In the Media: 14th September 2014

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought-provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

It’s been a bumper week for articles by/about female writers, particularly those concerning what it means to be a female writer and why reading books by women is so undervalued.

I think we’re all very aware of what my feelings are on female writers and this year’s Man Booker Prize but here’s Antonia Honeywell with her thoughts written just prior to the revealing of the shortlist. (Antonia’s blog which features a countdown to the publication of her debut novel, The Ship, is also well worth a read. In this month’s piece it’s about the years of writing it took to finally hold the proof of her novel.)

Ali Smith was one of two women lucky enough to make the Booker shortlist this year. Here’s a great piece she wrote for Liberty on D.H. Lawrence and fraudulent transactions.

Twice winner of the Booker Hilary Mantel’s also been in the media this week in preparation for the publication of her latest short story collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. She took The Guardian’s Q&A seemingly with tongue very firmly in cheek.

While the previously shortlisted Sarah Waters has been further discussing her latest novel, The Paying Guests. *MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT* Anna Carey has posted outtakes from her Irish Times interview with Waters on her blog. If you haven’t read the book, this will ruin it completely. If you have read the book, it’s very interesting.

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be chosen for a list, there’s a good piece by Julie Cohen on Women Writers, Women’s Books on being chosen for the Richard and Judy Book Club. (If you’re not in the UK, you might not have come across this but it is huge here.)

A writer who’s no stranger to lists, Kerry Hudson – it’d be quicker to type the prizes her debut Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma wasn’t listed for – was on discussing her excellent second novel, Thirst, why she established The Womentoring Project and working class characters in literature.

Her characters do unlikeable things sometimes and anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I like characters who do unlikeable thinks or are wholly unlikeable. Nathan Pensky has written about readers who don’t like books with unlikeable characters for Electric Literature. Interestingly, almost all of the writers he looks at are female.

Finally, this week’s lists. Another three excellent ones to have a look at:

The Last Boat Home – Dea Brøvig

In three years, she would finish school. She would not have to stay in this town forever.

In the mid-1970s, Else Dybdahl is a teenager in a small Norwegian costal town. It’s the sort of town that could be found in many countries, one where everyone knows everyone’s business and the local pastor rules over the town preaching fire and brimstone:

He cleared his throat. ‘Picture yourself dead,’ he said, ‘while the family who mourns you knows that you are damned to hell. Picture your husband or wife, your children, your parents, each weeping by your coffin for your forsaken soul. Some of you know that the path you have chosen is bound to lead you here at the end of your days. Others will look to your neighbours and deem yourselves absolved. But we are all of us sinners.’

The book is set just prior to the oil boom that made Norway rich. Else’s family are poor – her father is a fisherman too keen on homebrew – but this doesn’t prevent her from sneaking out of the house to meet Lars Reierson, son of the richest man in the town.

Lars lifted his hands to her shoulders and pulled her close. While greasy mists from the mobile kitchen settled over them like clingfilm, Else blinked at his grin. His lips gathered in a pucker before gluing shut her mouth. Hard, soft. Wet, rough. Her stomach seethed; bubbles danced along her throat. Between her ears. She was all fizz. It felt like laughing.


Two significant events happen in the book to change things for Else.  The first is the arrival of Circus Leona, an event which seems to disturb the whole town; some are thrilled and excited, others disbelieving that one of their number could rent their land to such an organisation. However, when the circus arrives, it seems to be one man who makes the biggest (forgive the pun) impression:

Valentin Popov’s gaze swept the crowd and a rising chant from the stalls brought a smile to his lips.

He turned to the animal. Laying his palms on its underbelly, he jacked his thighs. A cry tore from his throat. He closed his eyes and a vein snaked down his forehead. As he lifted the horse towards the ceiling of the Big Top, a network of blood vessels sprang to the surface of his skin.

‘Jesus Christ,’ said Lars under his breath. The strong man’s arms were swollen with mottled lumps of muscles when he opened his eyes and beamed at his supporters. They howled and clapped and stamped their feet while, above him, the horse tossed its mane in the air.

The second event occurs thirty years later and is Lars’ return to the town along with his wife and children. In a narrative strand which runs alongside the events of the 1970s, we see Else’s life now, one in which she runs her own massage therapy business, while taking care of her thirty-year-old daughter, Marianne and her eleven-year-old granddaughter, Liv. The arrival of Lars forces Else to confront the events of the earlier time, attempting to prevent the exposure of long kept secrets.

The Last Boat Home is a novel about relationships, those between mothers and daughters, between lovers, between townspeople, between residents and incomers. In crisp prose which conjures the haunting atmosphere of a insular town on a cold coast, Brøvig explores what it’s like to have to survive – mentally and physically – in a place you wish to escape. It feels inappropriate to say I loved this novel because parts of it are so brutal but it stands up to re-reading and I think that’s due to the sense of place it evokes and the vividness of its key events. I look forward to reading Dea Brøvig’s next work.


Thanks to Hutchinson Books for the review copy.

