Part of the Territory – Caroline Lea

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Last year, I reviewed Caroline Lea’s debut novel When the Sky Fell Apart, which looks at the occupation of Jersey in the Second World War. When Caroline appeared at Jersey Festival of Words, along with local historian, Ian Ronayne, it was the story of the women, of those accused of being collaborators, that really interested me. To celebrate the paperback publication of When the Sky Fell Apart, I’m delighted that Caroline’s written a guest post on women in the war.

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War is very often a male domain, or so history would have us believe.  The narratives about war—taught in schools and retold around tables—routinely focus on stories of male heroism and sacrifice.  But this is often not the case in occupied territories, where it is usually women who remain to resist the invading forces, however they can. The fight on domestic turf can be quieter; the strategies are more varied, but the struggle is just as heroic.

Jersey was occupied by German forces from June 1940 to May 1945. 12,000 soldiers invaded—for every four islanders, there was a gun-wielding German.  Many of the local men had joined up to fight on the mainland, so the population primarily comprised of those who were too old, too sick or too weak to fight. Women were plunged into caring for their children in a world that was horrifyingly unrecognisable. Food became scarce, and the familiar routines of domestic life were increasingly constrained by the occupying forces.

When I was writing WHEN THE SKY FELL APART, I was struck by the way in which the idea of collaboration (particularly when it involved women) was referred to with a sneering contempt and embarrassment. Sometimes, this was directed at instances of actual betrayal (anonymous letters, informing the Germans about illegal radios owned by neighbours, or extra rations in someone’s cellar), but often what has been condemned as ‘collaboration’ was far more nuanced. Many women accepted washing for the soldiers, or undertook other domestic tasks, in exchange for rations to feed themselves and their children. Other women formed relationships with Germans: sometimes from necessity, but often from a genuine emotional bond.  These women were labelled as ‘Jerry Bags’ and, even today, there is a certain degree of local shame about the women who betrayed their island by sleeping with the enemy. It is easy to apply our twenty-first century moral compass to these alliances and to roundly condemn them as unpatriotic, as acts of betrayal.  But to do so is to assume that we can empathise with the sense of powerlessness, fear and horror that these women must have endured on a daily basis. This is something I’ve thought about a lot since becoming a mother: I would do anything to feed my children. Anything.  And in war, the moral absolutes that dominate peacetime must become subject to our instinct for survival.

The idea of ‘collaboration’ as a dirty little word, focussed on dirty little relationships, also ignores the fact that many of the women fell in love.  They were isolated and afraid, and had no idea when—if ever—the Occupation would end, and, contrary to expectations, many of the German soldiers were not evil or monstrous.  In WHEN THE SKY FELL APART, Edith describes them as just boys. Boys with guns. In many cases, the soldiers were almost as lonely and hungry and frightened as the islanders themselves. There is a harrowing true account of a woman who sheltered her German lover when he decided that he would no longer be part of the army.  When they were discovered, he was put in front of a firing squad and she was shipped to a concentration camp. As the soldier was led out to face the bullets, his lover could be heard sobbing as she waved her handkerchief from her cell window.  Her behaviour was roundly condemned, with much of the criticism focussed on her lack of sexual morals.  Indeed, it seems to be women’s sexual behaviour in times of war that summons the most contradictory of responses: war often sees women being used as sexual objects—part of the victory ‘booty’, and yet, women who willingly engage in sexual relationships are vilified.

The narrative of occupation, as we have seen it enacted time and again—from the expansion of the Roman Empire, to the current war in Syria, from the systematic rape of women in Berlin in 1945, to Boko Haram’s deliberate use of girls as sex slaves—is that women are conquered as part of the territory. Their homes are seized; their bodies are possessed. The conquering army’s ‘right’ to rape local women is a tragic and horrifying consequence of invasion. And, hideously, reportage and history seem to provide us with two opposing archetypes for sexual interactions with women in occupied territories: the woman is either judged to be an unwilling victim or a wilful whore.

Perhaps one of the more disturbing aspects of this dichotomy is the way in which these denigrations of sexual behaviour often involve women passing judgement on each other—a common problem both in and out of war zones. The concept of ‘slut-shaming’ is a familiar beast in the modern media, but it is particularly tragic when the same attitude seeps through the consciousness of societies that have been systematically occupied and oppressed. Surely times of hardship should encourage female solidarity, not create a breeding ground for a particularly virulent form of misogyny? In France, after WWII, women who’d had relationships with German soldiers were stripped in the streets, their heads shaved before they were tarred and feathered. After the occupying forces left Jersey, the ‘Jerry Bags’ faced similarly harsh treatment, as well as social exclusion—small communities run on rumours, and the gossip machine turned these women into social pariahs.

Our judgment over women’s behaviour, clothing and sexual mores is deeply embedded into our psyche; it is entrenched within our language.  I spent many years as an English teacher and worked with some wonderful young people: they were intelligent, curious and, in many cases, keen to challenge their own prejudices. Yet still, the older boys would berate each other’s sexual behaviour with the term ‘man-whore’ or ‘man-slut’. The ‘insult’ was delivered with grudging, arm-punching respect, and with a total lack of recognition for the way in which, for a woman, the term ‘slut’ is impossible to separate from its shameful roots.  The difference, as I explained to the boys time and again (much to their delight, I am sure), is the question of women’s ownership of their bodies: if a woman enjoys and freely engages in sex, she is ‘giving’ her body away—she is cheap, dirty, damaged. Perhaps she is a ‘slut’ because she is emotionally scarred in some way—what else could possibly lead a woman to want to devalue herself so? But this is the problem: we still see women’s bodies as objects of value, to be taken or given or exchanged or possessed. Men are the purchasers, the possessors who set our price. And this is seen clearly in war, where women, devastatingly, are still part of the conquered land, and are taken and owned along with the territory. In WHEN THE SKY FELL APART, Edith, describes how the island is in her blood. I was conscious of creating a female character who felt inextricably tied to the landscape, because so many women are. In many war-torn countries, women are unable to leave their homes, and so they, too, are occupied.

And this is just as true now, in the twenty-first century, as it has been for hundreds of years We can attempt to convince ourselves that we are enlightened, that women have been empowered by a modern transformation of social values, but we don’t have to look very far to see the ways in which, even outside of war zones, women’s bodies still provide the landscape for political and moral battles.  The rise of Islamophobia has found a convenient focus in the form of condemnations of the burqa. The question of whether women should be allowed to wear something that conceals their bodies has been met with violent opposition.  In some cases, this antagonism has taken on the form of women’s head coverings being ripped from them.  Defenders of this violent (and violating) action argue that women who choose to wear the burqa are being oppressed, and that the concealment of the woman’s body is somehow offensive. The irony: that we live in a culture where the sexualisation and objectification of women’s bodies is the norm, yet a woman’s choice to conceal her body somehow makes her morally repugnant.

Unfortunately, this use of women’s bodies as the landscape for battles doesn’t seem to be losing momentum in the current political climate. Donald Trump’s recent attempts to place constraints on overseas funding for birth control also reveals a disturbing trend, whereby male power-struggles can be executed on the territory of women’s bodies. The message is clear: women’s bodies, their minds and their choices are canvases for political point-scoring.

While writing WHEN THE SKY FELL APART, I was surprised by how many relevant and pertinent issues it raised: I had assumed, I think, that seventy-five years would be a large enough gap for the concerns faced by the islanders to seem very much in the past.  But, as I wrote, I thought again about how times and beliefs might change, but human behaviour and emotions often remain the same.  We will always fall in love, sacrifice ourselves for others or betray them; we will always find that the world around us conflicts with our inner values.  And I think this is one of the things which makes writing (and reading) historical fiction feel so rewarding: the past helps us to hold up a mirror to the who we are today, and reflects the myriad possibilities of the people we might become.  For the sake of my nieces and my sons, I hope our treatment and judgement of women’s bodies is something that can change.

