Feminist fiction

All posts in the Feminist fiction category

Short Stories Challenge 2017 – Faithful Lovers by Margaret Drabble from the collection The Story: Love Loss & The Lives Of Women

Published March 5, 2017 by bibliobeth

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What’s Faithful Lovers all about?:

Faithful Lovers is about a couple who, after promising to never see each other again, meet up by chance in one of the places that they frequented.

What did I think?:

I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read any Margaret Drabble before although I am aware of her writing, in particular The Pure Gold Baby which I have a copy of on my Kindle but haven’t had a chance to get to yet. This is why I’m absolutely loving my short stories challenge, I’m coming across authors either I’ve heard of but haven’t read or complete unknowns and when I read a story such as Faithful Lovers, where the writing is pure class, it makes me so excited to catch up with her other works.

The title Faithful Lovers is quite ironic in a way as the couple, Viola and Kenneth are actually illicit lovers who are married to other people yet embarked on an affair. They tried to end things between themselves many times unsuccessfully but eventually managed to break apart for the sake of their marriages. When we meet Viola, she is walking down a street very familiar to her as it hosts a little cafe that the two used to meet in. She goes into the cafe, feeling incredibly sad and nostalgic and sits at “their” little table, ordering the same thing as she always had back in the day. Lo and behold, who should walk in but Kenneth himself who was coincidentally just passing but lets Viola know that he had been in here many times hoping to see her. The two realise that things never really ended between the two of them and they are still hopelessly in love with each other.

Obviously, I don’t recommend affairs to anybody but this was a touching, beautiful little love story that really had me rooting for both Viola and Kenneth. I warmed to them as characters and respected their decision to stop seeing each other but felt strangely glad that they still both felt the same way about each other, despite the long time they had been apart. I’m a bit of a hopeless romantic at heart (although I don’t admit it very often) but tend to steer away from the more cheesy romantic novels which normally leads to much eye-rolling and cringing, personally speaking! This story however was not cheesy or cringe-inducing in the slightest and it seemed like the world and fate had collided to bring these characters back together. Lovely, heartfelt writing that I thoroughly enjoyed and I’m definitely looking forward to reading more from Margaret Drabble!

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

NEXT SHORT STORY: Double Room by Ramsey Campbell from the collection The New Uncanny: Tales Of Unease edited by Sarah Eyre and Ra Page

 

Talking About The Muse by Jessie Burton with Chrissi Reads

Published January 11, 2017 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

The Sunday Times Number One Bestseller

A picture hides a thousand words . . .

On a hot July day in 1967, Odelle Bastien climbs the stone steps of the Skelton gallery in London, knowing that her life is about to change forever. Having struggled to find her place in the city since she arrived from Trinidad five years ago, she has been offered a job as a typist under the tutelage of the glamorous and enigmatic Marjorie Quick. But though Quick takes Odelle into her confidence, and unlocks a potential she didn’t know she had, she remains a mystery – no more so than when a lost masterpiece with a secret history is delivered to the gallery.

The truth about the painting lies in 1936 and a large house in rural Spain, where Olive Schloss, the daughter of a renowned art dealer, is harbouring ambitions of her own. Into this fragile paradise come artist and revolutionary Isaac Robles and his half-sister Teresa, who immediately insinuate themselves into the Schloss family, with explosive and devastating consequences . . .

Seductive, exhilarating and suspenseful, The Muse is an unforgettable novel about aspiration and identity, love and obsession, authenticity and deception – a masterpiece from Jessie Burton, the million-copy bestselling author of The Miniaturist.

What did WE think?:

CHRISSI: How does The Muse compare to The Miniaturist?

BETH: The Muse is Jessie Burton’s second novel after the roaring success of her debut, The Miniaturist which I thought was great but I actually enjoyed this one more. Physically speaking, they are both beautiful specimens with some gorgeous art but more specifically, they are both works of historical fiction that tell their stories from the perspective of strong women. In The Muse, we actually follow the stories of two women in different countries and time periods but who are strikingly similar in some aspects. There is a link between both stories which is brought together towards the end of the novel but part of the fun of this book is watching it all being brought together.

BETH: There are a number of supporting characters in this novel. Which one was your favourite and why?

CHRISSI: Ooh interesting question. I think my favourite character would have to be Cynth. I really liked their friendship and thought it came across really well in the beginning. It is their friendship that immediately hooked me in the story. I wish we would’ve seen more from her!

CHRISSI: The story is split between London in 1967 and Spain in 1936 – what parallels do you see between the two stories?

BETH: There are a lot of parallels between the two, one being as I mentioned above is the similarity between Odelle and Olive’s strength of characters. Both stories also feature a love interest that at some point in both narratives causes the women some concern for different reasons. Odelle and Olive are also both artists – Olive in the literal sense of the word is a very talented painter and Odelle is a writer. In both narratives they struggle with their art, being in both the thirties and sixties as something not many women did.

BETH: Discuss the character of Marjorie Quick and her relationship with Odelle.

CHRISSI: Marjorie Quick is an incredibly interesting character. I found her really intriguing right from the start. I think she saw something in Odelle right from the start which was really intriguing. Majorie really was an no nonsense character. She seemed incredibly protective over Odelle and I wondered why she was so keen to stifle the interest in the painting. She also seemed cautious over Odelle’s relationship. I found her to be an incredibly complex character and their relationship too seemed complex!

CHRISSI: Jessie Burton evokes two very different settings in London and Spain – how does she create the sense of place and time for both these storylines?

BETH: First of all, I loved that we got two such colourful stories with a multitude of intriguing and diverse characters. The author evokes the sense of London perfectly, from the fashions that were worn to places that were mentioned. It was quite a contrast between sections to be transported from a cold, dreary London to a hot, tempestuous Spain but the author’s use of descriptive prose meant that each setting was available in glorious and vivid detail.

BETH: Did you find any parts of this book difficult to read and why?

CHRISSI: If I’m honest, as I got further into this book I began to lose interest in it. I find Jessie Burton’s writing to be quite flowery and sometimes that doesn’t capture my imagination as much as I want it to. Don’t get me wrong, she is a brilliant writer, she’s just not my cup of tea.

CHRISSI: What was your favourite part of this book?

BETH: That’s such a hard question as I really loved every single minute from start to finish. There wasn’t even a narrative that I preferred, both were perfect and equally fantastic. If I had to choose though it would be a certain scene in Spain when a certain shocking event occurs that I was NOT expecting. (no spoilers!)

BETH: Would you read another book by this author?

CHRISSI: I don’t think so. A great writer- sure, but not one that I’ve connected with during both of her books.

Would we recommend it?:

BETH: But of course!

CHRISSI: Yes!

Star rating (out of 5):

BETH:

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CHRISSI:

3 Star Rating Clip Art

The Natural Way Of Things – Charlotte Wood

Published December 17, 2016 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

Two women awaken from a drugged sleep to find themselves imprisoned in an abandoned property in the middle of a desert in a story of two friends, sisterly love and courage – a gripping, starkly imaginative exploration of contemporary misogyny and corporate control, and of what it means to hunt and be hunted.

Strangers to each other, they have no idea where they are or how they came to be there with eight other girls, forced to wear strange uniforms, their heads shaved, guarded by two inept yet vicious armed jailers and a ‘nurse’. The girls all have something in common, but what is it? What crime has brought them here from the city? Who is the mysterious security company responsible for this desolate place with its brutal rules, its total isolation from the contemporary world? Doing hard labour under a sweltering sun, the prisoners soon learn what links them: in each girl’s past is a sexual scandal with a powerful man. They pray for rescue – but when the food starts running out it becomes clear that the jailers have also become the jailed. The girls can only rescue themselves.

The Natural Way of Things is a gripping, starkly imaginative exploration of contemporary misogyny and corporate control, and of what it means to hunt and be hunted. Most of all, it is the story of two friends, their sisterly love and courage.

With extraordinary echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale and Lord of the Flies, The Natural Way of Things is a compulsively readable, scarifying and deeply moving contemporary novel. It confirms Charlotte Wood’s position as one of our most thoughtful, provocative and fearless truth-tellers, as she unflinchingly reveals us and our world to ourselves.

What did I think?:

First of all, a huge thank you to New Books Magazine and the Real Readers program for sending me a copy of The Natural Way Of Things which was not only a stunning piece of cover art as you can see from the image of the book but was also a thought provoking and, at times, terrifying read. The horror in this novel isn’t from anything supernatural or paranormal however, the monsters in this case are humans that commit the most atrocious crimes and appear to be completely lacking in moral fibre or decency. These are the scariest creatures to encounter, because it reminds you that these type of people do actually exist.

The Natural Way Of Things was inspired somewhat by The Hay Institution For Girls, a real life prison in Australia in the 1960’s that locked up young girls that wouldn’t comply with the strict regime in the Parramatta Girls Home. The routine that the girls had to go through was completely inhumane. They were forced to keep their eyes on the ground at all times, they were kept in cells better fitting an animal and made to undergo hard labour on a daily basis. This is pretty much the situation that two of our main characters, Yolanda and Verla find themselves in when they wake up drugged and isolated with just the Australian outback and a high electrified fence for company.

The two girls find they are part of a larger group of young women whom have all been taken away from the lives they once knew because of some sort of sexual scandal. Each girl is punished immediately by having their heads shaved and their diet severely restricted whilst undergoing back-breaking work in the vicinity of their prison. Their jailers are Teddy, Boncer and Nancy (who masquerades as a nurse, but believe me, doesn’t have a caring bone in her body!) and the girls are constantly mocked, threatened and even beaten if they step out of line. I don’t want to say too much more about the plot but I will say that things are not always as they seem. The jailers themselves end up in a tricky situation that they hadn’t anticipated, one girl becomes a plaything for brutal Boncer in order to receive greater favours and other girls start to go slowly and irrevocably mad.

There is so much darkness and despair in this novel, I fear it might not be for everyone. Some parts you’ll need quite a strong stomach, other parts might make you shake your head in disbelief at the humanity (or lack of) it all. What I can guarantee is that you won’t be able to stop thinking about this book. Parts of it might re-play in your heads for nights to come and the shocking ending might have you wondering, like me, what on earth would happen next if the author chose to continue the story? I haven’t read anything by Charlotte Wood before and this is in fact her fifth novel. What I am certain of is that I’ll be checking out her back catalogue now because if her previous novels are half as disturbing as this one, I’m in for one hell of a ride.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

 

Circling The Sun – Paula McLain

Published October 20, 2016 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

Brought to Kenya from England as a child and then abandoned by her mother, Beryl is raised by both her father and the native Kipsigis tribe who share his estate. Her unconventional upbringing transforms Beryl into a bold young woman with a fierce love of all things wild and an inherent understanding of nature’s delicate balance. But even the wild child must grow up, and when everything Beryl knows and trusts dissolves, she is catapulted into a string of disastrous relationships.

Beryl forges her own path as a horse trainer, and her uncommon style attracts the eye of the Happy Valley set, a decadent, bohemian community of European expats who also live and love by their own set of rules. But it’s the ruggedly charismatic Denys Finch Hatton who ultimately helps Beryl navigate the uncharted territory of her own heart. The intensity of their love reveals Beryl’s truest self and her fate: to fly.

What did I think?:

You may be familiar with the name Paula McLain from her wonderful novel The Paris Wife about the first wife of Ernest Hemingway i.e. Hadley Richardson. I was delighted to hear that she was bringing out a new work of fiction about another strong female individual based once more on a real person that I shamefully knew very little about. Again, as when I finished The Paris Wife, the author writes such a compelling story that it instantly makes me want to go and research everything I can about the real woman behind this narrative.

The person McLain chooses to explore is Beryl (Clutterbuck) Markham, who spends much of her childhood on her father’s farm in Kenya, learning the art of training racehorses from her father and running wild with her childhood friend, a native Kenyan from the nearby Kipsigis tribe. Life is quite carefree for Beryl and she enjoys the simple pleasures in life until her mother decides to return to England, effectively abandoning her. However, Beryl was never the conventional “lady,” and grows up fiercely independent and proud, fulfilling her dreams of becoming the first successful female horse trainer in Africa, having a few “interesting” relationships with men before she meets the love of her life, suffering various heart-breaks and eventually breaking a record attempt for flying solo across the Atlantic in 1936, something which she is most famous for today.

There was so much to like about this book and to be honest, I wasn’t sure at first. I’m not a particularly “horsey” kind of girl and obviously, a big part of this book is Beryl’s relationships with horses so I wasn’t sure how much that would interest me. I do love being proved wrong though – the story of her trials and tribulations with people who doubted her and her fierce attitude towards achieving her status as a world-class horse trainer totally won me over. Beryl is, in essence, a flawed character and a lot of times, I didn’t particularly agree with some of the decisions she made, especially concerning her love life (which at points, had me actually quite exasperated!). However, she was real, she made mistakes, she loved, learned and lost like everyone else has to and this made the story so much more believable and poignant in my eyes. Beryl Markham was obviously a remarkable woman and I’ll definitely be reading her memoir, West With The Night to view her life once again from her own point of view.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

3-5-stars

 

Only Ever Yours – Louise O’Neill

Published October 8, 2016 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

In a world in which baby girls are no longer born naturally, women are bred in schools, trained in the arts of pleasing men until they are ready for the outside world. At graduation, the most highly rated girls become “companions”, permitted to live with their husbands and breed sons until they are no longer useful.

For the girls left behind, the future – as a concubine or a teacher – is grim.

Best friends Freida and Isabel are sure they’ll be chosen as companions – they are among the most highly rated girls in their year.

But as the intensity of final year takes hold, Isabel does the unthinkable and starts to put on weight. ..
And then, into this sealed female environment, the boys arrive, eager to choose a bride.

Freida must fight for her future – even if it means betraying the only friend, the only love, she has ever known. . .

What did I think?:

Oh my gosh, this book. There was a lot of buzz about Only Ever Yours on Twitter just before it came out and I really hoped when I came to read it that it didn’t fall prey to the dreaded “over-hype monster.” Luckily, I had absolutely nothing to worry about and this debut novel from the hugely talented Louise O’Neill is truly mind-blowing. It’s the kind of book you enjoy but not in the usual way that you would enjoy something. It’s a very uncomfortable piece of dystopian/speculative fiction that you can draw surprising (and horrifying) comparisons with the world we live in right now and a possible future existence.

In this alternative future, woman are now scientifically and genetically engineered to be as close to perfect as possible and their only function in life is for the service and pleasure of men. Groups of girls known as “eves,” are trained in special schools to fall into one of three categories: one (and the most desirable) to be a companion for a man i.e. bearing him children for life, two, to be a concubine and available purely to satisfy men’s sexual urges and three, to be a chastity who teach other eves but remain without a partner.

The school is absolutely brutal. Academic, it is not. In fact, being academic is actually a form of insult to these girls. They are taught merely how to be beautiful, how to look after a man and one of the most important things – how to remain slim and desirable. frieda and isabel are two of these girls, best friends but in fierce competition with each other and desperate to rank in the “top ten” of their final year which pretty much guarantees that they will become a companion. And no, grammar police, I didn’t make a mistake. The girls don’t even have capital letters to their names, that’s how worthless the life of a woman has become. However, when isabel begins to gain weight and the pressure cooker of so many girls together begins to explode, frieda must assess what’s most important, her best friend or her future?

This book was both hideous and amazing on so many levels. Hideous because of the issues it addresses, like self-esteem, bullying, eating disorders, objectification of women… the list goes on! Amazing because of the way it deals with them. Louise O’Neill puts a harsh and unforgiving spotlight onto a lot of real problems that both young girls and older women go through today and this honest, no holds barred exploration of these issues is both admirable and makes for an incredibly compelling and at times, nail-biting read. Be prepared to feel uneasy and disgusted by this narrative but if you’re anything like me, hugely relieved that we have a writer out there like this who’s prepared to speak about these kinds of things in a world where sadly so many women are still not equal.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

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Short Stories Challenge – A Mighty Horde Of Women In Very Big Hats, Advancing by Michel Faber from the collection The Apple: New Crimson Petal Stories

Published February 13, 2016 by bibliobeth

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What’s A Mighty Horde Of Women In Very Big Hats, Advancing all about?:

In the final story of this collection we learn what became of Sophie Rackham through the memories of her son who is speaking to us from the 1990’s at the grand old age of 92.

What did I think?:

For the final story in Michel Faber’s collection, I was expecting something stupendous as I was such a big fan of his novel The Crimson Petal And The White. In the Apple, Faber takes the characters from his ground-breaking novel and gives us an eye-opening tidbit into their lives post The Crimson Petal. I was so pleased that he chose the last story to give us an idea of what happened to Sophie Rackham after her extraordinary adventures with Sugar – I’m wary of spoiling things for people who haven’t read the novel so I won’t mention much more about what actually happened and generally speaking, I loved what I read but it left me hungry for a bit more.

My favourite part of the story was probably the first half. It opens with a man recalling his childhood with his mother, Sophie and I found it incredibly engaging and in points, frankly hilarious. Henry has spent much of his early childhood with his parents in Australia and has only recently at the age of seven, moved back to England where he was surprised to discover that this is where his parents real home is. He notes that it wasn’t especially easy fitting in at his new school due to the strong characters of his parents and their living situation which they share with an “Aunt” Primrose. She is no relation to the family but has been living with them as long as he can remember and is what the children in his class claim as unnatural, mainly due to the manner of her dress which is quite “manly,” in appearance and certainly not conforming to the fashions of the time (1908).

All three parental figures to Henry are such interesting characters and strident believers in suffrage and Votes For Women. The main crux of the story focuses on a famous Suffragette March in that year, which Henry is delighted to be a part of. Things don’t exactly go according to plan on the big day however, and it is the events at the march and certain things he has picked up in intimate conversations with his mother that makes Henry realise that his childhood was such an innocent time. He is only now starting to discover that the adult world is far more complex, and the adults he knows far more fallible than he ever could have believed.

As I mentioned, I really enjoyed the earlier parts of this story especially learning about Henry’s family in the events preceding the famous march. That’s not to say I didn’t like the second half – I loved how Faber empowered women and there were many bitter-sweet moments as Sophie Rackham tentatively explored her early life again before becoming overcome by the whole process. I just felt as if there should have been more information about Sophie’s childhood after the events of The Crimson Petal which was only gently and very teasingly touched upon. Of course, I would have loved to hear about Sugar also and what happened to her but she remains quite a distant, ghostly figure in this narrative. Saying that, The Apple is a great collection of stories for fans of the novel which heighten the whole reading experience and quite frankly, made me desperate for a follow-up!

Would I recommend it?:

Probably!

Star rating (out of 5):

3 Star Rating Clip Art

NEXT SHORT STORY: The Mean Time by Karin Slaughter (stand-alone).

 

Short Stories Challenge – A Married Man’s Story by Katherine Mansfield from the collection The Story, Love, Loss & The Lives of Women 100 Great Short Stories chosen by Victoria Hislop.

Published February 21, 2015 by bibliobeth

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What’s A Married Man’s Story all about?:

Featuring two centuries of women’s short fiction, ranging from established Queens of the short story like Alice Munro and Angela Carter, to contemporary rising stars like Miranda July and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, this is the biggest and most beautiful collection in print today.

Handpicked by one of the nation’s favourite novelists, Victoria Hislop – herself a great writer of, and champion for, short stories – and divided thematically into collections on love, loss and the lives of women, there’s a story for every mood, mindset and moment in life.

A Married Man’s story tells of a man who is unhappy in his marriage but unable to leave it which leads to him remembering events from his past.

What did I think?:

I was instantly attracted to this collection of short stories as they were picked and arranged by an author that I admire – Victoria Hislop, and spanned two hundred years worth of great women’s fiction. Hislop describes in the introduction that she split the stories into three sections: Love, Loss and The Lives of Women and the first story by Katherine Mansfield is the first in the “Love” section. Of course that does not necessarily guarantee a “happy” tale by any means as we all know that love can take many shapes and forms, perfectly demonstrated by Mansfield in the first story as she chooses to explore marriage from the eyes of a very complex (and desperately unhappy) married man.

As our unnamed male narrator is having the random thoughts that we are often familiar with in our daydreams, he is also observing his wife and child by the fire. His wife notices his restlessness and asks the loaded question: “What are you thinking?.” She is speaking rather timidly and tentatively as if fearing his response and when he answers that he was thinking of nothing, she mentions that he must have been thinking of something. Unfortunately this leads to him rebuking her even as her face “quivers.”

“Will she never grow accustomed to these simple – one might say – everyday little lies? Will she never learn not to expose herself – or to build up defences?”

So we find out our narrator is a very complicated man indeed. From comparing the shadow of his wife to a “Mother and Child” in his daydreams he seems to then turn on her in his thoughts and declare that he doesn’t see anything of the maternal in her at all. As he continues to think, we learn that he is very unhappy in his marriage and he believes his wife is too but neither of them will do anything about it. He explores the various reasons why people stay together i.e. for the children, for the habit, economic reasons, but in truth he believes that the two of them are “bound.”

A deeper reason may arise when our narrator starts thinking about his past which is a difficult thing for him to do. He remembers his childhood years with a weak and vulnerable mother confined to her room due to a traumatic birth and his father constantly busy in his pharmacy making potions for women to help them through hysterical periods. A lot of events are hazy and prove hard to recall but the one that stands out the most (and something I wasn’t expecting) is his mother who leaves her room for the first time to tell him that she had been poisoned by his father before dying of “heart failure” the next day. The rest of his childhood passes by with him feeling like an outcast, both in and out of his family home and suggests that the real reason he cannot end his marriage is that for once in his life he feels accepted and needed and is afraid to be alone again.

I’ve only read one other story by Katherine Mansfield which was also in my short stories challenge – Her First Ball but it is only with this tale that I’ve begun to appreciate the beauty in her style of writing. I was surprised to learn that this story is apparently unfinished as it felt quite adequate length and substance wise and it’s a shame we’ll never know what else she had to say. However, what she did write was evocative and incredibly intriguing and I loved exploring her narrator’s thoughts on love and marriage intertwined with the sad memories of his past loneliness. Even though he was fairly unreliable as a narrator, seeming to switch from points of view on his wife and life in general, he was a fascinating character to read about. It also made me wish that we had a second chapter on his wife’s points of view on the marriage as I began to feel quite sorry for her. If you’ve never read any Katherine Mansfield before, I’d recommend this story as a good place to start.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

3-5-stars

NEXT SHORT STORY: The Barn At The End Of Our Term by Karen Russell from the collection Vampires In The Lemon Grove