Review (plus ‘light’ fangirling): Girl Up by Laura Bates

girl-upGirl Up by Laura Bates is an extraordinary book. It’s a book I wish had existed when I was a teenager. It’s a book I want to buy for all the teenagers I know. It’s a book I want to give out to my colleagues at school, especially those with a direct responsibility for the welfare of our girls. It’s powerful, necessary and insightful.

It’s also bloody funny. In amongst educating her reader about media representation of women, the female anatomy and the evils of social media, Bates made me laugh out loud repeatedly. If the dancing vaginas in the inside cover aren’t hilarious enough, there’s brilliant commentary on the women who have made waves in the past; from eighteenth century Frenchwoman Emilie du Chatelet “having zero fucks to give” for Voltaire’s childishness, to Hillary Rodham “having not one solitary fuck to give” when she was told that NASA was not interested in recruiting female astronauts, Bates uses historical detail and one of my favourite phrases to move the reader in a number of ways. Sometimes even the chapter headings felt like things I should have tattooed on my body: “It’s My Face and I’ll Smile If I Want To,” I’m looking at you.

Although Girl Up is ostensibly aimed at younger women, it’s a book that will resonate with all of us. Unless, somehow, you are a woman who has never been catcalled, or patronised, or suffered mansplaining, or been told you shouldn’t do something because you’re a girl, or critiqued for what you’re wearing. As founder of the Everyday Sexism project (and author of the excellent book of the same name), Laura Bates is well placed to tap into the universal experiences of being a woman. She writes in a way that embraces the reader rather than alienating, even if they happen to be male; I’d love to think that men would read this book and find out something they didn’t know or hadn’t realised.

I was impressed by Bates on paper, but I was blown away by her in person. I was lucky enough to get a ticket to hear her talk about Girl Up at the Ilkley Literature Festival in a sold-out room packed with women from the age of 11 all the way up to their grandmothers. I also spotted at least three men in the room.

Bates began by talking about how she came to set up the Everyday Sexism project and how this ultimately led to the writing of Girl Up; in a position of influence after the project attracted comments from over 100,000 women worldwide, she found herself invited to visit schools and shocked by what she heard on those visits. What I find most inspiring about Laura Bates is that she saw something that she felt needed to change and she’s trying to enact that change; from lobbying the government to add sex and relationships education to the curriculum, to supporting the establishing of feminist societies in schools, she’s a wonderful advocate for human rights. Yes, a lot of those rights apply specifically to women, but she does not neglect men in her discussion. When asked what three changes she’d make if she replaced Theresa May as PM, she responded that she’d ratify the Istanbul convention (something I’d never heard of before she spoke about it), enact the legislation on sex and relationships education and, crucially, change the law on paternal leave and flexible working, to  protect and advance the rights of fathers who wish to take time off work after the birth of a child.

In addition to my own, much Post-It-ed copy of Girl Up, I have bought and already lent out another copy to keep at school. I feel really strongly that this is a book which needs to find its way into the hands of all humans, starting with teenage girls who need to hear Bates’ voice.


Sequel Season: Autumn Follow-Up Fever in Mini-Review Form

It seems to me that autumn is the season for sequels. In the last few weeks, I’ve read several, which has necessitated much Googling of previous books’ plots and anguish about how long I have to wait for the next book. As a side-note, I think you should be safe from spoilers as I feel I have shown uncharacteristic restraint in not actually mentioning anything. This is really just 856 words of enthusiastic adjectives.

blood-for-bloofRyan Graudin’s Blood for Blood gave me no such angst, because it’s the second in a duology; while I still maintain that this is not actually a word, it is a concept I approve of, because my legendary impatience means trilogies (or worse) give me nightmares. Blood for Blood is the sequel to the superlative Wolf by Wolf, which the author pitched as “The Man in the High Castle meets X-Men,” and if that doesn’t make you want to read it then we can’t be friends. I’m teaching Wolf by Wolf at the moment and I think it’s even better the second time around. Blood for Blood carries on right where its predecessor left off; I won’t actually elaborate on that in case you haven’t read Wolf by Wolf but, seriously, if this is the case, what is wrong with you? I read Blood for Blood in two sittings and was emotionally scarred by the end; it’s a really excellent book with plenty of action and, excitingly, a lot more character development. I loved it.

torchI also read A Torch Against the Night, Sabaa Tahir’s sequel to An Ember in the Ashes, in September: a large chunk of this reading took place when I was struck down with a massive cold and it was a weirdly suitable literary companion to my suffering. It’s funny how reading about people being tortured and killed makes you feel better about sneezing a lot. As with Graudin’s books, these follow straight on from each other, with Torch focusing on Laia’s mission to save her brother (I don’t think this is a spoiler because this comes from pretty much the first chapter of Ember). All the hideous villains are back and they’re even more villainous than before, and, in the absence of Ember’s superbly creepy setting, many more sinister locations add a sense of horror to Tahir’s writing. I really like this series but have one serious complaint; there are two more books to come (YAY) but the next won’t be out until 2018. Unless I have slept for a year – and it doesn’t feel like that – this involves me waiting and remembering a plot for over a year and I just can’t even talk about how sad that makes me.

crooked kingdomA hugely anticipated sequel and the conclusion to another duology, Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo, the follow-up to the magnificent Six of Crows, came out at the end of September. This involved the most intense Google-assisted revision as it turned out I remembered about 8% of what happened in the first book. So that was fun. What struck me about Crooked Kingdom was that it was bloody hilarious; I was chuckling and, at times, guffawing, until things got serious towards the end. Was Six of Crows this funny? I can’t remember, but I’m inclined to say ‘no.’ Interestingly, I’ve read Shadow and Bone in between Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom and am astounded by the difference; the earlier books seem positively adolescent compared to the duology. Also, warning: if you’re planning on reading the original Grisha trilogy and don’t want to be spoiled, be aware that Crooked Kingdom drops some serious spoilers which have made me feel like I probably don’t need to bother with the second half of Ruin and Rising or Siege and Storm. Crooked Kingdom is excellent; it gave me several emotions, sometimes all at the same time, and I was actually quite sad to think that there isn;t another book to come.

empire of stormsObviously, I can’t avoid mentioning Empire of Storms, the millionth book in Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass series. It was really long. Nothing really happened for about 600 pages and then suddenly it was ACTION THINGS HAPPENING OH LOOK SOME MORE CHARACTERS YOU DON’T REMEMBER. I haven’t read the novellas so there were a few moments when I felt like I was meant to be excited about the appearance of some random person but actually I had no idea who they were. In other news, this was the first time I have cared about Manon, so well done, S.J.M. Still hate Rowan. Glad that thing they’ve been talking about since the dawn of time finally happened. Felt slightly uncomfortable reading about it. You know what I mean. Also where was you-kn0w-who-I-mean-if-you’ve-read-it? That was not okay with me. How many more of these books do I have to read? Please tell me it’s one. And that it’s 8 pages long.

And the sequel-related excitement isn’t even over, people, because Gemina, the sequel to my precious Illuminae is not in my hands yet at the time of writing. In terrible news, it comes out the day I go on holiday and it is really unlikely the airport bookshop will have it at 6.30am when I am shouting at its employees. So, having waited a bloody year for it, I will have to wait a whole extra week. It’s not okay.

Any sequels you’re looking forward to? Have you read any of these?

Top Ten Tuesday: Halloween Reads

This year, I’ve embraced the Halloween season and read some horror in the run-up to the night on which I close the curtains and hope the neighbours’ kids can’t see that I’m actually at home. It’s England, okay? Trick or treating is not a thing here. As always, Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and and The Bookish.

Wytches, Volume 1 by Scott Snyder
This graphic novel is genuinely terrifying and disproves the idea that it’s scarier if you can only imagine something rather than see it.

The Fireman by Joe Hill
This isn’t so much scary as massively entertaining; the world has been swept by dragonscale, a disease which causes sufferers to spontaneously combust. The scariest thing is how long the book is (700+ pages) but it is a fun read.

The Lifeguard by Richie Tankersley Cusick
I read this last month as part of my Point Horror reread and, of the six I picked up, this was the only one which I actually found mildly scary.

Slasher Girls and Monster Boys edited by April Genevieve Tucholke
I didn’t have high expectations for this, having been disappointed by other YA short story collections, but this delivered in every way. Some of the stories are genuinely terrifying, particularly the one about an Alice in Wonderland-inspired serial killer.

World War Z by Max Brooks
I am assuming zombies count as Halloween-y, and this is basically just a supremely brilliant book which everyone should read. NB if you haven’t read it, be warned that is is literally nothing like the film. Like, they used the title and that’s it.

Daughters Unto Devils by Amy Lukavics
I read this last year and it scared the absolute crap out of me. Moving to a remote house on the plains, a family is terrorised by a demon and I am haunted by vivid nightmares. I really recommend this if you like books that make you need therapy.

The Women in the Walls by Amy Lukavics
Lukavics’ second novel isn’t as scary as Daughters Unto Devils but certainly builds a creepy atmosphere before exploding into The Yellow Wallpaper/The Craft towards the end. I shrieked at least 8 times.

Dracula by Bram Stoker
Parts of it are undoubtedly cheesy and it’s obviously dominated (in my eyes, anyway) by the fact that Mina and Quincey belong together because they are awesome, but the bit with the ship arriving and the captain being tied to the wheel still gives me the shivers.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
I finally read this last week after buying it last Halloween; it’s not so much that it’s scary, but the backstory of poisoning a family and the creepy house the survivors live in definitely make it a suitable read for this season.

The Witches by Roald Dahl
I don’t want to get into it but basically I have a lifelong phobia of this book and have only recently been able to keep a copy of it in the house. I was terrified of it when I was 8 and I’m still terrified 25 years later.

I’d love some horror recommendations; please leave links to your Halloween TTTs in the comments.


Man Booker 2016: Thoughts, Rants and Predictions

I did it, everyone! I read all six books on the Man Booker shortlist. Not only that, I did it in time to make wildly inaccurate predictions about which one should win! I know, yay for me. I feel like I should win a prize myself for this astounding reading achievement.

The point of the Booker is to award “the best novel in the opinion of the judges,” which makes guessing what’s going to win very tricky. I’m writing this a week before the announcement of the winner (because I’m going on holiday in 2 days and should probably use that time to relax rather than second-guessing the literary viewpoints of complete strangers) and, at this point, the favourite for the prize appears to be Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which I reviewed here; I found it quite hard work to read but my impressions of it have grown more positive the more I’ve thought about it since. I’d say this would be a fair winner; it’s grand in scope and does that generations-of-family-saga thing which awards judges seem to really like. The writing is beautiful and it’s historically educational too, so a win for Thien would be fine with me.

I’m baffled by the fact that, right now, the bookmaker William Hill has Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk at odds of 11/4, given that I thought it was almost comically terrible. I can’t imagine how it was even longlisted, let alone still in the running for the prize now. It’s mercifully short and that’s basically the only positive thing I can say about it. Covering some of the same ground (i.e. crap holidays) is All That Man Is by David Szalay, which I found similarly uninspiring; I see the artistry in covering 9 stages of a man’s life in different stories, but I found the general air of stasis and misery overwhelming. I’ve seen a number of jokes riffing on the title so I won’t go down that comedic route, but Szalay seems to be saying that man’s experience comprises being white, privileged and suffering from a dual sense of ennui and sexual frustration which is neither sympathetic nor interesting. I kind of see why All That Man Is has made awards shortlists, but it’s not one I enjoyed reading.

I’m surprised that Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (reviewed here) doesn’t seem to be a favourite for the prize; the writing is astonishing in places and, although I think it suffers a little from trying to be clever, it is also very funny, particularly when the narrator spirals into lengthy cultural critiques. The racial satire didn’t entirely resonate with me; I though Beatty was going for a bit of a Swiftian Modest Proposal style, but then lost confidence in my own interpretation.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh was my first venture into the shortlist and I enjoyed its lowkey, murky narrative. In my review, I thought of it as a moody sister to Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton (longlisted but, criminally, not shortlisted- and I am increasingly proud of this genius comparison. I don’t think Eileen should or will win the Booker, but it is something I’m happy to have read.

My favourite of the shortlist, and a book I’d love to see win, is Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project. Of all the books on the shortlist, this was the one I was least enthusiastic about reading; I’m not really into crime fiction and, frankly, I thought it sounded dull, but I was completely wrong and I’m glad my Booker project brought me to this Bloody one. I liked the idea of using “found” documents to tell the story of Roddy Macrae, rightly accused of a brutal triple murder in 19th century Scotland; the author breaks up the narrative between a “memoir” by the murderer, medical reports, a testimony by a psychologist and accounts of the trial, which means the reader can never really gain a sense of what’s “true.” I found myself trying to put together the different accounts and answer the questions raised, which, for me, is the sign of a compelling and successful thriller. While some of the other books on the shortlist bear superficial similarities, His Bloody Project is completely different, and I’d love to see Graeme Macrae Burnet rewarded for his ingenuity.

So there you go. Do Not Say We Have Nothing will probably win, which is fine. Hot Milk might win, which would spell the end of civil as we know it. His Bloody Project should win, because it’s ace. You’re welcome.

The Man Booker 2016 winner will be announced on October 25th.