Feminism Goals: Thoughts on Holly Bourne’s The Spinster Club Series

Spinster Club.jpg

The Spinster Club happily mingle with their ideological brethren.

My own feminist awakening came when I was 17 and my A-level English literature class was taught The Handmaid’s Tale. Our new teacher gave us the book during our first lesson; I started reading it on the bus home and had finished it by the next day. I was breathlessly caught up in it and morally outraged when our teacher told us that every heinous act perpetrated against women in the book had precedence in real life; suddenly, the feminist fire in my soul was ignited.

Looking back, I think I’d lived a pretty charmed life up to that point. Despite learning the word ‘sexism’ at the age of about 8 and cheerfully denouncing the patriarchy from that point onwards, I don’t remember encountering serious sexism as a kid, apart from a few incidents: being catcalled by builders when I was about 11; the many, many times a man challenged me to explain the offside rule because, obviously, tiny lady brains can’t possibly understand football. I went to an all-girls’ school so I had no real comprehension of being patronised academically and we didn’t have social media in the dark ages of the late 90s so many of the avenues available to raging misogynists these days just didn’t exist. I look at the teenage girls I teach and I think there is far more for them to contend with.

Which is where Holly Bourne’s Spinster Club series comes in. For anyone who hasn’t read the books, they focus on three teenage girls who, tired of the sexism they encounter every day, form the eponymous club: a feminist discussion group with cheesy snacks. Am I Normal Yet? is the first book, centring on Evie, whose feminist awakening comes amidst a relapse in her OCD. The second book, How Hard Can Love Be?, follows Amber as she travels to California to spend the summer with her estranged mother. In both of these, the feninist themes are important but usually secondary to romance, family, mental health and generally surviving being a teenager; in What’s A Girl Gotta Do?, feminism drives the plot, with the brilliant Lottie setting herself the task of calling out every instance of sexism she sees, after facing the kind of harrassment which, sadly, is entirely based in fact.

What I love most about these books is the explicit discussion of feminism; although there are a number of female YA heroines who could be read as feminists, there aren’t many who identify as such or participate in academic discussion of theory. Throughout the trilogy, Lottie’s role is to educate the others in the finer points of feminist ideology; at several points in What’s A Girl Gotta Do?, she explores the concept of cognitive dissonance and how this impacts on a feminist’s behaviour and I nearly cried because it was so intelligent and wonderful. Throughout the books, Holly Bourne raises a lot of interesting questions; in the third book, Lottie challenges a female teacher about her use of “Mrs” and the assuming of her husband’s surname, which made me consider my own answer to that question, as a Mrs myself (although a double-barrelled one, in a case of what I like to think of as nominative having-your-cake-and-eating-it; I just always wanted a more pretentious name than the one I was born with). Lottie herself is called out on continuing to wear make-up during her month of bringing down the patriarchy, which, again, I found interesting to think about; I don’t wear loads of make-up, but what I do wear is worn because I want to wear it, not because I have even the vaguest inclination to care whether men think I should. I love that there are YA books (or, to be honest, books of any type) that make me ponder these things.

There are some YA books I read whose YA credentials can be questioned; now that it’s such a lucrative area of publishing with a large adult readership, I do think a lot of books ostensibly aimed at teenagers are really for 30+ year old women. The Spinster Club series is entirely exempt from this; the dialogue, characters’ concerns and college settings of the books are on point and totally convincing. So convincing, even,  that the only thing I don’t completely love in the books is the level of boy-craziness, particularly in Am I Normal Yet?; having thought this, however, I had to have a word with myself and bear in mind that a lot of conversations when you’re a teenage girl are, in fact, about boys. I’ll be honest; a lot of the conversations I have now, far beyond my teens, are about famous actors called Chris. Don’t judge me. I think a large part of Bourne’s readership will still be women rather than teenage girls because of how recognisable Evie, Amber and Lottie’s experiences are: we’ve all had to cross the road to try to avoid being wolf-whistled by dudes in a van; we’ve all had someone make assumptions about us because of what we’re wearing; we’ve all been told to “calm down” when we’ve pointed out how annoying these things are.

The teenager who still lives in my heart wants to be friends with these girls; the grown up mother and teacher who, sadly, is the outward face of the operation, wants to encourage and nurture and protect them. They all feel so real, so uncaricatured, so hilarious, that it’s impossible not to become really attached to them. I’m already eagerly anticipating the next instalment of the series in November. If you’re looking for something which will entertain as well as educate and empower you, you really shouldn’t look any further than The Spinster Club.

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Review: Life Moves Pretty Fast by Hadley Freeman

life moves pretty fastSometimes, I read something and feel compelled to write about it purely in the hope that someone will be inspired by my meandering hyperbole to pick up the book in question. This is one of those times. If you, like me, have a deeply held and completely unironic love of eighties movies, then you, too, urgently need to read Hadley Freeman’s Life Moves Pretty Fast. It’s a hugely entertaining, informative and, most importantly, really fun work of non-fiction in which Freeman, a self-confessed eighties-movie-obsessive, discusses some of her favourite films of that decade, recounting her own views as well as conducting some in-depth analysis of issues like the representation of masculinity in Ghostbusters, race in Eddie Murphy’s films and feminist issues in Dirty Dancing and Steel Magnolias. Basically, it’s awesome.

The great strength of Life Moves Pretty Fast is Freeman’s enthusiasm; she really loves this subject, especially when it involves Ghostbusters (and especially when that involves Bill Murray). At one point, she explains that it took her longer than expected to write the book because, every time she typed the title of a film, she couldn’t resist the urge to watch it, and reading the book provides a very similar experience. As I write this, just a few hours after finishing the book, I am watching Footloose, one of my favourite films ever, never mind just from the eighties. Kevin Bacon’s tour de force is not, sadly, one of the films discussed at length in Life Moves Pretty Fast, but in the epilogue, Freeman does joke about a potential sequel so I’m keeping my fingers crossed for some detailed analysis of the representation of youth culture or flicky foot dance moves.

I was born in 1983, so my formative experiences of 1980s cinema was heavily influences by my parents, which means Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back and Back to the Future featured often and I would still down tools to watch any of those now. I have already mentioned my love of Footloose (it’s just got to the bit whre Kevin Bacon walks into school in his snazzy skinny tie. It is all I can do to keep typing this), and I maintain immense love for Top Gun (my husband’s favourite film; I’m going to make him read Freeman’s chapter about its intense homoeroticism so he knows that’s actually a thing and not just something I point out every time he makes me watch it just to upset him), Labyrinth, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Ghostbusters and, slightly anomalously, Blade Runner. Look, I just really love Harrison Ford, okay? He is the eighties to me. Any time Freeman mentioned any of these films, I wanted to dive into the book and force her to talk to me about them. I am sure she would find this flattering rather than terrifying. Especially when I challenged her to a volleyball match or light sabre fight.

If reading this has made you whoop and holler about the decade when Tom Cruise was actually good or given you nostalgia for a time when all films weren’t made by Marvel, I strongly recommend you pick up a copy of Life Moves Pretty Fast. You won’t regret it.

What are your favourite eighties movies? Do you, like me, long for a return to a time when all films were about 93 minutes long rather than 2 and a half arse-numbing hours? Perhaps you can even explain to me why The Breakfast Club is still so popular, because I watched it last night and I do not get it at all.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I’d Buy Right Now If I Had a Money Tree

This week’s TTT, hosted by The Broke and The Bookish, is about which books we’d buy if someone presented us with a gift-card loaded with loads of money. Unfortunately, I think this is merely a creative exercise and nobody is actually going to give me such a thing. Sad times.

Obviously, if someone else was going to finance my book-buying, I’d get all the books I currently think are too expensive, so I’m not putting anything obvious on here because, in all honesty, I can afford to shell out £6 for Empire of Storms without a mystery benefactor.

  1. Tales of Two Cities: The Best and Worst of Times in Today’s New York edited by John Freeman
    This is a short story anthology which focuses on the wealth disparity in New York, where (according to the blurb) “the top one per cent earns more than a half million dollars per year while twenty-five thousand children are homeless.” It features stories by Zadie Smith and Junot Diaz and I’ve had my eye on it for ages.
  2. Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature edited by Julia L. Mickenberg and Philip Nel
    Something else that’s been on my wish list for ages; this collection of stories, poems, comic strips and other texts encourages children to question the authority of those in power. While I don’t necessarily want my daughter to question my authority, I do want her to grow up challenging anything she seess as wrong, and I think this would be a good place to start.
  3. Good Morning Comrades by Ondjaki
    I found out about this thanks to this list on Book Riot; it’s about a group of twelve year old boys growing up during the Angolan Civil War. I’ve become really fascinated with African literature recently and this sounds brilliant.
  4. The Parachute Drop by Norbert Zongo
    Another choice from that Book Riot list, this is set in Burkina Faso (I think it’s safe to say I’ve never read a book with that setting) and is a caricature of a paranoid dictator; the author was imprisoned for three months because of this book and later murdered.
  5. Changes by Ama Ata Aidoo
    This crosses over between my interests in African novels and feminism; it’s about a woman who divorces her abusive husband and is set in Ghana.

  6. Damnificados by JJ Amaworo Wilson
    I found out about this thanks to my clever editor at Fourth and Sycamore, who wrote this review; the book is loosely based on the real-ilfe occupation of a half-completed skyscraper in Venezuela and it sounds cool.
  7. King Kong Theory by Virginie Despentes
    One review describes this as “a furious condemnation of the servility of enforced femininity” and that sentence alone makes me want to read it.
  8. The Outside Lands by Hannah Kohler
    This is set in California and Vietnam in 1968; I’ve not read much fiction focusing on that period, although I did read a couple of non-fiction books about Vietnam during my degree. I would very much like to get my hands on this.
  9. Out of Time by Miranda Sawyer
    I heard Miranda Sawyer talking about this handbook of the midlife crisis; it was a very funny and interesting interview which inspired me to read the book too.
  10. Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
    I’ve been meaning to read this for so long but for some reason haven’t bought it yet, so, with this imaginary gift-card, I can finally do it. It’s a YA novel about schizophrenia, which I think Shusterman has based on his son, so it sounds fascinating in every way.

The Monthly Round-Up: July

In theory, July was meant to be when I got to all the books I’ve been buying and stock-piling. It was meant to be the month I finally read Middlemarch, which I have been talking about reading now basically since George Eliot finished writing the bloody thing.

Anyway, here’s what I read in July.

  1. The Vegetarian by Han Kang
    This was extremely peculiar; the second part, in particular, made me want to scrub my own skin off. The writing is quite lyrical and absorbing, but all except one of the characters are just far too weird to even think about.
  2. The Wicked and The Divine Volume 2: Fandamonium by Kieron Gillen
    This was excellent; loads of cool new characters were introduced and it had a great ending. It made me excited for the third book (you’ll see how that turned out in a second).
  3. Brand New Ancients by Kate Tempest
    This is a 40-odd page narrative poem about modern isolation; it’s similar in tone and content to Tempest’s novel, The Bricks That Built the Houses. I really want to find a way to use this at school next year.
  4. The Wicked and The Divine Volume 3: Commercial Suicide by Kieron Gillen
    This was a total letdown; the usual series artist was busy or something so each section is illustrated by someone different, which just makes it really hard to follow, and at least one of sections looks horrible. At least this made me realise that I’ve finally started actually looking at the pictures in graphic novels, which is something I’ve had to train my speed-reading self to do.
  5. Paper Girls Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughan
    Another graphic novel, and I liked this one; it’s witty and had a plot that really surprised me. Also, it’s about badass twelve year old girls, so it’s a win.
  6. Americanah by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie
    I’m so pleased I finally read this; I had it on my Kindle but decided a few chapters in that it was something I needed to read ‘properly’ to appreciate it fully (does anyone else have this issue with e-readers?), so I bought the paperback and it was really, really excellent. It features lots of things I don’t usually like (slightly annoying characters, not much actually happening, thinly veiled haranguing), but I loved it; it’s the book I’ve spent the most time with this year because I just didn’t want it to be finished. I’m very keen to read Adichie’s other books now.
  7. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
    I haven’t watched Blade Runner in a long time, and reading its source material made me think I should revisit it; I really like the film but the book didn’t do it for me. I felt like too much was introduced and not fully explained (for example, is there a real reason that androids have to be killed? Or is it just the idea of androids which people don’t like?).
  8. Show and Prove by Sofia Quintero
    This focuses on two teenage boys in the Bronx in 1983; it was really immersive and made me want to say “word” a lot. Which I don’t think I can pull off, sadly.
  9. Batman: Harley Quinn by Paul Dini
    I read one of the New 52 books about Harley Quinn last month and didn’t really like it; she came across as really one-dimensional and I wanted more from the character. This one delivered; it showed how she ended up as an inmate rather than a psychiatrist at Arkham and gave me a lot more detail about her relationship with the Joker.
  10. Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
    This was recommended to me by a trusted sci-fi fan at work; it’s about a weird society on another planet, where everyone’s waiting for people from Earth to come and save them. It took a while to get into but I ended up really enjoying it. Apparently the sequel is harder work, but I’ll be giving it a go in August.
  11. The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell
    I’ve been meaning to read this for ages; I liked all the actual wolf stuff (it’s about a young Russian girl who retrains domesticated wolves so they can live in the wild), but the tone was strange. Sometimes it was deadly serious, with children being threatened by evil soldiers, and then witty banter, which made it a little confusing.
  12. The Muse by Jessie Burton
    I reviewed this here; it was entertaining enough, but, if a book’s going to use historical events, I think it needs to be a bit more focused on truthful representation of details than this is.
  13. Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari
    I love Ansari; he’ll always be Tom Haverford to me and that’s a beautiful thing. This book was both very entertaining and very interesting, with loads of insight into dating in the 21st century (and loads of reasons for boring married people like me to be glad they’re boring and married).
  14. Suicide Squad: Pure Insanity by Sean Ryan
    I’m really excited to see the Suicide Squad movie and, if there’s one thing I really like, it’s ruining a film for my husband by repeatedly saying, “this isn’t the same as the book,” so I’m trying to read as many of the graphic novels as possible before seeing it.
  15. Nevernight by Jay Kristoff
    This was another slow-starter, but I’m so glad I stuck with it; there were lots of elements which reminded me of other fantasy YAs, but the violence and unique narrative voice set it apart.
  16. Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo by Boris Fishman
    I didn’t really get into this; the premise of a Russian immigrant family whose adopted son goes missing, as well as the idea of a trip to Montana, made me want to read it, but the characters were all really hard to relate to.
  17. Sex Object by Jessica Valenti
    I won this from the publisher on Twitter: woohoo! I felt a little conflicted about the book; much of it is very hard-hitting and Valenti’s experiences of sexual harassment, especially as a child, are really disturbing. Crucially, I think too much of this isn’t linked to the central idea of female objectification and, consequently, at times, it’s more of a list of bad relationships. The section on becoming a mother, however, is extremely powerful.
  18. The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah
    I only discovered this by trawling through random books on Amazon but it is one of my best ever impulse book buys. It’s a stunning story about an albino woman in a Zimbabwean prison, convicted of murdering the man to whom her parents sold her. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in ages.
  19. And I Darken by Kiersten White
    This started slowly but the characters, especially Lada, made me intrigued enough to stick with it. There’s a lot of political machination and complex plotting, and it is quite hard to keep track of who’s double crossing who, but it’s a very good historical YA with an excellent feminist protagonist. Still waiting for the title to make sense, mind.
  20. Life Moves Pretty Fast by Hadley Freeman
    I love reading Hadley Freeman’s columns in The Guardian and this book about eighties movies and what we learn from them was even more entertaining. As an example of how effective it is, I am watching Footloose while writing this list.
  21. Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2: Angela by Brian Michael Bendis
    I am a big fan of the film, so it makes sense that I enjoyed this graphic novel; it was very funny and smart, and I liked finding out more about these characters.

  22. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
    Post-apocalyptic, Africa-set YA fantasy with huge amounts of feminist content; this was unlike anything I’ve ever read and was very, very odd. It also contained one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen committed to paper.
  23. Hold Your Own by Kate Tempest
    I am officially a Tempest fan; I’ve read her novel and now two of her poetry collections and I really, really love her style. The way she uses rhyme is so fresh and exciting; I’m determined to force some of this on my students next year.
  24. A Little in Love by Susan Fletcher
    This is a YA retelling of Les Miserables from Eponine’s perspective, which I found out about during a Twitter chat about classics. It was a sweet version of the story, giving Eponine a bit more development than she receives in Hugo’s original, although I did find it a bit slight; the brevity of the book meant that everyone seemed to fall in love after about 3 seconds of knowing someone, which felt weird.
  25. Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
    I’m slightly conflicted about this; it’s an interesting premise (what if the American Civil War never happened?) but I didn’t find the main character very appealing. I also don’t know how to feel about a white author telling the story of an escaped slave; I need to process my thoughts about this book.

This puts me on 177 for the year, which shouldn’t make me as happy as it does. Oh well.