Summer Break

Dear all,

Books & Reviews will go on a summer break starting today. I’ll use this time – the first real summer break I have in 3 years – to relax, and enjoy my time with my family, but also to develop new content. I will be back soon with new ideas, new books, and lots of crimes. I hope you all have a wonderful August too, and I can’t wait to see what you’ve all read during these weeks.

Love,

Elena xx

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy

When I arrived to England more than 4 months ago I only had two books with me, both of them in Spanish, and both of them intended to keep me company while travelling. But once I settled down I realised that my recent move was the perfect opportunity to request books to publishers that could not afford to send me their books all the way to Spain. So, seeing that everyone was showing off their new review copies of Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women, I wrote to Atlantic Books for a review copy. I soon got a reply from Sophie Walker kindly informing me that they were not publishing that book in the UK, but they had many others that may be of interest to me. As I browsed their fantastic catalogue I found three books that I had to read: Conrad and Eleanor by Jane Rogers, Nocturnal Animals by Austin Wright, and When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy. Sophie was amazing, and upon knowing of my recent move kindly offered to send me copies of the three books. I have to say that I did not feel home until I those threen novels reached me. So, thanks Sophie and Atlantic Books for being so awesome.

When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy

When I Hit You: Or, Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife is Meena Kandasamy’s second novel, following the critically acclaimed The Gypsy Goddess (2014), and it has taken the UK by storm with is crude and realistic description of domestic violence. The unnamed narrator of the novel tells her story in first person as she marries an educated and socially respected man who hits her, rapes her, and causes her all kinds of pain, damage, and vexation behind closed doors. The power of this novel resides on its challenging of myths and prejudices about domestic violence by portraying the abuse in a young, educated, and successful couple in contemporary India. He is a university professor, a Communist who has a personal crusade against all the evils of this world, especially his wife. She is 26, an only child, and a writer. Together, they look like the perfect, liberal couple ready to take the world by storm, except that like all abusers, he makes sure his wife stays home under false pretences and excuses. The fact that he is a university professor allows him to justify his abuse with all kinds of postcolonial and postmodern theories that at the same time work as an education for his wife:

When I hear ‘your own good’ I am reduced to being a child again. I do not argue any more. I go silent.

The abuser’s arguments belong to that side of left-wing politics that refuse to acknowledge the patriarchy, and the subjection of women in contemporary society. Feminism is not a valid discourse, and feminists are portrayed as difficult women who are making up problems that get in the way of the real, left-wing (masculine) fight. As part of their strategy, these discourses look to ridicule women while erasing any role models, or artistic representations that may validate female lived experience. As part of this power play, the narrator explores Althusser’s strangling of this wife, and his consequent explanation of the act. Meanwhile, female authors and artists are constantly devalued by her husband, receiving the same treatment society and history has saved for them in the past centuries:

I see, it is no longer fashionable to be mad. Depression is the word, isn’t it? Three inches of cleavage, two books of poetry, plenty of sex and depression – that’s all it takes to make a woman a famous writer. Beginning from Sylvia Plath to Kmala Das, that is the only trajectory you have all followed.

Kandasamy is not shy in the portrayal of domestic violence, but she does not let her prose fall prey to voyeurism. Just as domestic violence victims systematically accept the escalation of abuse, so does the narrator and author, hence allowing for a masterful description of attacks like the following:

My hair is gathered up in a bunch in his hand now. He is lifting me by my hair alone. All the blood is rushing to my head, my thighs fight to feel the hard wood of the chair. I am in pain. He drags me from the table and into the bedroom.

What comes next is marital rape, a crime that until very recently had not been recognised as such in many states (Spain one of them). And afterwards come days and months of abuse, and the narrator’s mixed feelings about it. She knows that she is worth more than an abusive husband, she has the education to recognise what is happening to her. She is a feminist. She is an author. She is extremely clever. But that does not save her, or any woman, from becoming a domestic violence victim. Her family also knows, but they insist on her staying in a marriage that turned violent just one month after the wedding for fear of being judged. Kandasamy offers a magnificent portrayal of contemporary Indian society as a troublesome space, where traditions and new ways of seeing life are crashing, exactly the same way they are doing in the West, especially regarding gender issues:

Tradition never goes out of fashion. Remaining in public memory, it wears new clothes. In India, a bride is burnt every ninety minutes. The time it takes to fix a quick dinner. The time it takes to do the dishes. The time it takes to commute to work. This is the official statistic – the deaths the police do not even bother trying to hide in semantics. The real truth lies int he wailing that never ceases at the burns wards of hospitals.

