Thursday, 21 January 2016

For Visual Verse: Cloud-Spotting

What's this? Fiction you say?

Yes indeed, I've a short story up on Visual Verse.

It's called Cloud-Spotting

The idea is you are given a picture to respond to in 50-500 words and you have an hour to do it.

Have a read!

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Book Diary 2016

Following on from 2015, 2014 and, ahem, 2012, I'll be keeping my Book Diary up this year.

Goals are to keep up the energy of Diverse December and read more diversely.

I'm also now the co-editor of the Read Women account, so you can expect lots of women's writing here as per usual. Some men do tend to slip in...!

And remember, if you want to add the books I've written to your own Book Diary, you can!

Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue

The Boys on the Bus

EVB Short Story Anthology

EVB Essay Collection

So. The Diary...

The Heart to Artemis: A Writer's Memoir, Bryher: (new) I love Bryher. I've been fascinated by her for years. And yet apart from poems here and there, I'd never really read her. This is such a great memoir. She had an extraordinary life.

Margaret the First, Danielle Dutton (new): I'm reviewing this for 3am Magazine and it's excellent.

A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf (re read): like much of Woolf, I hadn't read this since university. It's so fascinating and depressing how much of it is true today - re women and poverty, lack of social mobility in the arts, and the devaluing of women's stories. It's definitely worth a re read if, like me, you read it when you were 19.

The Old Man and Me, Elaine Dundy (new): imagine my joy that the author of The Dud Avocado had written more than that! This is a pacy, blackly funny read with London all sordid and seedy and a heroine worthy of Sally-Jay.

Frenchman's Creek, Daphne du Maurier (re read): I love this book. I love it! I read it every year. And every time I wish the last page would be different. And it never is. I love the equality of their relationship.

Lady of the Rivers, Philippa Gregory (re read): my favourite of that series.

Hotel, Joanna Walsh (new): hoping to review this more fully but just to say, this was like reading my life. In all wonderful and painful and revelatory ways. Really brilliant book that defies genre and brings together Freud, Katherine Mansfield, the Marx Bros and more.

At Hawthorn Time, Melissa Harrison (new): I adored this. I loved all the detail about nature and wildlife, and the slow reveal that brought all the strings together.

The Loney, Andrew Michael Hurley (new): Chilling! In all the best ways. Takes gothic tropes and does something clever and twisty and chilling with them. A must read.

A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson (new): Atkinson is so good at bringing violence into the domestic. She's so good at writing war. I'm so glad it won the Costa. When I read the end I shot upright in bed and yelled 'shit!' because I couldn't believe it. A lump in my throat just thinking of it.

How to build a girl, Caitlin Moran (new): Just started this, a. because I love Caitlin and b. I heard there's some Dolly Wilde referencing going on and she's my interest right now.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Elizabeth Taylor (new): Taylor is a writer I have been meaning to read for a long time and a kind friend on Twitter posted me two books to read. Wow oh wow. She's really something. If like me you haven't got around to reading her before, do it now.

Claudine in Paris, Colette (re read): I needed a distraction.

In a summer season, Elizabeth Taylor (new): I'm so glad to have been introduced to this fascinating and subtle writer.

Ladivine, Marie Ndiaye, trans. Jordan Stump (new): I'm reviewing this troubling and extraordinary book so watch this space.

Three Powerful Women, Marie NDiaye, trans. John Fletcher (new): It's a troubling, frightening book, in all the best ways.

All my Friends, Marie NDiaye, trans Jordan Stump (new): An excellent collection of short stories.

Physical, Andrew McMillan, (new): I'd forgotten to add this in! Wow oh wow this made me feel why I love poetry again. It is SO GOOD.

Loop of Jade, Sarah Howe (new): I'm reading this at the moment. It's stunning. I am so so loving re-discovering poetry.

Unmastered: A book on desire, most difficult to tell, Katherine Angel (new): It was so intensely refreshing to read an honest book about women's sexual desire and pleasure. Some of it was almost uncomfortably intimate, in the ways I related to it. But refreshing, in that discomfort. Good work!

Angel, Elizabeth Taylor (new): The discover of this brilliant writer continues apace!

Valley of the Dolls, Jacqueline Susann (re read): BECAUSE. Because. I love it. Filthy, I know.

The Lonely City, Olivia Laing (new): Laing's new book is utterly superb. It is just so honest, so beautiful, such a fantastic exploration of loneliness and art and city.

Ladies of Lyndon, Margaret Kennedy (new): Started this last night, mainly because I liked the cover.

Pond, Claire-Louise Bennett (new): This really is the most extraordinary book I've read for a long time. It's stayed with me, the voice and her words. What she does with language. A must must must read.

Glass and God, Anne Carson (new): This is stunning. I mean, absolutely stunning. The Glass Essay took my breath away. If you haven't read her yet, do do do!

Claudine at School, Colette (re read): I've been reading all these super-intense twisty tricksy books by awe-inspiring women writers. Which is great but means I can't get to sleep. So Claudine became my bedtime reading.

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte (re read): Started re reading this last night as a consequence of reading The Glass Essay.

The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry (new): Absolutely stunning, a glorious gorgeous delight. I can't wait to see what Sarah does next!

Flaneuse, Lauren Elkin (new): Brilliant read on women walking through cities in literature and life. Elkin is such a fine writer, critic and memoirist - love her.

Heroines, Kate Zambreno (new): This is probably the most important book I've read in a while. It's part lit crit, part memoir, part feminist polemic. I was constantly photographing and tweeting sections - scribbling furious notes. And, fittingly, (as you'll see if you read it) it's brought me in touch with a whole host of awesome heroic women to talk books with.

The FlameAlphabet, Ben Marcus (new): Sometimes I read books by men...! And this one is definitely worth a read. Dystopic, threatening, gloriously intelligent. Do read.

The Queen's Fool, Philippa Gregory (re read): My favourite Gregory novel and not only because if I had a time machine I'd travel back in time purely to have a fling with Robert Dudley.

The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory (re read): Because I love her.

Vertigo, Joanna Walsh (new): Complex, twisty, thought-provoking - all the things that make Jo such a fascinating and interesting writer.

Luxe, Amy Key (new): I loved the wealth of objects and detail in this marvellous wonder.

A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel (re read): You know why I read this, right? Because we're living in a period of political upheaval that makes the backstabbings of the French Revolution seem comparatively tame. I do feel like we are stuck in an awful nightmare.

Our Endless Numbered Days, Claire Fuller (new): looking forward to chairing an event with Claire this Thursday.

Hera Lindsay Bird, Hera Lindsay Bird (new): This fantastic poet - she's inspired me to try and write poems. I love it, it's so raw and visceral and honest.

History, Elsa Morante and trans by William Weaver (new): This book is something else. It's very long. It's very dreamy. It reminded me at times of Dostoyevsky. It is horrible and frightening and dreamlike.

Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel (new): This was an interesting read although by its very nature (she's a top NYC therapist) all the case studies were very wealthy. Be good to have heard from some other case studies from other backgrounds.

I love Dick, Chris Kraus (new): both thrilling and problematic in equal measures. I want to read it again, right now! In its most wonderful bits it is truly inspiring. I feel like it will take a while for me to process it.

The Joyce Girl, Annabel Abbs (new): I've reviewed this for OD 50:50 so you can find out more when that goes live but suffice to say it was great. I am continually angry with the big guys of modernism.

The Beauty of the Husband, Anne Carson (new): Oh my god I love her so much. I would happily spend the rest of my life reading Anne Carson, on a loop, forever. "Beauty convinces. You know beauty makes sex possible./Beauty makes sex sex."

Life begins on Friday, Ioana P├órvulescu, trans Alistair Ian Blyth (new): this is such a remarkably clever novel, an historic fiction set in fin de siecle Bucharest. I loved her characterisation of Nicu!

Bluets, Maggie Nelson (new): I really enjoyed this. I've heard a lot of mixed things about Nelson but this was so perfectly formed, thought-provoking and beautiful.

The Complete Stories, Clarice Lispector, trans Katrina Dodson (new): I haven't read them all! But am dipping in and out with joy.

Chelsea Girls, Eileen Myles (new): Muscular, exhilarating writing. I wish I had read this book when I was a young woman exploring my bisexuality. Still ecstatic aged 31 though. Want to devour her work.

The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood (re read): Because me, Sarah and Caroline kept talking about it on Twitter, so I had to have a read. Cried, as ever.

Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively (re read): such an elegant novel and also much tear-jerking.

Been re-reading I Love Dick for a review.

Post-Capitalism, Paul Mason (new): started at the weekend in my occasional "sometimes I read books by men" series.

The Taste of Apple Seeds, Katharina Hagena, trans Jamie Bulloch (new): My lovely Read Women colleague Alexia sent me this from Germany. I liked it but I wonder if the translation was a bit uneven in points.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte (re read): The annual re read!

Travels with myself and another, Martha Gellhorn (new): I adore her. She's so fabulous and bad ass.

A stricken field, Martha Gellhorn (re read): Everyone should read this book, now, during another refugee crisis. It was written in 1939 and could have been today.

Rare Earth, Paul Mason (new): A pacy, tightly-plotted thriller with added surprises!!!

Paris France, Gertrude Stein (re read): I read this because I thought it had the thing about too much fathering going on in it. But that's Everybody's Autobiography! Still, it's such a joy, this book. So no hardship to revisit it even by mistake.

Middlemarch, George Eliot (re read): Because why not?

Autumn, Ali Smith (new): Ecstatic. Here's my full review.

My Antonia, Willa Cather (re read from the past): I read this as a student, remembered very little. It really is an extraordinary novel especially to read now with everything happening re immigration in the USA.

Claudine in Paris, Colette (re read): You know it.

Guapa, Saleem Haddad (new): Loved this, reviewing it for Open Democracy

Joy in the Morning, PG Wodehouse (re read): makes me LOL.

Love in a Cold Climate, Nancy Mitford (re read): felt like I was overdue some time with Cedric.

The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia, Mary Talbot and Bryan Talbot (new): Good and beautiful illustrations but why frame it via Perkins-Gilman was the question I was left with.

The Trouble I've seen, Martha Gellhorn (new): incredibly moving, far too relevant for current times.

Live Working or Die Fighting, Paul Mason (new): this was fascinating. I'm now obsessed with learning more about Louise Michel.


Tune in for Book Diary 2017... which I think is going to kick off with more Gellhorn and Penelope Fitzgerald...

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Review: Beautiful Broken Things by Sara Barnard

I’ve never really read YA, not even when I was a YA myself. Except A Little Love Song by Michelle Magorian, proving there is always an exception to any rule. 

So it was a real treat for my first proper YA experience to be the fantastic Beautiful Broken Things by my very clever friend Sara Barnard, published by Macmillan. 

There’s the disclosure: Sara is a friend of mine but I would be writing the following glowing review whether I knew her or not. Because this book merits it. 

The novel is told in the voice of Caddy, a teenager living in Brighton. Like most teens, she’s concerned with schoolwork, exams, parents and, of course, boys. But, in a refreshing twist from a lot of fiction aimed at teenage girls, boys are not the primary pre-occupation of this book. Female friendship is. 

Caddy’s best friend is Rosie. Although they don’t attend the same school, the pair are inseparable - doing everything together and calling or texting each other every evening to update on the day’s events. However, when the beautiful, cool and mysterious Suzanne starts at Rosie’s school, Caddy is worried that their close bond is under threat.

The exploration of this friendship triangle is the first reason why I love this book. Beautiful Broken Things is chiefly a wonderful and insightful portrayal into the complexities of female friendship during adolescence.

After all, when you’re in your teenage years, boys may come and go but your first real romance, the most intense relationship you have at that age, is with your best girl friend (hi Emily!). She’s the person you spend your spare hours with, the person you giggle hectically at nothing with, the person you curl up on the sofa watching movies with, the person you share every secret, insecure, sad and happy thought with. The best friend relationship between girls is such an intense and fairly universal experience that most girls share, and yet its importance is so often neglected on our cultural landscape (think how many books and films and TV shows are about the bond between young men. Not so many for girls, hence why Girls itself generated so many thinkpieces). I think this was one of the reasons why My Brilliant Friend by Ferrante was such a hit (and why we women know it could never have been written by a man!) - so many women were able to relate to the complex, messy and rewarding friendship between Lila and Lenu (reviewed here). 

In Beautiful Broken Things, Barnard has written a similarly beautiful portrayal of female friendship that will be instantly recognisable in all its loving, messy, resentful, difficult and ultimately sisterly complexity. 

Barnard cleverly portrays the seductiveness of Suzanne’s mad, wild recklessness to Caddy who is herself feeling fed up of being seen as the sensible ‘good’ girl who always gets her homework in on time and never skips class. She explores how difficult those teenage negotiations of identity can be, as we try and work out who we are, how we want to be and how we want to be seen. Through her friendship with Suzanne, Caddy gets to flirt with her more daring and dangerous side; she gets to try and stymie everyone’s expectations of her. That’s a highly intoxicating thing when you’re a teen - hell, it’s a fairly intoxicating thing now. 

Barnard’s exploration into these questions of identity and friendship are sensitively handled. She shows the highs of those moments of pushing our own boundaries, and pushing against the boundaries imposed upon us by school and parents - as well as the devastating lows when those experiments come crashing down, and the satisfaction of finding some kind of balance and resolution, of finding a way to be.

The interactions between Suzanne, Rosie and Caddy are wonderfully and genuinely written. Barnard has captured the love and warmth the protagonists feel for one another - from the silly jokes and teasing about school and boys, to the genuine and moving demonstrations of care for a friend in trouble or in need. Her characters are multi-faceted - Caddy is quite straight and sensible with a desperate desire to do more than what people expect of her; Rosie is confident and brash and yet has very real feelings of insecurity; Suzanne is mad, bad and dangerous to know but she's also full of warmth, heart and love for her friends. 

Because the characters are so very three-dimensional, the chats they have feel real - from the text message gossiping to the longer, more thoughtful and revealing conversations Suzanne and Caddy share when they sneak out to the beach and enjoy an illicit drink. Barnard is such a deft and skilful writer when it comes to portraying the lived experiences of teenage girls - she is never patronising, never talks down to her readers, and is fully emotionally invested in their world. It’s a skill that will ensure she has a dedicated and generous readership who will be thrilled to see their own inner-lives and emotional narratives reflected back to them. 

There is a second key theme running through Beautiful Broken Things and that is male violence and the aftermath of abuse - abuse suffered by Suzanne in her life previous to meeting Caddy and Rosie. 

And it’s that word ‘aftermath’ that matters here. So many books, from ‘misery memoirs’ to teen fiction, deal with the happening of abuse. Sometimes this is done in a respectful and educational way that seeks to reveal the horror and impact abuse can have on a young person (Once in a House on Fire springs to mind). Others linger on the wrong side of sensationalism. Few however, focus on what happens after the abuse - how one copes away from the abuser, how one integrates into a new life, a new setting, and how one deals with the lasting and often ever-present impact of that abuse. 

In Beautiful Broken Things, Barnard sensitively explores life after abuse. Through Suzanne, she shows the complexities of survival - the difficulties of finding new friends, relating to new carers, keeping a terrible secret, dealing with basic triggers, and the challenge of trying to create a new future where you are not defined by the trauma and horror of the past. 

Importantly as well, Barnard looks at how the impact of abuse plays out on the people around the survivor. By making the novel Caddy’s story, she explores the ripple effect of abuse - how the hurt done to Suzanne affects her friends and friendships, as well as her relationships to the adults in her life and to boys too. It’s so powerful to see the aftermath of abuse portrayed as it really is - abuse doesn’t end with a ‘rescue’ and the survivor riding into the sunset, it moves into a new phase of the survivor negotiating the past and the future and her relationships. 

There’s an honesty in showing how the happy ending just isn’t that simple; how the future is more complex than that moment of freedom, and that pain and abuse reach out and touch the lives of those around the survivor in frightening and in loving ways. 

This is a vital book for young women to read - and for those of us who remember what it was like to be a teenage girl, in love with the most important girls in your life. 

Beautiful Broken Things is available for pre-order now. 

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Sexual assault, and the dangers of Cologne's Code of Conduct

Yesterday, the news reported that on New Year’s Eve in Cologne nearly 1,000 men descended on the city centre and sexually assaulted dozens of women. Many women complained to the police, although from what we know about reporting rates we can surmise that the number of assaults was higher. We know that there was at least one rape. 

In the wake of the attacks, the Mayor of Cologne has issued a ‘code of conduct’. But this code of conduct is not, as one might assume, directed at men. It does not seek to remind men that groping, assaulting and raping women are crimes for which they will feel the full force of the law. It does not seek to remind men that it is illegal to violate a woman’s bodily autonomy. It doesn’t even bother to give a cursory reminder of the importance of consent. 

No, this code of conduct is focused on women. It aims to tell women how they had better behave should they want to avoid being groped, assaulted and rape. 

The code of conduct advises women to keep men at an arm’s length – something that is very difficult to do if a man has decided he is determined to grope, assault and attack you, as many women including myself can attest to. It reminds women to stick together with friends, and not to be near men who they don’t know and trust (never mind the fact that around 90% of women are raped or sexually assaulted by men known to them). To finish off her victim blaming nicely, the Mayor warned women to remember the potential dangers of drunken events

It’s shocking that in 2016, we are still hearing the same, tired messages that tell women it is up to us to change our behaviour to prevent rape and sexual assault. 

The code of conduct sends a clear message: that women are not entitled to the same freedoms as men. It tells us that while men can go out and enjoy their New Year’s Eve, women must follow a set of rules that we are falsely told will keep us ‘safe’. These victim-blaming attitudes restrict women’s freedoms – our freedom of movement and our freedom to occupy public space in the same ways men do. 

But it’s not just the impact victim-blaming messages have on women’s freedoms. The dangers are more extreme than that. Firstly, telling women to change their behaviour does nothing – absolutely nothing – to prevent male sexual violence. And secondly, the more we repeat the idea that women are responsible for preventing the violence committed against us, the harder it becomes for women to access justice. 

Let’s take that first point – that telling women to take ‘precautions’ will stop male violence. Well, we know this isn’t true. After all, we’ve been trying this tactic for decades and on average 85,000 women are raped in the UK every year and there are nearly half a million sexual assaults.  If telling women not to drink, not to walk home alone, not to wear short skirts was an effective way to stop rape, then we wouldn’t see these numbers. 

The reason victim-blaming prevention messages don’t work is because the responsibility for rape lies wholly and solely with the rapist. Although it might seem comforting to imagine that if women just did x, y or z then rape would go away, there is really nothing women can do to prevent rape. Our best way to reduce the number of rapes and sexual assaults is to educate men and women about consent, respect and our rights to our own bodily autonomy. Telling women that they can’t enjoy the same freedoms as men offers no solution. 

The victim-blaming narrative has other dangerous consequences: that the more we send out a message that it's up to women to prevent rape, the more we risk women’s access to justice. 

Today in the UK, only 6.5% of reported rapes end in a conviction and on average only 15% of rapes are reported. These devastatingly low numbers are inextricably linked to the idea that women are to blame for the rapes committed against them. 

It starts with reporting – women are less likely to report rape and sexual assault if they fear being blamed and disbelieved. Once in the courtroom, the rape myths that blame women and seek ways to absolve the perpetrator have an impact on juries. Research has found that jurors who hold stereotypical attitudes towards rape – stereotypes typified in Cologne’s code of conduct – are more likely to judge complainants harshly and defendants leniently. 

Victim blaming attitudes seriously impair women’s access to justice. They do nothing to stop rape, they don’t help lock sexual offenders up, and they restrict women’s freedoms in a way that entrenches gender inequality by tacitly denying women public space. 

So what should we do instead? Well, we could start by launching safety campaigns – such as this one in Bristol – that focuses on perpetrator behaviour. And we could encourage open and educational conversations about consent, respect and our absolute right to bodily autonomy. We could encourage training for police and the media in victim blaming and its repercussions, and put a stop to the police practise of ‘no-criming’ rape reports. 

We need to change the conversation. Blaming women and telling women to bear the responsibility for male violence isn’t working. So long as we keep falling back on this tired old method to ‘stop rape’, then we are doomed to failure. And that failure is coming at a huge, unacceptable cost to women. 

Need support? You can talk to Rape Crisis on 0808 802 9999