Monday, July 30, 2007

Nicola Davies reviews A Girl’s Guide to Kissing Frogs

A Girl’s Guide to Kissing Frogs is an enjoyable stroll amidst the tumultuous romantic exploits of prima-ballerina in the making Marigold Savage. However, the epaulees and sissones are left behind after the first few chapters as the ballet world is substituted unceremoniously for society life in Northumberland, when our heroine returns home with a broken foot. This is a bit of a disappointment after being captivated so early on by the gruesome depiction of Marigold dancing both agonizing acts of the ballet Giselle with this injury, although this certainly provides a successful hook.

The eventual backdrop lends itself to the grandiose; in language and expression as well as characters and settings. In fact during Marigold’s train journey before she has even arrived at the destination which is to become her home for the ensuing months, she describes the look on the porter’s face when she gives him a tip as “though I had handed him something phosphorescent with putrefication.”

As the title suggests, this is a humorous take on Marigold’s clumsy attempts to fit in with the Northumberland upper classes and survive her slapstick romantic encounters. Plenty more wordy descriptives are employed, and both the choice of language and the pace of the plot err on the side of taking the scenic route, but it’s certainly an agreeable amble.

It’s frightfully twee throughout, and there’s a lot of mileage in quietly mocking the mother of one potential suitor, who once ferociously shunned an acquaintance for filling her garden with red hot poker plants.

‘”You will inherit my collection of first class Worcester,” said Evelyn, with some emotion.’

An ominous choice of mother in law, and unyielding obstacle in the path of true love.

So how many frogs does one have to kiss in this fictitious world? Although there is a slight sense of the inevitable regarding who will be our heroine’s prince charming, how it will come about and whether it will work out between them is a mystery up until the very (cockle-warming) end, and in the mean time we’re treated to a catastrophic romp (quite literally) along the journey to meet Mr Right. In fact it was when our heroine went beyond kissing that were the undoubted highlights:

“Once he reached the peak of excitement he fairly barked out instructions. He must have been an excellent officer.”

“Rafe tore off my knickers and before I could galvanize myself into enthusiastic action, everything was over much quicker than he had originally proposed.”


A Girl’s Guide to Kissing Frogs by Victoria Clayton, published by HarperCollins, £ 6.99

Marian Jane Williams reviews When Madeline Was Young

Madeline is forever young and beautiful. In her youth she suffered an accident which left her with the body of a beautiful mature woman but the intellect of a child of seven. To Mac, the narrator of the story, she has always been his elder sister who needs both protection and care, but on one of the many summers which his large extended family spend together, his cousin Buddy informs him that Madeline is not his sister but his father’s first wife.

When his father re-married, his second wife (Mac’s mother) had no hesitation in letting Madeline stay within the household being cared for as one of her own children. Through the years the family have gatherings, celebrations and get togethers, but the differences in their political beliefs and social attitudes eventually lead to distance developing between the two branches of the family.

In 2003 when Mac is a middle aged doctor with a family of his own, he attends the funeral of Buddy’s son who has been killed in Iraq. Buddy and Mac symbolize the divisions of the family – Buddy the army careerist and Mac the medical man - the hawk and the dove. But it is at the funeral that they both come to fully appreciate the other’s attitude and life choices.

Jane Hamilton writes an epic family saga in which Madeline is ever present, but it is really Mac’s story and by using first person narrative it reads as a memoir. He grew up in a family with almost saintly patience whilst Buddy’s family was far more earthy and practical. Mac bridges the two branches of the family and through childhood memories, half glimpsed occurrences, not fully understood actions plus his own thoughts and experiences, he tries to piece together and understand his parents’ lives and their boundless love for Madeline and their family. At the same time he also tries to fathom his own shortcomings and the reasons for the family split.

Anybody who has come from a large family where cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents all play their part in the great swell and tide of close family emotions will appreciate Hamilton’s story telling. The small, almost insignificant pleasures and woes, the relationships, tragedies, sacrifices, loyalties and betrayals of family life are keenly observed and make for interesting reading. The differences which can develop from a word here, an action or non action there, and the effect these can have on children growing up within the family are finely drawn, but her true strength is her compassion and understanding of the human heart and the human condition.

When Madeline Was Young by Jane Hamilton, Published by Doubleday, £14.99

Katie Allen reviews Radiance by Shaena Lambert

It is 1952, and World War II is officially over, yet its impact still reverberates across the world. Radiance tells the story of Keiko Kitigawa, an 18-year-old survivor of the Hiroshima bomb, who has arrived in the US to receive regenerative treatment on her scarred face. Her articulacy back in Japan led to her being chosen as a media ‘voice’ of the atrocity in the US, but she is slowly revealed to be not the passive ‘victim’ the oh-so-charitable Americans would like, and the novel becomes a tussle between who is manipulating who. Bound up in Keiko’s story is her ‘host mother’ Daisy Lawrence and husband Walter, whose task it is to look after Keiko during her stay. The young girl’s presence immediately causes ripples of disturbance in their quiet suburban community.

