Review: The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild

the-improbability-of-loveThe Premise: unlucky-in-love Annie unassumingly buys a painting for a man. She ends up keeping it. Unbeknown to her, it’s a famous painting. Cue lots of stuff about art dealers, Russian billionaires and forgery.

Happy Bookworm: The Improbability of Love is quite exquisitely written; it reminded me of Nancy Mitford in its style, which is a very good thing. Ostensible main character Annie is a sympathetic focus for the reader; at the beginning, she’s quite drippy, but, as the plot develops, so does she. Her relationship with her hard-drinking and unreliable mother is one of the novel’s most fascinating subplots, and the story that develops around the feasts Annie makes based on paintings is inspired. It inspired me, anyway, or, more specifically, it inspired my appetite. In the presentation of poor, sad Annie, I was reminded of Scarlett Thomas’ books, namely PopCo and the lovely Our Tragic Universe, although Annie is ultimately roused to greater action than the protagonists of either of those novels.
Rothschild uses one of the most bizarre narrative tricks I’ve witnessed, having the painting itself – the eponymous Improbability of Love – narrate from a first person perspective at intervals. It’s initially too weird and seems like a witty trick too far, but as the painting’s history is revealed, it sort of makes sense for the work of art itself to tell us about it. It doesn’t stop being odd, but a bit of oddness never hurt anyone, did it?

Sad Bookworm: it’s not so much ‘sad bookworm’ as ‘confused bookworm’ in the case of this book. It took me a long time to get into, partly because of the continual shifts in narrative perspective, and I didn’t care about all of the characters. The Russian guy, for example, could have been removed entirely and it would have made no difference at all to the plot. The cast of characters is massive and I’m not convinced that this was necessary.
The pace is a bit plodding too. It’s not a particularly action-packed story, which is completely fine, but having to be introduced to seven thousand characters does not help to add any impetus.

In Conclusion: I nearly gave up on The Improbability of Love a few times, but persevered on the assumption that, having been shortlisted for the Baileys Prize, I must have been missing something. Overall, I think my enjoyment just about shaded my frustration in reading it, but it was a close call.

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.


Review: Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

hot-milkLook, I’m just going to come straight out and say it: why is Hot Milk shortlisted for the Booker? Deborah Levy’s slight story of a mother and daughter having a rubbish holiday in southern Spain starts off reasonably sensibly, with the reader’s sympathies for narrator Sofia firmly established as she details her life with a hypochondriac mother, who may or may not suffer from a debilitating condition that renders her unable to walk. Except that sometimes she does walk. Which is confusing.

It seemed pretty clear to me that Rose, the mother from hell, was pretending not to be able to walk just to torment Sofia, who suffers from a paralysis of her own: a metaphorical one which means she talks about anthropology a lot but never actually does any. Sofia blames her mother for the fact that she ha to abandon her PhD but if her thesis was going to be anywhere near as meandering as her narrative, I can’t see her attaining a serious career in academia anyway.

Here’s the main problem; although nothing particularly unbelievable happens in Hot Milk (insofar as anything happens at all), the dialogue is so clunky and unrealistic that I ended up squinting at it to see it the words on the page were really as bad as the words I seemed to be processing. Having embarked on a lesbian love affair that seems to come out of nowhere, Sofia enjoys such lyrical conversations as this:

“You should make something with your hands.”
“Like what?”
“A bridge.”

In case you’re wondering, no: this doesn’t make any more sense in the context of the novel. The only speech that really makes sense comes on the three thousand occasions when Rose says, “get me some water, Sofia,” but then that’s so rude it made me want to smack myself round the head with this book in case that got me out of reading it.

All in all, I was not impressed with Hot Milk. Clearly this means it will probably win the Booker. If you’re after a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship, I’d steer you in the direction of Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen, which is far more entertaining and manages to make more sense despite the frequency with which the main character talks to squirrels.

A Review of Seven Ways We Lie by Riley Redgate

sevenways.pngMy first thought about Seven Ways We Lie (ABRAMS Kids/Amulet Books, March 2016) is that its author, Riley Redgate, has one of the all-time great names. I wish I was called Riley Redgate. Although, if I was, I wouldn’t be wasting my time writing novels; I’d be a private detective, because I can really see RILEY REDGATE INVESTIGATIONS etched in gold in a glass door.

The actual Riley Redgate, presumably unaware of the fact that her name has such great private detective potential, has written a book called Seven Ways We Lie. It is about seven high school students with interconnecting lives, and a standard amount of teen drama. Ostensibly, each character represents one of the seven deadly sins. More on this later.

The book is very easy to read, with convincing teen dialogue – the author information at the end of the book informs me that Riley Redgate (seriously, that name!) is disturbingly young, so writing realistic dialogue with the requisite amount of “like” involved probably wasn’t too much of an issue. Of the seven narrators, some are more appealing than others; I enjoyed how smart and snarky Olivia was, and Lucas was also good company. My favourite was Matt; it may be a bit of a cliché that the supposed stoner has hidden depths, but his were worth exploring.

You know what they say. “Three things last forever: faith, hope and spite.  And the greatest of these is spite.”

The whole seven-narrators thing does have its problems though. Some characters get more airtime than others; Redgate doesn’t slavishly stick to an order in who gets to speak, which is a good plan. I just found that, particularly at the beginning, I had forgotten who everyone was by the time they returned as narrator; some of the characters, like Valentine and Matt, have clear and distinct voices, and Juniper’s sections are completely different, but I’m not confident I could have randomly selected a page and identified the speaker. I understand that the seven narrators are key to the seven deadly sins motif, but I didn’t think this was particularly clear; if I hadn’t seen the cover, I definitely wouldn’t have realised this was a part of the story. It’s a really good conceit to work from, but not made explicit enough. If I’m going to be picky (and it appears that I am), I also wasn’t overly fond of the teacher-pupil relationship storyline. As a teacher myself, I found it rather silly; seriously, what teacher moves to a new town and starts chatting up teenagers? How could that possibly end well?

In terms of diversity – such a buzzword in YA at the moment – Seven Ways We Lie features a pansexual character as well as one who is possibly asexual; I’ve seen a lot of chat about the need for more representation of the full LGBTQIA spectrum recently, and Seven Ways We Lie is a good inclusion in these conversations.

Overall, Seven Ways We Lie is an enjoyable and original novel, with plenty of humour as well as drama, and will appeal to readers who are more capable of keeping track of multiple narrators than I am.