We learn in the very first chapter of the book that the narrator’s story has a happy ending, at least as happy as expected in these circumstances. The novel is her take on events that seem to be fluid and plastic depending on the ideology of the narrator. Authorship, as she highlights, is something that should be taken very seriously. Domestic violence is not something that happens to uneducated, poor women. It is part of the patriarchy, it can happen to all and any of us. It can alienate us from society, even from our beloved ones.  It is ignored, dismissed, hidden, covered, and even justified. It is terrorism potentially targeting half of humankind, making all women potential victims, no matter their age, nationality, race, religion, ethnic background, education, or body. It can happen to me. Or to you. And that is why When I Hit You: Or, Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife will be the most important book published in 2017.

The amazing Naomi Frisby from The Writes of Woman recently interviewed Kandasamy for her Youtube Channel. Enjoy!

 

meena.jpgMeena Kandasamy is a poet, fiction writer, translator and activist who lives in Chennai and London. She has published two collections of poetry, Touch and Ms. Militancy, and the critically acclaimed novel, The Gypsy Goddess. She holds a PhD in sociolinguistics, and her academic interests include critical pedagogy and linguistic nationalism.

You can learn more about her here.

When I Hit You: Or, Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife has been longlisted for the Not the Booker Prize. You can vote for it here, by writing a review slightly over 100 words about TWO books, each by a different publishers, from the 150 The Guardian has selected.

Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman

Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman has been on my radar ever since it was published in May 2016. I did not get a review copy back then but as bookish magic goes, I found the book at Bristol Public Library. This was the last book that I borrowed during my visit to England, and it was the cherry on top.

IMG_2105

Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman focuses on the friendship between two girls in a small American town. Following the necessary tend started by Megan Abbott, Wasserman goes against popular believes of young girls as shallow creatures and reminds readers that girlhood can be the perfect foundation for a crime story.

After the suicide of the town’s Golden boy, Hannah finds herself becoming friends with Lacey, the town’s recently arrived girl. Lacey is nothing like Hannah: She worships Kurt Cobain, wears flannel shirts, smokes, and has no respect for her mother. For Hannah, Lacey represents everything she is not, and something that she could be, as she knows that her chunky body and her thin hair will never compare to Nikki’s, the town’s Golden Girl and girlfriend in grieving. As Hannah and Lacey’s relationship develops, Wasserman explores how social discourses emerge as tools of oppression for girls, who in their transition from childhood to adulthood suddenly find themselves subjected to the patriarchy. Not only that, but Wasserman makes her characters reflect on how gender inequalities prominently appear during the teenage years:

What it would be like to be one of them. To have power, to be seen, be heard, be dudes rather than sluts, be jocks or geeks or bros or nice guys or boys-will-be-boys or whatever we wanted instead of quantum leaping between good girl and whore. To be the default, not the exception. To be in control, to seize control, simply because we happened to have a dick.

The relationship between Hannah and Lacey offers both girls the opportunity to explore different identities focusing on fluidity rather than labels and impositions. Even though there is clearly a power relationship with Lacey in control, Hannah slowly finds a voice that is not mainstream and pre-fabricated for her. The setting of the story in the early 1990’s also allows for the inclusion of popular references, such as the importance of Cobain’s imperfect aesthetic and lifestyle (and Courtney Love’s demonization), granting the girls permission to experiment and be different. And even though I was just a kid back then, I could smell the perfect mix of tobacco, Calvin Klein perfume, while hearing Cobain’s voice in the background.

But Wasserman’s novel goes beyond girlhood and explores the complex mother-daughter relationship and the forgotten fact that mothers have been daughters, teenagers, and girls themselves. Lacey’s and Hannah’s mothers act as vessels for failed stories about motherhood, and even though they try their best they are not always the best of mothers to their daughters. Hannah’s secretly wonders how she produced such a vanilla girl, and Lacey’s still looking for the approval of the men in her life. Both women give readers glimpses into the task of raising girls, and how patriarchal discourses try to put distance between mothers and daughters, when there is more to bring us together than apart.

Girls on Fire is also a crime novel, but like Abbott’s works it is not a procedural, nor does it focus solely on the crime. The 1990’s setting opens up a discussion about the decade’s obsession with satanic cults, the demonization of Grunge, and the emergence of the heroin-chic, criticised and admired at the same time. The real crime though, you will have to find by reading this 5-star novel by yourself.

Summer 2017

After 3 months, 4 cities, more than 5 different bedrooms, and lots of trains, buses, and airplanes I’m finally home and ready to enjoy it. Even though I still have some PhD work to do, I plan on taking some time off next month – still to be negotiated with my supervisors – to enjoy my family, cook, go for walks, spend my days at the beach, and read, read, read. As I have received lots of review copies when I was away, I already have a pile of TBR summer books. I do not think any of the books that I have chosen will be in any ‘Summer 2017 Books’ list online, but I think it’s about time to do some backlist reading:

IMG_2388

Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty – After the success of Big Little Lies and Reese Witherspoon’s HBO adaptation I can’t wait to read Moriarty latest book. I was reminded of this novel during my visit to England, as the paperback edition is already out.

The Lying Game by Ruth Ware – I got an unexpected review copy of Ware’s latest novel while I was away, and it made me really happy as I have only read great things online, all by people whose taste I trust. I also enjoyed Ware’s previous novels, In a Dark, Dark Wood, and The Woman in Cabin 10.

Final Girls by Riley Sager – According to Master of Evil (and proud Human to Molly, aka The Thing of Evil) Stephen King, Final Girls is going to be one of the books of 2017. I love a good crime/mystery focused on young women, and I must admit I’m a sucker for pink covers and editions.

The Mitfords. Letters Between Six Sisters edited by Charlotte Mosley – I bought this book for a feminist book club I joined last fall, but then they decided to move the reading to Spring when it would be impossible for me to join them. However, the book has been on my radar ever since, and I have kept it at the top of my TBR pile waiting for the perfect moment to enjoy some high-quality non-fiction.

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler – I saw this book at Waterstones in Bath and I knew I had to read it. It usually comes recommended to anyone who enjoyed Emma Cline’s The Girls, and Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers, so it sounds like a winner for me!

Shanghai Baby by Wei Hui – I first heard about this book during my MA, when one of my lecturers brought an excerpt in which the Chinese young female protagonist reflects on her relationship with a German, married man, and compares her feelings to those of Sylvia Plath’s. As you can imagine, I was sold then. I recently found the book at a local second-hand bookshop (in Spanish) and I had to buy it.

The Crow Girl by Erik Axl Sund – This was the book everyone was talking about during my last visit to England last year. It was described as very dark, and twisted. I did not know if it was up my alley, but as I got sent a paperback review copy, I thought it’d be perfect to carry around and enjoy some death, blood, and darkness while travelling this summer.

What about you? Are you looking forward to reading any books this summer?

Captivating Criminality Conference 2017

This year I helped organise the Captivating Criminality 4 conference at Bath Spa University (even though my tasks were little!) and I had the honour of inviting fellow blogger and reader MarinaSofia over. These are her thoughts about it:

findingtimetowrite

Thanks to fellow blogger and online friend Elena (whom some of you may know as @ms_adler on Twitter), I heard about the Captivating Criminality Network at Bath Spa University (in collaboration with Gdansk University in Poland. When I heard about the 2017 conference taking place on 29th June to 1st July, I was determined to attend for at least half a day. So I drove to the chi-chi Wiltshire village of Corsham on Saturday 1st July and entered the dreamy grounds of Corsham Court, where the conference was taking place. At first, I was expecting Darcy to emerge from the local pond…

Then I was intrigued by the plaintive calls from the true masters of the gardens…

But once I found my way inside The Barn, I attended some fantastic talks. I won’t give an in-depth account, but it is so refreshing to see academia engaging seriously (but not pretentiously)…

View original post 521 more words

Change Starts One Book at a Time: A Love Letter to the British Public Libraries

The first thing that I did when I finally settled down in the UK was joining a public library. As I was only in the country for a few months, I didn’t bring any books with me, and I thought: What kind of life can one live without books? Not one worth living for me. So, I walked into the public library, asked a very lovely young woman – who would later become my friend – if I could join, and she gladly gave me my card. It must be said here that I didn’t get a regular card though. As I was a visitor, I could only borrow 3 books at the same time, which is actually the number of books I can borrow from my public library in Spain, so it didn’t bother me.

And then the hectic borrow started. I finally had access to an unbelievable amount of books, some of them recently released. In English. By women authors. There was even a crime section! I couldn’t believe it. I think that during the first weeks I just borrowed books to take a look at them. For the simple pleasure of having them in my nightstand, knowing that I could read them at any time. The massive borrowing became unproductive at one point. I read Ali Smith’s How to be Both and then I decided to borrow 3 more of her books. But did I really want to read more Ali Smith when I could read Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff? Or Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman, which I had wanted to read since review copies started showing up on my Twitter feed? So, I made the decision to pace myself and just enjoy the book I was borrowing at the time. And just one at a time, please! OK, maybe two if they were different genres.

Thanks to the British Public Libraries I discovered that like many of you, I am a fan of Ali Smith’s work too. How to be Both was a profound reading, and it still haunts me weeks later. I also got the enjoy the latest in the Marnie Rome series, a personal favourite of mine, by Sarah Hilary. This one was extra special, as Sarah is a friend of Books & Reviews now, and the copy that I borrowed was a chunky and clearly very solicited hardback copy. I also discovered that I will always go for the hardback copy, until I realise that carrying my laptop, its charger, the phone, the mess of personal items that I usually need, my lunch, and a hardback copy was not the better ideas. I learned to find the beauty in battered paperbacks too.

blsmth

Bristol Public Library

But my British Public Library was not just a place to visit a few times a week. It also became my office. Thanks to hot-desking and the thousands of sockets available, I was able to spend my days reading and writing in a building that I now consider my second home. Public libraries in Spain are places were silent must be kept, and where eating and drinking is not compatible with reading and writing. Imagine my surprise when I found out not only that I could eat a few feet away from my laptop – we can discuss the benefits of getting some fresh air another day – but that there was also a cosy café where I could buy a hot cup of tea (milk and sugar, please).

As if it wasn’t enough, the Public Library that I visited also had a reading club that met weekly where we were provided with a short story and a poem that we read out loud and commented. The young woman who made my library card suggested I joined the group when I said I had just arrived to the city, I didn’t know anyone, and I needed some friends books to keep me company. There I met women all ages, some with very interesting backgrounds, and all of them with a love and a passion for reading that could rival my own. They made me feel at home by asking me questions about my favourite books, and they welcomed my sometimes inevitable gender and feminist criticism about the works we were reading.

I hope to see the women in my book club one last time before I leave, and I hope to spend as much time as I can at the Public Library. As I write this I only have one book with me, but I’m thinking whether I should borrow more in an effort to make the most of these last days(*) that also happen to be filled with friends and celebrations. But if I don’t, and if I only have time to finish reading my current book, this is my love letter to the British Public Libraries. This is also my plea to all you who live in the UK to visit your local public library today. Keep these wonderful havens open so that people of all races, genders, sexualities, nationalities, ethnic backgrounds, and religions can visit them. Because change starts one book at a time.

(*) Barely two minutes after writing this post I borrowed 2 more books from the library that I won’ t probably finish reading in time to return them before I leave.

 

 

Quieter than Killing (Marnie Rome #4) by Sarah Hilary

Sarah Hilary is back with another instalment in the acclaimed Marnie Rome series. If you have followed this blog for some time, you will know that I am a great fan of the series, but also of Sarah, who I met at CrimeFest15 and who is always open to discuss feminism, and women’s crime fiction with me. No wonder she is an active member of Killer Women, a wonderful organisation that aims to bring together women in crime fiction. Now that I live in England, I was lucky to borrow her latest book from the Public Library (more on my love for British public libraries soon).

Quieter than Killing by Sarah Hilary

Quieter than Killing take places nine months after [NAME OF PREVIOUS BOOK], with a cold English winter making things even more difficult for Marine and her team. This time, they are investigating a series of attack on random people in London. As they struggle to make the connections between the victims – different genders, different ages, different social classes – they come up with a theory: There’s a vigilante on the loose. Their approach to the crimes is not welcomed by DC Ferguson, the new glamorous DC that has come to temporarily replace Welland. As Marnie faces life without the unconditional support of her beloved boss, Noah worries about his little brother Sol, who has been missing for days, and the strange texts that someone following Dan, his boyfriend is texting him.

As usual, Hilary is a mastermind at mixing the main characters’ lives with their professional duties. The delicate balance and interweaving between private and professional has always been a trademark of the series, but the author has overdone herself in the fourth book in the series as Sol’s presence, and becomes more crucial in the crime narrative. Stephen, Marnie’s younger adopted brother and the killer of their parents makes an appearance as a secondary character after his main role in the previous book, and as he lets chaos unravel, Marnie wonders if everything was a game for him, and whether there might be some true to his words.

Walking is the repeated act of saving yourself from falling. Where had she read that? In one of those books Lexie, her therapist, gifted to her six years ago. Moving forward was momentum, you just had to keep doing it.

Back to the case, if the Marnie Rome series are known for their pace, Quieter than Killing is the perfect example of a page-turner. I loved the previous books, but I only gave them 4 star reviews at Goodreads. However, I read the latest in the series in less than 3 sittings and I found myself constant needing to return to the book, even after long days reading and writing for work. I was never bored, as the case and the characters picked my interest in many ways. Hilary keeps her trademark narrative device of including the victims’ perspective throughout the novel, but this time she also introduced two secondary female characters: DC Ferguson and professional mediator Zoe Marshall. Lorna Ferguson is a middle-aged woman who dresses sharply, owns a gold-rose MacBook, and works long hours at the precinct in Louboutins. Zoe Marshall is younger, and works with children involved in local gangs, and her aesthetics will appeal to the novel’s younger readers. It is thanks to them that the latest Marnie Rome will connect with a wider audience, but also with anyone looking for better representation of women in contemporary crime fiction.

At this year’s CrimeFest, Hilary confessed that she already knows how book 6 in the series will begin, which will make her readers write angry emails to her of the likes of ‘HOW DARE YOU’. It is not wonder the author is thinking ahead, as the Marnie Rome series are enjoying one of the healthiest, most steady-fast evolutions in contemporary crime fiction written by a woman. Serial crime fiction at its best.

More reviews:

More on Sarah Hilary: