Monday, 24 September 2018

Guest post by Rhiannon Lassiter: THE REFRIGERATOR MONOLOGUES by Catherynne M. Valente

Rhiannon Lassiter is an author of science fiction, fantasy, contemporary, magical realism and psychodrama novels for juniors, middle grade and young adults. Her first novel, Hex, was accepted for publication when she was nineteen years old.

Rhiannon’s favourite authors include Ursula LeGuin, Margaret Mahy and Octavia Butler. Her own novels explore themes of identity, change and transition. Her ambition is to be the first writer-in-residence on the Moon.

I like high concept fiction. A lot of my time is spent searching for the Big Idea that has enough in it to sustain me for an entire novel. That’s true of me as a writer and as a reader. So I was immediately drawn to Catherynne M. Valente’s The Refrigerator Monologues, a title that clearly references a concept crossover that is so brilliant it’s incredible it hasn’t been done before.

The Vagina Monologues was an episodic play written by Eve Ensler in 1996, twenty year ago. It was groundbreaking work focusing on women, sexuality and violence. 'Fridging' is a concept with an even longer history but the term was popularised in 1999 by Gail Simone though her website Women In Refrigerators, which compiled a list of female characters in comic books who were killed off as a plot device. 
Valente herself is an award-winning author, a recipient of the Tiptree award for The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden and the Locus Award for Best Young Adult Book for The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. She’s been on my list of authors to explore for some time but this was the first book of hers I’ve read.
It took me some time to get hold of a copy because it was published in the US first and there is no electronic edition, perhaps because the paperback format makes significant use of illustrations by comic book artist Annie Wu.
As a high concept novel with an idea that sold me instantly, it completely delivers. It launches the reader into an invented superhero universe, one with its own original superheroes, super villains and everyone in between. Page Embry, the narrator of the first section is dead “the deadest girl in Deadtown” who lives – or rather doesn’t – in a pocket dimension, a suburban hell, with all the conveniences of modern unlife. She is the President of the Hell Hath Club, a coffee-klatsch of women scorned. During the course of the book, these six women tell their stories, with intermissions for Page to introduce them and enjoy some soul music at the Lethe Café.
The writing is snappy and savage. These women had lives, hopes and dreams, before their stories came abruptly to an end when a villain put a full stop to them. The men they loved were superheroes, and these women’s deaths have served to motivate their next big plot action or their need for revenge. But the women themselves have been forgotten, or were never considered that important, bit part players in a bigger story.
It must have been a huge piece of work to - as Valente mentions in the acknowledgements - “(create) an entire superhero universe to make a point” and yet it’s done with considerable wit and elegance. The reader’s knowledge of this invented universe is largely assumed by the narrators, and it is at once original and recognisable. Characters like Grimdark, a Batmanesque figure, Proessor Yes who is Headmistress of St Ovidius’s School for Wayward Children, or The Arachnochancellor are completely believable creations. The world they inhabit is a superhero universe that hangs together or doesn’t with the right combination of techno babble and magical effects.
The individual chapters work well as monologues, neatly encapsulating the stories of these women: tragically comedic, well paced, mixing foreshadowing and self- reflection. I did wonder if the individual voices were sufficiently differentiated. If you pick up the book at a random page can you tell if it’s wayward child Julia Ash or conceptual artist Daisy Green speaking? And unfortunately, I mostly couldn’t. I think it’s a weakness in the book, although it may be that Valente was going for this precise effect: six women, speaking with one voice. But it’s not a very diverse cast; self-described as “mostly very beautiful and very well read and very angry” but also predominantly white and middle class. I think Valente could have gone further here to give us a richer palette of voices.
The chapter I think is most different is the one from the point of view of wise-cracking Pauline “Polly” Ketch, a villainous sidekick with more than one Bad Daddy. Her section stands out for her sparky villainy although she’s probably the most deluded of the characters, the one who believes her lover and murderer will return for her and bring her back to life. Spoiler, he doesn’t.
That brings me to my other criticism of the book, which again is feature of the authorial intention. There is no redemption arc for these women. They have been variously dead-ended or flatlined, destined to spend eternity in clothes picked out by relatives for them to wear in their coffins. Their monologues and their conversations all concern a world which they won’t be returning to. And although they have created a small semblance of a live for themselves with drinks and music and friendship, their stories have nowhere to go, their monologues end where they began, in Deadtown.
It has to be this way because that’s the big idea of the book. Women in superhero stories are typically foils to men, used and abused to further a male plot of action and violence. We are told from the beginning that Page can’t change. But it makes for a depressing read, despite the wit and sparkle. You want the women to rise up and start again, to see them re-enter the fascinating universe Valente has created. But they can’t and don’t and the book would be weaker if they could. It’s frustrating.
I’m glad to have read this book and I will look for more from Valente who I sense is an author coming into her own superpowers.  I recommend it highly. But I’m not sure how much it would stand the test of a re-read. It does what it says on the tin and it does it well and with flair. If I was left wanting a little bit more, perhaps that’s a sign that I need to read more of her work.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Guest review by Savita Kalhan: A FINE BALANCE by Rohinton Mistry

Photo: Mal Woodford
Savita Kalhan was born in India, but has lived in the UK most of her life. She got the writing bug when she was teaching in the Middle East, where she lived for several years. Now living in North London, she runs a teen reading group at her local library in Finchley, and writes for children.

Her debut novel, The Long Weekend, published by Andersen Press, is a tense thriller about two boys who are abducted after school. Her new book, The Girl in the Broken Mirror was published in May by Troika Books. ‘This is an unflinching, multi-layered exposition of male privilege, male abuses of women, and the clash of cultures. With hard-hitting clarity it also shows how girls are silenced, made to feel ashamed of their bodies, ashamed of wrongs done to them. Ultimately this is a poignant personal story of a girl’s fight to rebuild and re-connect with herself and those who love her after a truly harrowing experience.’ Love Reading 4 Kids

Some stories stay with you forever; they leave an indelible mark on you, leave you wanting for more, for the story to never end, for the writer to never stop writing. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is such a book for me.

It was also the work that had the most profound effect on me and my understanding of the country of my birth, its customs, traditions and people.

Mistry did not start writing until after he had left India with a degree in Maths and Economics from the University of Mumbai. He emigrated to Canada to work in a bank. It was some years later that he decided to pursue a degree in English and Philosophy, and it was then that he started writing stories. He won the Hart House literary short story prize two years consecutively. Tales of Firozsha Baag was a collection of short stories set in an apartment block in modern day Mumbai. Then came Such a Long Journey, which was shortlisted for the Booker prize, and won many others. Later, after it was adopted as a University text in Mistry's old university, it was to come under attack by extremists and was withdrawn despite a huge outcry.

A Fine Balance is the book of his that I truly love. It stands the test of time. As a portrayal of life in Bombay in India during the 1970s, it is, for me, without comparison. I've lent out my hardback copy to friends, who, with the exception of one person, have absolutely loved it. The one exception's pronouncement on it was: 'Good melodrama' - which was tantamount to blasphemy in my eyes.

The sad fact of the matter is that the everyday lives of the characters may well have seemed like melodrama to him, as though the author had simply sensationalized the harshness of his characters' lives for the sole purpose of giving the reader something more than a portrayal of the humdrum nature of abject poverty. For all the harsh realism contained within its pages, and there is much, the novel is one of carefully, almost poetically, crafted prose, which forms a story that is memorable and harrowing. It is far removed from the magical realism of Salman Rushdie's work, also originally from Mumbai, yet there is something magical in each page of this book, and even the most minor character you stumble upon within its pages is treated to the magic of his penmanship.

A Fine Balance was shortlisted for the Booker prize, has won countless others, and even made it onto Oprah Winfrey's Book Club. It hasn't been to everyone's taste. Germaine Greer hated it and said it in no way resembled the India she had come to know after spending all of four months there. Others have criticized Mistry for appropriating a turbulent time in Indian politics to meet his own ends and the needs of his characters. Personally, I don't understand this criticism, unless such critics balk at the atrocities of those times coming under public scrutiny after such a long period. In A Fine Balance Mistry explores the inherent inequalities of the caste system, extreme poverty, high level corruption, and life during the turmoil of Indira Gandhi's Emergency, and the sterilization programme, and the 'Beautification' policies, which led to the forced removal of street-dwellers into indentured labour. His characters are drawn from many Indian communities including the Parsi, Hindu, Muslim communities; from Untouchables to Prime Minister, from beggars to thieves; but there are four central characters of different backgrounds and histories, and it is through their hearts and minds that the story is told.

It is a tale of a Parsi woman, Dina, two tailors and a student from the north, four disparate people whose lives, outlooks, preconceptions and prejudices are fundamentally changed over a period of time after their first meeting. Tragedy exists at the heart of each of their stories, it permeates each page, yet the resilience of their spirit sits right next to it, tempering it. 'You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair' - and quite simply, that is exactly what Rohinton Mistry does.

His work speaks to me as an Indian, but it is universal in scope and in its depiction of humanity. He is, above all, a writer who plunges you, heart and mind, deep into his stories, where you remain submerged until the final page has been turned and you come up, gasping for air.

'... his sentences poured out like perfect seams, holding the garment of his story together without drawing attention to the stitches' - this is a line spoken by one of Mistry's characters, and perhaps best describes the mastery and craft of Rohinton Mistry himself.

In A Fine Balance he has created a complex and tightly-woven tapestry of humanity at its best and at its worst. For me the book is a literary masterpiece. It is a story you will never forget. His most recent novel Family Matters was published in 2002, but I am sure that I am not alone when I say that I am still waiting for Mistry’s next story.

A Fine Balance is published by Faber.

Monday, 10 September 2018

Guest review by Anne Fine: WILD ABANDON by Joe Dunthorne

Anne Fine writes for adults and children. She has twice won both the Carnegie Medal and the Whitbread Children’s Book Award, as well as the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, two Smarties Prizes and other regional and foreign awards.

She was twice voted Children’s Author of the Year and was Children’s Laureate from 2001-3, when she set up My Home Library, a website that still offers freshly designed and freely downloadable modern bookplates to encourage young readers to form their own home libraries from the second hand books around them. She's published three anthologies of poetry for different ages called A Shame to Miss 1, 2 & 3. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and has been awarded an OBE and her work is translated into over forty languages. Anne has two daughters and lives in County Durham.

I came to Wild Abandon, by Joe Dunthorne, partly by accident. I'd been reading a heap of those wonderful women writers whose work had been either so neglected or so unpuffed that I'd only recently caught up with some of them. (You know: Dorothy Whipple, Jennifer Johnston, Elizabeth Harrower, Rosamund Lehman, Emily Eden, Mollie Panter-Downes, Madeleine St John, etc etc etc).

And suddenly I thought, if I don't read something male and modern, I'll go mad. The first to be recommended to me by my ace metropolitan reader was London and the South-East, by David Szalay, and that was so much fun, and so insightful and funny about the life of an ad salesman, that I'm not surprised it won the Betty Trask Prize. Metropolitan Reader's next suggestion was Wild Abandon, which I have enjoyed so much I've chosen it for book group (who have also been busy over the last months catching up with some not quite so neglected or unpuffed women writers like Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Gardam and Vita Sackville-West etc etc etc).

Do 'em all good, I thought.

It will, too. Dunthorne tells the story of a ghastly sounding but well-meaning commune in wettest Wales. (This book will put anyone off the idea of roughing it in the countryside for ever.) Young Kate and Albert have grown up there, and, frankly, Kate is now growing out of the whole boiling, while Albert grieves (in an entirely mad but somehow credible way) because he senses his beloved sister will soon be off. (It's no accident that he's currently obsessed with The End of the World.) The marriage of their parents, the essentially kind and sympathetic - but no longer suited - Don and Freya, is steadily falling apart, the number of communards is dwindling, and a life's work and commitment is on the brink.

Everyone in the novel is strange or dopey/doped or downright weird, but every last one is believable. Dunthorne shows clearly both their outer faces and their vulnerable inner lives. He also copes brilliantly with his varied cast and impressively unravelling tale. The book is fast-paced, and entirely emotionally convincing with a genuine warmth and understanding shining through the comedy.

Wild Abandon is published by Penguin.

Monday, 3 September 2018

Guest review by Victor Watson: SOUTH RIDING by Winifred Holtby

Victor Watson began to write children's fiction after a long career as a teacher, both in schools and at Homerton College, Cambridge. He was involved in the setting up of Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children's Books in Newcastle.

He has edited many critical works on children's fiction, including the Cambridge Guide to Children's Books in English (CUP 2001) He is the author of the Paradise Barn quartet and his latest novel is called Operation Blackout. All his fiction is published by Catnip Press. See more at Victor's dedicated website for the Paradise Barn books.

I’d known about South Riding since my undergraduate days, but I didn’t get round to reading it until earlier this year, when I spotted a compact 1949 hardback edition in a charity shop. I bought it – and was immediately hooked. The story unfolds in such a measured and unhurried way that I was able to savour the reading of it over many days. It has a wide cast of characters from all levels of society, the landscape is vividly evoked, and the narrative voice is both compassionate and uncompromising. The dialogue is good too.

On the dustwrapper the author is quoted: ‘there is one fundamental truth about human nature – we are not only single individuals, each face to face with eternity and our separate spritis; we are members one of another.’ It’s one thing to say that, and quite another matter to demonstrate it. But that ‘membership one of another’ is what South Riding creates and acts out – in a rural community, set in the fictional South Riding of Yorkshire, during the depression of the 1930s. Many stories form part of the bigger story, all told with a direct and un-showy realism, effortlessly intertwined in an entirely convincing world. Here, there is no artificial thematic tidiness: people’s lives are muddled and imperfect, randomly affected by their siblings, their love affairs, their weaknesses, their neighbours, their rivals, their own hidden motivation. And – since this is also a novel about local government – the characters’ lives are also shaped by decisions made in council meetings and planning committees about housing conditions and scholarships.

The characterisation is brilliant, from the scheming Alderman Snaith to poor Lily Sawdon dying of cancer; the clever working-class Lydia Holly, whose future life will be shaped by whether or not her social and family situation will allow her to take up the scholarship she’s been awarded; the unhappy Robert Carne, whose daughter is lonely and miserable and whose wife is in a mental home, and whose life-values are as threatened and uncertain as his estate is crumbling. The main character is Miss Sarah Burton who, in chapter 2, is appointed headmistress of Kiplington Girls’ High School, and who encounters setbacks, faces all manner of frustrations, and experiences a bitter and triumphant love. She almost gives up on her conviction that an unmarried woman in her forties can have a fulfilled and fulfilling professional life within and for the sake of the community. But not quite. ‘I was born to be a spinster,’ she tells herself, ‘and by God, I’m going to spin.’

I read this book with a sense of homecoming. This is where I began as a serious novel-reader, with Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, and Hardy. It has a hugeness of scope and conception, inviting comparisons with George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It reminded me how far most modern fiction has moved from such imaginative spaciousness. I estimate that South Riding is about 176,000 words long – but it had to be a long novel because it seeks to convey a comprehensive understanding of an entire community. It is a socialist view, as you would expect from an author who was for most of her life a close friend of Vera Brittain. I felt as I read it a determined writerly thrust, a brilliant craftswoman’s purposeful and unhurried faith in her narrative vision, and her belief that – in spite of muddles and failures, setbacks and bad fortune, wickedness and greed – communities are capable of edging imperfectly and cautiously forward to improve the lives of individuals.

That’s what Winifred Holtby believed herself to be, a craftswoman. ‘I have no illusions about my work,’ she wrote. ‘I am primarily a useful, versatile, sensible and fairly careful artisan.’ Perhaps – but South Riding is an intelligent and absorbing novel, in its values, in its style, and in its conception. I loved it.

And it’s written in proper sentences!

South Riding is published by Virago.