Ones to Read in 2014

For the last few weeks, I’ve been engrossed in some of the new releases coming our way in 2014. Here’s my pick of the ones I’ve most enjoyed. (Publication information is for the UK. Publication dates may change.)

A Song for Issy Bradley – Carys Bray

It’s been widely reported that Bray received a six-figure advance for her debut novel (her previous publication was a book of short stories Sweet Home which won the Scott Prize) and once you’ve read it it’s obvious why. A Song for Issy Bradley follows the Bradley family in the wake of the youngest child’s death. The Bradleys are Mormons – the father, Ian, is the local bishop; mum, Claire, married into the faith and questions it following Issy’s death. She crawls into Issy’s bunk bed and refuses to get out. Of the three remaining children, the teenagers, Alma and Zippy, struggle with usual teenage worries, being Mormons and the death of their sister, while Jacob, the youngest, tries to bring Issy back. As dark a subject as this is, Bray has an eye for humour in even the blackest situations and the book is an absolute joy from beginning to end.
Published: 19th June by Hutchinson

With 2014 being the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, there are a number of books set in this era published next year. Here are two great WWI novels and a WWII one:

Wake – Anna Hope

Another brilliant debut. Wake follows three women – Hettie, a dancer at the Hammersmith Palais, whose brother Fred has been left traumatised by the war; Evelyn, a clerk in the army pensions and benefits office whose brother Ed was an army captain, and Ada, whose son Michael was killed in the war, although she’s never been told how. These women’s stories are told over the four days in 1920 that it takes to bring the body of the Unknown Warrior from France to London. This is a powerful novel, cleverly structured. It left me feeling broken.
Published: 16th January by Doubleday


The Lie – Helen Dunmore

One of my favourite novelists returns with the story of Daniel, a young private in the war who has returned to the small Cornish coastal town in which he grew up. Haunted by the death of his best friend, Frederick, he acquires a smallholding and, besides visits to Frederick’s sister Felicia, isolates himself. But in order to maintain his detachment, Daniel tells a lie that will be his undoing. Dunmore successfully portrays a young man involved in horrific events and wracked with guilt over one event in particular.
Published: 16th January by Hutchinson


The Railwayman’s Wife – Ashley Hay

Ani Lachlan lives on the Australian coast with her husband, Mac, and their daughter, Isabel. Mac works on the railway, a job that’s meant he avoided serving in the war. Roy McKinnon’s returned from the war and has found that the poetry he was able to write during the event now evades him. When Mac is killed in an accident on the railway, Ani is offered a job running the town’s library. Perhaps the power of words can help heal both her and Roy McKinnon. Quietly affecting.
Published: 2nd January by Allen & Unwin (Already available on Kindle for the price of a chocolate bar at the time of writing.)

Still Life with Bread Crumbs – Anna Quindlen

Rebecca Winter, once a famous photographer – everyone had that poster (the one with the same title as the novel) – rents out her New York apartment and moves into a cottage upstate in the hope that the cheaper rent will help her cover ever increasing bills. Rebecca’s unprepared for country living but Sarah, who runs the local tearoom, and the makeshift crosses that Rebecca keeps finding on the hill outside her cottage might help her see a different sort of life. I loved it.
Published: 30th January by Hutchinson


The One Plus One – Jojo Moyes

Jess Thomas, single mum to two kids – Tanzie, a gifted mathematician and Nicky, her stepson who’s bullied for being different – works two jobs to make ends meet. Her husband, Marty, has left them to live with his mum and get himself together; he sends them no financial support and when Tanzie’s offered a 90% scholarship to the local private school, he refuses to help with the rest of the fees, forsaking Tanzie’s dream. Ed Nicholls, suspended from his own company for insider trading, finds himself lying low in his holiday home – one of Jess’ cleaning jobs. When they meet sparks fly – and not in a good way – which leads to one unusual road trip. As brilliant as we’ve come to expect from Jojo Moyes.
Published: 27th February by Penguin

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

Rosemary Cooke tells us her story; the story of her family – her sister, Fern, who was taken away when she was five; her brother, Lowell, who is missing, wanted for domestic terrorism, and her parents and the lifestyle they led when she was growing up – and the story of her time in college, specifically her friendship with the drama student (and drama queen) Harlow Fielding. Told in a forceful first person narrative with a fragmented structure, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves looks at human behaviour and finds us wanting. Highly quotable.
Published: 6th March by Serpent’s Tail

The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane

Ruth Field, 75, is widowed and lives alone on the New South Wales coast, Australia. At night, she thinks she hears a tiger in her living room, although she is aware that it’s probably her imagination. A stranger, Frieda Young, arrives at Ruth’s door and tells her that she’s been sent by the government to look after her. Frieda reminds Ruth of her time in Fiji as a young girl, so while her sons rarely visit, she allows Frieda into her life with some devastating consequences. Terrifying.
Published: 16th January by Sceptre

Fallout – Sadie Jones

1960s London. Luke Kanowski escapes Seston, Nottinghamshire, contacts Paul Driscoll, a man he’s met once, and embarks on fulfilling both their dreams of working in the theatre. Nina Hollings is following in her mother’s footsteps by training to be an actress. But dreams are limited by cages created by family and society and the lives of the protagonists will be jaded by them. Fallout takes Jones’ writing to a new level, ambitious and mature.
Published: 1st May by Chatto & Windus

The Dead Wife’s Handbook – Hannah Beckerman

Rachel has died, aged 36, of undiagnosed arrhythmia. She narrates the novel from the place she’s currently in – one which allows her some access to watch over her widowed husband, Max, and their seven-year-old daughter, Ellie. Rachel doesn’t like seeing their grief but when her best friend, Harriet, suggests Max starts dating again, Rachel has to start to come to terms with letting him go. This could have been schmaltzy but it’s far from it. Had me reading late and sobbing.
Published: 13th February by Penguin but you can read the first two chapters here.

The Virgins – Pamela Erens

1979, Auburn Academy, an elite Jewish boarding school. The virgins are the couple Aviva Rossner and Seung Young whose classmates, ironically, think are shagging like clichéd rabbits. Narrated by their then classmate, Bruce Bennett-Jones, Erens explores the gap between appearance and reality and the consequences that gap can bring about. Tense and ultimately, shocking.
Published: 30th January by John Murray

The Last Boat Home – Dea Brovig

1974, a small Norwegian costal town. Else lives with her religious mother and fisherman father. They are poor, although this doesn’t prevent Else from sneaking around with the son of the richest man in town. Nonetheless, it is something else that will have far deeper consequences for Else: the arrival of a travelling circus. The echoes of those consequences are still being heard in the present-day sections that punctuate the book. Atmospheric and disturbing.
Published: 13th March 2014 by Hutchinson

There is also a handful of books I haven’t had the pleasure of being able to read yet but I’m eagerly anticipating.

Firstly, two young writers whose debuts – Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma and Hungry, The Stars and Everything, respectively – I loved and bought for numerous friends have second novels arriving this year:

Thirst – Kerry Hudson

The beginning of a relationship is usually all about getting to know one another, sharing stories far into the night, comparing experiences, triumphs and heartaches, until we know each other inside out.

Not so for Dave and Alena. He’s from London, she’s from Siberia. They meet in a sleek Bond Street department store in the frayed heat of high summer where she’s up to no good and it’s his job to catch her. So begins an unlikely relationship between two people with pasts, with secrets, they’ve no idea how to live with — or leave behind. But despite everything they don’t have in common, all the details they won’t and can’t reveal, they still find themselves fighting with all they’ve got for a future together.
Published: 17th July by Chatto & Windus

Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth

You know how it is. Saturday afternoon. You wake up and you can’t move.

I blinked and the floaters on my eyeballs shifted to reveal Tyler in her ratty old kimono over in the doorway. ‘Way I see it,’ she said, glass in one hand, lit cigarette in the other, ‘girls are tied to beds for two reasons: sex and exorcisms. So, which was it with you?’

Laura and Tyler are best friends who live together, angrily philosophising and leading each other astray in the pubs and flats of Manchester. But things are set to change. Laura is engaged to teetotal Jim, the wedding is just months away, and Tyler becomes hell-bent on sabotaging her friend’s plans for a different life.

Animals is a hilarious, moving and refreshingly honest tale of how a friendship can become the ultimate love story.
Published: 1st May 2014 by Canongate

And two established writers:

The Blazing World – Siri Hustvedt

Artist Harriet Burden, consumed by fury at the lack of recognition she has received from the New York art establishment, embarks on an experiment: she hides her identity behind three male fronts who exhibit her work as their own. And yet, even after she has unmasked herself, there are those who refuse to believe she is the woman behind the men.

Presented as a collection of texts compiled by a scholar years after Burden’s death, the story unfolds through extracts from her notebooks, reviews and articles, as well as testimonies from her children, her lover, a dear friend, and others more distantly connected to her. Each account is different, however, and the mysteries multiply. One thing is clear: Burden’s involvement with the last of her ‘masks’ turned into a dangerous psychological game that ended with the man’s bizarre death.
Published: 13th March by Sceptre

The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned, the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa, a large silent house now bereft of brothers, husband and even servants, life is about to be transformed, as impoverished widow Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers.

For with the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the ‘clerk class’, the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways. And as passions mount and frustration gathers, no one can foresee just how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be…
Published: 4th September by Virago

I hope that’s whetted your appetite for what’s to come. Full reviews will appear here on the week of publication for each novel.

Thanks to all the publishers for review copies.

Hutchinson Books’ Proof Party

On Saturday (5th October), I had the pleasure of attending Hutchinson Books’ Proof Party at Cheltenham Literature Festival. The (tea) party was to celebrate forthcoming novels from Helen Dunmore, Dea Brøvig and Carys Bray. The three writers each read from their new books (all of which are brilliant; reviews coming in the new year) and discussed their work. It was a fascinating insight into the writing process and you can read all about what they had to say on my guest blog for the Windmill Books website: