Playing catch-up. Again…

Oh dear. I’ve gotten behind again with reviews and I don’t even have the excuse of a big work event to blame. I think I just got distracted and lost my mojo a little – so here is a round-up of some of the books I’ve been reading in the past few weeks. It looks like quite a varied mix of adult and YA fiction with a little history thrown in. Story of my reading life really (although I do usually read a better mix of male/female authors).

The Cows – Dawn O’Porter

the-cows-by-dawn-o-porterThis is the story of three modern women: Tara, a single mother, Stella, a PA who is haunted by thoughts of her dead twin and Cammie, a take-no-prisoners lifestyle blogger. It would be wrong to say they represent a full range of women today – they are all much of an age, all based in London, all white, all working in the arts in some way – but they do show different ways of being a youngish woman in their world. Women are often judged by their appearance, their sexuality and their ability to produce children – very much like the cows of the title – and these three are no exception. Their lives start to entwine when Tara becomes an internet sensation (after being filmed in an extremely compromising, and solo, position on the Tube) and we explore all three women’s attitudes to sex, motherhood, life and, possibly, death.

The book is very funny, fairly rude and, at some points, pretty sad. O’Porter doesn’t pull too many punches about the way women are expected to live their lives: her characters, rather wonderfully, end up refusing to conform to these expectations. Not because feminism told them to but because they realise that they need to live a more honest life – to be themselves rather than the women they are expected to be.

The Walworth Beauty – Michèle Roberts

walworthThis is the story of Walworth, a district of South-East London which I’ll admit I wasn’t familiar with (turns out it’s the bit with the Elephant & Castle and Old Kent Road). The story is told through two timelines: in modern-day Walworth Madeleine moves into a small garden flat after losing her job as a lecturer and in the 1850s Joseph Benson is working for Henry Mayhew on the articles which later became London Labour and the London Poor. Benson’s job is to interview the less virtuous poor – thieves, rogues and prostitutes – and, in the course of his work, he becomes fascinated with a Mrs Dulcimer, who runs a boarding house on the street where Madeleine will live 160 years later.

This book is an insight into the lives of various underclasses in the mid-Victorian era – Benson has a weakness for strong drink and working girls, Mrs Dulcimer is a black woman in a world which treats both her sex and her race as inferior, the girls who live with her struggle to survive without turning to prostitution. In the parts of the book set in the present day some of the characters are generally better off financially but they still have struggles – young women still have to fight hard to make their way in the world, older ones find themselves neglected and the pace of modern life leaves many struggling to make sense of the world. There is an air of slight menace as the two timelines wash up against each other – each era haunts the other as if the layers of history were two decks of cards being shuffled together. It is both a contemporary and a historical novel and we find that the two have as many similarities as differences.

What Regency Women Did For Us – Rachel Knowles

I recently reviewed a wonderful book of biographies of women aimed at primary-age children. This book is a little more specific, focussing on women who lived between the 1730s and 1850s, and is aimed more at an adult market but I feel it would still be useful for older children who were interested in women’s history. I love history and will happily (if I can make the time) read lovely big, thick, detailed histories of medieval queens or scientific movements. This book seems to be more along the lines of popular history so if you just want a quick overview of the lives of women in the Regency period this could be the way to go.

WRWDFU cover for blogThe book covered an interesting selection of women including those I’m sure most people will have heard of, like Jane Austen or Madame Tussaud, some known to those with a little knowledge of the era, like Maria Edgeworth (for those who know more on the literature side) or Caroline Herschel (for those who lean to the scientific). There are short biographies, a summary of their work and achievements and also of their legacy, and they should serve as a great starting point for any more detailed reading. I think I may now be led on to investigating further into the life and works of some of the women here who I was either unaware of or only knew by name. Harriot Mellon sounds like a place to start, or maybe Mary Parminter….Ah well, all the best reading just leads onto more books!

Best of Adam Sharp – Graeme Simsion

The whole ‘difficult second album’ thing seems to be an accepted thing and it can also apply to novelists. I, like an awful lot of people, absolutely loved Simsion’s first novel, The Rosie Project. I read the follow-up and, while I enjoyed it, it didn’t have quite the same impact. The first book, however, was wonderful enough that I will leap on anything new which the author produces so I was glad to find that this book is at least as good as the previous one.

41Ui3mMfFfL._AC_UL320_SR200,320_Adam Sharp is an IT consultant approaching his 50th birthday. He earns decent money, has a house, as much work as he needs and is a fixture on the local pub-quiz scene (specialist subject probably pre-eighties music). But he has worries, he’s not as fit as once was, his mother is getting frail in her old age and his marriage could be described as amicable at best. This situation could have been enough for Adam if, out of the blue, an email from an old flame hadn’t reminded him of the heady days of his youth when he fell in love with an Australian actress, played piano in a bar for tips but turned his back on that life when his IT job demanded he move on.

The novel shows us how that relationship played out twenty odd years ago, and how it ended. We also see Adam’s rather staid relationship with his wife, Claire, and the rather more unusual one, in the present day, between the actress, Angelina, and her husband Charlie. Although these relationships are at the heart of the story for me the main point of the book was Adam’s gradual acceptance of the fact that he was a real adult. As a young man of 26 he was torn between what appeared to be the love of his life and the need to establish himself in his chosen career. At 50 his decisions will affect more people than just himself – he has to be the grown-up he thought he already was twenty years ago.

There is a lot of music in the book – like all ‘best of…’ albums it highlights moments of the characters lives with songs – mostly from the 60s and 70s. I was good with most of the pop and rock songs although I’ll admit to not knowing quite a few of the more jazzy tracks. So as well as giving me a story I enjoyed Simsion is adding to my ongoing musical education…

Running on the Cracks – Julia Donaldson

If the previous book was a departure from the author’s previous books (less obviously humorous, change of main character) then so is this one. Julia Donaldson is known and loved by virtually every child and parent I have ever met and she is, quite possibly, the queen of storytellers in the 0-5 and 5-8 age groups. Lets face it, I probably don’t need to even tell you this, you probably (like most of us) know most of the words to The Gruffalo without needing to look at the book….This book, however, is a bit different since it is aimed at a much older readership and is being marketed at the younger end of the teen market.

978140522233415-year-old Leonora (Leo to her friends) has run away. Her parents have died in an accident and she is living with her aunt, her bitchy cousins and her slightly creepy uncle. She runs to Glasgow in the hope of finding her chinese father’s family but ends up sleeping on a bench until she is taken in by an odd but kind woman named Mary. She makes friends with would-be Goth Finlay and sets about searching for her family, avoiding her uncle (who gets even creepier) and working out how best to help Mary, who is obviously struggling with her mental health. I would say this is a book firmly aimed at the younger teen – it is generally restrained in its language (hovering at the ‘bloody’ level of swearing), the slightly predatory uncle is creepy but never gets as far as being overtly sexual and there is no romance angle to the relationship between the youngsters. There are serious issues covered, the plight of runaway children, the problems inherent in mental health care, immigrant communities and the difficulties youngsters have in feeling like they ‘fit in’. I liked the main characters, particularly Finlay and Mary, and thought the plot was good. This isn’t a new book, it came out in 2009, but I hope that Donaldson makes some time to write more for older children.




There’s more than one way to be a princess

So there have been a couple of ‘days’ recently. You know, like International Boycott Sausages Day or World Lemon Day but these ones were a bit better. In fact they were right up my street…Thursday 2nd March was World Book Day – a day for celebrating books and dressing up as your favourite character – and because we love WBD so much we invite local schools in for class visits for the whole of that week and the next one too. This is great fun as there is nothing so energising a class full of 6 year-olds roaring like lions when you read Lion Practice to them – but it does mean I now have a stinking cold. And then, yesterday 8th March, was International Women’s Day – a great opportunity to celebrate everything that women do. What was really heartening was, when I asked the groups of children visiting the store what they dressed up as for World Book Day, as many girls said they’d dressed as superheroes or pirates as princesses. To mark these two ‘days’ I have been reading about two very different sorts of princesses.

Frogkisser! – Garth Nix

I’ve not previously read any Garth Nix but I have heard a colleague raving about how good he is on YouTube so I was expecting good things. I wasn’t disappointed, I’m very pleased to say.

9781848126015Anya is a Princess, for what it’s worth. The world she lives in is a patchwork of tiny kingdoms, after a terrible magical accident, and Princesses (and Princes) seem to be fairly thick on the ground. She’d rather be in the library, learning about sorcery, than anything else but her stepstepfather (it’s a long story) is a real sorcerer and, therefore, quite evil and she finds herself having to undertake a Quest to save her sister, her sister’s Princely suitor who has been transformed into a frog, her own life and, along the way many, many other things. She is accompanied by a talking Royal Dog, a boy thief who has been transformed into a giant newt and the aforementioned frog-Prince and must hunt for the ingredients for a magical lip-balm which will return the Price (and the thief) to their original forms. Along the way she meets some very cool wizards, seven dwarves, river otters and some highly responsible robbers but gains a lot of extra aspects to her Quest. The whole book is really funny but you also end up learning that Princessing is hard work if you are going to do it right.

My Name is Victoria – Lucy Worsley

Now, Lucy Worsley is someone I am familiar with – not so much as a writer but as a tv historian. I quite enjoy her slightly off-beat view of history and definitely appreciate her enthusiasm for her subject. I was certain that this book, another book for children aged 9-12, would be well researched and I hoped it would have Worsley’s charm. Again, I think the book did everything I asked of it.

victoriaThe book is narrated not by Princess Victoria, heir to the throne of Great Britain (and the Empire etc…), but by Miss V Conroy. Miss V, as she is known to everyone, is the younger daughter of John Conroy, comptroller of the household of the Princess and her mother, the Duchess of Kent. All the characters in this book are real – Conroy and the Duchess, Miss V, Victoria’s other attendants and the rest of the Hanoverian Royal Family, even her dog, Dash – but the story of what happens to her is altered, very slightly. Victoria and Miss V become friends – in fact Miss V is the only young friend available under the repressive Kensington System set up by Conroy – and support each other through the years leading up to Victoria’s reign. Miss V learns to mistrust her father and to understand the life that Victoria will have to lead when she is Queen.

Lucy Worsley has some fun with the story of Victoria and Miss V, blending solid historical facts with both the speculative rumours of the day and few interesting ideas of her own. The ending would certainly come under the heading of alternative history but, because it is reasoned out and handled so well, it is entirely believable.


Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls – Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo

Sometimes I forget that I’ve tried sweet-talking a publisher into letting me have a book to review until the book turns up. Maybe its my age but I keep running out of space in my head to keep all the things I’m meant to remember – sometimes this is a bad thing (when I get home and realise I didn’t remember to get any milk) but when books I was quite excited to hear about show up unexpectedly then it is definitely a Good Thing…

9780141986005The Good Thing that turned up today was a book which came out of a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign – a collection of beautifully illustrated short biographies of inspirational women. It is aimed at young girls, from 5 or 6 upwards, but I could see it being a useful resource for older children looking for information for history projects (I am going to be googling so many  of the women and girls whose stories are outlined here) and it would be good reading for boys too. The women/girls in this book are queens, warriors, scientists, mathematicians, athletes, artists and politicians. I loved the fact that while girls are being encouraged to push into male dominated fields credit is also given to girls in more traditionally ‘girly’ roles – singers, models and ballerinas for example. The message really is that girls can do, and be, whatever they want. There is plenty of diversity too – the girls seem to be from every continent, every ethnicity and there are girls who don’t let disability stand in their way. They have been giving the patriarchy a run for its money for 2,000 years – if our current generation of girls read this book then we should be able to continue to build on their work. Some of the stories told in these pages bought a tear to my eyes but they all made me proud to be female.


Take Courage:Anne Brontë and the Art of Life – Samantha Ellis

Anyone with siblings will know that each child is often assigned a characteristic within the family (in our family we even had little poems for each of us which I won’t repeat since my sister is not hairy and my brother is by no means bandy – I do, however, have a laugh like a drain). Famous families are no exception – like an episode of Friends we tend to think of the Brontës in terms of the rebellious, passionate one (Emily), the one who spoke out for the underdog (Charlotte), the one with the life tragically cut short (poor old Branwell) and, well, the other one. Anne seems to be the sibling who is relegated to being ‘the pretty one’…Now there’s nothing wrong with being pretty but it seems rather damning with faint praise if you are a Brontë. Seeing Samantha Ellis’s new book about Anne shortly after seeing Sally Wainwright’s thought-provoking To Walk Invisible over the Christmas period I was eager to read about the most invisible of the three sisters.

29779226This book was interesting because it was as much about Samantha Ellis as it is about Anne Brontë in some parts. Ellis, at the start of the book, is a single(ish) fan of Wuthering Heights who thinks Anne is a bit, well, boring. After seeing Anne’s last letter, full of a desire to do more in the future despite her failing health, she realises that maybe the view we have of her (largely from Mrs Gaskell’s rather fawning biography of Charlotte) could be flawed. Each chapter looks at Anne through her relationship with other members of the Brontë household, through her own writing and through Ellis’s growing respect for her as both a writer and a woman. She is shown to be courageous, loyal and a gifted writer – in many ways showing the qualities her sisters are famed for. Agnes Grey showed the reality of the life of a lowly governess before Jane Eyre (although the vagaries of publishing meant that it looked like Charlotte’s novel was written first) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was as groundbreaking as Wuthering Heights in its portrayal of a woman who leaves an abusive husband. And this at a time when women were generally considered the property of man…

As well as being a fascinating insight into the life of an underestimated author this book is also an incitement to reinvestigate Anne’s work. It seems the very least that posterity owes her…


Nina is Not Ok – Shappi Khorsandi

I have written before about comedians turned novelists – and on the whole I have had positive experiences of the whole thing. I do really enjoy a story which can make me laugh out loud and comedians, with their years of experience of closely observing the people around them, seem to me to be well placed to write great characters. And, of course, it isn’t all about the laughs – the clown who laughs to hide an inner sorrow is virtually a cliché… I may be a bit shallow though and I tend to only read novels by comedians whose actual comedy work I enjoy. I can’t even imagine wanting to read fiction written by Jim Davidson or Bernard Manning. Shappi Khorsandi, however, is someone I have seen and enjoyed both on tv and live so I was looking forward to reading her first novel.

ninaGiven the plot outline – Nina is a 17-year-old who is sure she doesn’t have a drinking problem; even though she does things she regrets while drunk; even though her father was an alcoholic; even though she needs to carry drink around with her to make it through the day at college and even though she is lost and drifting after her boyfriend met somebody else on his gap year – I was expecting something bittersweet, with a lot of arguing with parents and, towards the end, a new romance to replace the shallow ex. Boy was I wrong…This book has laughs, it has totally believable teen characters (complete with teen reasoning) and it has, I think, a pretty good idea of what it is like to be young today. And then it has a scarily graphic depiction of what it is actually like to be an alcoholic before you are old enough to vote. We are not spared the vomit, the lost hours and the downright risky sexual behaviour. We suffer the slut-shaming, the gossip and the rigours of rehab along with Nina: we experience the love for a little sister which keeps Nina plugging away at her recovery and we feel the support of best friend Beth. This is pretty immersive stuff and I really loved it.

I think what impressed me most about this novel is just how well Khorsandi puts us in the place of such a young woman. I guess it should always be easier for an author in their forties to write about characters twenty or thirty years younger than for someone in their twenties to really know how it feels to get old. One is writing from remembered experience and the other from, at best, good research. But it is rarely as accurate as this – the best and, for sure, the worst of a very young woman learning how to live with her particular demons.


Life Moves Pretty Fast – Hadley Freeman

You can call me an old hippy leftie if you like but my newspaper of choice tends to be The Guardian. In the interests of political balance I will also look through Private Eye and my parents-in-law’s copy of the Daily Mail. Although I have promised a friend that I will not, if possible, click on links to the Mail Online and I always try to avoid reading the comments on any paper’s online version. Because blood pressure…Anyway, the point is that, through the Grauniad, I was introduced to the writing of some interesting people: Zoe Williams, the incomparable Charlie Brooker, proper grown-up writers like Polly Toynbee and Owen Jones and, a personal favourite, Hadley Freeman. Hadley’s usual columns are, loosely, about fashion – something which, on the whole, doesn’t really interest me (or Rob). But we both read her fashion column with interest, and quite a few giggles, so it must be Hadley herself who is the draw. Seems fair…

9780007585618Her latest book caught my eye when I was trawling through Netgalley and I thought it sounded perfect: Hadley Freeman writing about 1980s film (the last time they made really, really good popular films without explosions, overdone product placement or sparkly vampires, in my opinion). Now, somehow, Rob managed to get through the 1980s without seeing many of the classics. He knew When Harry Met Sally but had never seen Legend, Labyrinth or Princess Bride – we spent a few months having 80s film night once a week to get him up to snuff but I’m sure there are films he (and even I) am missing out on. And now we can use Hadley’s book to work out which one to watch next!

I think for me the best thing about this book is not that I know almost all the films (although I do have to confess to never having seen Dirty Dancing) but that it reminds me that these films were made to be enjoyed and also made with more than entertainment in mind. Dirty Dancing made people consider what they really thought about abortion – I thought it was just about not putting Baby in the corner, I am certainly watching this now – and Back to the Future is actually more about being a parent than a teenager. These films are about how it actually felt to be a teenager rather than what film marketers thought teens were interested in. Big difference. This is writing about films which were about more than just the merchandising and franchising opportunities. I don’t watch a lot of films these days (although if Princess Bride or Stardust is on the tv I’m there) and think this is why – I want a story or feelings. I don’t want to be sold things. This book reminds me that there was a time (my youth, essentially) when films were about more than selling, when they were more like, well, books…




Animal – Sara Pascoe

Ah celebrities! They’re everywhere. On the tv, all over social media, most pages of almost every magazine and newspaper (probably not The Economist or the Financial Times mind you….) and, in many cases, on the shelves of your local bookshop. Some, to be fair, are probably only weighing down the shelves in charity shops (I’m old enough to remember how crazy the media went when Naomi Campbell ‘wrote’ Swan…) but others are really very good. Hugh Laurie, Jenny Eclair and Steve Martin have written books which, in my opinion, would still be good books even if their authors were not famous for other things too. What I find interesting is that many (although not all) of the best celebrity authors have a comedy background. Meera Syal, Dawn French, the mighty David Walliams, Mark Watson, Michael Palin – bestselling novelists every one. As for Morrissey, well, let’s just sweep that one under the carpet shall we…

Celebrity non-fiction is a much more mixed bag I feel. The autumn publishing schedules are always chock-full of biographies by footballers, actors and famous figures and they are always popular with their fans and, in the case of the best ones, those who just want to know more about the people they see on front pages and screens every day. Some famous people have interests which can result in slightly surprising books on Medieval history  or cookery but, on the whole, they generally boil down to autobiographies or humorous musings.

indexSara Pascoe’s Animal, at first, seems to fit into the musings category but before long I realised that it was more than that. While being a very funny book (pity poor Rob – he gets all the best bits read out loud to him whether he wants them or not) and also largely autobiographical it shows that Pascoe is one of the wave of comedians who want to use laughter to make us think about some very difficult and even controversial subjects. It is a testament to the quality of the book that it made me think about patriarchy, FGM and evolutionary psychology and yet I still balanced every in drawn breath of shock with a giggle. This kind of politicised comedy was something I first became aware of in the 70s and 80s (Ben Elton and Alexei Sayle spring to mind) and we have seen it develop through writers like Michael Moore and Mark Thomas. The feminist flag is waved vigorously (and brilliantly) by Caitlin Moran but she is, for me, a funny writer rather than a comedian who writes. Sara Pascoe is a very funny comedian and, in this book, she has shown herself to be a writer on a par with Moran.*

Humour is often seen as a way to appeal to the younger market – ‘da youf’ as they would probably be described by comedians old enough to know better – and this is a book which (despite a fair amount of sweariness) I would love to press into the hands of every girl and young woman I meet. One of the best bits is that Sara has reminded me that I should also be recommending it to all the young men (and all those who are still making a gender choice) as well. And then I’m going to start on the re-education of the older generation too…


*Sara Pascoe is now officially joining Moran on my ‘girl crush’ list. Once we all get together the patriarchy doesn’t stand a chance!