“Nina Is Not OK” by Shappi Khorsandi (2016)

2 Comments

“The burly bouncer was holding me by the scruff of the neck.”

I like a drink. A lot of my friends like a drink. We are, however, generally capable of knowing when we’ve had enough. We don’t drink to black out, but whether that’s down to our age (hangovers are much worse in your late twenties than they were at university) and/or an inbuilt sense of responsibility, I won’t state here. However, in Nina is Not OK, the first novel by the phenomenal British comedian Shappi Khorsandi, we meet a girl who definitely doesn’t know when to quit.

As the story opens, Nina is being kicked out of a nightclub where she has been engaging in, let’s say, a public display of sexual activity. Followed out by the man involved and one of his friends, the next thing she remembers is being in a taxi holding her knickers. Things don’t get any better from here. Still smarting from the sudden departure of her boyfriend Jamie, she is unable to remember quite what happened on this night. Knowing something bad did, however, she seeks to block any ideas out from her mind, sending her into a downward spiral of heavy drinking and sleeping with whoever comes her way.

Amongst all this, she discovers that her friend Zoe is now dating the guy she met at the club, her mum and stepdad are planning on moving to Germany, Jamie isn’t replying to any of her messages, she’s struggling to come to terms with her sexuality, and her exams are creeping ever nearer. Things reach a head, however, when she tries to hit on her best friend’s dad. Rehab seems to be the only option, but even that isn’t going to be the end of all the drama…

I find myself deeply conflicted about the character of Nina for much of the novel. The trouble is, she reminds me quite a lot of a girl I knew at school. She was perpetually drunk, sleeping with inappropriate characters, and generally struggling to keep her life together. But we were all seventeen – as Nina is in this book – and what on earth do we know about helping keep one another sane? She moved away eventually – none of us had been able to cope with her – and I happen to know that she is now healthy and happy elsewhere. This whole thing makes the character far more real and less of a stereotype than Nina may appear to others. However, the girl I knew didn’t quite go as far as this, and her life wasn’t quite as much of a soap opera. I did, however, find myself sympathising more with her friends and family who had to put up with her drunken antics than I did Nina herself though.

It wasn’t until later in the book when the truth comes out that I began to feel sorry for her. I found it hard to have any sympathy for her as she seems to be willfully destroying her own life, and because the incident from the opening chapter is left vague, I seemed to forget about its severity. She goes through a lot, and Khorsandi handles it all with compassion and skill. The characters are vibrant and real, if not always particularly pleasant, and there are some horrible but vital truths about our society and its treatment of men and women, rape victims and alcoholism. The scenes set in rehab are tragic and bring home the reality of the situation for many people.

It’s a dark and brave novel full of heart and horror. Emotional doesn’t even begin to cover it. I’m a big fan of Khorsandi’s comedy, and I always turn to a novel by a celebrity with trepidation as I’ve been burnt before, but this one came highly recommended, and I’m pleased to say that she’s written a wonderful, if shocking, novel.

Advertisements

“The Female Detective” by Andrew Forrester (1864)

Leave a comment

female detective“Who am I? It can matter little who I am.”

Literature is populated with almost as many detectives as it is criminals. Some of the best of these are women. We all know Miss Marple, and many of us are familiar with Agatha Christie’s other female detective, Tuppence Beresford. And then there’s Lisbeth Salander, Nancy Drew, Jessica Fletcher, Temperance Brennan, Thursday Next, Ellie Miller … but how many people recognise the name “Miss Gladden”? I would wager very few. But Miss Gladden occupies a very important role in the history of the fictional female detective: she was the first.

Written way back in the 1860s, the novel is another one reproduced for a new generation for the British Library Crime Classics series, which I’ve dealt with a few other times on the blog so far and always loved. This one indeed introduces us to the first ever female detective in literary history. She gives her name as Miss Gladden, but freely admits that it’s not her real name. In fact, we discover very little about her; more interested as she is in talking about her cases and adventures.

The book is split into seven stories of wildly varying lengths which detail some of the cases of our heroine. Some involve a murder, some involve theft, one involves an issue of inheritance, but they all orbit around the fact that the person investigating is female. The stories are of varying quality and interest, and the language is what one would expect of the time.

Miss Gladden, as mentioned, keeps much of her identity secret, and the novel is certainly of its time with the impression it gives of women. Although written by a man, I actually think it does a fairly good job of giving us a female protagonist who is on one hand certainly feminine, and yet at the same time, incorrigible, strong and capable. The book makes note of the fact that it is easier for a woman to eavesdrop without being suspected, or to gain access to the private places of female suspects – be they physical or simply mental – than a man may be able to. Characters accept Gladden in her role, regardless of her gender, which is refreshing, and it’s also noted that she isn’t the only female detective in London. In reality, of course, there wouldn’t be a female police officer until 1915, some fifty years after this book was written.

Some of the stories seem to lack a satisfactory ending. Sometimes justice reaches the criminal by some other method than that of Gladden, or simply she stops writing about them, either unable to solve the case or unwilling to press on with it. Some of the solutions given also, I don’t think, would stand up in modern crime writing, but one can let them slide here.

The book is notable for its historical and literary importance, and I’m not sorry I’ve read it, nor indeed that it’s been widely published again, but I have found more than ever that I just can’t always get on with the style and language of books from two centuries previous. The blueprints are there for all the women who followed in Miss Gladden’s footsteps, but the stories have much improved over time when compared to this original installment.

“Animal” by Sara Pascoe (2016)

2 Comments

animal“Writing a book is an arrogant thing to do.”

I really like Sara Pascoe. She’s a newer face on the panel shows and comedy programmes of our televisions, and I fell a little bit in love with her when she first appeared on QI and knew lots of stuff about London and pandas. She’s the kind of woman I’d love to tell, “Hey, I really like you. You’re so beautiful…” but before I could finish, she’d throw her drink in my face and yell, “What about my brain??” I’d splutter through the G&T or whatever she drinks before saying, “I haven’t finished! You’re beautiful, intelligent, funny and generally awesome.” And then I’d still feel guilty as I do right now about the fact I started with “beautiful”, and feel that maybe I worded the compliment badly. But it was a compliment – I’ve always been very attracted to women’s brains. A smart woman is a sexy woman, although I’m obviously aware that a woman is not an object to be looked at, and I don’t expect anything to come from the compliment, I’m just trying to be nice, I … I’m digging myself into a hole here, aren’t I? Look, I just like paying people compliments, I’m just a bit cack-handed at it.

(Sara, should you read this and I did it wrong, I sincerely apologise. Can we forget this ever happened and move on?)

A couple of my female friends have been reading Animal and they went on to me about how amazing it was. Finding myself with that free trial of Audible that everyone who listens to podcasts gets bombarded with a few times a week, and going on the suggestion of a friend that it’s even better when read aloud, I downloaded the book and it has become the first audiobook I’ve ever listened to. Sara has a wonderful voice, full of real warmth, like she’s talking to you down the pub. You and her, the writer and the reader, are mates, and she’s going to tell you what she’s learnt about the female mind and body.

Split into three sections – Love, Body and Consent – the book is part-memoir, interspersed with stories from her own life (some hilarious, some tragic) and part science book, talking about what it is to be a woman both now and throughout history. She covers every possible aspect of this, including but certainly not limited to whether humans are naturally monogamous or not, how menstruation is viewed and treated around the world, what the “right” age is for consent, how we define rape, why men feel sleepy after sex and women don’t, female genital mutilation, the politics of abortion, why women evolved breasts, the female orgasm, and why humans are one of only three species on the planet (aside from killer whales and pilot whales) to undergo a menopause.

I wondered, as a man, how relevant the book would be to me, but it turns out your gender doesn’t matter in the slightest. It is eye-opening, incredibly interesting, sharply funny, and while perhaps in another person’s hands the ideas could come across as lecturing or dull, Sara weaves genius throughout it. She’s naturally funny, and very frank and open about her own problems, concerns and issues.

It’s also given me a really interesting new discussion topic for others around me. Not strangers on the bus; I’m not confident enough to strike up loud “Did you know?” conversations about tampons with them (yet) but with friends and colleagues. Most of my friends are female, as indeed are most of the people I work with, and this book has granted me access to things I, shamefacedly, even as a sexually active man in his late twenties, still didn’t really understand. One of the most curious facts I found out was about how long a menstrual cycle could last. I’d always been under the assumption it was 28 days – about a month – and had never really considered that it varied that much between women. I don’t know why. I don’t think about it much, I guess. After finding out the truth, I asked the girls at work if they knew. They all said 28 days. I revealed that, actually, it could be anywhere between 20 and 60 days. None of them knew this, and one of these girls is at university studying to be a surgeon. Even if this fact had somehow slipped through the net of secondary school sex ed, then that’s one thing, but is medical school not even drawing attention to this?

And, yeah, while we’re at it, why are the boys sent out of the room when girls learn about menstruation at school? If you take the argument that it might be uncomfortable or embarrassing for pre-teen girls to ask questions in a room full of boys, then that’s fine and I totally understand it, but the boys should be taught this stuff too, separately. We might not have the equipment, but we should know how it works. It might remove some of society’s stigma about the whole thing. Boys should probably also get a brush up on consent, as barely a week goes by without some boy somewhere dodging a jail sentence because he’s convinced a jury that consent was granted. We need to update both our sex education and our rape laws. But Sara will explain all this much more eloquently than I ever could.

I believe firmly that everyone, regardless of whether you’re male, female or somewhere in between, should read this book. It’s fascinating, funny and might even save your life.

“News From The Squares” by Robert Llewellyn (2013)

Leave a comment

news squares“What do you think you’re doing you silly little man?”

It seems fitting to this week read a book like this. Set in a future where women are in dominant gender, this sequel to News From Gardenia (be aware, spoilers ahead) feels more possible than ever now that Britain has a female Prime Minister again, Scotland and Germany are both run by very strong women, and it looks like the USA is about to have their first female President. So let’s dive in, and I’ll try and share my thoughts afterwards.

Gavin has crashed his plane and thinks he’s in a different part of Gardenia, the future England that he’s just left. He is picked up by several women and taken to what seems to be a hospital, but it’s like nothing he’s ever seen. Sure at first that this is part of Gardenia that he never witnessed before, it soon turns out that he’s wrong. This is still 2211, but this is an alternate future. Here, women are the dominant gender and outnumber men five to one.

While not officially held prisoner, he finds himself a resident of the Institute of Mental Health, where female doctors and psychologists want to study him. He manages to convince them that he’s really from the past, and the world falls in love with him. Well, most of it anyway. See, in this world the stories go that the men from the dark times were all evil and so the appearance of one who appears to be half-decent is a shock to the system. And his timing couldn’t be more appropriate. There’s about to be a vote to see whether men should be left to die out, leaving a fully female human race, and the man-hating Weaver women are not too pleased that there’s a man here now screwing up their propaganda.

With no means of getting home, and with his plane now in a history museum, Gavin is left to explore this world with his great-great-great-great-great-nephew Ralph, and the beautiful Dr Nkoyo Oshineye. He is also equipped with his kidonge, a small device that imbeds itself in your body and allows you to know anything just by thinking about it, and hold all your money on you at all times, making payments via handshakes. The kidonge, it turns out, also records your every move, so no one is ever where they shouldn’t be, and anyone can be found at any time…

Is this a utopian paradise, or is it an Orwellian nightmare?

I have so many feelings about this book that are almost impossible to put into words. I have no issue with a world where women are in charge – they’d probably make a far better job of it – but the way it came about seems  a bit flimsy. It appears that men simply “gave up” and women had no choice but to take over. I don’t think this holds up as a reason. I also found myself irritated at the notion that because men were responsible for all the nasty things in the world, now women rule there is apparently no violent crime, rape, child abuse or war anymore. It seems to imply that no woman would be capable of such things, although just flick through the news and I’m sure you’ll find a story or two. I get that this is meant to be propaganda from within the novel, but it still stings. I dislike being categorised with men who treat women poorly. Maybe I’m just taking it too personally, and I’m certainly not going to stand here and say that men don’t cause a lot of issues, but it just jarred with me.

Gavin by this point has also become a less sympathetic character, talking a lot about what a wonderful person he is, but displaying obvious homophobia and occasionally sexism. Granted, he seems to understand these issues about himself and isn’t necessarily happy about them, but it’s most apparent when he’s really struggling to get his head around the fact that the super fast train he’s riding could’ve been invented by a woman from Africa. Of all the people you’d want in the future, Gavin isn’t in the top thousand.

There are some cool concepts though. Religion is here regarded as a “treatable mental condition” which is an interesting take on it, and some of the technology is incredible, although how realistic any of it could be, I’m not sure. I also love the Museum of Human History, which is so enormous that its exhibits include Harrods, the Palace of Westminster and the Shard. Yep, the Shard. On the other hand, the evolution of language that we see is a bit strange and used intermittently; often simply words have been replaced by their counterparts from other languages. Syntax and grammar remain the same, though many slang terms are now absent and don’t seem to have been replaced – they’ve just vanished.

Like with the first book in the series, there is not much plot to hang your hat on, and Gavin just serves as a conduit for us to explore this new world. It’s a fascinating place to look at, but there’s something horrific about it. It feels more dystopian than News From Gardenia, which portrayed a perfect society, and maybe to the people living in this new world, this is perfect but, for me, I don’t feel welcome. The series continues (and concludes) with News From The Clouds, which I’ll get to in time. I’m still curious enough to want to know where this ends.

“A Natural History Of Dragons” by Marie Brennan (2014)

Leave a comment

dragons 1“When I was seven, I found a sparkling lying dead on a bench at the edge of the woods which formed the back boundary of our garden, that the groundskeeper had not yet cleared away.”

I think everyone likes dragons. People are fascinated by dinosaurs, really, because they’re the closest thing we ever had to real dragons. There’s something remarkable about them, and given that they turn up in pretty much every ancient culture, maybe they were real once upon a time, but we’ve now relegated them to myth and legend.

Always eager to expand my knowledge in every direction, even a fictional one, I was attracted to the idea of A Natural History of Dragons, but even more than that I was attracted to the absolutely beautiful cover of this book, which, as you can see, displays an anatomical drawing of a dragon.

This is the first book of memoirs of Lady Trent, a famous dragon naturalist from a world which is greatly similar to ours, with the natural exception of different countries and so on, and obviously the inclusion of dragons. It is an era in which women are expected to keep house, talk of simple hobbies and not do anything that would stir up trouble in society; it’s an alternate Victorian era. But this is the age of discovery, and Lady Trent, or Isabella as she’s known at this point in her life, is keen not to be left behind. As a girl she studies sparklings, tiny dragon-like creatures that are believed at first to be insects, but is dissuaded by her mother from doing so, meaning she has to hide her fascination.

Her father, however, is kinder and when it comes to the time that Isabella must find a husband, he suggests a few names to her, not going on the gentlemen’s looks or riches, but on the size of the library. Isabella eventually finds a husband in Jacob Camherst, whom she meets while at the king’s menagerie with her brother one day. They have only visited because the king has some dragons in captivity, and Jacob seems quietly impressed with her knowledge.

Once married, the opportunity comes for Jacob to travel with their friend Lord Hilford to the distant mountains of Vystrana in search of dragons. Unwilling to be left out of it, Isabella insists that she come with him. Despite the men believing that this is no place for a woman, she is allowed to attend, thanks to the true love of her husband who wishes only to make her happy, regardless of what society thinks.

The troop set out to the mountains and there encounter wild dragons. But there is far more danger lurking in the caves of the mountains than Isabella and her companions ever thought possible and they soon find themselves caught up in the activities of smugglers, an unusual number of dragon attacks, and a supposed curse. The adventure is one that Isabella will remember for the rest of her life…

dragons 2Indeed, she will remember it because the book’s framework is that Isabella is now elderly and penning her complete memoirs for her interested fans. We learn via this that in the future she is widely renowned in the field, hugely successful and popular, and these are her tales of how she got to that position. She is a wonderful creation, perhaps a feminist icon, unafraid of going against the opinion of the time and determined to make her own way in the world. Why, indeed, should only men get to be scholars and adventurers?

The story is rather gripping, but if you’ve come here for a blow-by-blow account on the nature of dragons then you will be disappointed. First and foremost these are the memoirs of a spunky Victorian-esque lady adventurer, but the passages on dragons are fascinating. Isabella is obviously besotted with the creatures but her expedition is to study them, so we learn alongside her the nature of the beasts. Although similar to traditional dragons in Western mythology, there are some new additions to the mix. For example, the bones do not survive in air very long after death and crumble almost immediately. Also, not all of the dragons breathe fire, although there are some, but they all breathe something unusual;be it shards of ice, poison gas or lightning.

The book is also peppered with beautiful illustrations, presumably done by Isabella herself who is primarily on the expedition as an artist, which allow the reader to see the dragons and the locations in fine detail.

It’s hugely compelling and while some parts go a bit too deep on customs of the various countries or the political situations between them, the chapters in which Isabella is meeting dragons are hugely interesting. She is a brilliant character herself, but the supporting cast are also well-received and all seem believable within the setting, which is familiar but just different enough. If you have even a passing interest in dragons and, as I suggested above, you do, then you should curl up with this book and dream of having adventures half as interesting as this.

“Only Ever Yours” by Louise O’Neill (2014)

2 Comments

untitled“The chastities keep asking me why I can’t sleep.”

I don’t ever like having to say the words, “I’m a feminist”. That’s not because I’m not one, because of course I am, but it’s merely that I don’t think it’s anything that needs to be said. Any decent human being presumably believes in equality betweeh the sexes, so it doesn’t even need to be said, right? Oh, there I go with my wistful naivety, pretending I don’t know what a mess the world is in. But these issues are right up there in Louise O’Neill’s novel, a book as sharp and finely honed as a cosmetic surgeon’s knife. Let’s take a look.

This is the story of freida, an eve who was created and designed and has only known one life, that of the School. All women live here until they are sixteen and in this environment, they are sculpted and perfected to be desirable to the menfolk who will one day own them. The dream for all these girls, of course, is to become a companion, the wife of a man. Some of those that are less fortunate will become concubines, used only for recreational sex rather than for breeding purposes. The really unlucky ones are forced to become chastities, the shaven-headed, sexless teachers at the School who suffer such injustices as (whisper it now) “growing old” and “dying of natural causes”.

freida is awaiting the Ceremony, a time when the eves will be selected by the men and they find out their place in the world. But freida has other things on her mind. Her best friend isabel has gone a bit strange. She’s started putting on weight – she’s far larger than the suggested 118 pounds – and she’s distancing herself from freida. As the pressure mounts and the stress causes freida to slip down the rankings of her peers, but she’s still desperate to keep the friendship of the new #1, megan, who will surely be won over by the most powerful man that will come for them. Time is running out and freida must do something drastic to save isabel and prove to her potential Husband that she is the right woman for him, providing she can just keep the weight off and keep her emotions under control. After all, boys don’t like girls who cause a scene…

From the off, this book is terrifying. We’re in a dystopian future where the oceans have risen and the remaining humans live in closed off zones in the centre of the old continents. Over the course of this transition, much changed. Humans got rid of anything that wasn’t necessary – animals, religion, etc – and created a society where only men are born, and women are created and exist only to birth more sons or provide them with pleasure. The School is a shocking place – this is Mean Girls on steroids – where the eves aren’t taught things like mathematics and science (after all, what man wants a companion that’s too intelligent?) but have lessons such as how to bottle up their unacceptable emotions, and the terrible Comparasion Studies, where two girls are hauled up in front of the class and the other girls have to tell them how they can improve. There’s an idea that there is always room for Improvement.

There are some great touches within here. The eves constant conversations about how beautiful they all look, while at the same time trying to outdo one another, and the endless descriptions of clothes and make up, two of the most important things in their lives. There’s also the fact that every surface in the School is mirrored, so that the girls can at all times see themselves and each other and be comparing features. My favourite touch, however, is that none of the female characters has a name that is capitalised. The few men we meet get capitals at the start of their names, and even get surnames, but the eves are property, and as such do not deserve proper names. Hell, even the drugs they’re being prescribed to keep them beautiful and controlled get capital letters, showing signs of a society where drugs are more important than women. There’s also a suggestion that the girls have chosen their own names, as the chastities refer to them all by number. The men, however, get impressive names, all seemingly stemming from great men of a long forgotten history – Darwin, Mahatma, Socrates, Albert, Sigmund, Winston, and so on.

While it’s obviously a fiction this book, like all good dystopian fiction it is a little bit too close for comfort. The eves are expected to be everything for their men, never say no to sex, and to remain beautiful at all times. We already seem to live in a world where women are judged solely on appearance in the media, and this is just taking the idea to its extreme. It’s worrying because it feels too familiar. And that makes me feel uncomfortable.

Male or female, this book is well worth reading as it might just open your eyes to the insanity of our world and what could happen if we let things go too far. I’m not suggesting that this stuff could actually happen, but it’s certainly food for thought. Think of it as Stepford Wives for the modern age, and you’re halfway there. Chilling, haunting, but incredibly smart.

“Intrusion” by Ken MacLeod (2012)

2 Comments

Open wide.

Open wide.

“Like any responsible father, Hugh Morrison had installed cameras in every room in the flat.”

Given the current state of the world where sexism seems at an all time high, wars are still fought repeatedly, people are being sentenced to death for the simple act of loving “the wrong person”, and in Europe, most countries have politically taken a big swing to the right, dystopian fiction has become something that it didn’t seem worth reading. I always wanted to write a dystopian novel but, since we’re now apparently living in one, what’s the fucking point? Anyway, I put aside those feelings for long enough to read Intrusion, and I’m pretty glad I did.

Intrusion is set in the near future (how near is discussed below) and is the story of Hope and Hugh Morrison, an ordinary London couple in many respects. However, in this future, there is a pill women take while pregnant called the Fix, which will strengthen the genome of their children and provide them with immunity to most diseases. Hope doesn’t want to take the pill – her first son Nick doesn’t seem to have been held back too much without it – but there is enormous pressure on her to do it anyway.

The Fix is not compulsory, but the winds are changing and it could be seen by some as child abuse to not give your unborn child a headstart in life. Some people can refuse it for religious reasons (although most of the major religions have no problem with it) but Hope won’t give her reasons and refuses to lie – she just doesn’t want it. This decision begins to divide her family and friends, and soon she, Hugh and Nick are all in terrible danger.

Alongside her story, we have her husband Hugh who has frequent hallucinations, people walking through his life that no one else can see, and a social scientist Geena, who thinks she may have found a reason to make sure Hope doesn’t have to take the Fix after all. When the government gets involved, the Morrisons have little choice but to start running, but in this future where everyone is tracked and watched at all times, that’s far easier said than done.

The most important and interesting question about anything set in the future is the simple, “So what is the world like now?” In this future, all information is conveyed via mobile phones or glasses (like Google glasses), hard copy books are a status symbol, rather than anything people actually read, the world seems at war with India and Russia, the Labour party is in power, vehicles are mostly silent and usually self-driving, there’s snow in summer, and science has made a breakthrough that has allowed for synthetic carbon, meaning that oil and diamonds are plentiful (diamond has replaced glass as the choice material for windows and the like), and even the trees are synthetic.

All of this in turn brings about the question, “When is this set?” No specific dates are ever given, but I would suggest we’re somewhere between 2060 and 2100. It’s very hard to say. Technology is very advanced (the glasses Hope wears tag everyone and every building she passes, display flight numbers next to aeroplanes and record everything the wearer sees) but it is all technology that is currently in production. None of the characters seem surprised by it, suggesting that it’s been commonplace since they were born. In fact, it’s mentioned that some people have traded in their glasses for contacts that do the same thing.

It’s a terrifying future for women, in this world, too. Legislation and laws have changed to make it a crime for any pregnant woman to smoke or drink, and all women of child-bearing age wear a monitor ring on their wedding finger that tracks their environment and lets health experts know if they are in dangerous environments. These laws have since expanded and now women are mostly forced back into positions of homemaker, most workplaces having been declared too dangerous for them, what with second hand smoke and easy access to coffee. This future is a very bad time to be a woman.

I liked Hope, and I liked Hugh, and for the most part the story trundles along quite nicely, shades of 1984 about it, as can only be expected in a world where cameras line the walls of your home. Towards the end, however, MacLeod seems to run out of steam and the whole thing ends with a rather disappointing deus ex machina. The story would be interesting enough, however, without Hugh’s hallucination issue as well, as it turns out he might actually be seeing the future due to a glitch in his genome. It adds a touch of fantasy to an otherwise realistic world, but I don’t know if it was strictly necessary. It seems strange somehow, although it does allow MacLeod to explore a new line of questioning against the Fix.

The best thing about the book, though, is probably just how worryingly realistic it all is. This is a future that, if we don’t pay attention now and make the wrong move in the next few years, may well come to pass. The best dystopias are ones in which we see something that is likely, rather than something far removed from us. This could be sixty years away, but it could be six. And it doesn’t look pretty.

Older Entries