapable of expressing themselves properly, to the physically uncomfortable, with Frances’s occasional bouts of self-harm, and an ongoing medical problem that she can’t bring herself to admit to people.

It is a wonderful book and the writing cannot be faulted, but the emotion I’m left with at the end of it all is sadness. It’s a tragedy, with characters doing bad things to one another behind their backs, and none of them ever changing or learning from their mistakes. However, I still enjoyed it, and I feel somewhat hollow now it’s over. A blisteringly truthful book, with angst peppered over every page.

“What The Hell Did I Just Read” by David Wong (2017)

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“It rained like we were a splatter of bird shit God was trying to hose off his deck.”

Not for the first time, I’ve stumbled into a series in progress, but it didn’t seem to matter so much here. David Wong has been on my radar for years thanks to his novel John Dies at the End, which I’ve always found an intriguing title but I’ve never got round to reading. Instead, assuming this was a standalone, I’ve somehow skipped ahead to the third book in the series, crashing headfirst into a world that would terrify Stephen King and greatly amuse Douglas Adams. Strap yourself in.

John, Dave and Amy have just fled from Them. They’re not entirely sure what it is They wanted, but at a guess it’s the vial Amy has just tossed into the river. Not long after, John and Dave receive a call about a missing child, but the circumstances surrounding it are above the pay grade of any of the police and seem much more in the line of these two, who specialise in the unusual, the supernatural and the downright weird. The child, Maggie, appears to have been abducted by a seedy character, but no one can agree on what he looked like or if he even existed.

As the three seek out the missing girl, they learn that another child has gone missing too, this time from a trailer park. When the boy turns up in Dave’s apartment, claiming that it was Dave who abducted him, things are only going to get worse. Our heroes find themselves dealing with a collection of creatures that can alter memory and perception, allowing them to hide in plain sight and causing you to forget they even exist a split second after you were looking directly at them. More children disappear, but there’s some debate as to where they’ve gone, and John and Dave are convinced they need another sample of their special “Soy Sauce” that helps them to see the supernatural. It’s a shame they threw their last vial into the river. As the body count rises, shady organisations close in on the town, and a creature dubbed the BATMANTIS??? goes from being an urban legend to a terrifying reality, the story heads down a very dark path indeed…

I can only assume the previous books in the series are of a similar vein, and perhaps I’d have got more from it had I read them, but it doesn’t seem to need much in the way of backstory. The characters are introduced with enough detail to give you an idea of who they are, and the narration shifts from Dave’s first person tale to events in the third person from Amy and John. All three characters have distinctive voices. Amy’s parts focus on the feelings and emotions of the characters, are much more empathetic and contain no swearing, while John’s are hyperbolic, over-exaggerated and frequently laced with sex and gratuitous violence. As such, it helps add to the confusion of the story. We’re never totally sure what’s going on, who we’re meant to believe, or if anyone is worth believing at all.

Wong’s imagination is quite something. There are some creatures straight out of the darkest pits of horror here, and I do have to worry a little about his sanity. While the book is genuinely hilarious and full of great one-liners and stupid gags, it’s also scary as all hell. It’s laced not only with supernatural creatures with uncanny abilities and too many teeth, but also with genuine horrors of human child-snatchers, and the terror of losing your mind. It’s a world that’s easy to immerse yourself in thanks to the conversational style and constant action, but afterwards you just feel like you immersed yourself in a tepid swamp rather than a bubble bath.

Wong weaves plot points together neatly, too, with things that seem trivial and inserted just for a cheap gag later becoming pivotal. It does all tie up pretty neatly by the end – although the gaps I have might, again, just be because I’ve not read the earlier ones – but it’s the sort of book that you allow some things to keep hanging. After all, we still don’t really know what happened…

I don’t know what the hell I just read, but it was very good nonetheless.

“Four-Sided Triangle” by William F. Temple (1949)

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“The idea was too big for the mind to grasp in all its implications at the first attempt.”

Throughout history there have been numerous discoveries and inventions that have shaped and altered the path of human development in unimaginable ways. Penicillin, mechanical clocks, the wheel, x-rays, telescopes … the list is long and remarkable. There remain a good deal of things still out of the grasp of reality that belong firmly in the world of science fiction still. Interstellar space travel, time machines, universal translators, perpetual motion machines – we aren’t likely to get a grip on any of these for some time yet. Authors, however, aren’t limited by real technology, so if they want to invent a duplication machine, they can. And William F. Temple has.

Narrated by Doctor Harvey, medic to the English village of Howdean, this is the story of how the doctor’s young charge Bill and his wealthy, conservative friend Rob manage to create a Reproducer. This amazing device will revolutionise the world, giving them the ability to duplicate works of art, rare medical cures, food and anything else they choose. Every museum can have a copy of the Mona Lisa hanging in its galleries, and every hospital can now have huge amounts of cancer drugs at its disposal. Things become complicated, however, by the arrival of Lena.

Harvey has saved her from her suicide attempt and now, upon meeting Bill and Rob and learning of their amazing invention, she has found a reason to live. That reason, it becomes rapidly clear, is Rob and she wishes to marry him. And while Rob is indeed smitten with this girl, unfortunately so is Bill. After the wedding, Bill finds himself caught up in the madness of jealousy and begins tinkering with the Reproducer. Surely it wouldn’t take much more to make it clone living things. And then Bill and Rob could both have a Lena of their own, if she consented to be cloned. It’s only when she does that the problems really begin…

You may already be noting from the plot that aspects of the book have dated, not least the notion of Bill and Rob being able to share the same woman by cloning her. Fortunately, creepy though this is, it could be worse, and Lena (and, indeed, her duplicate Dot) is an early example of the manic pixie dream girl. She does, however, have to consent to being duplicated, but even here, it is her husband that has the final say. The science is also patchy, and Temple gets away with it by having Harvey explain that he doesn’t want to give away all the science, partly because he doesn’t understand it, and partly so that no one else can build a Reproducer. The book discusses the ethics of this and how in the wrong hands, someone could produce a whole army of workers or soldiers who all think and act the same way.

Much as this is a science fiction novel, most of the time the more fantastical elements are incidental. At its core, this is a story of a love triangle and how unrequited love is so painful. It’s also about memory, identity and individuality, and what right we have to reproduce not just unique items, but entire people. Temple is free to play around with the theoretical here, as it’s highly unlikely this sort of technology will ever be possible, but that’s often the joy in these kinds of stories – give people the impossible and see what they do with it. Or, rather, as is the way of humanity, see how they manage to cock it all up.

It’s a clever and interesting book, in places predictable, but also occasionally stepping away from the safety net and surprising you. It does, however, have one of the most accidentally hilarious final paragraphs I’ve ever encountered simply because it caught me off-guard, (it smacks a little of the loathed and hurried ending of Lord of the Flies) which does take the edge off somewhat. Nonetheless, it belongs in the canon and is well worth checking out if you’re a hardcore science fiction fan.

“Danny The Champion Of The World” by Roald Dahl (1975)

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“When I was four months old, my mother died suddenly and my father was left to look after me all by himself.”

I was expecting to be reviewing a collection of supernatural stories by Rudyard Kipling this week, but I struggled to get into them and in a new policy of not forcing myself to read something I’m having a hard time with, I decided to read the short stories in between other novels and so found myself back in the imagination of Roald Dahl.

Danny grew up with only his father, William, who he worships without question. His young life is happy, spending his days helping his dad fix cars, working at their petrol station, and living in their tiny gypsy caravan on the outskirts of a small village. When he’s nine years old, however, his life takes an interesting turn. He wakes up to find that his father is gone and, feeling scared and alone for the first time in his life, he is unable to sleep until his father returns from out of the mist. It’s then that his father reveals a secret – he is a pheasant poacher.

