Sugar and Snails by Anne Goodwin

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At fifteen, Diana Dodworth took the opportunity to radically alter the trajectory of her life, and escape the constraints of her small-town existence. Thirty years on, she can’t help scratching at her teenage decision like a scabbed wound.

To safeguard her secret, she’s kept other people at a distance… until Simon Jenkins sweeps in on a cloud of promise and possibility. But his work is taking him to Cairo, and he expects Di to fly out for a visit. She daren’t return to the city that changed her life; nor can she tell Simon the reason why.

Sugar and Snails takes the reader on a poignant journey from Diana’s misfit childhood, through tortured adolescence to a triumphant mid-life coming-of-age that challenges preconceptions about bridging the gap between who we are and who we feel we ought to be.

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I want to start by thanking Anne Goodwin for asking me to review Sugar and Snails. It’s the first book I’ve read in a long time that provoked the words ‘I can’t actually believe that just happened’; ‘I did NOT see that coming’; ‘Orange is the New Black can WAIT! I HAVE to read the next chapter’ exit my mouth. For these reasons and some others, it’s one of the books that I have been most excited about reviewing since starting out on my little reviewing sideline. Its one of those books that I want to talk and talk about but because of my religious beliefs (Thou Shalt Not Provide Spoilers) its the one book that I can’t talk about at all! Because much like the classic Bruce Willis thriller The Sixth Sense, once you know the twist, you’ll never see it the same again. But I’ll give it a go…

Sugar and Snails follows Diana, a middle aged, moderately successful psychology lecturer. Despite her good education and a position at one of the top universities in the country, her head is firmly stuck in the sand, but is at serious risk of being dislodged through the efforts of an ever helpful friend and a prospective love interest.  The story is told through Diana’s voice. I’m not often a fan of books with a single voice, but I can’t imagine Diana’s story being told any other way. She narrates her life in the first person, with a graceful poise that transcends the upheaval that she has encountered on her journey. Goodwin delicately navigates through Diana’s memories and emotions with a nimble dexterity, gently guiding the reader as we plunge into Diana’s psyche with a tenderness that was never afforded our heroine. That is until we discover Diana’s secret around half way through when it feels as though we’ve sidestepped into a raging torrent of ice; not because of what the secret is, but because of Goodwin’s sudden shift from softly subtle to pointedly direct.

It is around this point that I realised how perfectly this book is written. With one sentence, Goodwin forced me to simultaneously question all preceding events while doubting my expectations for the remainder of the book. It felt like being frozen in a tangled crossroads of possibilities; a deer caught in the headlights moment, if you will, which is how I imagine Diana must have felt more than once throughout her life.

Anne Goodwin

The Author, Anne Goodwin

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Sugar and Snails is the  classic example of why one should absolutely never begin writing a book review before the reading of said book is finished. When reviewing, I always make a few mental notes as I read, thinking about what I’ll say about the book, themes I’ve picked up on etc. Inevitably, very few of my Sugar and Snails notes have proved useful due to the surprising turn of events circa 56% in (thank you Kindle with your ever precise page counting techniques), but there is one such note that I think is still valid. It is this: The book’s main focus is a decision made by a 15 year old, and the consequential lifestyle and doctorate research led by Diana about the ability of adolescents to make meaningful decisions. In real life, adolescents are made to make some of the most important decisions of their lives, especially with regards to their education and future careers. They also think that they are the only ones having to make these decisions and that nothing will ever be simple again and the world will probably end next Wednesday. I’m sure we can all agree that for the most part, these are all very correct and reasonable observations for teenagers to make. I therefore think it would be very useful to have this book available in all high schools. Either in the library or as part of a lesson taught by an open minded teacher who is not easily embarrassed. Because despite some controversial topics, or maybe because of said controversy, and while not everyone faces Diana’s dilemma, we could all be better rounded people for learning about said dilemma in order to support those who do have such a decision to make.

Sugar and Snails deserves to be pushed to the front of the queue in all book club reading lists. The depth of the characters and the intricate problems that they face will provide so many discussion points. Now that I know the twist, I am excited to reread Sugar and Snails and to pick up on the many muted clues sprinkled throughout the text.  So please, for me, read this book. If you can’t do it for me (rude) do it for you. Just go now. Buy it. Read it. Then come talk to me about it. Because it is absurdly brilliant.

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“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt

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“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014. In need of some direction for my next read, I turned to the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014 which is where I found it short-listed. Along with some others from the short-list, I ordered “The Goldfinch”. Eventually I picked it up, which after dabbling in kindle reading was quite a shock to my weakened arm muscles (its really big. 864 pages big).

I had no idea what it was about. Baileys told me it was good so I bought it. Before delving in, I gave the dust jacket a cursory glance to prepare my brain for what was to come. This is what I read:

“Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and an absent father, miraculously survives a catastrophe that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Theo is tormented by longing for his mother and down the years he clings to the thing that most reminds him of her: a small, captivating painting that ultimately draws him into the criminal underworld.”

If I had read this in the mellow light of a bookshop, I most likely would have put it down as it doesn’t sound like my usual cup of coffee (black no sugar in case anyone’s taking notes). But I had it so I read it anyway.

Since finishing the book, I’ve had a look at some reviews and am surprised by the polarity of opinions about it. Vanity Fair give far too much of the story away before giving Tartt some backhanded compliments, followed by some outright insults. The Sunday Times is also fairly mean. The Guardian is much more upbeat about the whole thing. I’m not going to tell you what happens. Tartt does that very well all on her own. I do want to talk about her characters, her voice and some themes that I took away from the book.

I’ll start with our tragically naive protagonist, Theo Decker. What a guy. Its been 11 years since her last book so I imagine that Theo Decker has been with Tartt for some time. In a 800+ page book with a single narrator, I don’t doubt that he’ll be sticking around a little longer. We meet Theo in his 20s before hurtling back in time to 13 year old Theo.  Because of what happens, the novel deals a lot with “what ifs”. When looking through Theo’s eyes, its hard not to constantly ask this question regarding him as a person. In some ways, when comparing 20 something Theo to his younger self, despite everything that he’s been through, he’s still exactly the same naive little boy. Its almost as if his personal growth was stunted that day in New York.

The relationship between Theo and Boris is essentially harnessed in “bad” things. Drugs, truanting, theft etc. Many more “what if” questions arise around this friendship. Boris is the antithesis of Theo and exactly what the book needed, if not Theo himself, who arguably would have done very well without Boris. In a much different way. If Theo is stunted and naive, Boris is worldly wise and fearless. Boris is also quite fun to read with his myriad of accents from his wandering childhood.

There are many other characters of course, which don’t take up too much airtime but nevertheless perform prominent and pivotal roles within the plot. Most of these characters are physically absent throughout the narrative, being abroad, away at school or dead. But Theo still carries them with him. The most striking example of this is on page 783 (I’m now going to tell you something that happens in the book even though I said I wouldn’t do that) when Theo is holed up in an Amsterdam hotel room. He is in trouble. He’s done some terrible things. He’s full of fever and other questionable substances. He’s alone and doesn’t know what to do. He flicks through the channels on the TV and this happens:

“I stopped astonished at the sight of my twenty-five-year-old father: one of his many non-speaking roles, a yes-man hovering behind a political candidate at a press conference, nodding at the guy’s campaign promises and for one eerie blink glancing into the camera and straight across the ocean and into the future, at me. The multiple ironies of this were so layered and uncanny that I gaped in horror.”

There are many more examples of weird coincidences throughout the novel. Not only that but it is so visual, that all along I kept saying how great this story would be for a film and/or TV show. And now The Hollywood Reporter tells us that it’s happening!! Very exciting! I feel I should get some kind of cut. No?

The main lesson that I took from “The Goldfinch” is that good can come from bad. Its so simple and yet so powerful. You might argue that it was unnecessary for Tartt to pre-empt this pearl of wisdom with 835 pages, but I would disagree. Theo’s realisation at this point throws a whole new light on all that has passed. It ultimately allows him to feel acceptance and move forward philosophically rather than look back in anger (I heard you say…little Oasis kicker for you there). While reading the closing pages, it is difficult to decipher Theo’s voice from Tartt’s. It is clearly Theo speaking, but what he says is clearly very important to Tartt, or she would not have devoted a whole novel to illustrating the points that she lays out here.

I don’t say this about many characters, but since I’ve finished “The Goldfinch”, I miss Theo. I’m used to his voice and his tone. But because I am a 100% certified bookaholic and must therefore be holding and/ or be near a book 24/7, I confess that the “The Goldfinch” was still warm when I reached for the next one. Oh the shame. While this is good for my book addiction, it does not allow me to forget Theo. This morning I found myself reading “Lolita” in Theo’s voice, which is all sorts of wrong. But that is testament to Tartt’s creation.

Tartt has created a masterpiece not unlike its namesake painting. In it she champions the importance of the Arts. This is seen in the dangerous lengths that her characters go to, to protect Art as well as portraying the black hole that it leaves once its gone.

There are so many other things I could say about this book but the wordcount is bordering on silly and you probably have a life to be getting on with, so I’ll leave it with this: yes, its big and bulky and yes, it is mostly very deeply sad, but a good book is worth sticking with. There will be moments when you think, “C’mon Tartt! Lighten up!”, but then, 800 pages later, you’ll read a line. And that line will put it all into perspective. A light bulb will flicker on above your head and you will feel so very wise. I can’t tell you which line that will be because it will most likely be different to the one I picked out.

And then, when you’ve read that big book all by yourself, you can treat yourself with some sort of delicious cake. There you go. Cake. You deserve it.

Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

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I seem to be on a bit of a roll with feminist inspired novels recently. I was introduced to my latest read, Only Ever Yours by this article from the author of said novel, Louise O’Neill.

Only Ever Yours is a dark tale of a dystopian world in which “eves” are designed in order to satisfy the reproductive and sexual needs of the “inheritants”.

Its vaguely the premise of The Handmaid’s Tale with a heavy dollop of the bitchiness of Mean Girls.  If you haven’t experienced these classics, picture an oppressive patriarchal society.  Women’s rights are limited to the maintenance of their looks and/ or wombs, while an expiration date with a disturbing finality hangs over them.

O’Neill really captures the voice of the insecure teenager, trapped in an image obsessed world.  Where the winner never gets there by being a nice or considerate person.  Selfishness and vanity prevails.  Any hint of intelligence or doubt will render you useless in this world and get you thrown on the pyre. Literally.  Because girls are meant to be seen, never heard.  And not all girls. Just the perfect ones.  All the rest will be hidden.  Sounds familiar, no?

We see the entire story unfold through one eve’s perspective.  I don’t usually enjoy novels with a sole narrator.  I like to hear other characters’ voices and see the story from different angles.  However, I don’t think this novel would have worked any other way.  Through Frieda’s solitary voice, O’Neill channels the isolation and uncertainty that all of the eves must have felt.

Only Ever Yours has been billed as a YA novel. Again, not something that would usually attract me to a story.  But I’m so glad I read it.  The only reasons I can think of for it being a YA novel is that the protagonist is a teenage girl, and it is an easy read.  But otherwise, the themes are very relevant no matter what age/gender you are.  The implications presented in this book are very dark and scarier still, not all that unfamiliar.

As well as the whole production of eves as men-pleasin’ objects, Only Ever Yours explores friendship and rivalry.  I think most of us can testify to the fact that teenage friendships can be toxic, particularly within a group of girls.  It might be well into your twenties before you can shake off a venomous friendship.  The eves however do not have this luxury.  Just as with their bodies, the eves have no say in their social standing. This includes being victims of degradation and humility from all angles.

On the whole, I like this book.  But I did want a bit more from it.  Maybe to see a little more of the world that O’Neill had created outside of Frieda’s confined parameters.  I’d really like to see a sequel based on the life of an inheritant, just to get another perspective on the story.  Because, like all good feminist writing, Only Ever Yours highlights the pressure put on men, as well as women, to perform in a certain way in society.

Only Every Yours is available in real life bookshops as well as online for your electronical reading device.

Let me know what you think!

Why you should read “Unspeakable Things” by Laurie Penny

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If you’ve never heard of Laurie Penny, here’s a snippet from her website introducing herself:

Laurie Penny, journalist, activist, feminist, troublemaker, nerd and net denizen. Contributing Editor at New Statesman. Writes and speaks on social justice, pop culture, gender issues and digital politics for The Guardian, Vice, Salon, The Nation, The New Inquiry and many more. Lives in a basement full of spiders in London. I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.

I was given Unspeakable Things as a birthday gift earlier this month by my good friend Gem (5th July, for future ref. Pop it in your diary just in case you forget. I like books and cakes FYI). Once I’d finished marvelling at the super soft lusciousness of the cover, I excitedly read the blurb. I immediately knew that this was the book for me and as I was to discover, the book for everyone.

Unspeakable Things is the culmination of 27 years of living on planet earth as a female human.  Laurie has chosen to use her writing talents for the good of women (and men) kind everywhere.  Unfortunately, this has attracted some deeply unpleasant abusive responses over the years for Ms Penny.  But no amount of vile abuse distributed on the internet and other places will slow this one down.  She ain’t no quitter.  She is the tenacious mouthpiece for feminists everywhere.  This is why you must read this book.

If you are already a feminist, you will read this book and nod along knowlingly, sometimes with the faint taste of bile in your mouth as you analyse the disgusting things that humans who are not white and male often have to face.  If you are not a feminist, (or are a member of the very disturbing “we don’t need feminism” movement) read this book and you will learn.  Oh, the things you will learn.  Read this book.

Like she says in the opening line, “this is not a fairy tale”, so don’t read it if you fancy a light read.  With chapter titles such as “Fucked-up Girls”, “Lost Boys”, “Anticlimax”, “Cybersexism”, and “Love and Lies”, you can’t expect too much frivolity.  But read it anyway.

I don’t want to go into too much detail about what the book says, because I could never do justice to Laurie Penny’s powerful and direct writing.  I have written and rewritten this review SO many times.  Each one longer and more convoluted than the last and consequently deleted and restarted. But that’s how inspiring Laurie Penny’s writing is.  As I read the book, I felt like every chapter was a springboard for my own feminisms and I filled the best part of an A5 notebook with some of my own horrible experiences of sexism.

This book has been dismissed by some as being “too personal, too politically strident, too left-wing, too queer or too dark” (http://laurie-penny.com/trolls-sabotage-unspeakable-things/).  Well it is personal, political, left wing and all those other things, of course it is, how could it not be?  What else were these people expecting?! How can you be expected to write a book of any substance without those things?  Read it and you’ll see.

Honestly, for at least the first two chapters, I did little else but tell my long suffering colleagues how very ranty this book is.  So very ranty! And the things it ranted about were so unpleasant and ugly and upsettingly true.  I also said this to a lovely lady in a coffee shop as I sat reading, after she asked if I was enjoying the book with the intriguing title and striking cover.

But, as we all know, there is an awful lot to rant about.  And who am I to talk? I can rant.  I am very good at the ranting.  The ranting is one of my top four hobbies.  Rants are a necessary human survival technique.  Better out than in as they say.

Also, as I left that coffee shop, I gave the lady a scrap of paper with “Laurie Penny, Unspeakable Things” marked with my unruly scrawl, so that she would remember to buy it.  You’re welcome.

I don’t know if this is weird to say seen as I’ve never met the girl, but as a fellow 27 year old human woman, I feel really proud of Laurie Penny for writing this book.  She has captured the voice of a generation, which I feel I can say with authority, as I am her generation.  She has been writing and campaigning for political change from such a young age and she has accomplished so much already.  I look forward to her future publications.  Lets hope they are as ranty as ever, because that’s what we need!

Definitely read this book.

Buy it. Now.

 

The “F” Word

The following paragraphs contain some of my own thoughts on feminism.  Enjoy.
I’ve noticed quite a lot of debate on the use of the “f” word recently.  There are many a strident feminist fighting for our equal rights and condemning various misogynies on the old web.  This makes for inspirational reading of a slow afternoon at work (thanks Vagenda Magazine). It also provides hope that there are other reasonably intelligent people out there fighting against some of the things we are exposed to daily in the media.  But there are also people, particularly some ladies, who have come forward to say that they are categorically NOT a feminist.   Some actress recently made this statement, adding that women have their place, as do men and the natural order of things shouldn’t be upset (or something to that effect).
So, if feminism according to the very wise Caitlin Moran is accurate, (that all those with a vagina and all those who have a vagina and want to be in charge of said vagina, are feminist) then surely every woman on planet earth is a feminist?   I would second this Ms Moran.  What self-respecting woman does want to outsource the admin of her lady bits?  So why is there such a hoo ha about the word feminism?
Feminism has become the social equivalent of marmite.  You love it or you hate it; you are or you are not.  For some reason, there are those ladies that feel it would tar them to be associated with the word “feminism”.  Everyone, male or female, is entitled to their own opinion.  I am no expert and I certainly do not take kindly to people telling me what to do or think or believe.  I don’t want to cause offence, but maybe those particular individuals who categorically say they are not feminists just aren’t educated enough about what feminism actually is??
Its about freedom, equality, choices.  Feminists are not bra-burning, men haters.  Sure, those people exist but they are mis-using the word feminist just as many religious extremists mis-use their religion for terrorism.  Ok, maybe not to such an extreme but you get my point.  There has been a lot of talk about reclaiming the word “feminist” and “feminism” and rightly so.
To all those ladies who do not want to be branded a feminist, I say this:  Do you want equal rights?  gender equality in all forms?  the right to make your own choices?  follow any career path that you want irrespective of “gender specific roles”? equal pay? be in charge of your own life?  So, what’s the problem?  You’re kicking up a fuss about a word and nothing more.
Of course, men can be feminists too.  There are lots of men who are feminists who probably don’t even realise that they are.  Maybe we should change feminism to “peopleism”. We could be “peopleists”.  Much more inclusive. This might encourage more people to start talking about the equality issues rather than going on about how they don’t want to be feminists because feminists are those angry women who don’t wash and have shaven heads a la Britney in the dark days.
Just a thought.