Thoughts on New Books by Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Michael Hughes

I’ve recently read a couple of new books and thought I’d cover both of them in one post. Both are multilayered, covering different stories and viewpoints, and they fit together fairly well.

I’m becoming more accustomed to reading crime. I enjoy it. Why Did You Lie by Yrsa Sigurdardottir thoroughly freaked me out. She begins with the culmination of four people’s stay in a remote Icelandic lighthouse. Two of them are in the water and one of them is stabbing another with a knife. What’s happening here? The novel has two other strands: a family back from their holiday has found that the American couple they have house-swapped with have been very inconsiderate and a policewoman is trying to hold down a job within her misogynistic unit and hoping that her husband, who has attempted suicide, comes out of his coma. We are also taken back in time, to see how the people on the lighthouse ended up in their situation.

Why Did You Lie is a seriously well-crafted crime novel. Sigurdardottir knows how to create a cliffhanger and she cranks the fear right up. There were some parts that didn’t seem as well thought out, however. For instance, the policewoman seems fairly detached, at first, from her husband ‘s attempted suicide. This husband was also her best friend and we don’t find out him being in hospital straight away. But, apart from a few little complaints, this was a book I got through quickly. I’d like to read more of Sigurdardottir’s work.

A book I enjoyed less was The Countenance Divine. It’s ambitious, taking place in four different eras: in 1999 when a computer programmer tries to fix the Millennium Bug; in 1888, in Jack the Ripper London; in 1777, when William Blake has a religious experience; and in 1666, when John Milton is finishing ‘Paradise Lost’. This book should appeal to fans of Cloud Atlas but, for me, there’s something missing. It’s all very Dead White Men doing Great Things and stopping the world ending, whereas Cloud Atlas was more about how different people experience their respective environments. I found The Countenance Divine to be fairly unsubtle and I just didn’t get on with it. One thing that attracted me to the book was a quote by Toby Litt, which said the book was like ‘a brilliant cross between David Mitchell and Hilary Mantel’ and I just don’t see where, apart from writing about the seventeenth century, this Mantel comparison comes from. Maybe I was expecting too much from this book. Perhaps it will appeal to you, though!

Thank you to BookBridgr for sending me both of these titles.


Thoughts on Baby X by Rebecca Ann Smith

Baby X is an intriguing novel. I must admit I find clinical intelligent thriller-y type things interesting (see my obsession with House), but this genre, if you can call it that, is rarely coupled with emotional intelligence. Baby X is a great achievement just from the outset: it’s an intelligent novel with a heart.

We begin with Dr Alex Mansfield driving a new-born baby to her grandmother’s old house. Alex is worried and tells us that ‘I did what I had to do.’ Why does she have this baby? And why is it called X?

Alex’s story is interspersed with Karen’s. Karen and her husband have had many miscarriages and they approached Dr Mansfield so that they can realise their dreams of becoming parents. Alex wants to grow the first baby outside of a human body; the imagery of the artificial womb in the lab is sharply drawn. These women’s stories are alternated with chapters dating from ‘much later’ at an inquiry, as we piece together Alex’s actions from her workmates and try to come to terms with what made her steal the baby.

Alex is a complicated character and, initially, I was worried that she would prove too complicated. There are some issues I thought I would have when I started this book – why can’t a woman be a doctor without her maternal instincts getting in the way? In the wrong hands this book could have bordered on offensive, it could have been a “single doctor woman” vs “want desperately to be a mother and have a family woman” but it goes far deeper and is infinitely more compassionate than that. Alex’s reasoning is organic, apart from one major coincidence which felt a little too much.

The inner worlds of both Karen and Alex are well drawn, but so is outer society. The press is following the first artificial baby avidly, keen to moralise about perfect babies and things not “being natural”, which felt too real. Karen and her husband are hounded into an interview and the journalist forces their story into the one that she wants, resulting in heartache for the couple. There is also an interesting meeting between Karen and an online troll, which showcases Smith’s compassion and willingness to write something that doesn’t tread old arguments but confronts society as it is.

There is a also thriller aspect with a troublesome ex-boyfriend of Alex’s; this builds throughout the novel, which is running over three timelines. The pace never slows because of this and shows excellent plotting.

I read Baby X so quickly and would definitely read more by Rebecca Ann Smith. Mother’s Milk Books have done it again – they are carving out an identity for themselves as a publisher of compassionate stories, stories which aren’t saying the same thing as everybody else.

Baby X is available from Mother’s Milk Books.

Thoughts on Sara Pascoe’s Animal

This book is amazing #bookstagram #amreading #sarapascoe

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I have neglected my blog in the past month. For the usual blog not-posting reasons. Life things, business, general anger and inability to read due to the shit-storm that was the EU referendum… But here we are, now. I finished Animal by Sara Pascoe in the heady days before the UK became un-united, and am just now finding myself able to think about normal things again.

So! Animal is an amazing book. My boyfriend works in a bookshop and he asked me where I’d put it – funny books, memoir, feminism? I said yes, he could put it in any of those. I have a weakness for these Smart Thinking books – I find them interesting, especially the psychological ones. In fact, I’ve been reading this sort of book far more than novels this year. But back to the book: Animal made me see the ways in which we are very much part of the animal world, no matter how much we believe ourselves distant from it. We’re constantly reacting to stimuli; there are reasons why women are made to feel so awful by advertising. We may think that we’re in love / lust because of somebody’s sense of humour or intellect (or whatever…) but, even if we don’t want children, our bodies assume that we do. We pick people based on how well we think they would raise children. We are responding to our hormones, our chemicals.

Pascoe goes into the history of dating and mating and sex and why we do all of these strange things. We are not special, hyper-evolved beings. We are animals. We have a well-developed part of our brain that is bolted on to the side (top?) of our mammal and reptile brains, so we don’t always use it. From my now seemingly nihilistic viewpoint, it explains a lot. Pascoe goes into the reasons why we, for instance, commonly mate off in pairs. We have evolved to have this tendency because human babies need a lot of care:

‘CANCEL THE ORGY! The science books say we lived in social groups but with strongly bonded pairs raising their own children.’

And then there’s the memoir aspect of the book. Pascoe goes into her own sexual history, her background which informed her future relationships and the relationship she has with her body. Pascoe discusses everything honestly; it feels painfully relatable but almost revolutionary. We often avoid talking about such things. She writes:

‘It’s scary how much of my inner monologue is consumed by debating food choices, berating myself for what I’ve recently eaten and promising I’ll do better. […] My weight has stopped me doing things, has kept me from parties and dinners and awards ceremonies because the stress of attempting to look ‘nice’ has beaten me.’

I too have not gone out because my body didn’t look “right”, and I suppose most women have. But we don’t say this. We meekly cut important food-groups from our diets and blame ourselves, punishing ourselves for our transgressions. We at least need to acknowledge this as a serious issue.

And then, because it’s written by a comedian, there were plenty of moments when I was reading Animal when I actually and genuinely laughed out loud. A book like this could be so dry: there are a lot of facts in it. But, conversely, it could have been too much of a piss-take; I’ve read a few books by comedians and, although they can be funny, the comedian sometimes wants to be funny at the cost of everything else, which can undermine what they are saying. But this was a smart compromise.

So, I don’t know where I would put Animal in a bookshop. Pascoe has invented her own scientific-humour-memoir genre and I want to read more of it.

Motherhood, Creativity and Fairy Tales: The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2

I just read a story on Standard Issue by a woman who was worried about how becoming a mother would affect her writing. How, when she was very pregnant, a fellow (male) writer gestured to her bump and blathered about ‘the pram in the hall’ debilitating her creative output. I also heard Amanda Palmer worrying about this issue on a podcast recently. Creativity is something that received wisdom tells us disappears when a woman has a baby. I’m not even sure if I want children, but even I can’t stop hearing these worries and discussions.

With this in mind, then, I move onto the second collection of ‘modern fables and ancient tales’, The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2. It’s published by the independent Mother’s Milk books, who aim to celebrate femininity and motherhood in writing. Many of the stories in here celebrate motherhood, or another female pursuit that has been degraded in some way; women who are shamed for being “too” into looking at themselves in mirrors, for instance.

To take a closer look at some of my favourite stories here, then: ‘Trash into Cash’ by Becky Tipper celebrates motherhood in feminist ways, when a mother tries to stop a man stealing her baby. He says he’ll back off if she can guess the word that he’s thinking of and she’s told that she’ll ‘never guess’ it. But the bond between herself and her child helps her enormously.

‘Lilasette’ by Ronne Randall is wondrously graphic: when an evil queen rips out the womb of a woman who claims to have had her son’s baby, the lilac tree was attacked beside ends up doing amazing things to protect the child. The goriness of this story is great. I was unsure what would happen in this story, which is rare because such stories tend to be quite conservatively structured.

‘Lilasette’ also makes important use of a mirror, as do the stories ‘Mirror Mirror’ by Laura Kayne and ‘How Women Came to Love Mirrors’ by Hannah Malhotra. I think it’s interesting that, exploring fairy tales from a feminine point of view, we are very concerned with the way the world sees us. As seen in my post about a make-up exhibition here, women have been chided for vanity for hundreds of years. But, as one line in ‘How Women Came To Love Mirrors’ has it, ‘perhaps she dreamed of a day when women would not need the mirrors.’

My favourite stories are ones which subvert classic tales or do something unexpected with them. Marija Smit’s ‘Little Lost Soul’ is about a futuristic dystopian world in which a young woman is being abused. I loved this story because it manages to add some psychological reasoning, some interior monologue, which fairy tales often lack. ‘Little Lost Soul’ also manages to give the reader a little shock, too, with the story taking an unexpected turn.

So, The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2 didn’t disappoint. It is more than a simple collection of fairy tale retellings. I think that we are told that things closely associated with femininity, such as birth, appearance and being the emotional support for others, are not related to Serious Creative Writing. But it’s important to remember that fairy tales are the oldest literature we have and they were told, for the most part, by mothers to their children. It’s very easy to read this as a collection of stories by themselves, so don’t be put off by my overthinkings if you just want to read a collection of other-worldly stories. Or, if these issues appeal to you, there is a lot to think about here that is revolutionary.

The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2 is available to buy here.

The Loney and Modern Gothic Fiction

The Loney is an interesting book to write about (not least because spell-check keeps asking if you do, actually, mean ‘lonely’). In some ways I feel as though I have read this kind of book before, yet in some cases it is clearly taking old tropes and refreshing them in an interesting way.

The tale starts when the narrator and his mute brother, Hanny, are children of deeply religious parents, are on an Easter pilgrimage to an area around The Loney, an isolated strip of land, in the hope that Hanny will start talking again. Attention is called to the ancient feel of the place, the idea that there are parts of this desolate landscape which haven’t had human contact for hundreds of years. I liked this particularly Gothic aspect of the novel; there is a timelessness to this place, a sense of the past and the present colliding in unsettling ways.

Present-day London seems like a far more recognizable world, as opposed to the narrator’s childhood exploits around the Loney. A baby’s body has been found in the Loney and this story is all over the news. The narrator has his own life in this familiar world, where he has been receiving therapy. He sees scraps of his therapist’s handwriting during his sessions – apparently he is a ‘fantasist’. Is our narrator unreliable? This increases the sense of unease.

Something that has always stopped me from loving Gothic fiction is the lack of humour and lightness in such novels. Gothic novels are melodramatic; where there is melodrama, there can’t be much silliness to lighten the mood. The amplifying of tragedy is precisely what makes these novels so scary. It’s interesting, towards the end, when we are taken to the present day. The sense of unease has gone. Things feel lighter.

I think another thing which I have found difficult in reading Gothic fiction is the gendered roles (the hysterical or virginal girl, the big evil man). The narrator, a boy, takes on the role of Andrew’s carer, something his parents should be doing. Mummer is a fairly unsympathetic figure, while Farther (sic) seems more kind, if absent.

Religion features heavily in these books. It is sad to see what Mummer and the rest of her group of friends on the pilgrimage do to their own children, because they think that they are saving their souls. In one flashback, a boy is made to clench his fists around nettles by a priest. This is upsetting and baffling to me, but I think that the novel gave me an insight into these characters’ internal lives. They actually think that they are helping to save these children.

The Loney examines themes I tend not to read very often, in a genre I am wary of. It reads very quickly. It is a huge achievement for a debut novel, which initially was given a very small print run and then went on to win the 2015 Costa First Novel Award. It’s interesting to think about why this is. Why has a novel based on a popular 18th century genre become so popular? Dracula and other vampires became popular during the period of colonialism, representing the selfish fears of the old British Empire. I think that this novel may reflect some deeper fears about contemporary Britain.

On Beauty and Feminism

I recently finished two books about beauty and make-up – Sali Hughes’ Pretty Honest and Lisa Eldridge’s Face Paint. I find these books very easy to read. I have always seen beauty and make-up as something fun, probably beginning when my grandma gave me a box of blue eyeshadow when I was eight (which I then used to emulate Victoria Beckham (!) when we put on a Spice Girls performance for our entire street, but that’s a different story. I wonder what I looked like…). I understand that many people have a problem with make-up, and I certainly do like to go bare-face because Patriarchy, but I love the glamour and fun in make-up. I go through phases with it, not being bothered sometimes and then lusting after fancy products. But then I think about capitalism and am put off again. But I like painting up my face and isn’t that what feminism should be about? – is the point of this paragraph.

So! To Pretty Honest. I love Sali Hughes’ writing for The Pool and The Guardian so was eager to read this. It’s no-nonsense advice – telling you who makes the best and worst particular products. She tells you what you really don’t need, and which products are a con, which was enlightening and is rare in beauty writing. Everybody seems so intertwined – products are highly praised and forgotten about when they have sold their quotas. Hughes really knows her stuff – which method of hair removal is most effective / painful; which brands make the best certain things. If you enjoy makeup but want to experiment or learn more, this is the book for you. Also, since following the advice in here, my skin has never looked better.

Lisa Eldridge’s Face Paint was also amazing. It detailed the history of make-up, from pre-history to Hollywood to now. I found it interesting that (obvious) make-up was frowned upon when women had little to no rights. Red lipstick was worn by suffragettes in defiance of men who wanted them to look natural. I went through a vintage Hollywood-obsessive phase in my teenage years, so loved the chapters about those eras. The history of brands we know and love and popular brands that disappeared. Prior to a certain point, as well, men wore make up. People all over the world have painted their faces throughout history. It deserves to be explored.

I found it interesting that both of these books emphasise women. They are written by feminists who both love make-up, something that feminists (including me) seem to feel the need to confess. Surely, the more preferable thing is what Eldridge and Hughes are already doing – unashamedly basking in their love of make-up. Traditionally feminine things, such as make-up, are often ridiculed as being non-intellectual, as if that is important. Traditionally feminine pursuits are not bringing feminism down, internalised misogyny is. We all care about how we look to other people. Why ridicule people for it? It seems an old fashioned thing to do.

Dear Stranger…

I thought it fitting that my first blog post in five months should feature a book with ‘stranger’ in the title. So, for creativity’s sake, I thought I’d address this blog post to you, dear reader and possible stranger…

Dear stranger,

There’s a book I read recently which I think everyone should read. It’s that life-affirming. Dear Stranger sees fifty different authors write letters about happiness. Most letters are thought-provoking, some are hilarious and some are heart-breaking. All have something interesting to say. Happiness certainly doesn’t mean one thing to everybody.

Matt Haig writes a letter to his twenty-four year old self, knowing that the poor man has three years of clinical depression ahead of him. He writes that ‘the next three years are going to be the three worst years you will know.’ But he manages to end on a hopeful note, about remaining strong. It’s a wonderful letter and he speaks a searing truth when he writes that ‘depression draws a line. It separates life into eras. It will give you a BC and AD of your own life.’ Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive is in a similar vein and also well worth your time.

Caitlin Moran’s letter manages to be both funny and upsetting. It’s like when you’ve been crying a lot and you see something silly and then you’re laughing-crying. She talks about being kind to yourself, being careful with the things you tell yourself. So, she gives her inner voice the identity of a dachshund called Eric: ‘Oh, I treat Eric so well! I make sure I walk Eric everyday, for I have found he gets morose if he’s cooped up. […] He needs to gallop around a bit, woofing – which I disguise as jogging, and going “AHHHH!” at the top of steep hills. He needs regular meals, and a good night’s sleep, and to be stroked, curled up on the sofa, watching musicals.’ I think I might do this.

A lot of the more thought-provoking letters entertained the fact that, in our society, we are sold the idea of happiness. We’ll be happy when we buy a certain bag, for example. And this isn’t true. It is fairly damaging, in fact. If we are not happy we are told that there is something wrong with us. We aren’t designed to be constantly happy and selling the idea of happiness is exploitative.

Ah-hem. I also love the letters from Martha Roberts, who writes a letter to a depressed woman she sees in a cafe, and Ellen White, who is a far wiser teenager than I ever was. Tony Husband’s cartoon was very touching. It’s interesting to see what the authors come up with in terms of just writing a letter. Looking back at it, I enjoyed so many of the different perspectives in this book.

So I think you should read Dear Stranger, because it might affect you more than you’d think.

Yours sincerely,

Katharine Lunn.