In the Media, February 2017

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

I’ve been a bit lax at compiling these while I’ve focused on my own work. It means this month’s is huge and I haven’t honed in on any topic in particular as the news moves so fast at that moment it feels like an impossible task. Back to fortnightly after this which hopefully will make it slightly easier to digest.

 

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On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

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Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews/profiles:

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The regular columnists:

Exposure – Helen Dunmore

It isn’t what you know or don’t know: it’s what you allow yourself to know.

November, 1960. Lily Callington, a school teacher in her thirties with three children of her own – Paul, ten; Sally, almost nine, and Bridget, five – hears a train whistle from her home in Muswell Hill and a momentary fear passes through her.

Giles Holloway, 50, works for the Admiralty, a cover for his work for the secret service. Giles has been drinking too much, spending time in the Nightshade (from where he sometimes brings young men back to his flat), and taking files home. He’s been warned to be more discreet.

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As the novel begins, Giles falls down the attic stairs in his apartment hitting his head and his knee. On admission to hospital he’s diagnosed with concussion and his leg needs to be operated on. All he’s concerned about, however, is the file he left on his desk in his attic.

He telephones Simon Callington, Lily’s husband, to collect his keys, retrieve the file and return it. Simon’s unhappy about making a journey across London at night, Lily more so, but Giles got Simon his job due to a connection that goes back years so Simon relents.

Giles has just asked Simon for rather a lot. When he retrieves the file, Simon shoves it into a briefcase which he discovers later also contains a roll of film. Simon realises he can’t return a file which neither he nor Giles should’ve had access to.

Simon Callington. Look where he is now. All this has come about through his own fault, through not seeing what he ought to have seen, not asking the questions he ought to have asked, refusing to recognise what was right in front of him. That Giles, his old friend Giles – But now, at ten to midnight, with the cartridge melting to nothing in the stove, he might as well call a spade a spade. Giles had been batting for the other side in more ways than one.

Before long, Simon’s arrested under the Official Secrets Act and his and Lily’s life takes a turn neither of them expected.

Dunmore weaves a tight, sophisticated and plausible web showing how easily the case against Simon is constructed. Present day sections are juxtaposed with scenes from Simon’s university days and the time he spent with Giles and a slighter overview of Lily’s childhood. Elements of Simon and Giles’ behaviour raises questions of betrayal. What constitutes a betrayal? Of the state? Of a lover? Of family? What might the consequences of those betrayals be? And how do they affect the loyalty of those who’ve been betrayed? Dunmore reveals complex answers to these questions, ones that seem to be true or realistic, highlighting something at the heart of all her novels: and understanding of the psychologically complex behaviour of human beings.

While the initial action centres on the two men, Simon’s arrest shifts the focus to Lily. She’s already proved herself to be quick thinking but goes on to show resilience in the face of adversity, planning how best to provide for their children and to protect them from any danger which might arise. The breath-taking climax of the novel quite rightly belongs to her.
Exposure is a taut, gripping novel. It contains many elements familiar to Dunmore’s work – homosexuality, the balance of relationships, exile, a cottage by the sea – that will please her regular readers but it’s also an excellent place to begin if you’ve never read her before.

 

Thanks to Hutchinson Books for the review copy.

Unsung Female Writers (Part One)

Last week I wrote a post you might have seen about the shortage of female writers on this year’s Booker Prize longlist. One of the consequences of the post was that a discussion started on Twitter about female writers who deserve more recognition. There were so many wonderful writers mentioned (several I hadn’t heard of before) that I decided to share some of them on here. I’ve teamed up with three of my favourite bloggers – Ali from HeavenAli, Susan from A Life in Books and Antonia Honeywell and we’ve each chosen five brilliant female writers we love and think you might too. Ali and Susan’s choices are below, Antonia’s and mine will follow on Sunday.

Ali likes to read twentieth-century women writers, particularly those published by Virago and Persephone. Her blog is a treasure trove of female writers forgotten or never really acknowledged. I think I’ve discovered more writers via Ali’s blog than any other. Here are her choices:

Elizabeth Taylor 1912-1975

The author of twelve novels, five volumes of short stories, and one children’s book. She is often talked of as being one of the greatest underrated English novelists, although it could be argued that she has not been entirely disregarded as her work has never been out of print and she was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 1971 for her novel Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. She is frequently compared to Jane Austen – a subject which I think is continually debated by readers of Elizabeth Taylor – and the influences of Austen can certainly be seen in several of her novels. Elizabeth Taylor was briefly a member of the communist party, and later became a life-long Labour Party supporter. She juggled her writing with family life, a married woman with two children, who in her younger years had worked as a librarian. She was an intensely private woman, destroying before her death, the many letters she had from her correspondence with writer, critic and great friend Robert Liddell and others. She counted several literary people among her friends including the author Elizabeth Jane Howard and Ivy Compton Burnett, but generally shied away from the literary parties and publicity. Elizabeth Taylor’s work is mainly concerned with the everyday concerns and occupations of middle and upper-middle class life. Her canvases (like Austen) are small, and her portrayals are very shrewd and can be really quite sharp. She had a fine ear for the way people speak to one another, and her characterisation is first class; her peripheral characters are as deeply explored as her main characters. There is a lot of wry humour in her novels, but also a lot that is poignant and real, though firmly rooted in the upper-middle class world that she knew.

Marghanita Laski 1915 – 1988

Born into a family of Jewish intellectuals in Manchester, Marghanita Laski later worked as a journalist – but also prolifically as a writer. She wrote five novels (four currently reissued by Persephone books) a play, The Offshore Island, some stories and works of biography, as well as working as an editor on many more books. Her novel Little Boy Lost is one of the most blissfully poignant books I have ever read, and her novels The Village and To Bed with Grand Music – offer different perspectives of women during and in the immediate aftermath of WW2. She was also a compulsive contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Nina Bawden 1925 – 2012

Nina Bawden may not appear to be unsung as such – she won several awards, and seems to have had a very successful career. I just can’t help but think she is already a name that isn’t as well-known as maybe it should be. Well known for her children’s books Carrie’s War (my favourite children’s novel) and The Peppermint Pig, amongst others, Nina Bawden was a prolific writer of adult books too. Over the course of her life she published 55 books both for children and adults. She was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1987 for Circles of Deceit and also served as a Booker judge. However I don’t think she is well known as she deserves to be, (though I admit I haven’t as yet read many of her books) her often fairly slim novels offer little sharp little twists and contain powerful observations of people. In the last couple of years I have read and enjoyed: The Grain of Truth, Devil by the Sea and A Woman of my Age. In 2002 Nina Bawden’s second husband was killed in the Potters Bar train crash – while Nina herself was badly injured. Her testimony about the events became a major part of David Hare’s later play The Permanent Way.

Winifred Holtby 1898 – 1935

Born into a prosperous Yorkshire family, Winifred Holtby was a successful journalist and the author of six novels and two collections of short stories. She also wrote a critical memoir of Virginia Woolf. In 1919 she went to Oxford where she met her great friend Vera Brittain. Together with Vera Brittain she was a member of the feminist six point group and lectured (again like Vera Brittain) for the League of United Nations. Her early novels like Anderby Wold were published in the 1920s, but during these years Holtby was probably best known for her journalism. Her wonderful novels are rooted in the Yorkshire communities that she knew. Her novel Mandoa, Mandoa (not currently in print but available in ebook form) is an odd little political satire that Holtby wrote in the wake of the 1931 general election. In 1931 she was diagnosed with suffering from Bright’s disease and only given two years to live. Knowing she was running out of time she then concentrated on the writing of her best novel South Riding – a truly brilliant novel. South Riding is a novel of local politics and the community of the East Riding where she grew up. Holtby’s mother had been the first alderwoman on the East Riding county council – and she is remembered in the character of Mrs Beddows. South Riding was published posthumously in 1936.

Susan Glaspell 1876 – 1948

Again a writer who may not appear entirely unsung, although she may not have been heard of by many people. She was an American Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, but she was also a wonderful novelist. Glaspell also worked as an actress and a local journalist, and it appears as if, despite the success of her novels and stories at the time, she was later best known and remembered for her plays. A lot of her work is now out of print – two wonderful novels Fidelity and Brook Evans have been re-issued by Persephone books. During her life she wrote nine novels, fifteen plays, over fifty short stories and a biography. Her fiction is often thought to be at least semi-autobiographical, frequently set in her native Iowa and concerning contemporary issues (to her time of course), such as gender, ethics, and dissent. Some of her plays, stories and other novels can be found via second hand book sites and print on demand services – it is a shame that only two are currently in print. Persephone also include one of her short stories in their Persephone book of short stories.

Susan has spent most of her working life in the book world. Firstly as a book seller, then as a freelance writer and reviews editor for Waterstone’s Books Quarterly and We Love This Book. We share a passion for excellent female writers – our love of Helen Dunmore’s work is what really got us sharing thoughts and recommendations.

You could quibble with classing Helen Dunmore as unsung – she won the inaugural Orange (now Baileys) Women’s Prize for fiction – but she’s never received the level of approbation that her contemporaries Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie attract despite her extraordinary talent and versatility. She’s an award-winning poet, a children’s author, and her fiction ranges from profoundly thoughtful novels to psychological thrillers. If I had to choose one Dunmore to press upon readers it would be Talking to the Dead. Packed with insight into the complications of family life and the power of secrets to shape and destroy lives, it has the pace of a thriller yet it reads like a long prose poem written in language which is as sensuous and languorous as the heat which seems to permeate every page.

If Helen Dunmore doesn’t qualify on the unsung front because she’s a prize winner, sadly Jill Dawson does. Accomplished and richly imaginative, the closest Dawson has got to a prize is a short listing for both the Costa and the Orange. There’s often an element of history in her fiction – she’s written about Rupert Brooke in The Great Lover, Wild Boy drew on a true story about a feral boy in post-Revolutionary France and Fred and Edie is based on the story of Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters, hung for the murder of Edie’s husband in the ‘20s. If I had to choose one, though, it would be Lucky Bunny, Queenie Dove’s story of thieving her way from Depression poverty to glamour while staving off heartbreak and guilt. Dawson weaves real-life characters and events into Queenie’s narrative, vividly summoning up London’s sleazy underworld.

Lots of time for my next writer to get the recognition she deserves: Helen Oyeyemi who at only thirty has already written five novels. In fairness, Oyeyemi has appeared on the Granta Best of Young Novelists list and won a Somerset Maugham Award but she doesn’t seem to have received anywhere near the attention her imaginative fiction deserves. She wrote her first novel, the extraordinarily accomplished and frankly terrifying The Icarus Girl, when she was studying for her A-Levels but her latest, Boy Snow Bird, is my current favourite. It’s a tale of race and identity with elements of fairy tale – a wicked stepmother, a Prince Charming or two, a girl called Snow and a richly symbolic mirror motif reflecting, or not reflecting, different images the characters have of themselves. It’s stuffed with stories, strikingly written, with a twist towards the end which will knock your socks off.

In contrast to Oyeyemi, Lesley Glaister has been writing for many years but rarely gets the kind of broadsheet coverage she deserves. Her themes are often dark – murder, madness and obsession are favourites – and she does a fine line in eccentric old women. A steely thread of tension runs through her fiction often accompanied by a healthy dollop of black humour. Sadly, many of Glaister’s books are now out of print but of the ones that are available I’d pick Now You See Me. Homeless, deeply disturbed and with a secret buried in denial and untruth, Lamb seeks safety in solitude until she meets Doggo, on the run from a crime that he also conceals. These two outcasts find a way to each other and the result is an unusual love story that steps outside the traditional bounds of romance.

My final choice is Deirdre Madden, a writer of long standing whose quietly elegant prose deserves to be ranked alongside the likes of Sebastian Barry, William Trevor and Colm Tóibin. She writes slim, understated novels in which the Troubles are often present in one form or another. In Molly Fox’s Birthday, the eponymous actor is spending her Midsummer’s Day birthday in New York while the playwright, to whom she has lent her gloriously cluttered house, struggles to start her new piece, preoccupied with questions about Molly, their friendship and their relationship with Andrew whose loyalist paramilitary brother was killed in the North. It’s a beautifully expressed novel about identity, art and friendship.

Huge thanks to Ali and Susan for their choices. How many have you added to your TBR? Is your favourite writer here? Which female writers do you think deserve more recognition? Check back on Sunday to see mine and Antonia’s choices.

Ones to Read in 2014

For the last few weeks, I’ve been engrossed in some of the new releases coming our way in 2014. Here’s my pick of the ones I’ve most enjoyed. (Publication information is for the UK. Publication dates may change.)

A Song for Issy Bradley – Carys Bray

It’s been widely reported that Bray received a six-figure advance for her debut novel (her previous publication was a book of short stories Sweet Home which won the Scott Prize) and once you’ve read it it’s obvious why. A Song for Issy Bradley follows the Bradley family in the wake of the youngest child’s death. The Bradleys are Mormons – the father, Ian, is the local bishop; mum, Claire, married into the faith and questions it following Issy’s death. She crawls into Issy’s bunk bed and refuses to get out. Of the three remaining children, the teenagers, Alma and Zippy, struggle with usual teenage worries, being Mormons and the death of their sister, while Jacob, the youngest, tries to bring Issy back. As dark a subject as this is, Bray has an eye for humour in even the blackest situations and the book is an absolute joy from beginning to end.
Published: 19th June by Hutchinson

With 2014 being the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, there are a number of books set in this era published next year. Here are two great WWI novels and a WWII one:

Wake – Anna Hope

Another brilliant debut. Wake follows three women – Hettie, a dancer at the Hammersmith Palais, whose brother Fred has been left traumatised by the war; Evelyn, a clerk in the army pensions and benefits office whose brother Ed was an army captain, and Ada, whose son Michael was killed in the war, although she’s never been told how. These women’s stories are told over the four days in 1920 that it takes to bring the body of the Unknown Warrior from France to London. This is a powerful novel, cleverly structured. It left me feeling broken.
Published: 16th January by Doubleday

 

The Lie – Helen Dunmore

One of my favourite novelists returns with the story of Daniel, a young private in the war who has returned to the small Cornish coastal town in which he grew up. Haunted by the death of his best friend, Frederick, he acquires a smallholding and, besides visits to Frederick’s sister Felicia, isolates himself. But in order to maintain his detachment, Daniel tells a lie that will be his undoing. Dunmore successfully portrays a young man involved in horrific events and wracked with guilt over one event in particular.
Published: 16th January by Hutchinson

 

The Railwayman’s Wife – Ashley Hay

Ani Lachlan lives on the Australian coast with her husband, Mac, and their daughter, Isabel. Mac works on the railway, a job that’s meant he avoided serving in the war. Roy McKinnon’s returned from the war and has found that the poetry he was able to write during the event now evades him. When Mac is killed in an accident on the railway, Ani is offered a job running the town’s library. Perhaps the power of words can help heal both her and Roy McKinnon. Quietly affecting.
Published: 2nd January by Allen & Unwin (Already available on Kindle for the price of a chocolate bar at the time of writing.)

Still Life with Bread Crumbs – Anna Quindlen

Rebecca Winter, once a famous photographer – everyone had that poster (the one with the same title as the novel) – rents out her New York apartment and moves into a cottage upstate in the hope that the cheaper rent will help her cover ever increasing bills. Rebecca’s unprepared for country living but Sarah, who runs the local tearoom, and the makeshift crosses that Rebecca keeps finding on the hill outside her cottage might help her see a different sort of life. I loved it.
Published: 30th January by Hutchinson

 

The One Plus One – Jojo Moyes

Jess Thomas, single mum to two kids – Tanzie, a gifted mathematician and Nicky, her stepson who’s bullied for being different – works two jobs to make ends meet. Her husband, Marty, has left them to live with his mum and get himself together; he sends them no financial support and when Tanzie’s offered a 90% scholarship to the local private school, he refuses to help with the rest of the fees, forsaking Tanzie’s dream. Ed Nicholls, suspended from his own company for insider trading, finds himself lying low in his holiday home – one of Jess’ cleaning jobs. When they meet sparks fly – and not in a good way – which leads to one unusual road trip. As brilliant as we’ve come to expect from Jojo Moyes.
Published: 27th February by Penguin

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

Rosemary Cooke tells us her story; the story of her family – her sister, Fern, who was taken away when she was five; her brother, Lowell, who is missing, wanted for domestic terrorism, and her parents and the lifestyle they led when she was growing up – and the story of her time in college, specifically her friendship with the drama student (and drama queen) Harlow Fielding. Told in a forceful first person narrative with a fragmented structure, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves looks at human behaviour and finds us wanting. Highly quotable.
Published: 6th March by Serpent’s Tail

The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane

Ruth Field, 75, is widowed and lives alone on the New South Wales coast, Australia. At night, she thinks she hears a tiger in her living room, although she is aware that it’s probably her imagination. A stranger, Frieda Young, arrives at Ruth’s door and tells her that she’s been sent by the government to look after her. Frieda reminds Ruth of her time in Fiji as a young girl, so while her sons rarely visit, she allows Frieda into her life with some devastating consequences. Terrifying.
Published: 16th January by Sceptre

Fallout – Sadie Jones

1960s London. Luke Kanowski escapes Seston, Nottinghamshire, contacts Paul Driscoll, a man he’s met once, and embarks on fulfilling both their dreams of working in the theatre. Nina Hollings is following in her mother’s footsteps by training to be an actress. But dreams are limited by cages created by family and society and the lives of the protagonists will be jaded by them. Fallout takes Jones’ writing to a new level, ambitious and mature.
Published: 1st May by Chatto & Windus

The Dead Wife’s Handbook – Hannah Beckerman

Rachel has died, aged 36, of undiagnosed arrhythmia. She narrates the novel from the place she’s currently in – one which allows her some access to watch over her widowed husband, Max, and their seven-year-old daughter, Ellie. Rachel doesn’t like seeing their grief but when her best friend, Harriet, suggests Max starts dating again, Rachel has to start to come to terms with letting him go. This could have been schmaltzy but it’s far from it. Had me reading late and sobbing.
Published: 13th February by Penguin but you can read the first two chapters here.

The Virgins – Pamela Erens

1979, Auburn Academy, an elite Jewish boarding school. The virgins are the couple Aviva Rossner and Seung Young whose classmates, ironically, think are shagging like clichéd rabbits. Narrated by their then classmate, Bruce Bennett-Jones, Erens explores the gap between appearance and reality and the consequences that gap can bring about. Tense and ultimately, shocking.
Published: 30th January by John Murray

The Last Boat Home – Dea Brovig

1974, a small Norwegian costal town. Else lives with her religious mother and fisherman father. They are poor, although this doesn’t prevent Else from sneaking around with the son of the richest man in town. Nonetheless, it is something else that will have far deeper consequences for Else: the arrival of a travelling circus. The echoes of those consequences are still being heard in the present-day sections that punctuate the book. Atmospheric and disturbing.
Published: 13th March 2014 by Hutchinson

There is also a handful of books I haven’t had the pleasure of being able to read yet but I’m eagerly anticipating.

Firstly, two young writers whose debuts – Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma and Hungry, The Stars and Everything, respectively – I loved and bought for numerous friends have second novels arriving this year:

Thirst – Kerry Hudson

The beginning of a relationship is usually all about getting to know one another, sharing stories far into the night, comparing experiences, triumphs and heartaches, until we know each other inside out.

Not so for Dave and Alena. He’s from London, she’s from Siberia. They meet in a sleek Bond Street department store in the frayed heat of high summer where she’s up to no good and it’s his job to catch her. So begins an unlikely relationship between two people with pasts, with secrets, they’ve no idea how to live with — or leave behind. But despite everything they don’t have in common, all the details they won’t and can’t reveal, they still find themselves fighting with all they’ve got for a future together.
Published: 17th July by Chatto & Windus

Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth

You know how it is. Saturday afternoon. You wake up and you can’t move.

I blinked and the floaters on my eyeballs shifted to reveal Tyler in her ratty old kimono over in the doorway. ‘Way I see it,’ she said, glass in one hand, lit cigarette in the other, ‘girls are tied to beds for two reasons: sex and exorcisms. So, which was it with you?’

Laura and Tyler are best friends who live together, angrily philosophising and leading each other astray in the pubs and flats of Manchester. But things are set to change. Laura is engaged to teetotal Jim, the wedding is just months away, and Tyler becomes hell-bent on sabotaging her friend’s plans for a different life.

Animals is a hilarious, moving and refreshingly honest tale of how a friendship can become the ultimate love story.
Published: 1st May 2014 by Canongate

And two established writers:

The Blazing World – Siri Hustvedt

Artist Harriet Burden, consumed by fury at the lack of recognition she has received from the New York art establishment, embarks on an experiment: she hides her identity behind three male fronts who exhibit her work as their own. And yet, even after she has unmasked herself, there are those who refuse to believe she is the woman behind the men.

Presented as a collection of texts compiled by a scholar years after Burden’s death, the story unfolds through extracts from her notebooks, reviews and articles, as well as testimonies from her children, her lover, a dear friend, and others more distantly connected to her. Each account is different, however, and the mysteries multiply. One thing is clear: Burden’s involvement with the last of her ‘masks’ turned into a dangerous psychological game that ended with the man’s bizarre death.
Published: 13th March by Sceptre

The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned, the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa, a large silent house now bereft of brothers, husband and even servants, life is about to be transformed, as impoverished widow Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers.

For with the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the ‘clerk class’, the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways. And as passions mount and frustration gathers, no one can foresee just how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be…
Published: 4th September by Virago

I hope that’s whetted your appetite for what’s to come. Full reviews will appear here on the week of publication for each novel.

Thanks to all the publishers for review copies.

Hutchinson Books' Proof Party

On Saturday (5th October), I had the pleasure of attending Hutchinson Books’ Proof Party at Cheltenham Literature Festival. The (tea) party was to celebrate forthcoming novels from Helen Dunmore, Dea Brøvig and Carys Bray. The three writers each read from their new books (all of which are brilliant; reviews coming in the new year) and discussed their work. It was a fascinating insight into the writing process and you can read all about what they had to say on my guest blog for the Windmill Books website: http://www.windmill-books.co.uk/index.php/guest-blog-proof-party/