Thanks to Caroline Lea for the guest post.

 

Kanda for Christmas – Guest Post by Yemisi Aribisala

If you read my interview with Sarah Ladipo Manyika, author of the Goldsmiths Prize shortlisted Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, you might have noticed that one of the books listed in her current favourites wasn’t published at the time of writing. That book, Longthroat Memoirs: Soup, Sex, and Nigerian Taste Buds by Yemisi Aribisala is now available, published by Cassava Republic. Aribisala’s aim in writing it is to bring Nigerian cooking to a wider audience via a mix of cultural history, memoir and recipes. It’s beautifully written and I’m delighted to share with you a special piece, not in the book, in which Aribisala looks at Christmas in Nigeria.

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Kanda for Christmas

On the morning of Christmas Eve of 2009, my neighbour’s husband came around to express nervous concern. He had opened the pots and found nothing but Kanda (pomo, long-sufferingly boiled cowhide) there. Was he to take this as a sign of what Christmas day held? Everyone found his concern hilarious. We laughed so hard we couldn’t breathe. Deep down we were as nervous as he was. There was a cloud of misery over Christmas in Calabar that year. It was tall, deep, wide, dense as the humidity that cloaked many of the days in the month of December. As if to commemorate the eccentricity of that year, even Harmattan winds failed to bring expected freshness in the mornings and evenings. The air was hot and heavy from morning till night, day after day, distended by the incessant grinding of running generators boring into our brains already overwhelmed with keeping count of the amount of diesel being guzzled by hard-working engines. Someone brought a food hamper round and then came back for it a couple of hours later because he’d made a mistake – it wasn’t for us. We desperately needed something to laugh out loud about, so we laughed at my neighbor and his nervousness about eating Kanda for Christmas. We kept him handy for when reality wanted to steal on us, to remind us there was hunger at our gates and in the city and everywhere. We cried out aloud and crowned the declarations with more laughter – “God in your infinite mercy, please don’t let Kanda be what is on the menu this Christmas.”

What did I end up eating that Christmas? I ate everything.  If it was possible to eat the sofa, I would have done so.  Slow roasted chicken marinated with coriander, cloves, cardamom, hot-peppers, garlic, ginger, raisins and coconut milk; the gamiest most tender he-goat oven-cooked with garam masala spices eaten with fluffy bowls of basmati rice; barbecued pork cooked with Cameroonian peppers on an outside grill, the aroma of charred fresh meat and sweet peppers carrying all the way to Akpabuyo; creamy potato salad made creamier by soft yielding potatoes; sweet fat plantains roasted on the grill alongside the meat, too sweet and soft to be boli eaten with groundnuts, not sweet and soft enough to be mashed into stew then scooped up into your mouth; more plantains fried with sprinklings of cinnamon and pepper, drenched in pineapple juice-then fried in coconut oil. There was freshly juiced pineapples and ginger root served with chilled sprigs of mint; supple clouds of fufu eaten with briskly cooked Afang and Kundi; mugs of Milo made up with peppermint teabags eaten with staggeringly drunk Christmas cake; freshly brewed coffee laced with Irish-cream eaten with almond, raisin and coconut flapjacks. Some mornings, breakfast was hot puff-puffs fried in chili-pepper infused oil eaten with a whole cafeterie of black coffee.

In other words, the more I thought of world hunger and local hunger and recessions and depressions, the more I evoked the shell-shocked expressions in people’s faces in the market place, the weary despondency of light in Goshen and darkness everywhere else in Egypt.  The cracks in buying power and dinner plates between the haves and have-very little and have-nots; the middle-class falling into the crevices and disappearing altogether the more I ate.  I engaged all the different joys and rationales of eating: comfort eating, Christmas entitlement eating, eating in company so that people don’t feel bad that you are not eating, eating the left-overs so they don’t spoil, eating what the neighbour sent round because you can’t very well throw good food away. And, let’s not forget that I am a food writer so I must eat to fulfill my purpose, Thank God!

The peppery puff-puffs, Cameroonian coffee, barbecued pork and potato salad were courtesy of my neighbours whose pots had hitherto only exhibited Kanda till Christmas Eve. My neighbour’s wife’s love for Kanda was passionate – so passionate that the rolls of cow-hide had to feature in most of her pots of soup throughout the year. But at Christmas, that love had to be abruptly filed as inordinate for everyone’s sake in order not to attract the misfortune hanging around waiting to pounce. Beneath the under-toned laughter we ate and gave thanks.

The most interesting aspect of Nigerian Christmas fare for me is the snubbing of the food we would normally eat, for food that we consider festive even if the preferred food makes no real festive sense. If you served the most spectacular Afang soup at Christmas, the most beautifully dressed, stuffed roast turkey with the most expensive ingredients in the world, it would still come second place to Rice and Chicken, just rice and chicken. There must of course be stew. Nigerian Christmas stew is 70% psychological fare and 30% gastronomical fanfare.  The psychological and gastronomical balance for Christmas stew, rice and chicken adds up and exceeds the psychological and gastronomical balance of roast turkey plus everything under the sun to go with it. For many years, I wanted to write a Christmas column for the Nigerian, to explain how we feast with modesty, to commend the uncomplicatedness of our requirements of rice, lots of rice, rice flowing down the streets, rice bags rolling everywhere with hens running around the place to become chicken, stew, bottles of Guldier and Star Beer, a new wrappa, dresses for little girls, new shirts and trousers for little boys.  I wanted to say that the emphasis was on being with family: sitting around with them and laughing a lot, slaughtering chickens and stewing them into juicy chunks on steaming white rice, visiting people and eating their food and letting them come over and eat yours.

And then my good intentions got run over by the years, and by successive governments and economic downturns and inflation and grief. The truth is that the food writer at Christmas is a hoggish callous character – she must emphasise the glory of food regardless of other people’s hunger. She must contemplate food, eat food, intellectualise gluttony and suppress guilt. The gathering of words together in one place to eulogise food is ever more so irritatingly elitist when contrasted with real life, so much more vividly callous in times of national celebration. If we thought things were bad in 2009, in 2016, the Christmas stew became officially endangered from the middle of the year, when a basket of tomatoes became more expensive than a barrel of crude oil. Then rice because of high foreign exchange rates became unaffordable. In essence even our chosen simple fare became imperiled, and with it our willingness to entertain guests and burden others with our visits. If we laughed at my neighbour in 2009 at his snubbing of Kanda, in 2016 we can’t laugh because we understand that food is no longer a “safe topic”, a topic that we can laugh at; a topic we can resort to when there are no other uniting colloquialisms, when soccer has failed and politics is unapproachable. We are expecting famine in 2017, and whole parts of Nigeria are already starving, the images of starvation on social media is heartbreaking, mandatory and crushing.

What is one to do with the obligation to celebrate Christmas in light of all this strong painful awareness?   I’m all for gratitude for well-cooked stewed Kanda as a good starting point. The simplicity of meals reassures me that I am alive. How lucky the person is who loves stewed Kanda in the first instance – they won’t feel hard done by if required to eat it. They will be happy eating it whenever – Christmas, New Year, Monday, Friday, Sunday. I suspect my neighbour’s wife had spent a few lean Christmases before her marriage and had learnt to be happy with little or with plenty on her plate. Whatever manner of Christmas she thus encountered after those lean ones, she met them with happiness and gratitude.

This year I’m not going to pretend that my job requires the eating of everything in sight. I’m not going to eat the sofa, the cushions and the remote controls for the television. In honour of the insufficiently acknowledged resilience of Nigerians, the long fought battle of retaining basic happiness and good hope in-spite of many dire twists and turns of life; in consideration of those in real danger of starvation, in commending those still willing to share a meal with a neighbour, in earnest prayers that God in his infinite mercies won’t let the coming year be one of famine for the sake of us all, I’m not writing a Christmas column for the food writer, but for that woman, my neighbour who circuitously predicted that in seven years our self-entitlement would have to be curtailed, our snobbery discarded, our people embraced tighter.  She intimated so long ago that we would have to eat less, laugh at ourselves more, give away more and eat Kanda with thanks.

Huge thanks to Yemisi Aribisala and Cassava Republic for the guest post. This post is part of a blog tour. Please do visit the sites listed below to read more from and about this wonderful book.

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Good Girls Don’t Tell – Liselotte Roll (translated by Ian Giles) + Guest Post

Good Girls Don’t Tell begins with the gruesome murder of Erik Berggren. Strapped to a kitchen table, mouth taped shut, he’s scalded with boiling water and stabbed through the heart. Details of his murder are passed to Inspector Magnus Kalo and his team. Magnus, once enjoyed his job, ‘Now it just felt like he was rowing up and down shit creek without getting too much of it on himself’.

As the investigation begins, Magnus goes to the nursing home in which Eric’s mother, Gunvor, lives to deliver the news of her son’s murder. Arriving at her room, he thinks she’s dead but when he hears her wheeze he steps forward.

The woman staring back at him expressionlessly had spatters of blood on her face, and the lower part of her body was a maelstrom of red flesh. She was looking at him in confusion. Her eyes expressed no pain – they were shiny and questioning.

Both Gunvor and Erik have had their genitals burned with boiling water.

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Magnus’ wife, Lina, is a therapist, and interested in the case. As Magnus (unprofessionally) shares some details with her, she begins to wonder whether this is about gender and sexuality, but can’t see a link between the two victims. At the same time, Magnus and his team are wondering whether the perpetrator is female after a woman was spotted leaving the nursing home around the time Magnus went to Gunvor’s room.

The case is complicated by two things: the first occurs when Magnus and his colleague, Roger, visit the farm the Berggren’s used to own. The place is currently unoccupied, having been bought by a couple who’ve never got round to doing it up.

When they returned to the courtyard it was almost completely dark, but they were both eager to make sure they had time to search the house before leaving so they made haste toward the building. Neither of them noticed the figure slowly rising out of the hay behind them, carefully through a crack in the barn wall.

That figure will go on to terrify Lina and Magnus.

The second is a connection to Argentina via Eric’s father, Gösta, who worked there in the 1950s and has since died. There is a connection here to the military junta and also an accusation of rape, for which Gösta was never convicted. The inquiries around that case open up memories of torture and also ask questions around gender and sexuality, demonstrating how damaging patriarchal ideas can be for both genders.

Good Girls Don’t Tell is a violent, gruesome, often scary novel. It is also fast-paced and gripping and will appeal to those who like a page-turning plot with some social and political thinking driving it.

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I’m delighted to host Liselotte, discussing gender and violence in Good Girls Don’t Tell.

2016. Half of the world’s population, women, are still being oppressed in countless ways. In many countries women are considered minors, they can´t vote, go to school, drive or even leave their home without the company of a male relative, in some countries a man can beat his wife, his sister or daughter without any consequences whatsoever. This is not news. But oppression is not only a problem for women in countries far away, it´s always, vibrating beneath the surface even in the UK or in Sweden, places that are actually considered to be two of the best countries for little girls to grow up.

In America, disillusioned white men and surprisingly even a large number of women have just elected their first sexist and misogynist President.  In fact the newspapers report that one out of five Americans say they won´t vote for any woman whoever she might be. So it´s a fact folks, women are being oppressed everywhere, don´t ignore it, don´t pretend that it´s not a problem and that you don´t have to deal with it. We are all a part of this, and our children too.

The gruesome violence in my thriller Good Girls Don´t Tell might be horrifying, but the truth is that gender violence in real life is worse, considerably worse. Having a little girl myself I have thought a lot about her future in this world that no longer seems to be progressing very rapidly when it comes to women’s rights. I have thought of what I can do, if there are any organisations I might be able to join, but this isn´t the seventies and here in Sweden there a few, if any, left. I have come to the conclusion that the best thing to do right now is to enforce my daughter, to let her know that everything is possible even though she might need to work harder than any man to get what she wants in life. I can make her and her brother aware of what’s going on in this patriarchal society, and make them notice small things that can be important as well. Like for example in Sweden we usually name plastic toy figures ”little men” even though they might just as well be women. So oppression is seeping through society, even in the language when it is filled with words that makes men the norm. I believe we have a huge responsibility to teach our children to see these little things, to reveal the unpleasant truth so that they can react and slowly change the world by acting differently than earlier generations. They should never accept lower women’s wages, mistreatment, degrading language or gender based violence, which is the ultimate degradation.

My thriller Good Girls Don´t Tell is scary reading. Still it´s entertainment, as thrillers are. I asked myself if it was right to write about such brutal gender based violence and I came to the conclusion that it was. If we can´t talk or write about this kind of violence it somehow seems as if we accept it. It is like pulling down the blinds, and I want to keep my eyes open.

Huge thanks to Liselotte Roll for the guest post and to World Editions for the review copy. This post is part of a blog tour, see above for other sites to visit throughout the week.

Isabel Costello on Women and Motherhood

I’m very pleased to have a guest post – and a very provocative post it is – from Isabel Costello. Isabel hosts the Literary Sofa blog, on which she invites writers to talk about aspects of their work, as well as reviewing their books and selecting Hot Picks twice a year. (Check out her Summer Reads 2016 and add to your TBR.) It’s one of my favourite blogs and I highly recommend a visit if you haven’t discovered it already.

Isabel’s debut novel Paris Mon Amour is available in digital and audiobook and is high on my summer TBR pile. Here, Isabel talks about her inspiration…

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Like many writers of contemporary fiction, I am drawn to issues which trouble me. My debut novel Paris Mon Amour was inspired by a longstanding frustration with the double standards by which men and women are judged, concerning looks, age, sex and almost everything.

Once I’d decided to make my first person narrator a middle-aged woman, a perspective I’d like to encounter more as a reader, the story came immediately. When 40-year-old Alexandra discovers her husband is cheating, she embarks on an intense affair with the 23-year-old son of his best friend; if the roles were switched to older man/younger woman, it would hardly be a story at all.

There lies my point.

We are surrounded by sexualised images of women but the truth about female sexuality is considered less palatable. Whilst male sexuality is seen as a supreme, elemental drive, women’s is often viewed/portrayed as passive or existing to serve men’s needs. A sexually assertive woman like my protagonist has always risked condemnation and punishment, as recorded in the Old Testament, in centuries’ worth of novels and the online ‘slut-shaming’ taking place now. My fascination with the subject of desire has led me to some excellent non-fiction including Come as you are by Emily Nagoski and The Sex Lives of English Women by Wendy Jones, giving the expert view and the frank testimony of individuals respectively. Both reinforce my feeling that the version we are habitually presented with doesn’t begin to reflect the complex realities of women, sex and love. I wanted to explore some of them by telling Alexandra’s story as honestly and openly as I could.

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The tendency to reduce women’s lives to a binary of opposites also applies to motherhood. Women are judged on reproductive status (once again, in a way that men aren’t) as if this is an indicator of our contribution to society or even worth as human beings. I’m interested in all aspects of women’s experience, not just those that resemble mine, and writing a character who suffers from endometriosis and the grief of infertility has helped me to see this issue from both sides.

Motherhood is obviously an important role. In some ways, it is under-valued and deserves more respect than it gets. For many women, being a mother is the most fulfilling and emotionally rewarding dimension of life and that’s wonderful. I feel very lucky to have two lovely, funny teenage sons. But where each of us finds meaning and fulfilment is a deeply private matter – only we can know what we want and what makes us whole.

The mothers v. childless women conflict causes enormous pain and offence. Despite it being the legacy of a patriarchal system, it is an uncomfortable fact that much of the antagonism is between women. Both groups feel under attack, and it’s natural that some will react defensively in the face of criticism – I might too, if I were required to justify every day what must surely be the most personal of choices. A 40-year-old woman I know says it’s not a normal week if she hasn’t faced ‘snark’ over her decision to remain child-free. And it must be hard enough for those who are not childless by choice without having to explain their situation all the time.

This is a pointless battle nobody can win. A culture of guilt and anxiety has sprung up around parenting which also invites judgement: on number of children, how to raise them, how to balance childcare with working. There is unhealthy pressure to be the perfect mother and to keep silent on the things you’re not supposed to feel. Being a mother is a huge source of love and happiness for me; it has also, at various points, made me feel trapped, desperate and completely out of my depth.

1 in 5 women of my age are permanently childless (defined as not having had a child by 45), twice as many as in our mothers’ generation. With every sign of this trend continuing maybe there will be a gradual increase in respect and empathy and an end to dividing women into opposing camps. Right now it seems a lot to hope for.

In her examination of ‘lived experience’ in The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir said, ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’ It’s true, and there are many ways of doing that.

 

Buy Buy Baby – Helen MacKinven + Guest Post

For every woman who is unhappy with her stretch marks, there is another woman who wishes she had them.

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Buy Buy Baby is the story of two women desperate for a baby. Carol’s son, Ben, died in an accident. Now, several years on, divorced and making conversation with Ben’s dog, Jinky, while her ex-husband moves on, she wonders if it’s time to become ‘Mum’ again.

Julia’s a business journalist with a swanky waterfront flat and a designer wardrobe. She’s mired in debt and looking for a baby daddy since dumping her last boyfriend for not wanting to start a family. She’s jealous of her sister whose daughter, Holly, she enjoys spending time with.

Early in the novel, both women meet a stranger who says he has the answer to their problem. But it’s an answer that’s going to cost them both.

At first glance, Buy Buy Baby appears to be a humorous look at two women’s quest for a child: Carol talks to the dog and answers herself back; Julia signs up for an exclusive dating site, but it soon delves into much darker territory. Just what are Carol and Julia prepared to do to satiate their desire?

MacKinven weaves themes of domestic violence, new relationships, affairs and life after death into an interesting look at the pursuit of motherhood. While I wasn’t wholly satisfied with the novel’s outcome, I was impressed at the way in which MacKinven dealt with issues around domestic violence, she’s clearly done her research.

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I’m delighted to welcome Helen to the blog to talk about motherhood and women’s identity.

I was recently ‘tagged’ on Facebook with this message.

Motherhood dare! Post a picture that makes you happy/proud to be a mum… (only one picture) I’m going to tag some ladies whom I think are fabulous mothers (I know too many to tag you all – sorry), and can rise up to the challenge of posting a pic of their own. If I’ve tagged you as one of the awesome mums, copy the text and paste it to your wall with a picture, and tag more mums! “I LOVE BEING A MUM! Xx

I do love being a mum, but I didn’t feel the need or pressure to respond to the tag and I sat back and watched as the ‘tagging’ did the rounds of my Facebook friends. The posts that followed made me think about the central theme in my novel, Buy Buy Baby, which is the quest for the two main characters, Carol and Julia, to become a mum. I wondered how childless women felt when they saw these posts. It may be the case that if they’re childless through choice then they don’t care. But I also considered the feelings of women who would like to have children but can’t, or those whose child has died.

It also struck me that I’ve never seen any of my male Facebook friends post something along the lines of ‘I LOVE BEING A DAD!’ It seems to me as if some women only share photos of their children. It’s as if they have nothing to post about themselves and their defining role is that of being a mum, and that’s all they have to say. What happened to their sense of identity after they gave birth? In my view, some women can appear one-dimensional when all they post are status updates on the lives of their children.

If these posts were boasts about buying a flashy car, getting a pay rise or booking a luxury cruise it might sound tacky to brag. But when it’s a picture of their teenager in a ridiculously expensive dress and posing beside a limo on their way to the school prom, it’s perfectly acceptable.

I have no issue with any woman that wants to wear the ‘I LOVE BEING A MUM!’ badge with pride, that’s their choice. But for the sake of balance, I’d also enjoy seeing photos of them as individuals with their talents, skills and interests showcased and not just their child’s latest sporting or academic success. Do these women feel that being a mum is their greatest and only real achievement worth celebrating? In Buy Buy Baby, Julia’s friend Kirsty berates her desperation to have a baby and asks, ‘Is Project Baby the latest must-have accessory you need to complete an outfit?’

We’re bombarded with images of motherhood in the media so it’s easy to see why some women, like Julia, can become fixated by the need to be a mum. It was that obsession that I wanted to explore in Buy Buy Baby. How far would a woman go to achieve her goal? And why do some women feel the need to be a mum over every other aspiration?

In Buy Buy Baby, the two women couldn’t be any more different and yet they share the same burning desire to fill a baby-shaped hole in their lives. This results in both characters being confronted with moral dilemmas and having to make decisions as to whether they’re willing to pay the price not just financially, but emotionally and psychologically too.

On a personal level, I was very lucky to become pregnant easily when I decided to have a family and I had no major problems with the births of my two sons. But knowing how much they changed my life, for the better, I was left wondering how I would feel if I had experienced infertility or my child had died. Would I also be as driven as Julia and Carol to fulfil my need to be a mum? Or would just being Helen be enough?

In my last novel, Talk of the Toun, although the characters were fictional, the setting and time period related to my own upbringing in the 80s within a working-class environment in central Scotland. I had to a certain degree followed the advice to, “write what you know” but in Buy Buy Baby I’ve dabbled with a subject matter that I’ve only observed and researched. I hope the quest for motherhood is a theme that appeals to readers too as I find it very interesting to reflect on women and their role in society, and the way they choose to portray themselves on social media.

Huge thanks to Helen for the insight into the ideas surrounding her novel and to Cranachan for the review copy. If you want to discover more about the novel, then the following blogs will be hosting Helen and the book over the next ten days:

blog tour

Feminism in Storm Sisters, A Guest Post by Mintie Das

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Storm Sisters is a new YA series, written by Mintie Das, following the adventures of five female pirates in the 1780s. Charlie, Sadie, Raquel, Liu and Ingela are smart and handy with a weapon or two as they sail the seas trying to discover what happened on the day their families were attacked. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am delighted to welcome Mintie Das to the blog with a post on feminism in the book.

I’ve been a feminist since I was thirteen. Yet, when I set out to write Storm Sisters, my YA series about five girl pirates sailing the high seas in the 1780s, I didn’t try to write a ‘feminist’ story. What I hoped to do was to write a story about five teen protagonists that were like the females that I know and want to know—smart, courageous, funny, flawed and vulnerable.

I am annoyed by stories featuring girls that segment them as the pretty one, the smart one, the feisty one, etc. As though we can’t be all of those things and more. Part of the fun in writing is to explore the gorgeously complex layers in all of us and then create multi-dimensional characters that reflect those strengths and vulnerabilities. That’s why the Storm Sisters; Charlie, Sadie, Liu, Raquel and Ingela, kick ass and they make mistakes. By creating heroines who represent the different aspects of who we are—the realer they become. That reality, that females are complex with distinct voices and can be more than the romantic interest is feminism to me.

What’s been interesting is that as Storm Sisters goes into publication in nearly twenty countries, it’s been recognized for its multiple female protagonists, each with her own distinct voice. I think of it as a band with rotating lead singers. In fact, in the five book series, each girl takes a turn narrating a different book. While I’m proud that Storm Sisters stands out because of its five female leads, I look forward to a time when stories featuring multiple heroines is the norm.

That’s because sisterhood is at the heart of my adventure series. We all probably know a few mean girls. But there’s already been a lot of stories about them which have helped to perpetuate this idea that catfights and jealousy are the norm between girls when in my experience, this simply isn’t the case.

I don’t actually have any sisters just like my Storm Sisters aren’t related. Their bond—the unconditional love and support they give each other is modeled on the incredible friendships that fuel me. Of course my characters fight too. But they know that no matter how hard they push each other, they always have each other’s backs. I believe as storytellers, the amazing power of our female bonds is one of the best tools we have.

Storm Sisters: The Sinking World begins one year after the Day of Destruction, a day when all 106 Storm ships were annihilated and the parents of Charlie, Sadie, Liu, Raquel and Ingela were murdered. On one level, my series is a dark mystery with lots of twists and turns as the girls are forced to search for the people who destroyed their families. On another level, it’s a story about independence, as the girls, ages eleven to seventeen, struggle with being on their own for the first time while also fighting for their freedom in the harsh world of the 1780s. Their bond is as much about love as it is necessity because without each other, they wouldn’t be able to survive.

Part of the reason I chose the 1780s setting is because the oppression females faced then allowed me to highlight the importance of sisterhood. My girls aren’t pirates just because they love the sea. Especially considering they risk their lives on a daily basis navigating the deadly conditions of maritime life. However, despite the dangers, they choose the sea because on the sea they are free from the violence, abuse and other injustices that females of the eighteenth century faced.

Our world has changed in many ways since the 1780s but unfortunately, not enough. In many parts of the globe today, females are still subjected to the brutality that my characters fight against. Therefore, in the spirit of the sisterhood that is so essential in our continued struggle for equality, I’d like to end this piece by sharing the Storm Sisters creed that begins every book:

On the sea, we are free. Free to be ourselves, free to go where we choose, free to speak our minds. We are not judged lesser either by our sex or our skin. Here we are equal.

And so it is on the sea that we choose to live. Live like our ancestors did.

The history books will erase us. Convince you that girls are not smart, are not brave, and are not powerful. We share our story to show you we are. Most importantly, we share our story to show you that you are, too.

Storm Sisters by Mintie Das is published on 30th June by Bastei Entertainment, price £4.99 in eBook.

You can find out more about the five girls and the book on these other blogs:

Storm Sisters blogtour

 

Reader, I Married Him, edited by Tracy Chevalier – Guest Post

I’m delighted to welcome Cassie Browne, Editorial Director of The Borough Press, to the blog to talk about the Jane Eyre inspired collection Reader, I Married Him.

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Last week The Borough Press published the short story collection Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre. The idea for the book came from Tracy Chevalier, who, in her work curating a series of events and exhibitions with The Bronte Parsonage in the year of Charlotte Brontë’s bicentenary, struck on the idea of commissioning stories by women writers inspired by one of the (or perhaps the) most famous lines in fiction. Out of this idea came this treasure chest of a collection.

Some of the stories take literal direction from Jane Eyre’s, using the voice of Jane herself and even Mr Rochester’s, while others loosely take themes from the novel and run far and away from its nineteenth-century moors setting. Tessa Hadley’s ‘My Mother’s Wedding’ opens at a bohemian wedding party which then takes an unexpected turn for the bride and her daughter; Elizabeth McCracken’s portrays a family trip to a Texan waterpark, which prompts a life-changing decision. Grace Poole defends Bertha Mason and calls the general opinion of Jane Eyre into question in Helen Dunmore’s ‘Grace Poole Her Testimony’, and in Salley Vickers’ ‘Reader, She Married Me’ Mr Rochester reveals a long-kept secret. Francine Prose boldly imagines Jane’s married life after the novel ends in ‘The Mirror’ and in Sarah Hall’s ‘Luxury Hour’, a new mother encounters an old lover after her daily swim and inexplicably lies to him. Kirsty Gunn’s ‘Dangerous Dog’ depicts a fitness instructor who teaches teenage boys how to handle a pit bull terrier by telling them Jane Eyre’s story.

The stories are brilliantly varied but, as Tracy Chevalier says in her Foreword, ‘Always, always in these stories there is love – whether it is the first spark or the last dying embers – in its many heartbreaking, life-affirming forms.’

This is such a wonderfully strong collection, which showcases some of the best women writers working today. Read it in order, read it backwards, or dip in at random. In whatever way you decide to start, I promise that you will be rewarded with twenty-one literary gems, which speak to so many contemporary themes, and remind us how very modern Charlotte Brontë – and her Jane – were for their time. As Chevalier says in her Foreword, ‘Charlotte was one of a trio of sisters who grew up in a parsonage in a remote Yorkshire village on the edge of the moors, who all published novels around the same time, with strong characters and storylines, before dying young. If you visit the atmospheric Brontë Parsonage in Haworth, where I first had the idea to create this collection of stories, you will be struck by what a strange, intense family the Brontës were: a hothouse of creativity springing from unpromising surroundings. Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë often sat together in the severe dining room, all writing and talking about what they wrote. Women just didn’t do that back in the nineteenth century.’ The fact that Charlotte Bronte – and Jane Eyre – have inspired such a brilliant group of writers to write these stories is surely testament to how important they both continue to be.

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I have Reader, I Married Him on my post-Bailey’s Prize reading pile. I’ve been fascinated by the Brontës since studying Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights for my A Levels so I’m very much looking forward to seeing what some of my favourite writers have done with the concept. In the meantime, there have been a number of blogposts about the collection in the last week if you’re keen for more information.

Huge thanks to Cassie Browne for the guest post.

 

Talk of the Toun – Helen MacKinven + guest post/Q&A

I’m absolutely delighted to have Helen MacKinven on the blog today discussing her debut novel Talk of the Toun. In a slight variation to how I usually do these posts, Helen’s written a guest piece on her use of Scot’s dialect in the novel, which is up first. That’s followed by my review and then, because I love the book so much and there were so many things I wanted to ask about it, there’s a Q&A with Helen too. Enjoy!

When I read your excellent piece in Fiction Uncovered, on reading regional and cultural accents it expressed sentiments that are central to who I am as a writer and a key theme in my debut novel. I grew up in a council housing scheme and everyone I knew apart from the teachers at school, the doctor and the parish priest was working class. I was the first person in my immediate and very large extended family to get a degree. To be a writer wasn’t something that ever seemed like an option and I’d no role models to aspire to, writers weren’t real people, they belonged in the world of books. I enjoyed the escapism of following the adventures of the girls in Mallory Towers who had midnight feasts and toasted marshmallows as a parallel universe to playing chap door run and making my way home when the street lights came on. There were no characters that I could relate to in the books I read, they didn’t act like me or speak like me and it was a long time before I found the inspiration I was looking for to find my own writing ‘voice’.

Writers like Anne Donovan in her novel Buddha Da, gave a voice to characters I could understand and relate to and her use of dialect was a model for the style of writing I aspired to achieve, that of an authentic and credible voice.

It’s taken me ten years of writing to find my own ‘voice’ and realise that rather than copy formats that sell, I want to write about subjects and settings that aren’t necessarily commercial. I feel that this has made it harder for me to get published.

When I was looking for a publisher, this was the response; ironically the company is based in Edinburgh.

“The Scottish dialect in your novel flows effortlessly and was appreciated and understood by the Scottish members of the team. But readers unfamiliar with Scottish dialect found the novel too demanding and challenging.
We suggest that you submit your novel to a publisher more focused on publishing Scottish novels.”

I’ve taken the gamble of using Scots dialect in my writing which might be a barrier to some readers but not to the ones I want to reach. My novel is a coming-of-age story where the main character wants to go to art school but has to fight against the expectations of her circle of influence and find her own identity. I know how hard that can be, even although I lived in the same type of council house as my classmates because I was clever and wore glasses, laughably I was called posh!

When I started writing the first person narrative of my novel I immediately knew I had no choice but to write the dialogue in a local dialect to make it sound real and natural, anything else would be false. Of course my book will not appeal to every reader, and if one of the reasons is that there’s too much dialect, then my work here is done.

Angela and Lorraine have been friends since the first day of primary school. Lorraine’s been a teacher’s pet and a cry baby ever since. Now the girls are seventeen and Lorraine’s crying because the rector’s in school showing them an anti-abortion film.

There were only two weeks left to go before the school holidays and with the exams finished, it was obvious that the teachers were filling in time and were literally using murder to kill off any ideas that we had of a summer of sun, sea and sex. Most of us wouldn’t get as far as the beach at Burntisland wearing cagoules as it pissed down, but every one of us could get shagged if we put our mind to it. And I was determined that me and Lorraine wouldn’t be coming back for sixth year as virgins.

Beside this short-term ambition to lose her virginity, Angela’s got her sights set on Glasgow School of Art. Encouraged by one of her teachers, she’s hoping to get off the council scheme she’s grown up on and pursue a different path. Not if her parents have their way though, they – her dad in particular – are intent on her getting a job straight from school, just as they did.

It was getting harder and harder to speak to them. My mam and dad talked at me, not to me. I’d outgrown them when I was about twelve and we’d lived on different planets ever since.

But Angela has her gran, the pet psychic, Senga Shepherd, to turn to. She dog sits Bimbo, the white poodle, for Senga when she goes to the bingo and also nips to her gran’s for lunch on Saturdays. Senga’s got plenty of wise words and advice as well as knowing the local gossip.

Lorraine’s family’s quite different. Her thirteen-year-old sister Janine is disabled – in a wheelchair and reliant on others for her care. Her mum, Rita, is a devout Catholic – or at least she is now, Angela’s mum and gran have plenty to say about what Rita got up to before she had Lorraine – and they live on a Wimpey estate nicknamed Spam Valley by the locals from the scheme:

…where the weans got a row from their mammies if they used slang words that they learnt in the playground at school.

But the catalyst in the novel for the problems in Lorraine and Angela’s friendship comes from two people who Lorraine becomes close to: Pamela, a girl from school who Angela refers to as ‘Little Miss Brown Nose’ and Stevie Duffy, just out of borstal and ‘…a total ride. Ah’d sook him tae the root’, who both of them fancy.

The novel follows the girls’ friendship over the summer as they try to shed their virginity and Angela aims for art school.

MacKinven covers a number of big themes: sex – women’s sexuality particularly, class, religion, family relationships, friendship. They’re seamlessly integrated into a very tight plot.

What really impressed me about Talk of the Toun though was how it’s grounded in its time and place. The use of Scottish accent and dialect is perfectly pitched. I disagree with MacKinven’s earlier point here that the language she’s chosen to use might be a barrier. There’s the odd dialect word that readers might not know but they’re not difficult to discern in the contexts in which they’re used and if someone really needs to check them, the internet has the answers!

The other way in which the setting is well realised is through the use of 1980’s references. These take two forms: the first is the myriad mentions of cultural things from the time – Rubik’s cube, Rimmel’s Heather Shimmer lipstick, Cagney and Lacey, Kerplunk, Care Bears and so on. The second is more complex and a brave move on MacKinven’s part – references to attitudes of the time in relation to race and women’s sexuality. This leads to some passages in the novel that are very difficult to read in 2015. I cringed through them, not only because they’re so far from anything most people would dare to say these days but also because I know they were attitudes members of my own family held and vocabulary that they would use. Although it makes for uncomfortable reading, it allows MacKinven to do something really interesting with the end of the novel that’s completely in keeping with the time. It should lead to some interesting discussions and I’m glad she was brave enough to do it and not stray into a more modern response.

Talk of the Toun is one of the best novels I’ve read this year. I heartily recommend it and hope novels like this one keep chipping away at the idea that novels have to be written in Standard English to succeed.

Talk of the Toun is set in the 1980s and there’s some great references – Betamax videos, Take the High Road, Care Bears, Heather Shimmer Rimmel lipstick to name a few – that really help to ground it in this time. However, there are also some comments by characters that are very difficult to read in 2015 – Lorraine’s disabled sister is ‘handicapped’ ‘a Windae Licker’ and takes the ‘Nut Bus’ while there are a number of racist names used (along with protests from some characters that they’re not racist when Angela challenges them). Was it important to you to convey the social attitudes of the 1980s as well as the fashion and culture?

Absolutely! Initially I was uncomfortable even writing words and phrases that these days are socially unacceptable and I worried about reading passages aloud and the impact on the audience. My concerns as the writer were that the offensive terms could be interpreted as my own thoughts, rather than those of the characters and it was tempting to whitewash the manuscript. I had to reflect on whether or not I wanted the novel to be an accurate depiction of the ‘norm’ for the era or simply an easy read. I took the decision, along with using vernacular in the dialogue, that my aim was to create a credible sense of time and place and therefore I had to include the language and attitudes of the 80s. I hope that this will provoke discussion on how much things have changed, or not, in Scotland now.

There’s a lot in the novel about attitudes to women regarding sex and pregnancy that for me still felt very relevant to conversations happening now, were you thinking about parallels whilst you were writing the book?

Again, it was a case of trying to write a realistic situation and use my own memories of the attitudes to sex and pregnancy when I was a teenager in the 80s. Like the main characters, I was brought up as a Catholic and was indoctrinated at school and within the home that to become pregnant, unmarried, would bring shame on the family and scupper any thoughts of further education or a career. The first chapter in the novel has a scene where the senior pupils are shown a graphic anti-abortion film and this was based on my own experience at school. Being force-fed these messages meant that sex was equated with fear amongst me and my friends, your worst nightmare was to fall pregnant. I feel that attitudes like those highlighted in the novel are realistic in certain communities at that time and made an impact on how young women grew up to view their bodies and their sexuality. However, although times have changed, I wonder how many other young women are still on the receiving end of negative images and concepts?

Although most of the voices in the novel are working class ones you avoid stereotyping, particularly through Angela and her desire to go to Glasgow School of Art. Was it part of your aim to show a range of views and experiences?

My dad was one of fourteen children so I had many cousins (too many to count!) and yet I was the first in my extended family to go on to further education and achieve a degree in Primary Education. Growing up, the only middle-class folk I encountered were teachers at school, the doctor and the priest. My family’s mentality was that “sticking in” at school was the way to get on in life and I was encouraged to work hard and aim high. My personal experience doesn’t reflect Angela’s but it was easy to see how some of my contemporaries could feel held back by their social class. Angela is encouraged by her art teacher to use her talent to explore a world beyond her small town life and I wanted to show that a postcode doesn’t dictate your dreams.

The novel deals with a number of serious issues but it’s also very funny. Was the humour there from the first draft or was it something you added during the editing process?

Some years ago, I attended an Arvon residential course and as part of the one-to-one feedback from the tutor she remarked that it was interesting to critique a piece of black comedy. It took me a minute or two to realise that she was referring to my work as I’d never given my writing that label. But the more I wrote, the more I realised that my natural ‘voice’ enjoys using humour and so I consciously built in the light to offset the dark. The many drafts that ended up as Talk of the Toun always had humour running throughout the manuscript and I couldn’t imagine it in any other form.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

I have quite a list but in relation to inspiration for Talk of the Toun I would say that Buddha Da by Anne Donovan would come close to the top as it features working class characters and uses rich Scottish dialect. I love to read Scottish contemporary fiction and also admire the work of writers such as Janice Galloway, Jackie Kay, Kerry Hudson and Karen Campbell. As you might guess, I like to do my bit to champion women who showcase quality Scottish fiction!

A huge thank you to Helen MacKinven for a fantastic guest post and Q&A and also to Thunderpoint Publishing for the review copy.

Frenchman’s Creek – Daphne du Maurier with Guest Review By My Dad

In the summer, Virago Books reissued several of du Maurier’s novels with covers designed to appeal to a Young Adult audience. At the time, I was asked whether I’d review one of them and was there any possibility of it being a cross-generational review? Then I took time out of the blog so it didn’t happen. But I’d already mentioned it to my dad and he read the book and sent me a review. So today you get two for one.

Frizbot’s dad’s review:

A well-written novel that is relaxing to read. It covers the problems of boredom, escapism, jealousy, loyalty and romance as well as highlighting the differences between “upper class” of 19th century England and the working people of the Cornish countryside.

Lady Dona St Columb bored with the London lifestyle of her husband and fellow companions, dressed as a boy, sets out on various nighttime escapades. All bodes well until one of her pranks goes wrong and her victim is mortified. She decides it would be prudent to retreat to their country house Navron, in Cornwall and seek solitude and retribution.

Jean-Benoit Aubéry disliked the solitude of his cottage in Bretton so took to a life on the open seas as captain of an oceangoing vessel. Soon his sea bound lifestyle became that of a pirate seeking prey and bounty along the Cornish coast. As his ship lay in hiding in the river inlet near Navron it was inevitable that the paths of Dona and the Frenchman would cross.

What follows is a story of love at first sight, passion, jealousy, adventure and loyalty beyond expectation. Mingled in this is the misunderstanding the English gentry have of foreigners, and the loyalty and discretion of servants that are respected and well treated by their employees

After all this though, one must not forget that this is all a figment of imagination of the holidaymaker in the little boat who fell asleep while pausing for thought when rowing up the inlet where La Mouette hid from the English.

Thanks, Dad.

Here’s mine:

I’ll start with a confession: I’d only read one du Maurier before this – no prizes for guessing that it was Rebecca – and I wasn’t a fan (no one tell Savidge Reads!) so I approached Fisherman’s Creek reluctantly.

The novel begins with an unnamed narrator introducing the reader to Helford village and Navron House where ghosts of the past wander about. We then move to Frenchman’s Creek, the second key location for the story.

By the end of the second chapter, in which we’re introduced to Dona St. Columb, the novel’s protagonist, I knew I was going to enjoy this.

29, married to Harry with two children, Dona’s bored of their lifestyle.

She had played too long a part unworthy of her. She had consented to be the Dona her world had demanded – a superficial, lovely creature, who walked, and talked, and laughed, accepting praise and admiration with a shrug of the shoulder as natural homage to her beauty, careless, insolent deliberately indifferent, and all the while another Dona, a strange, phantom Dona, peered at her from a dark mirror and was ashamed.

This other self knew that life need not be bitter, nor worthless, nor bounded by a narrow casement, but could be limitless, infinite – that it meant suffering, and love, and danger, and sweetness, and more than this even, much more.

Dona’s gained a reputation for being the only wife to frequent the taverns where husbands meet their mistresses. The Friday before we meet her, she’s borrowed Rockingham’s breeches and cloak, donned a mask and – along with Rockingham and some others in their crowd – held up a countess’ carriage, demanding “A hundred guineas or your honour”. Now she’s embarrassed at her behaviour and has removed herself and her children to Cornwall, leaving Harry in London.

Arriving at the house she’s greeted by William, a servant she doesn’t recall from her previous visit, who’s spent the last year living alone in the house. When Dona retires to bed that evening, she discovers a jar of tobacco and a book of French poetry in the drawer of the bedside table. She realises they don’t belong to William but when her neighbour, Lord Godolphin, visits wanting Harry’s help the reader’s a step in front of her:

‘My dear lady,’ he said, ‘there is nothing you can do, except ask your husband to come down, and rally around his friends, so that we can fight this damned Frenchman.’

‘Frenchman?’ she said.

‘Why that’s the plague of it,’ he said, almost shouting in his anger; ‘this fellow’s a low sneaking foreigner, who for some reason or other seems to know our coast like the back of his hand, and slips away to the other side, to Brittany, before we can lay our hands on him. His craft is like quicksilver, none of our ships down here can catch him. He’ll creep into our harbours by night, land silently like the stealth rat he is, seize our goods, break open our stores and merchandise, and be away on the morning tide while our fellows are rubbing the sleep out of their eyes.

It’s not long before Dona’s wandered down to the creek and had her own encounter with the French pirate, one that leads to adventure, freedom, romance and excitement. At least until her husband and his friends arrive.

Frenchman’s Creep is a fun, fast-paced romp that considers women’s roles and the freedom they can gain by disguising themselves as men. There are questions about Dona’s role as a mother, a wife and an object, particularly with regards to Rockingham’s attitude towards her.

I have two complaints though: one is the repeated correlation between sun-tanned skin and ‘gypsies’ which made me wince every time it appeared and the second is a plan almost at the end of the book which is completely ludicrous. Despite this, however, Du Maurier’s plotting is tight and I thoroughly enjoyed Frenchman’s Creek. It might even have convinced me to try some more of her novels.

The Crooked House – Christobel Kent + guest post + giveaway

Giveaway now closed.

Today’s post has got it all: my review of The Crooked House; a guest post from Christobel Kent about her literary influences; the opening of the novel, and a chance to win a signed copy of the book.

The Crooked House

Alone in the bed Alison sat bolt upright. She had trained herself not to gasp when that happened, long before she woke next to anyone, long before there was anyone to ask her what had scared her. But she couldn’t stop the jerk upwards, as if she had to break through the surface, as if water was closing over her.

Thirteen years previously Alison was Esme. She lived in a house referred to as Crooked House because it tilted on unsteady foundations. She lived there with her family – mum and dad, older brother, Joe, and twin sisters, Letty and Mads. That was until they were brutally murdered as she hid in a cupboard. Her father, alive by a thread, was found guilty after evidence proved he was the last to die. Esme had arrived home early from her friend Gina’s unbeknown to the rest of the household, it was assumed that this was why she survived.

She’s gone on to reinvent herself and is now living in London, working at a publishing house and in a relationship with a history academic called Paul. No one knows her background, she has a short, fabricated tale if anyone asks.

When the novel begins, Paul receives a wedding invitation to the nuptials of an old friend of his, Morgan Carter. Alison’s met her briefly and didn’t get on with her. She’s not invited to the wedding. Paul sorts that though and then there’s a bigger issue to contend with: the wedding’s taking place in Saltleigh, the town where Esme grew up. To make matters worse, Paul’s decided it would be nice for them to make a holiday of it and he’s booked them five nights in a local hotel.

As soon as they arrive, Alison knows she’s going to have to confront her past – both the events of that night and the locals who have plenty of secrets to tell about her family. The local police officer who worked on Esme’s case puts it well:

‘Sometimes I think there’s something wrong with this place, something in the soil, salt or something that stops things growing straight, it’s land where it should all be sea, I don’t know…’ She broke off, feeling his eyes on her, his alarm. She took a breath. ‘You saw those kids we brought in, they’d been chucking breeze blocks off the bridge, just for the hell of it. You might see them running about on a football field, or ten years on chatting some girl up in a bar – they’d give you a cheeky smile, charm you. You can’t see it from the outside but they’re poisoned.