Riverside Meadows is a recently built settlement where ‘Everything seemed new’ and you could still ‘smell the churned dirt’. The newness is a rather desperate grasping for domesticity and security after the horrors of war, yet, perhaps inevitably, the ‘prim boulevards’ are not the safe environs they seem, but an uneasy site of curtain-twitching and mysteries behind the white picket fence, familiar throughout popular culture, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to American Beauty: one outsider observes: ‘there were at least a thousand neuroses skittering like mice through the streets of that suburb.’

This is a place where the neighbours ‘know’ about war veteran and Japanese POW Ed Warburgh’s ‘tingling in his feet, shooting pains that he relieves by soaking them in seltzer. They know he has nightmares’. As for his wife, Fran, ‘Everyone knew that he hit her sometimes.’ Daisy herself is a symbol of the Fifties housewife, who dreams of ‘Walter heading out the door, looking handsome and clever while Daisy fed the baby or vacuumed or even found time to bake bread.’ Yet their relationship never fully recovers from her miscarriage, and Daisy finds that she must repress her grief, which is regarded as ‘something unseemly’ by her husband, and the neighbourhood wives soon ‘grew tired of her sorrow.’

Into this unsteady mix of domestic fa├žade and internal anguish comes Keiko: ‘Daisy felt a pull of guilt, as though what she had started, inviting Keiko, might squirm out of her control and start a brush fire.’ Through her very Otherness, she is both alluring and threatening not only to the residents of Riverside Meadows, but to the US audiences before which she is paraded as a ‘Hiroshima Maiden’. Perhaps most damagingly, she becomes to Daisy a conduit of all the maternal longing she can never express.

Keiko herself is used by the Hiroshima Project as a symbol, of American generosity, of the horrors of war, as an indictment of nuclear weaponry. Yet although her scars and losses are very real, whether the ‘real’ Keiko is ever known, by the committee, by the voyeuristic public, by the yearning Daisy, or indeed by the reader, is a conundrum. When Keiko refuses to return Daisy’s smile, we share Daisy’s indignation that ‘Why should this girl, whom they had brought to New York at such expense, be refusing her smile?’ And yet it is Daisy who champions and supports Keiko as they both realise she is to become an exploited posterchild of the Hiroshima Project. And it is Daisy whom Keiko lets down the most. I found Keiko’s coolly repressed personality difficult to warm to, yet it entwines fittingly in a novel threaded with facades and fakery, reality and repression, in a Fifties environment of McCarthyist suspicion.

Katie Allen reviews Radiance by Shaena Lambert, published by Virago, £12.99

Laura Wilkinson reviews Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan

Claire Keegan’s first collection of short stories, Antarctica, heralded her as a literary talent to watch. It won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and Keegan has been compared to Raymond Carver and William Trevor. Her second collection of short stories, Walk the Blue Fields, has been eagerly anticipated.

Keegan was raised in county Wicklow and all bar one of the seven tales are set in rural Ireland. But these stories do not speak of a pastoral idyll. The Ireland evoked here is dark and unsettled, the characters dislocated and alone, despite the proximity of others.

All the protagonists in these stories are well formed, despite the brevity of the narratives. She provides glimpses into significant moments in their lives rather than complete explorations and the short story form is perfectly suited to this. Keegan is dedicated to the form, it’s all she really wants to write, and this shines through her work. So though the reader is treated to a mere snapshot of characters’ lives, the impression left is deep and resonant. There is a haunting melancholy to Walk the Blue Fields.

In ‘The Parting Gift’ a young woman articulates her reason for leaving Ireland, and her familial home, for New York. It is a moving and disturbing piece made all the more so by Keegan’s use of the second person point of view. Lonely Martha is unhappily married to the forester, her only joy, her daughter, the result of a brief liaison with a passing rose bush salesman. Tension builds slowly and imperceptibly until everything comes tumbling down.

In the title story, an achingly beautiful piece, a priest marries a young couple and throughout the celebrations he is haunted by the memories of a love affair and the choice he made. When everything begins to close in on him, he leaves the party, and walks and walks. He stumbles upon another alienated character in the region, a Chinese healer and masseur, and his cathartic touch releases the priest from pain. “Why is tenderness so much more disabling than injury?”

The characters do a lot of walking in these tales – across the green fields, along beaches and in all sorts of weather - and it is an indicator of Keegan’s connection to the land, her truthfulness and her deep understanding of human nature. For in times of pain, anger and confusion how many of us have experienced the restorative power of walking?

Keegan is a true wordsmith and her lean, elegant prose has no need of fancy tricks. These tales are dripping in atmosphere and their austere, visceral touch stayed with me for a long time. Bleak though the stories may be the collection is not without humour. A talking dog, strange customs and odd human behaviour add a light comic touch.

‘Night of the Quicken Trees’ borrows from Irish folklore and is a personal favourite of mine. A damaged, barren woman moves into the dead priest’s house, burns all the furniture, makes a habit of urinating outside and embarks upon a strange relationship with the middle-aged bachelor living next door. A delightful, quirky story of love lost and found, magic and mystery. Quintessentially Irish, finely nuanced and unforgettable.

The priest in Walk the Blue Fields reflects on “How strange it is to be alive.” This superb collection captures this observation beautifully.

Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan, published in paperback by Faber and Faber, £10.99

Katie Allen interviews author Kim Harrison

About eight years ago, as fledgling sci fi addicts and social pariahs, my friends and I would occasionally go to Star Wars conventions. We had the requisite levels of geekery to succeed in the quizzes, to know which dressed-up locals had inaccurate costumes, and to argue over who was hotter: Luke or Han? Like Princess Leia, we were probably the only girls in the room.

Since then, things have begun to change. The myriad worlds of sci fi and fantasy flaunt such feisty female heroines as Alien’s Ellen Ripley, Sydney Bristow in Alias and Seline in Underworld. Also, as the massive success of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings proves, elves, wizards and warlocks are no longer trapped inside the nerdy environs of Games Workshop but are out in the mainstream.

Riding high on this sea change in the US is writer Kim Harrison, whose best-selling Rachel Morgan series is currently reaching UK shores with the fifth novel For a Few Demons More. The novels are set in the contemporary US city of Cincinnati (the Hollows), but it is an alternative world, where most of the human population has been wiped out by a bioengineered virus, exposing the communities of vampires, weres, pixies and fairies that have lived beside humanity for centuries. Rachel herself is a white witch and runner, hunting down criminals of all species alongside faithful companion-pixy Jenks and the tortured –‘non-practising’- vampire Ivy.

It is rare for female heroines to emerge in science fiction or fantasy, especially in a genre so dominated by male writers (and readers). So it is all the more refreshing to read about Rachel, a spirited, wise-cracking, leather-clad heroine treading in the same bootsteps as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Doctor Who’s Martha Jones. ‘I like to think that there’s been a surge in strong female protagonists simply because women are finding it more socially acceptable to think of themselves in that way,’ Kim says. ‘You don’t have to be dainty or mild to be feminine, you can be strong and noisy and be feminine too.’ I ask Harrison if she considers herself a feminist: ‘Ah no. I would say I’m a woman who does what she wants as long as it doesn’t impact others negatively. I expect to be judged on my work, not my sex, and most times I am.’

She adds: ‘It wasn’t important to me that my protagonist be female… I would have been just as comfortable writing from a man’s point of view, but the book’s free-flowing narrative was far more effective written from a woman’s viewpoint.’

Throughout the first five novels we see Rachel transform from inexperienced rookie to skilled witch – yet she remains the same character who can be clumsy, reckless, foolish and unlucky in love – is never perfectly dressed. ‘I don’t know if I could write a superhero.’ Kim explains. ‘They are kind of boring to me after a while. Real people are far more interesting with their flaws… and their acts of courage which are that more courageous, knowing they might not survive. Mistakes are great when you learn from them, and at this rate, Rachel will be absolutely stupendous when she’s done.’

Rachel may not be a superhero, but I cannot help but wonder whether the soul-tainting demon magic she learns to use is an example of the ‘dark side’ or evil id that often challenges those who take on the mantle of ‘white knight’ rescuer or defender in sci fi/fantasy. Kim disagrees. ‘No, not at all. Rachel’s use of demon magic is more a metaphor for something much more common: our ability to use technology to create wonderful, fantastic things without acknowledging that there is a cost that goes along with it. Toxins, pollutions and poisons are all created from the things we use everyday, and they are going somewhere. Rachel can do wonderful, fantastic things with her demon magic, but she, at least, sees the cost.’

The use of metaphor is a handy way for Harrison to bring ‘darker’ themes into her fast-paced adventures, weaving narratives of addiction, restraint, power and despair around the otherwise sexy and glamorous vampire characters. There are also balancing acts of racial conflict and harmony expressed through the Hollows’ uneasy hierarchy of different species.

Harrison’s love of fantasy and SF began with the books she read as a child, and ‘throw in few thick books of fairy tales and I was a happy girl.’ She adds, ‘I hadn’t a clue that what I was doing was preparing myself for a writing career… it wasn’t until years later that I picked up a pen and wrote a very long, very mistake-ridden manuscript. It was really bad but I fell in love with the writing process, and kept working at it until my skill started to approach my enthusiasm.’ Her literary influences were SF fantasy writers of the 70s and early 80s, such as McCaffrey, Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Jack L Chalker. One of her main inspirations is music, especially alternative rock such as Nine Inch Nails, Garbage and Evanescence, and her website lists all the songs she attributes to each character.

The idiosyncratic Cincinnati of her Rachel Morgan novels is populated with the supernatural creatures of the ‘Inderland’: witches, the undead, trolls, pixies, fairies and elves, hybridizing ancient myths with very modern elements such as nightclubs, car chases, even a ‘dating guide’ for vampires. The novels are in part police drama, part sci fi, part romance: Harrison describes it as: ‘a conglomeration of things I read while I was growing up, wanting to mix my love of fantasy with the easily identifiable characters in popular culture… the fun came when I twisted them a little to make her world unique, and to me, more understandable.’

It is a mixture that clearly appeals. Kim describes her fan base as ‘very wide’, from ‘military men and women, moms with kids reading at football games, and single guys and gals at school or working their first job.’ Although she agrees that the current popularity of sci fi and fantasy is due to people seeking ‘escapism’, she attributes the success of the Rachel Morgan books to ‘the characters, not the subject... There is likely going to be someone in the Hollows that just about anyone can relate to. I enjoy ‘working’ there, and that joy filters through to the reader. We’re both saying: ‘just one more page’.’

The next novel in the series will be The Outlaw Demon Wails, scheduled to be published in March 2008, with a Hollows novella entitled Holidays are Hell released in November of this year. Kim is already working on book eight, with a rough draft of book seven already completed. Such exciting and visually imaginative books, in my mind, are begging to be filmed, although Kim is cautious about getting too excited. She is definite on one matter though: ‘I do have some daydreams though... involving either Sting or Johnny Depp.’ Don’t we all...

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

From Herstory to Ourstory: the Feminist Library by Anne Welsh, with thanks to Gail Chester

In a recent blog comment on the local elections, author Anne Brooke made the point, “Whenever I feel the urge not to get out there and vote, I think of Mrs Pankhurst and get my coat on! What that woman went through (and all of the suffragettes indeed) to get us the vote doesn't bear thinking about!”[1] While this is a sentiment shared by most women, how many of us spare a thought for the achievements of the second wave women’s movement of the 1970s? Once we had the vote in the early 20th century, what else were we fighting for?

The Autumn 2005 issue of StopGap, the journal of the Fawcett Society, points out that the thirty-year-olds of 2005 were the first women to enjoy equal opportunities their whole lives:
Before the [Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay] Acts were enforced, women could be sexually harassed in the workplace, be denied a job because they were pregnant and be paid less than men doing the same job just because they were female. Women could be sacked from their jobs if they got married or became pregnant and men were not allowed to work as midwives.[3]

The passing of the Acts did not mean that equal rights were mainstream:

As the BBC reported: “The Act[s] came as a culture shock to many in a society where some venues still barred women. Many commentators said the combined Acts were too radical.”

And remember, this news report was broadcast in 1975.

The mid-1970s was a significant period for the Fawcett Society. While the law was changing due to pressure from Fawcett members and a whole range of other feminists, the society was itself under pressure to find a home for its library collection of women’s history. We know now that City of London Polytechnic took it in, the Poly going on to become London Metropolitan University and the Fawcett growing to become the Women’s Library, a world-class archive, library and exhibition space.

However, in 1975, the Fawcett Library’s future was far from certain. In this climate, a group of women, mostly academics, who wanted to ensure the survival of the history of the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) came together to found the Women’s Research and Resources Centre (WRRC).

Originally a small collection of contemporary material, it has grown to become “the largest library of contemporary feminist material in the UK … [with] approximately 10,000 books, 1500 periodicals, 1200 articles [and] more than 2000 pamphlets and ephemera.”
[5] Now known as the Feminist Library, it provides access to a range of material produced by or directly pertaining to the study of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and international material allowing it to be contextualized beyond the British Isles.

