For Books’ Sake http://forbookssake.net Championing Books by Women Mon, 06 Jul 2015 16:04:38 +0000 en-GB hourly 1 For Books' Sake: Championing Writing by Women since 2010. Your regular monthly dose of brilliant books, fierce feminism, music and more. Presented by Zoe Grisedale-Sherry. For Books' Sake no For Books' Sake jane@forbookssake.net jane@forbookssake.net (For Books' Sake) Books, Feminism, Music and More For Books’ Sake http://forbookssake.net/wp-content/uploads/powerpress/Podcast_Logo.jpg http://forbookssake.net In The Unlikely Event by Judy Blume http://forbookssake.net/2015/07/03/unlikely-eveny-judy-blume/ http://forbookssake.net/2015/07/03/unlikely-eveny-judy-blume/#comments Fri, 03 Jul 2015 09:00:57 +0000 http://forbookssake.net/?p=28715 'Life is a series of unlikely events, isn't it? Hers certainly is. One unlikely event after another, adding up to a rich, complicated whole. And who knows what's still to come.'

In The Unlikely Event by Judy Blume
'Life is a series of unlikely events, isn't it? Hers…

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'Life is a series of unlikely events, isn't it? Hers certainly is. One unlikely event after another, adding up to a rich, complicated whole. And who knows what's still to come.'

In The Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

In The Unlikely Event is Judy Blume‘s first adult novel in over 15 years. Rumours are abound that this will be her final novel, that she is heading for retirement. At For Books’ Sake we sincerely hope not, but we are revelling in the fact that Blume’s latest creation is certainly a novel to savour.

In The Unlikely Event has, at its core, a hugely catastrophic event that Blume herself witnessed. Over a short period of time, between the years of 1951 and 1952 the town of Elizabeth, New Jersey, situated within close proximity to Newark airport, bears witness to three terrible plane crashes. Whilst taking that as its central theme the novel brings forth a myriad of fictionalised characters from the town and beyond.

Blume’s approach in her novel is to use multiple narrative perspectives. Each chapter encompasses the viewpoint of a wide range of characters all interlinked in some way. It is a technique which takes a short amount of time to acclimatise to, encouraging the reader to slow down. To absorb.

Central to the story is the character of Miri Ammerman. An intriguing, intelligent character who will certainly appeal, and indeed feel a little familiar, to avid readers of Blume. Growing up in a close Jewish household with her single mother, junior high school student Miri is finding her way. She experiences her first love, Mason, negotiates the trials and tribulations of the relationship with her best friend Natalie Osner and tries to fathom the reappearance of her estranged father; all against the background of the catastrophic events that plague Elizabeth.

Natalie’s character is one of the first to be impacted, psychologically, by the deaths. The impact takes its toll as she becomes obsessed with a dancer who lost her life on the first flight. The ripple effect drifts through her family. Her father is Dr Osner, the highly respected ‘kind and generous’ small town dentist who ‘kept a row of white plaster-of-Paris figurines lined up on a shelf, each one a foot high’ that hit the floor at high speed whenever ‘his fury’ and ‘inner rage’ became too much. His wife, conversely, copes with shopping, and more shopping.

From every direction people were running toward the flames that were shooting up, toward the thing that had crashed and as burning in the frozen bed of the Elizabeth River.Elizabeth eventually becomes nicknamed ‘Plane Crash City’. Enveloped by an ‘umbrella of death’ predictably the tragedies take their toll. Rumours are rife as to the cause, one disaster was bad enough… but twice? Then a third time? Conspiracy theories abound of aliens and invasion.

‘From every direction people were running toward the flames that were shooting up, toward the thing that had crashed and as burning in the frozen bed of the Elizabeth River.’

The inhabitants of Elizabeth struggle to rationalise the tragedies. They suffer losses from within their own community, marriages crumble and others seek solace and comfort in more unusual corners.

Each chapter begins with a snippet from the newspaper. Using the actual papers from the time as her inspiration, Blume’s technique grounds the novel in the tragic reality of the plane crashes.

There is a quiet, almost understated, power to Blume’s writing. Its strength lies in its confidence. Whilst the majority of In The Unlikely Event is set in 1951-1952, Blume begins and concludes her novel in 1987. There is satisfying impact of such a decision from a reader’s perspective; the ‘what if?’ questions are all answered, bringing a sense of perspective.

‘My dad says unlikely events aren’t all bad. There are good ones too.’

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I Know How She Does It by Laura Vanderkam http://forbookssake.net/2015/07/02/i-know-how-she-does-it-by-laura-vanderkam/ http://forbookssake.net/2015/07/02/i-know-how-she-does-it-by-laura-vanderkam/#comments Thu, 02 Jul 2015 09:00:01 +0000 http://forbookssake.net/?p=28811 Laura Vanderkam is a journalist, time management expert and author of What The Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast. I Know How She Does It is her latest piece of productivity porn, a cheeky take on Alison Pearson's 2003 comedy of manners, I Don't Know How She Does It, about the gendered notion of 'having it all.'

I Know How She Does it
Laura Vanderkam is a journalist, time management expert and author…

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Laura Vanderkam is a journalist, time management expert and author of What The Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast. I Know How She Does It is her latest piece of productivity porn, a cheeky take on Alison Pearson's 2003 comedy of manners, I Don't Know How She Does It, about the gendered notion of 'having it all.'

I Know How She Does it

I Know How She Does It showcases ‘highly successful’ women’s methods for finding time for their careers, their families and themselves, and explains how their lower flying counterparts can adapt them for their own use. However Vanderkam’s definition of success is conventional and incredibly narrow. The inclusion criteria for the women she studied was: they had to have at least one child under 18 living at home, and earn a minimum of $100,000.

Her suggestions for avoiding ‘I Can’t Fit It All In Syndrome’ come from her analysis of 143, 7-day time logs in which her subjects recorded what they did in every half hour slot between waking up and going to sleep. The surprising findings were that they slept more than they thought, spent more time with their kids than they thought and spent less time at work.

According to Vanderkam we constantly tell ourselves that we never have enough time, which isn’t true. She believes that we buy into dominant narratives about the futility of trying to combine ambition with a good quality of life, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We also dwell on the occasions when everything’s gone spectacularly badly diary-wise. But for her this isn’t the whole story. In reality we make choices about how we use our time and, as well as the stressful, anecdote-worthy moments, there are life-affirming and fun ones too.

There’s some helpful and do-able advice: banish unnecessary, self-imposed expectations, use scraps of time productively, try to achieve balance over the 168 hours there are in a week (instead of over 24 hours), and be careful about saying yes.

A lot of Vanderkam's pointers [...] are based on the assumption that the majority of women have the option to work flexibly, and the resources to pay for high quality childcare and household help.But not one of the 3 sections (work, home and self) contain anything transformational. Vanderkam encourages us to fit in exercise wherever we can, make chores fun and develop basic competence in the kitchen. And her high earners decide what’s most important to them and slot everything else in around it. They set boundaries, plan, protect time for their goals, order stuff online, schedule romantic time and minimize the amount of TV they watch. Not exactly mind-blowing stuff.

A lot of Vanderkam’s pointers (don’t be cheap when it comes to childcare, if you’re going to outsource housekeeping, do it to a level that genuinely lightens your load and volunteer at your children’s outings), are based on the assumption that the majority of women have the option to work flexibly, and the resources to pay for high quality childcare and household help.

Vanderkam fails to take many things into account, including: rigid working patterns, the fact that not everyone’s wealthy and that, for huge swathes of women, some of whom are on decent salaries, not only is affordable childcare hard to find, it’s the equivalent of a second mortgage, and can be the difference between being economically active or not.

Although it claims to offer hints and tips for all, I Know How She Does It is largely a guide for well-heeled, professional women. Granted Vanderkam’s main recommendation is a change in mindset when it comes to building a satisfying life, and that costs zilch. But most women simply don’t have the opportunities, or means, to put her ideas into practice.

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JK Rowling Announces New Harry Potter Stage Play http://forbookssake.net/2015/06/26/jk-rowling-announces-new-harry-potter-stage-play/ http://forbookssake.net/2015/06/26/jk-rowling-announces-new-harry-potter-stage-play/#comments Fri, 26 Jun 2015 11:00:13 +0000 http://forbookssake.net/?p=28802 Author confirms the boy wizard will hit the stage in 2016

Harry_Potter
Commence fangirling...

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Author confirms the boy wizard will hit the stage in 2016

Harry_Potter

It’s been at least five minutes since we we were excited by something JK Rowling said or did, so it was doubly thrilling to see her tweet early this morning that everyone’s favourite boy wizard will be back – in a new Harry Potter stage play in 2016.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child will be a collaboration between Rowling, director John Tiffany and writer Jack Thorne.

Tiffany is best known for his award-winning work on the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch and the Broadway run of film-to-musical adaptation Once, while Thorne has previously adapted the novel and film of Let The Right One In for the West End stage to great critical acclaim.

Announcing the plans on the 18th anniversary of the UK release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Rowling was light on details, claiming she “[doesn’t] want to say too much more, because I don’t want to spoil what I know will be a real treat for fans.”

However she did confirm the Harry Potter stage play will be a new story, not a prequel and debut in London next year.

In answering questions on why the new tale will not be a novel, Rowling is confident fans will understand when they see the show, saying that “it [is] the only proper medium for the story”.

With a film adaptation of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them also on the way in November, 2016 is set to be a truly magic year for fans of the fantastical.

We can’t wait!

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#RomanceFestivalLive http://forbookssake.net/2015/06/25/romancefestivallive/ http://forbookssake.net/2015/06/25/romancefestivallive/#comments Thu, 25 Jun 2015 10:00:39 +0000 http://forbookssake.net/?p=28792 On Saturday, London Bridge was overtaken by a deluge of book bloggers, reviewers and romance authors. With such a strong line-up of authors comes the inevitable growth of our TBR pile, so we've put together a run-down of the hottest new titles in romance so you can read along with us

#RomanceFestivalLive
The next big romance titles hot off the press...

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On Saturday, London Bridge was overtaken by a deluge of book bloggers, reviewers and romance authors. With such a strong line-up of authors comes the inevitable growth of our TBR pile, so we've put together a run-down of the hottest new titles in romance so you can read along with us

#RomanceFestivalLive

Over the last two years, HarperCollins and Mills & Boon have teamed up to run a virtual e-festival to celebrate romance, with live Twitter Q&A sessions, YouTube interviews and online workshops and discussions.

Last weekend, it was taken live as ten authors stepped into the spotlight and got to talk with their fans, and celebrate with plenty of pink fizz and cake.

It was also the perfect opportunity to talk about this summer’s new releases; especially as some of them are making the step from digital only to print…

Zara Stoneley’s new release, Country Affairs, is the sequel to the digital-bestseller Stable Mates, and is widely acknowledged to be Riders for the 21st century.  Think horses, scandal and Chesire men…

Laywer Erin Lawless’s second book, Somewhere Only We Know, is a love letter to London as Nadia tries to tick off everything on her “To Do in London” list before she gets deported back to Russia.

Romance Reader Award-winning Carmel Harrington’s strong romance heroine, Sarah Lawler has to deal with a missing husband, a mounting pile of unpaid bills, and the reappearance of a childhood friend that only she can see in The Life You Left.

Bella Osborne’s debut novel, It Started at Sunset Cottage, is a sweet romantic comedy, with a layered portrayal of female friendship and textured characters who aren’t all in their twenties.

What happens when classic Hollywood icon Audrey Hepburn pitches up on your sofa to give you advice?  That’s exactly what A Night in with Audrey Hepburn, the debut novel from Lucy Holliday explores.  Funny and incredibly witty.

With all the Great British Bake-Off love that flies around each year, Alexandra Brown’s latest novel, The Great Village Show, taps into the trend for homely romances.  Capturing her village setting perfectly, it’s a book to fall in love with.

Jenny Oliver was an editor before she became a writer, and her polished, clever style balances wit with what happens when life starts going wrong in The Vintage Summer Wedding.

Award-winning Sarah Morgan’s Some Kind of Wonderful, the second book in the Puffin Island trilogy, takes a popular romance trope – the ex – and gives it a twist.  The depth to her characters’ past relationship can’t help but temper any signs of new romance.

Crime writer Claire McGowan takes a side-step as Eva Woods to write The Thirty List, a story about what to do when you realise that you haven’t quite achieved everything you wanted to by the time you turn thirty.

And Haley Hill, real-life matchmaker-turned-writer, has used her experiences as the owner of a matchmaking company to write the inspired and hilarious It’s Got to Be Perfect.

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Skin Paper Stone by Máire T. Robinson http://forbookssake.net/2015/06/22/skin-paper-stone-by-maire-t-robinson/ http://forbookssake.net/2015/06/22/skin-paper-stone-by-maire-t-robinson/#comments Mon, 22 Jun 2015 09:00:26 +0000 http://forbookssake.net/?p=28484 Máire T. Robinson's début novel sensitively and warmly charts the trials and tribulations of growing up in modern day Ireland.

Skin Paper Stone
Máire T. Robinson's début novel sensitively and warmly charts the…

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Máire T. Robinson's début novel sensitively and warmly charts the trials and tribulations of growing up in modern day Ireland.

Skin Paper Stone

Skin Paper Stone is a touching narrative which focuses on the lives of two main characters. Stevie and Kavanagh are both approaching a crossroads in their lives, where comparisons with those around them become inevitable as they struggle to carve their own identity and meaning.

Stevie has just moved to Galway and is struggling with motivation during the first year of her mediaeval history PhD. From the beginning we are aware of Stevie’s insecurities, “For the first two weeks, she had hardly slept. Unwanted thoughts invaded her mind.” Crucially Stevie is coming to terms with a relationship she has left behind, “she felt huge relief, like shrugging off a wool coat, like she had been holding her breath without realising it.” Stevie appears incredibly vulnerable. As the pressure of her PhD research begins to overwhelm her, hints are made at her past and it becomes clear she has demons of her own to overcome. Stevie is an absorbing character, quite different in many ways to that of Joe Kavanagh.

Her path crosses with that of Kavanagh at a house party. Desperate to impress with a dodgy method for opening a bottle of red wine, he lands himself in hospital with his arm in a sling. An aspiring tattoo artist who dreams of something else, something better, Kavanagh is a drifter. Moseying through life, almost as if he is waiting for it to happen to him.

“Kavanagh saw his life as a line graph: a steady segment across the x-axis of MEH-MEH-MEH”

Despite dreams of returning to Thailand where “he had glimpsed the possibility of something different, something else”, his oftentimes frustratingly lack lustre approach means he is still in “this bottomless hole” of Galway, drifting and dreaming. Meanwhile pressure is also building on Kavanagh from the direction of Pajo, a drug dealer who likes everyone to know who is in charge. Pajo holds a strong dislike for Kavanagh, and you get the sense he is just biding his time, waiting for the perfect moment to pounce on Kavanagh.

Engaging dialogue is punctuated by hypnotic descriptions of the landscape with Robinson's narrative gliding through the landscape of Ireland's Galway - the seemingly endless Galway rain, the churning river and the Atlantic breezes.Robinson pulls the reader in to the lives of Stevie and Kavanagh in a pleasingly effortless manner. Switching the narrative focus back and forth between her two main protagonists, with carefully placed snippets from the perspective of friends and families whose lives they touch; the gentle lilt to the flow of her sentences ensures the reader quickly becomes absorbed in to their lives. Underneath the easy flow of those sentences Robinson delves in to the psyche of her characters. The constant comparison with friends – those jetting off to far flung places, marrying, having kids – is a pressure constantly punctuating the consciousness of both Kavanagh and Stevie. Each of them, plus the minor characters of Alex and Jacqui, are struggling to carve their own way, their own direction in life.

“An Atlantic breeze whistled though the laneways, and the drizzly rain carried the smell of a lost day at the seaside.”

From here we are taken to drug-fuelled parties, historically-focused ventures & cosy pub evenings with long lost friends. Galway is presented as a town with many layers, many depths, a place easy to disappear into its folds.

Skin Paper Stone, populated with intriguing characters and set against the backdrop of the atmospheric Galway, is an engaging début from a promising new Irish voice.

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Hot Feminist by Polly Vernon http://forbookssake.net/2015/06/19/hot-feminist-by-polly-vernon/ http://forbookssake.net/2015/06/19/hot-feminist-by-polly-vernon/#comments Fri, 19 Jun 2015 09:00:45 +0000 http://forbookssake.net/?p=28770 Grazia columnist Polly Vernon's new book promises modern feminism with style - and without judgement; but does it cut the mustard?

Grazia columnist Polly Vernon's new book promises modern feminism with…

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Grazia columnist Polly Vernon's new book promises modern feminism with style - and without judgement; but does it cut the mustard?


 

Take one white, female, middle class, heterosexual, London-based journalist. Add a clutch of anecdotes from the 90s; some cultural commentary about gender; a pinch of insight: a splash of irreverence; a generous helping of jokes; a sprinkling of exclamation marks; and a clickbait-style title. Et voila! You’ve got yourself a guide to contemporary feminism. Polly Vernon’s Hot Feminist is the latest in a line of provocative handbooks constructed using this template.

The Grazia columnist’s début is a mish-mash of rants, reported conversations, hints and tips and descriptions of her experiences (from her induction into the fashion world and being sexually assaulted at 18, to her 3 abortions). And, in keeping with the genre’s conventions, the tone is chatty and over familiar.

Hot Feminism’s central tenets are 1) thou shalt assert your right to care about your looks as well issues of importance to feminism, and 2) thou shalt be non-judgemental about opinions you don’t share.

It’s borne of two of Vernon’s personal bugbears. First up is second wave feminism’s demonisation of women who prettify themselves for men (and the fourth wave’s concerns about the omnipresence of narrow and unrealistic beauty ideals). Second on Vernon’s hit list is the fourth wave’s call out culture. She despairs of what she views as a toxic, McCarthyesque, social media-facilitated environment, where everyone is gleefully judging everyone else from their vantage points on the moral high ground.

But feminism isn’t anti looking good per se. It’s anti the idea that women’s sole value lies in how they measure up to externally defined, Eurocentric and male-centred notions of sexual attractiveness. (As opposed to their ability to run the country, be decent human beings, or find a cure for cancer.)

And yes, finger wagging and shouting others down isn’t helpful or constructive. But there are some things which need to challenged. Discrimination and exclusionary language, for example, just aren’t OK. So maybe what’s in order is: championing intersectionality, cutting out the vitriol and replacing judging with measured and nuanced discussion focused on understanding the rationale for others’ positions. Which, granted, is impossible to  do in 140 characters or less.

For someone advocating turning down our internal judgeometers, she issues an awful lot of diktats ('Do spend shitloads on jeans' and 'Do aspire to looking cool') or maybe it's just 'advice.'Vernon advocates treating feminism like a buffet. Not fussed about Page 3? No worries! There’s loads of other stuff to choose from! Who has the time, energy or inclination to get their knickers in a knot about all of the many and varied crimes against womanhood? Save your wrath for whatever it is that you feel most strongly about. But, despite arguing for a non-hierarchical, individualist, pick ‘n’ mix type of approach, she does seem to imply that Photoshopping and wolf whistling (‘the small stuff’), aren’t as worthy of attention as the gender pay gap, rape and sexual assault and attempts to limit women’s reproductive rights.

The suggestions about how to be fancied are very much tongue in cheek, and Vernon’s fashion, exercise and weight loss tips are mainstays of any self respecting lifestyle blog. For someone advocating turning down our internal judgeometers, she issues an awful lot of diktats (‘Do spend shitloads on jeans’ and ‘Do aspire to looking cool’) or maybe it’s just ‘advice.’ She’s much stronger when it comes to making serious observations about issues like ageing, modern motherhood and porn.

Vernon’s pleas for tolerance and the right to make mistakes are eminently sensible. And some parts of Hot Feminist will have readers nodding in agreement (she’s spot on about the astoundingly low domestic bar for men). But, for the most part, it’s a frothy read that’s not really bringing anything substantial to the feminist party.

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Chauvinistic Poem Selected for Anthology http://forbookssake.net/2015/06/18/chauvinistic-poem-selected-for-anthology/ http://forbookssake.net/2015/06/18/chauvinistic-poem-selected-for-anthology/#comments Thu, 18 Jun 2015 21:00:15 +0000 http://forbookssake.net/?p=28763 The decision to include a poem that glorifies the sexual objectification of women in Salt Publishing's annual poetry anthology has sparked outrage.

Chauvinistic Poem Selected for Anthology
Key poetry anthology under fire...

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The decision to include a poem that glorifies the sexual objectification of women in Salt Publishing's annual poetry anthology has sparked outrage.

Chauvinistic Poem Selected for Anthology

The undeniably chauvinistic poem has been picked up for inclusion in the Best British Poetry Anthology this year.

The poem, written by Bobby Parker and entitled “THANK YOU FOR SWALLOWING MY CUM”, includes lines such as “I tell cats on the street, ‘Hey kitty, she swallowed my cum!’” It centres on the narrator going around telling family members and strangers alike about this particular sexual experience, wondering if he has made the woman involved feel awkward by proclaiming the news to everyone, and claiming that “my ex-wife hates me. Or she sometimes hates me. And she never swallowed my cum.” It was first published on the online literary journal B O D Y in October last year.

Just last month B O D Y  came under fire through social media, after comments about a woman writer’s appearance were accidentally forwarded to her.

The social media response to the news was mostly one of outrage, with one commenter saying the magazine and anthology “should be ashamed”.

B O D Y share the news on Facebook.

Poet and university lecturer Caroline Klocksiem aired her thoughts on the matter in a post on Vidaweb, arguing that “my body is not a receptacle”. She raises the question of the best way for women writers to respond to such flagrant misogyny; should such journals be denounced, or should women rally and flood a publication they’d sooner not support with worthy submissions?

Let us know what you think in the comments below.

 

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Probably Nothing by Matilda Tristram http://forbookssake.net/2015/06/18/probably-nothing-by-matilda-tristram/ http://forbookssake.net/2015/06/18/probably-nothing-by-matilda-tristram/#comments Thu, 18 Jun 2015 09:00:26 +0000 http://forbookssake.net/?p=28690 An evocative, honest and humorous visual diary about being diagnosed with cancer while pregnant.

Probably Nothing by Matilda Tristram
An honest and humorous diary about having cancer while pregnant...

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An evocative, honest and humorous visual diary about being diagnosed with cancer while pregnant.

Probably Nothing by Matilda Tristram

Matilda Tristram is a children’s writer, but her début graphic novel, published by Penguin’s Viking imprint, is definitely aimed at a more adult market, despite the deceptively cute drawings.

The book’s sub-heading – ‘A diary of not-your-average nine months’ – is a flippantly accurate description of Tristram’s experience of being diagnosed with cancer when pregnant with her first child.

The book opens with the revelation that Tristram and her baby are both now doing fine, so the reader does not have to suffer the fear of the unknown that she herself went through. This is not about spoilers or story arcs, it’s a real-life account of her experiences, right down to the minute details.

Early in her pregnancy, Tristram was diagnosed with stage-three bowel cancer. This caused a dilemma of life-changing proportions: starting chemotherapy would risk foetal damage, waiting until after the birth would risk the cancer spreading, terminating the pregnancy before starting chemotherapy would risk infertility and inevitably cause huge distress to someone wanting to bring a baby to full term.

She chose to keep the baby and start chemotherapy immediately, hoping it would not affect the foetus.

What follows is a diary of the experience of going through chemo (or ‘treatment’ as she prefers to call it) while dealing with the usual issues of pregnancy. Naturally this is compounded by an anxiety that the baby might not survive, or that she won’t live to know him.

The fact that the diary was created during the nine-month period gives it a sense of immediacy and creates an affinity with Tristram’s experiences.

Tristram illustrates her fears with humour and honesty, never coming across as a martyr.

Tristram illustrates her fears with humour and honesty; never coming across as a martyr. She contrasts doing normal work-related things with looking at lacy colostomy bag covers on the internet. When she loses her body hair, she jokes about how she is no longer fighting the patriarchy.

Her closest allies are depicted positively, especially her mum and her partner Tom. She is also pleased with her treatment on the NHS, and grateful that she is being treated for free.

Pettiness begins to annoy her – people trying to one-up each other in conversation, healthy pregnant women complaining about normal healthy pregnancies, a young woman facing paralysing indecision about which croissant to buy.

The artwork is sketchy and unaffected in the manner of children’s book illustrations (unsurprisingly, given Tristram’s background). A colourful watercolour wash over the top adds an extra layer of charm to the drawings. There is a  feeling of momentum and liveliness to them.

The opportunity to read Tristram’s thoughts about what she does and doesn’t want to talk about could also provide a useful resource to friends and relatives of cancer patients. No doubt everyone copes in different ways, but it would nevertheless prove an illuminating read for those affected by similar issues.

Probably Nothing is a tale of muddling through unknown worlds, some downright terrifying and others exciting and full of possibility. It’s life-affirming and brave while also being funny and lighthearted. An altogether impressive feat.

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The Underappreciated Genius of Agatha Christie http://forbookssake.net/2015/06/16/the-underappreciated-genius-of-agatha-christie/ http://forbookssake.net/2015/06/16/the-underappreciated-genius-of-agatha-christie/#comments Tue, 16 Jun 2015 09:00:57 +0000 http://forbookssake.net/?p=28743 Don't let the baby-blue balls of yarn and a fondness for begonias deceive you: there is far more to Miss Marple than meets the eye - or ear, if the sometimes-lukewarm hearsay is anything to go by. Clara Heathcock gets to the bottom of what looks to be an almost criminal neglect on the part of critics regarding Agatha Christie's leading lady detective - and she might just have you reaching for the nearest available copy yourself...

agatha christie
Miss Marple: is she criminally underrated?

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Don't let the baby-blue balls of yarn and a fondness for begonias deceive you: there is far more to Miss Marple than meets the eye - or ear, if the sometimes-lukewarm hearsay is anything to go by. Clara Heathcock gets to the bottom of what looks to be an almost criminal neglect on the part of critics regarding Agatha Christie's leading lady detective - and she might just have you reaching for the nearest available copy yourself...

agatha christie

The sales of Agatha Christie novels pale in comparison only with the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare. Yet, somehow, I have only recently thought to read her.

Considering my main interests are women writers and women writing about women writers, it’s tempting to make a joke about how poorly read I must be and leave it at that (I love charges of being poorly read: they provide an excellent excuse to hide away from the world for a few weekends with a stack of books and articles I need to ‘catch up’ on).

However, I’m going to resist this temptation for now, as in this case I think my prior ignorance has more to do with the largely uninspiring critical reception Agatha Christie’s novels have had – and what this can tell us about gender in crime fiction – than it does with me needing to spend another weekend reading.

agatha christie

Crime first emerged as a genre of its own (rather than a series of lurid and alarming additions to regular fiction) around the turn of the 20th century. In the early 1900s crime novels were known as ‘yellowbacks’ because of their distinctive yellow jackets. Yellow covers were both eye-catching and cheap to produce, perfect for churning out en masse by publishers to meet the growing demand for crime. As crime’s rise coincided with the Industrial Revolution, it became indelibly associated with a growing public interest in the lives, work and values of the working classes.

It was against this backdrop that Agatha Christie’s mysteries were first published in the 1920s. Her 66 published novels are invariably set in old country piles in wealthy villages populated by socialites whose antics are written about in Tatler magazine. Butlers slide discretely in and out of scenes, and if protagonists themselves do service work it is always through choice not economic necessity (think of Lucy Eyelesbarrow in 4.50 from Paddington, who, “to the amazement of all her friends and fellow-scholars, entered the field of domestic labour,” because “she found in [fellow servants] a continual source of entertainment”).

agatha christie

Undoubtedly, Christie’s books feature an exclusively upper-class gaze. It is for this reason that her works are often scoffed at by social historians. They are seen as having bumbled along and spoilt a genre that was providing a valuable documentation of working class lives.

Yet imagine if Christie, an upper class woman who, in her own words, grew up in “a world of private income, where people did not have to go out to work,” had written books associating people from a class not her own with theft, corruption and murder? I would hope any critical reception would take the form of outcry.

It’s useful here to note that the other eminent crime writers of the time supposedly authentically documenting an oh-so-gritty working class culture were not themselves working class. Arthur Conan Doyle was a graduate of Sandyhurst and G.K. Chesterton was a Chelsea boy, born and bred. 1920s crime fiction functioning as an accurate social document of the working classes seems, as far as my research shows at any rate, never to have existed.

agatha christie

So, rather than tainting a supposedly unaffected working-class crime fiction, Christie’s work expanded the already upper-class gaze of crime fiction to incriminate the upper classes themselves. The message of her ‘cosy crime’ is perhaps, ‘the people I grew up around are all equally guilty, equally capable of committing terrible acts; societal ills are not just perpetrated by those born into poverty.’Another point that differentiates Christie’s work from that of her peers is the particularly effeminate version of upper class values she presents. Christie’s crimes all take place in the domestic sphere and are solved there too. The police are perfunctorily useful at best; they are able to provide practical services such as autopsy authorisation, but offer no leaps of intuition. These all come from characters such as Miss Marple, who, sat in the corner knitting her beloved baby blue pillow cushions, is able to weave the clues she gets about human nature by passively listening into a convincing narrative.

Precisely because Christie’s writing style is simple, clear and somewhat girly – she delights in describing the clothes, hair and makeup of her characters as well as what they’ve had for dinner – the breathtaking cleverness of her plots is often overlooked. The historical association between a preoccupation with domesticity and a lack of intelligence is sexism pure and simple. It should be named as such.

agatha christie

Writing in The Guardian, Gilbert Adair – perhaps Christie’s best-known critical champion – said, “Every Christie fan will be familiar with that sense of mounting tension as one approaches the climax of one of her books – the struggle, in particular, to keep one’s eyes from straying too far ahead in case they catch, before they’re meant too, the presiding sleuth’s.”

The fear that everything is simpler than it has initially appeared to be and that we the reader have wasted our time and tension waiting for the proper denouement is facilitated by how well Christie’s characters play the part of the ingénue. How very clever we feel we are in comparison to the gentle and bumbling Miss Marple. How ceaselessly wrong we are about that.

agatha christie

In Marple, Christie has crafted a character that subverts our ideas of how clever people will speak and behave. They may struggle to explain what they mean – “I’m sorry officer, I can’t quite find a way to say what I want to” – and they might enjoy hobbies not typically associated with detectives: in Sleeping Murder Marple is almost late to apprehend the murderer as she had been tending to her begonias.

So here’s to Agatha Christie, posh, effeminate, kindly, plotting genius that she was. In short, her books are brilliant: in the last two months I have shamelessly burned through all twelve Miss Marple novels. Don’t let anything you’ve previously read – any tones of voice used when you’ve heard her name mentioned or any ideas about how clever plotting ‘ought’ to present itself – deprive you of the supreme pleasure of a good Marple thriller.

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Clara Heathcock graduated in 2014 with a Philosophy degree with a minor in Children’s Literature. She now works in publishing for Turnaround UK. Her interests include all forms of memoir and life-writing, all forms of illustrated fiction; from children’s books through to graphic novels, documentaries, music and football.

 

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Butterfly Fish by Irenosen Okojie http://forbookssake.net/2015/06/12/butterfly-fish-by-irenosen-okojie/ http://forbookssake.net/2015/06/12/butterfly-fish-by-irenosen-okojie/#comments Fri, 12 Jun 2015 09:00:44 +0000 http://forbookssake.net/?p=28735 Butterfly Fish is Irenosen Okojie’s evocative debut novel. It weaves life in modern day London with regal nineteenth-century Nigeria and visits both countries in the 1960s and 1970s. It also weaves realism with a kind of magical realism to create a wonderfully readable story.

Butterfly fish
Butterfly Fish is Irenosen Okojie’s evocative debut novel. It weaves…

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Butterfly Fish is Irenosen Okojie’s evocative debut novel. It weaves life in modern day London with regal nineteenth-century Nigeria and visits both countries in the 1960s and 1970s. It also weaves realism with a kind of magical realism to create a wonderfully readable story.

Butterfly fish

The novel starts and ends in the present with Joy. Joy has just lost her mother, Queenie, and Okojie’s rendering of her grief is almost too painful to read. Joy doesn’t seem to know what she’s doing – she cares too deeply about saving a fish’s life when it is found in a swimming pool and the reader knows it is because she doesn’t want to experience any more death.

Joy’s depression is skilfully and sensitively presented. The human condition in all its forms is seen in Butterfly Fish – from the deeply upsetting grief to the beauty in the everyday. Joy is depressed and people flit in and out of her life. She briefly has a friend, an interesting old lady called Mrs Harris, who is then replaced by a lover who doesn’t really seem to care about her.

Joy is a photographer and seems adept at looking at people’s worlds but not her own. Her family friend, a lawyer, is in charge of Queenie’s will and he is seen later in the story. It is interesting to see how differently characters act after many years and the secrets they have been hiding for so long.

Queenie’s life is skilfully intertwined in the story; in many ways, the novel is entirely about her death. Queenie’s narrative as she moves to London in the 1960s is pivotal to the story: the life she left in Nigeria and the sort of world she found in London is a masterful telling of the immigrant’s life.

Life in nineteenth century Nigeria is skilfully wrought. This narrative strain focuses on Adeusa, forced into becoming a wife of the king. After meeting a handsome stranger, she is in very dangerous territory. Pre-colonial Nigeria is brought to life in a way that isn’t seen in many English novels. Okojie brings the past back to haunt the present, finally giving silenced characters a voice.

Back in modern-day London, Joy is haunted by a woman, who at first appears in the street or in photographs. Joy is haunted by many things, and it is not until these ghosts can be exorcised that she can be free.

Butterfly Fish is a huge story and the writing has a real storytelling quality to it; it often feels as if you are listening to Okojie telling you the tale. Each strand, each world, is vivid and well imagined. Often, with novels with more than one narrative strand, some storylines are more interesting than others. This isn’t the case with this novel – each part is equally well done.

Okojie seems interested in freak accidents, in lives changing forever. The unpredictability of life is a key theme here. Queenie’s death is a shock to Joy, but it reveals other, often harrowing, secrets.

The one downside in Butterfly Fish is that Joy has too many awful events happen to her, especially towards the end. A couple of plot points seem to come from nowhere and, in turn, small parts of the novel veer towards melodrama.

But ultimately it’s a very impressive and beautifully written novel. It’s especially impressive considering that this is the author’s first. Irenosen Okojie is certainly a writer to watch.

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