There’s three things I want from any crime novel, whether it be a detective novel or a psychological thriller: I want to be gripped by it, I want to be misled – I want to be wrong about who I think’s responsible again and again, and I want it to do something slightly different to your average crime novel. I’m very demanding but Kent does all three brilliantly in The Crooked House. The plot’s impeccably woven with reveal after reveal and the events of that evening are buried under a whole load of cover-ups. What I found most interesting though is she uses the murders and events that led up to them to look at women and, more specifically, whether a woman who has children could be capable of killing someone else’s child. Gripping and compelling, I highly recommend it.

Christobel Kent

I’m delighted to welcome Christobel Kent to the blog to talk about her literary influences:

When you think about literary influences the only way to avoid sounding crazily hubristic is to divide them, straight away, into two categories. In the first, let’s say unattainable, category would be the writers who first make you see what writing can do, in the hands of a genius (which you are not). These would be, in my case, the likes of Tolstoy (for humane intelligence, for characterisation, for his feel for the earth and landscape), James Joyce (for poetry, for daring, for sheer swashbuckling bravado and courage), John Updike (for exquisite style, for conveying what it is to be human and alive, at the most intimate molecular level), and Raymond Chandler, naturally, for wit and insouciance, for creating as perfect a private eye as ever lived (and thereby awarding himself a get out of jail free card, plot wise) and as marvellously, vividly evocative a noir landscape as the earth holds. These are the writers who first make you want to be a writer yourself, and in the same breath inform you that it is never going to happen.

It takes a while to get around this problem: the problem of whether there is any point in writing your novel if however long you stick at it you’re never going to be Tolstoy. You have to get older and wiser and less ambitious, and you have to read lots of novelists who are not Tolstoy but who can tell a story, whose unashamed ambition is to have readers on the edge of their seats and who invest their work with everything they’ve got.

Namely category two (and Raymond Chandler sits squarely in the overlap of my Venn diagram): writers who can show you how it’s done. In my case these are the entertainers who’ve chosen what is considered by some to be a lower form of art, the genre writers, the genres in my case being jointly the psychological thriller and the detective novel (I’ve written both) the study and enjoyment of which has taught me anything I know about technique, pacing, plot, style, tone and characterisation. The first crime writers I loved were Dorothy L Sayers and Patricia Highsmith, perhaps as un-alike as two novelists could be but who between them teach that the genre that has room both for a bleak nihilist and a romantic Dante scholar is a capacious and elastic one, that brilliant crime novels just like all the other kind run on good characterisation, and that crime writing is a suitable job for a woman. Barbara Vine, who crossed over from the strict puzzle-solving school of crime writing as Ruth Rendell to something more expansive and atmospheric was another influence, and Henning Mankell, whose leisurely and idiosyncratic unfolding of plot combined with a remarkable feel for the quiet grey flatlands of southern Sweden and the limpid light of the far northern summers, and the gentle, insistent melancholy of his hero all inform us that Chandler is not dead.

It can take a while (I was forty before I began to write) but if you read widely and attentively in both these categories, if you allow your edges to be rubbed off and you keep your eyes and ears open eventually the way will open ahead of you, and it will become clear that there are after all ways of following in the footsteps of the great writers without imitating them or believing that you can rival them.

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Thirteen Years Ago

When it starts again she is face down on her bed with her hands over her ears and she feels it more than hears it. A vibration through the mattress, through the flowered duvet, through the damp pillow she’s buried her face in. It comes up from below, through the house’s lower three storeys. BOOM. She feels it in her throat.

Wait, listen: one, two, three. BOOM.

Is this how it begins?

Leaning on the shelf over the desk, wooden letters spelling her name jitter against the wall. They were a present on her seventh birthday, jigsawn by Dad, E.S.M.E. The family’d just moved in, unloading their stuff outside this house they called the crooked house, she and Joe, as the sun went down over the dark marsh inland. Creek House to Crooked House, after the tilt to its roofline, its foundations unsteady in the mud, out on its own in the dusk. Mum was gigantic with the twins, a Zeppelin staggering inside with bags in each hand. We need more space now, is how they told her and Joe they were moving. It was seven years ago, seven plus seven. Now she’s fourteen, nearly. Fourteen next week.

Ah, go on, Gina had said. Just down it. Then, changing tack, You can give it me back, then.

Esme’s been back an hour. She isn’t even sure Joe saw her pass the sitting-room door, jammed back on the sofa and frowning under his headphones: since he hit sixteen he’s stopped looking anyone in the eye. The girls, a two-headed caterpillar in an old sleeping bag on the floor, wriggled back from in front of the TV, twisting to see her. Letty’s lolling head, the pirate gap between Mads’s front teeth as she grins up at her, knowing. She mouths something. Boyfriend. Esme turns her face away and stomps past.

Mum opening the kitchen door a crack, leaning back from the counter to see who it is. Frowning like she can’t place her, she gets like that a lot these days. What are you doing back? Esme doesn’t answer: she is taking the stairs three at a time, raging.

Outside the dark presses on the window, the squat power station stands on the horizon, the church out on the spit that looks no bigger than a shed from here, the village lights distant. Make all the noise you like out here, Dad’s always saying, no one can hear.

Hands over your ears and never tell.

On the bed she lies very still, willing it to go, to leave the house. Whatever it is.

Her hands were already over her ears, before it started. Why? The boom expands in her head and she can’t even remember now. All she knows is, she was standing at the window, now she’s on the bed.

She grapples with detail. She heard a car. There were voices below in the yard and, after, noises downstairs. Something scraping across the floor, a low voice muttering and she didn’t want to deal with it, with his questions; she flung herself down on the bed and the tears began to leak into the pillow. She would have put on her music but she didn’t want him to know she was back.

Now. A sound, a human sound, just barely: a wounded shout, a gasp, trying to climb to a scream that just stops, vanishes. And in the silence after it she hears breathing, heavy and ragged; up through three storeys and a closed door, it is as if the house is breathing. And Esme is off the bed, scrabbling for a place to hide.
BOOM.

On the marsh behind the house there are the remains of an old hut with a little rotted jetty. The tide is beginning to come up, gurgling in its channels, trickling across the mud that stretches inland, flooding the clumps of samphire and marsh grass and the buried timbers. Behind her the house stands crooked in the wind freshening off the estuary.

The lights of the police cars come slowly, bumping down the long track, an ambulance, the cab lit. It is three in the morning but the inky dark is already leaching to grey behind the church on the spit. One of the coldest June nights on record, and it takes them a while to find her. She doesn’t make a sound.

If that’s made you desperate to read the book, all you have to do to be in with a chance of winning a signed copy is leave a comment below before 5pm (UK) Monday 27th April. The giveaway is open to readers in the UK and Ireland only. The winner will be drawn at random and notified as soon as possible after the close of entries.

Thanks to Christobel Kent for the guest post and to Little, Brown for the review and giveaway copies.

Giveaway Winners

As usual, I’ve assigned everyone a number in order of entry:

1 – Anne Bradley
2 – Cate
3 – Snoakes
4 – Col
5 – Cathy746Books
6 – Helen Clayton
7 – Tina Holmes
8 – Elle
9 – Poppy Peacockpens
10 – uneabeillelecture
11 – crimeworm
12 – Teresa Majury

And the winner is:

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Congratulations Cate. Check your email. Thanks to everyone else for entering and to Little, Brown for the prize.