Significantly, around a third of the collection is fiction and poetry, which is unusual for a library based round a political movement. Many of the books and pamphlets, both fiction and poetry and non-fiction, were self-published, reflecting the ethos of the Library and of the whole WLM. As writer, activist and book historian Gail Chester explains:

In the women’s movement of the 70s and 80s, there was a lot of opposition to the ‘star system’, which singled out the achievements of individual women. The idea was that thousands of women – known and unknown – were able to access the material we were making available.

From a writer’s point of view, this cuts straight to the heart of the ‘Liberation’ offered by the WLM. A generation previously, Virginia Woolf had advocated “a room of one’s own” in which creativity and particularly writing could take place. One aim of the Feminist Library was to provide that space for every woman, or every woman that wanted it. By providing campaigning and factual information for anyone who wanted it, the Library created a climate for women to write, research, and publish, to draw confidence from the thousands of books by women writers lining the shelves and the group of people using and running the Library.

In 1975, Gail Chester was part of the collective producing Women’s Report, a self-published news magazine. She herself went on to write numerous articles and book chapters as well as co-editing In Other Words: Writing as a Feminist, while the Library’s staff included Ruth Harris and Zoe Fairbairns. Indeed, Fairbairns was the Library’s first paid employee,
[7] working, according to Gail Chester, in “a small basement room in North Gower Street surrounded by books.”

This collection of books has been assembled as a consciously feminist act, which is what makes the library unique. As with many special collections, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and while it could be argued that the better-known books are also held by the Women’s Library and that certainly all the mainstream titles are in the British Library, the difficulty in accessing specialist subject areas in massive collections like the BL’s is finding them in the first place. If you know the author or title, it’s fine, but subject searches will often return hundreds or even thousands of items, many of them not specific enough to meet your needs.

Searching the Feminist Library catalogue or browsing its shelves, you’re searching only women’s movement material, so your chance of finding exactly what you want is higher. And, at 32 years old, the collection is ripe for academic study; though continuing to add to the collection is high on the management group’s list of priorities. With the growth of undergraduate and postgraduate courses on gender studies, women’s studies and women’s history, more and more people are writing theses on an aspect of the WLM, and several of them have gratefully used the Library.

But, it’s not all about academia. The Library provides a fantastic resource for anyone writing fiction set in the women’s movement. Anyone who enjoyed Big Women (Fay Weldon’s novel about the growth of a women’s press) will find ample inspiration here.

The proportion of self-published titles – many of them by authors who were in writing and groups and decided to self-publish, and are well-known today – tells its own story of the challenges faced by women trying to find a publisher in the 1970s and 80s. The ideal described by Gail Chester still holds true – standing in the Feminist Library surrounded by 10,000 books, it’s impossible not to think if they could do it then, I can certainly do it now.

Every female writer or aspiring writer should visit the Women’s Library and the Feminist Library for the inspiration to be found there. And yet, these guardians of our heritage have suffered very different fates. While the Women’s Library is part of an academic institution and has found external funding for world-leading collection development, promotion and exhibitions, the Feminist Library has remained autonomous – autonomous and poor. Run by an honorary Management Committee and a team of volunteers, this year is the Library’s last push to remain independent. If funding cannot be found, it will cease to exist as an entity in 2008, and in all likelihood, be broken up and absorbed into a disparate range of collections – each with their own priorities and their own valid reasons to want only part of the collection.

Ironically, it is the fiction and poetry, described by Gail Chester as “the jewel in the crown” of the Library that is the hardest to place. Normal library procedures on taking in a new collection is to ‘de-duplicate’ – that is to add to stock only those items that are not already in the existing collection. De-duplication will almost certainly be the fate of the Feminist Library’s fiction and poetry, whichever larger libraries were to take it in.

I asked Gail Chester what Hags readers could do to help. The answer was clear and simple – “Stand by your pens. Send an email to us now at saying you want to be kept informed of what happens: numbers count when we’re looking for funds. Add to your myspace friends for the same reason.” So, whether or not your feminist guilt persuaded you to vote at the last elections, open up your email and drop the Feminist Library a line. After all, its 10,000 books and 1200 articles can give us courage, and certainly bear witness to the power of the woman writer’s pen.

[1] Brooke, Anne (2007) comment on Elections? What elections? 2 May, accessed 23/05/2007).
[2] Bell, Rachel (2005) First born. StopGap, Autumn: 8-9, accessed 23/05/2007.
[3] Hanman, Natalie (2005) Caught in the Act StopGap, Autumn: 6-7, accessed 23/05/2007.
[4] Hanman, Natalie Ibid.
[5] Hobson, Charlotte et al. (2007) Where now for the Feminist Library?: a discussion document for meeting, 24 February 2007.
[6] Interview with Gail Chester, 21 May 2007.
[7] (2005) The Feminist Library Newsletter, March: 3,