Having not indulged in his hobby since Danny was born, the temptation has grown too much for William and he is determined to once again steal some pheasants from the land owned by the vile Mr Hazell. His old methods don’t appear to work very well anymore, and the keepers in the woods have become more savvy to old tricks. But Danny has a trick up his sleeve – one that will very likely change the face of poaching forever…

The biggest takeaways for people about this book, I suppose, is about the importance of family, and it seems particularly to be a love letter to fathers everywhere. Danny and William have a very affectionate, sweet relationship and it can’t fail to make you smile. They clearly enjoy one another’s company and completely adore each other. Danny is originally shocked to learn that his father – and indeed every other adult in the village – has a dark secret, but it’s definitely a moment of growth for him, and one that most of us experience at one time or another. It can be quite a moment to learn that the heroes that we’ve been looking up to, particularly our parents, are infallible and perhaps not always on the right side of morality. Danny almost seems to grow up in that moment, and while he still knows when something is right or wrong, he’s able to see in a few more shades of grey.

Most interestingly, perhaps, is that this one more than ever plays up the links between all of Dahl’s worlds, as William tells Danny all about the BFG, the dream-catching giant who runs above the hills with his suitcase and blowpipe. This story is written seven years before The BFG would become its own story, so one wonders if Dahl had it planned all along, or he took the notion from this book later on. Similarly, in James and the Giant Peach, the peach rolls across the countryside demolishing a famous chocolate factory. There is definitely a thread running through his work that seems to imply they’re all somewhat linked. Danny even lives only a few miles from where Matilda grows up, although at the time of this publication, her story is still thirteen years away. Perhaps Danny’s school is Crunchem Hall before the Trunchbull took over?

Danny is a funny little book – the policeman’s dialogue is particularly well-observed – and my edition seemed off somehow, until I realised a few pages in that in my edition the illustrations aren’t by Quentin Blake. It’s not quite Dahl without him. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed it. It differs to most of the other stories, lacking in a magical or fantastic element, and being one of the few books to include a stated moral, and the content is particularly weird given that it’s about a father teaching his son how to commit crimes, but it still works. It’s probably the most forgotten of Dahl’s novels, and unfairly so.

If you’ve bypassed this one, turn around and come back. You’ll thank me.

“Not Working” by Lisa Owens (2016)

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“There is a man standing outside my flat wearing khaki-greens and a huge Free Palestine badge.”

I, unfortunately, have a great deal of experience with the horror of late-twenties unemployment. I’m not going to go into it here – partly because it’s very boring, partly because I don’t want to – but Lisa Owens has done an incredible job of capturing the struggle in her novel Not Working.

Claire Flannery has just quit the job she hated with plans of finding the perfect job and one that she really wants to do. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know what that is. Sleepless nights begin and she struggles to get to grips with the job market and dealing with her judgemental friends and family who try to be supportive but have limited patience. It also doesn’t help that her grandfather has just died and at the funeral, Claire made an ill-advised comment and now her mother isn’t speaking to her, convinced that Claire has disgraced the memory of the deceased.

As Claire tries to work out exactly what she wants to do with her life, she begins to clash with long-term boyfriend Luke, her grandmother, several friends who are settling down with unsuitable partners, and her former colleagues. Desperate not to head back to square one, she wishes she could work out what she wants to do with her life, other than entering competitions on the Internet and sitting around in her pyjamas. But maybe it’s when you stop looking for things that life gets easier…

Owens is particularly good at capturing the minutia of life, from observations about people on public transport, to the silly little conversations we have with our nearest and dearest. There’s a great moment where Claire recites a text message from her father, complete with bad grammar and sudden switch to capital letters halfway through a word. She is also incredibly (and somewhat horrifically) skilled at pointing out a painful truth with a single line. I found myself somewhat stunned when I found one of my thoughts written down as if someone had crawled into my brain and dug it out while I’d been pretending it wasn’t true. (It was “I wish I liked myself a bit more, and wine more than a bit less.”) There’s also the thought many of us have probably had about how jobs aren’t necessarily as we imagine them to be: “I didn’t work hard at school and go to university so I could spend my life sending emails.” But the absolute killer, the thought that I’ve had but never been able to put into words, was thus:

What’s wrong is, I would tell them, if I could be bothered, were anyone even interested, but they wouldn’t understand, so what’s the point? But … what? Oh yeah, what is wrong with ‘her’ – i.e. me – is, I’m the spare human in the world. If you counted everyone up, I’m the one who’d be left over, the one who does nothing, only takes, always takes things, a drain on everyone, completely pathetic like the poor old – poor old thing, the poor old wooden spoon, floating in the dirty sink…

Ouch.

Despite the truth pills, it’s actually a very wonderful book – raw and honest and very funny. I’m not the first to say similar, but imagine the diaries of Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones had had a child, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what it’s like. Owens doesn’t shy away from the stigma attached to being unemployed as an adult, and how everyone around Claire reacts feels very real. And yet, she also is great at talking about how many of us want to find the thing we’re really good at or really want to do, but unfortunately we don’t always know what that is.

A great little read, but prone to hitting a bit too close to the bone.

“Ivy & Abe” by Elizabeth Enfield (2017)

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“I’m aware of him looking at me.”

Most, if not all, of us spend parts of life wondering “what if…”. We think about how different our lives would have been if we’d gone to different universities, met different friends, or made different choices. Perhaps one of the most pressing of these questions focuses on the nature of soulmates. If there is one person out there for each of us, then does it matter when we meet them? Elizabeth Enfield takes a look at this premise in the sweetly moving Ivy & Abe.

Ivy Trent and Abe McFadden are soulmates, that much is clear, but is there a right time to meet them? Told from vignettes of Ivy’s life, this novel recreates their first meeting over and over again, every time at a different age and in a different situation. From 1965 to 2032, there are several versions of how they met. Perhaps it was when Ivy was widowed and not much looking forward to a future alone. Maybe they met as teenagers on a French holiday. Maybe they were both already married to other people, and didn’t expect the affair. Or perhaps they meet just fleetingly, for five minutes, and nothing ever happens.

This is a charming book, with an awful lot of heart. Ivy and Abe are both beautiful creations and it is fascinating to see their lives play out in numerous ways. I found myself every time hoping that this would be the right timeline, but they don’t always end in happiness. It seems that there really is a “right time” to go along with the “right person”. Ivy and Abe’s relationship is pretty much always, for the most part, loving, at least. Abe is a classic gentleman, and Ivy is very sweet. Both of them, in every timeline, have hardships to deal with that most of us couldn’t even imagine. Ivy’s mother, for example, is chronically ill, and her early death casts a shadow over her later life, and this in turn will also affect how Abe fits into her puzzle.

Despite all the timelines being separate, there are a few overlapping themes in them. Ivy and Abe both end up in the same careers, both suffer great tragedy, and they are always nice people. To tie them together, though, there is often a mention of déjà vu, and a frequent recurring element is a lorry containing hay bales and someone being concerned that they don’t look safe. Sometimes this concern is justified and relevant; other times it’s just mentioned in passing.

I was curiously struck by a note in it that resonated in this week’s return of Doctor Who. Our new Doctor, played wonderfully by Jodie Whittaker, gave a speech in the first episode of the series about how, as people, we evolve and change over time, never forgetting who we were, but not feeling tied to being that person for our whole lives. This is definitely a theme in this book, as the characters are slightly different people at different ages, and circumstances around them perhaps make them do things that other version wouldn’t have done. Like it or not, we are – at least partly  – products of circumstance and environment.

I don’t want to talk too much about the specifics of the book, lest I give away some of the sweeter moments, but it’s definitely one worth reading and Enfield is one to watch. She creates rich characters in a detailed world that makes itself clear that this is our world, with a number of scenes set around important times and trends of the era she’s dealing with.

I like a book that makes you think, and this one will leave you pondering about your life for some time.

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