The Female Persuasion – Meg Wolitzer

Rating: 3.5 stars

From the name, I was expecting Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion to be somewhat wry and humorous. It was, in fact, very earnest throughout. It follows the story of Greer, an undergraduate at Ryland College whose parents prevented her from getting into her chosen Ivy League school by not filling out the financial aid forms properly. Greer has a boyfriend at Princeton, and a sassy feminist activist and (surprise, lesbian!) best friend Zee who introduces her to feminist icon Faith Frank at a university lecture, after Greer is groped by a creepy guy at a party. The rest of the book follows them into adulthood and forms a sort of contemplation of the complexity of trying to live a ‘feminist’ life, do right by other women and the world, and fight to find meaning.

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It’s written well and engagingly – it trips along, and isn’t too heavy on detail. There was one bugbear of mine, which was that a plot-essential pet kept being referred to as a ‘turtle’ when I am 99% sure it was meant to be a tortoise (it walked in the grass, lived in a dry shoebox not a tank, etc etc). I actually ended up looking it up and apparently tortoise is a subset of turtle, so perhaps I am justly slain by mine own pedantry, but it was quite distracting nonetheless. It makes one wonder if there was ever a point where an editor asked, ‘Are you sure this isn’t meant to be a tortoise?’

I’m sure there are a lot of readers (without my unwarranted tortoise-based expectations) who would really enjoy this book – it was very typical of that kind of contemporary American novel that follows the lives of young men and women in order to reveal that women are troubled and unfulfilled by every type of relationship, and that many men are emotionally inadequate, apart from the one who isn’t and will happily be the partner of our enduring ingenue (because somehow even in these on-brand feminist contemporary novels there is something of the ingenue about the main female character – with a more cynical best friend, mentor or other foil to balance her out). Greer’s best friend Zee felt like quite a hollow stereotype, and Greer’s journey from quiet little mouse was all too predictable. The book even ended with one of those end-of-harry-potter chapters that ties everything together in a neatly optimistic bow. Discussions of feminism were overt, and every moment a teachable moment about friendship or relationships or the professional world.

None of this is bad per se, of course; it was a novel that had a clear sense of what it wanted the reader to think at the end. An interesting and enjoyable read which I think would appeal to anyone who doesn’t mind a bit of a lesson in their books.

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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Tangerine – Christine Mangan: Lavinia’s Book Pick, April 2019

tangerine.jpegTangerine, the debut novel by Christine Mangan, tells the story of Alice Shipley, a delicate young woman, orphaned while at college, and swiftly married to obvious jerk John. Alice hates Tangier for various reasons, mostly that she feels unsafe there, but has seized the opportunity to be far away from a mysterious accident and an altercation with her former bff and room-mate Lucy Mason. But – surprise, surprise! – Lucy still wants to be best mates, and she shows up in Tangier and indeed at Alice’s apartment, ready to help her out of her shell.

I don’t want to give too much about this book away, because it’s such a satisfying and tightly-plotted thriller. The real charm is the complexity of Lucy and Alice’s relationship, one that combines devotion, obsession, gaslighting, desire, co-dependency, jealousy and fantasy. Tangier emerges as an enticing and intoxicating mystery, as seductive and charming to Lucy as it is threatening and unfamiliar to Alice. John is a solid gold arse – self-importantly surrounding himself with books that he has never read, and bragging about his government job, bullying Alice and trying to intimidate Lucy. Having read on the blurb that he was going to disappear, I was extremely joyful when this came to pass.

The great joy in the book is Lucy – charming and slippery, insecure, needy, and manipulative. If you can enjoy a savage thriller in which almost everyone is a horrible person (and in which those who are ‘nice’ are intolerably wet) this is the book for you. I enjoyed it immensely and would recommend it to anyone!

You’ll love this book if:

– You like a good thriller
– You are fascinated by odd female friendships
– You enjoy a vivid setting

You might want to avoid this book if:

– For some reason you hate books about women and their complex relationships
– For some reason you dislike Tangier

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lavinia collins authorLove Lavinia xoxo
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The Perfect Girlfriend – Karen Hamilton

Rating: 3 stars

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The Perfect Girlfriend offers a very enticing proposition – a romance-tale as old as time, if you will. A crazed ex-girlfriend obsessively stalking her ideal man, with a dash of high-skies peril thrown in as love-obsessive and love-object are trapped together at 31,000 feet. I was keen to give it a read.

The story begins as Juliette – as our protagonist is sometimes known – begins her campaign to win back her ex Nate to whom she was – she earnestly tells us – the perfect girlfriend. Nate is an airline pilot, and of course Juliette signs up to be a steward on his airline, and begins her campaign to get him back through various increasingly outlandish schemes. This is all framed by the childhood trauma that opens the book: namely, her little brother’s drowning while under her supervision.

It’s an enticing genre-fiction scenario, and I was excited to sit down and read the book and see how it played out. There was a lot to recommend it – Karen Hamilton’s own background as an air steward was evident in the level of detail and realism, and Juliette was enjoyably unhinged as a narrator, which was great fun to read.

But those strong elements were, strangely enough, what made this book a less-than-satisfying read for me. A lot of the in-cabin realism grew dominated by admin, and the promise of threat in a locked-in confrontation or power play between pilot and steward never came to pass, and felt like a gun that was loaded and not fired. It felt as if Hamilton was so focused on the detailed realism of life in the air that she did not make enough of the dramatic potential of the situation, and it became background detail rather than heart-thumping drama.

Likewise, Juliette’s unhinged behaviour was always turned right up to eleven, whether she was dyeing her hair the same colour as her new friend and breaking into her house, or conducting some extremely-fast-escalating machinations regarding her ex-boyfriend. For a book called The Perfect Girlfriend, I expected to get more detail on how she had made herself ‘the perfect girlfriend’ in her relationship’s early stages. I couldn’t help thinking about Gone Girl, and that book’s complex and moving critique of the ‘cool girl’ persona. I guess Juliette wears a short dress and cooks a curry once, but apart from this she seems like the worst girlfriend imaginable. I suppose there is meant to be some irony in the title, but we never really see her trying to be perfect. We only see her being a psycho.

So although there was a lot I liked about The Perfect Girlfriend, it left me feeling that some opportunities had been missed. I wanted drama in the skies, I wanted a searing deconstruction of the pressure on women to be ‘perfect’, and though I got a perfectly serviceable thriller, I was left wanting more.

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker: Lavinia’s Book Pick, March 2019

the silence of the girls.jpgThe Silence of the Girls is yet another retelling of mythology – these are ‘toute la rage’ now, as the French undoubtedly say, and I have read the good, bad and ugly of them, so it was with both a little shiver of anticipation and a heavy dread deep in my stomach that I sat down to enjoy my birthday hardback. A hardback is always a commitment – a heavy weight to lift, and a constriction to reading at home rather than on the train – and I wanted it to be good.

Reader, I was not disappointed. The Silence of the Girls is not always an easy read. Being narrated by the Trojan prisoner Briseis, and set among the Trojan prisoner-women in the Greek camp, the content is heavily focused on rape. But it is not written about in a voyeuristic or exploitative way, offered up for titillation or framed as something that eventually becomes romantic. It is handled with sensitivity, nuance, and – among the women in the camp – a kind of grim nihilistic humour that feels very real.

One of the real charms of The Silence of the Girls is the way it avoids that tedious historical/mythic fiction ‘forsooth good sir’ way of talking. The characters speak to one another like real humans (in that way it’s very much like The Favourite). Occasionally this comes out rather oddly – there’s something slightly jarring to me about the characters saying ‘for God’s sake’ in a polytheistic culture – but that’s easy to forgive when it’s in service of a realism that conveys the powerful emotions and human relationships of the Iliad in a way that feels convincing and immediate.

Of course, despite being a book told by and about women, it is also heavily dominated by the figure of Achilles. In the Iliad itself Achilles spends most of the time sulking, but The Silence of the Girls offers another side that considers his relationships with his mother, with Patroclus, and with life away from the battlefield. He appears as an overgrown child, a complex and caring friend, a brute, and sometimes as a sensitive diplomat.

You’ll love this book if: 

– You like a good retelling of ancient myth
– You like a new perspective on an old story
– You like historical/mythic material told with humour

You might want to avoid this book if:

– You are sensitive to portrayals of violence, esp. sexual violence

Tweet me here: @lavinia_collins
And find me at my blog here: vivimedieval.wordpress.com

lavinia collins authorLove Lavinia xoxo
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Normal People – Sally Rooney

Rating: 3 stars

Marianne lives in a small town in the west of Ireland; her family are obviously wealthy but she attends the same school as Connell, whose mother Lorraine cleans the “white mansion” where Marianne, her mother and brother Alan live. Alan is a mean bully, treating Marianne with a casual violent contempt, knowing she is a frightened loner. Against the odds, Marianne and Connell strike up a friendship, having a respect for each other’s intelligence and a love of facts and learning. In school they never speak to each other – she’s quiet, friendless, and he’s a popular member of the soccer team, adored by all.

Their friendship rapidly becomes an affair, secret from their families and his friends until the night of the fundraiser when he rescues her from older bullying and taunting gate-crashers, and she reveals that her late father used to hit her mother. At the point in her life when most of her school colleagues are out having fun, Marianne’s life is already dominated by a combination of love of learning, and of being a repeated victim of violence. She and Connell both apply to study at Trinity College, Dublin, but by the time their studies start their relationship has foundered.

normal people.jpgJust months later, at university, Connell and Marianne’s positions are reversed: she’s now the centre of a bright social set, well-to-do, attractive and vivacious; he’s struggling on the fringes, feeling socially out of his depth. It didn’t seem at all real to me that just months after their awkward break up, after which she abruptly leaves school, she is now the popular centre of attention among a group of rich and confident friends. The barriers which existed between her and and her school peer group had seemed far more to do with what she was inherently like, introverted and bookish, than with the wealth and social gap between her and them. I found it hard to credit that in the space of the summer vacation she’d suddenly changed into a confident party-goer.

Gradually they inch back into a relationship, but again it’s fated not to last. The pattern of their lives is set. They understand each other better than anyone else, they love each other, but they can never be together for long. Marianne’s doomed to have a series of difficult, often physically and verbally violent relationships; Connell is doomed to be with people who don’t share or understand his feelings for the world or for literature. They drift together and drift apart repeatedly, although, as time goes on, when they’re apart they constantly communicate, each telling the other of ideas, thoughts and feelings which no one else is told, not even their current partners.

I loved the opening section of Normal People, titled January 2011, with its descriptions of growing young relationships, and of what it is like for some educated and articulate people to be young in the 21st century, but, for me, the book faded away and lost my interest, despite its being under 270 pages in length, so that long before its final section, February 2015, I really wanted Marianne and Connell to have moved forward in their lives and become more interesting. Perhaps I’m too old and jaundiced, or perhaps I have read too many books! Clearly not only most reviewers but the Costa Book Awards panel disagreed with me, as this has been awarded the Costa novel of the year for 2018.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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The Skylarks’ War – Hilary McKay

Rating: 5 stars

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My secret trick for dealing with winter blues: children’s fiction, both classics like The Secret Garden and Ballet Shoes, and modern classics in the making like Five Children on the Western Front (Costa Children’s Book Award winner 2014). I’ve been delighted during this winter’s long, dark evenings not just to reread some of my old favourites, but to find some new treasures, like this year’s Costa Children’s Book winner, The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay. Hilary McKay had already won the Guardian Fiction Prize for her first novel, The Exiles, the Smarties Prize for The Exiles in Love and the Costa Award for Saffy’s Angel.

And The Skylarks’ War is a very worthy second Costa winner for Ms McKay, another fine work which I’m sure children will enjoy for many years to come, and one which parents will delight in reading alongside their youngsters.

It’s a simple tale, beautifully told, of Clarry and her older brother Peter, who spend their summers staying in Cornwall with their grandparents and much-loved older cousin Rupert. Each September brings a return to normal humdrum life with Rupert and Peter at boarding school, while Clarry is stuck at home. Her father is often out, and when he is in he seldom seems to notice her presence; and when he does it never seems to be in a favourable light, seeing no need for her to receive a good education. Instead she is sent to

Miss Pinkses’ Academy for Young Ladies …. bare walls, shabby paint and dark windows … ‘It’s those three rooms at the top,’ said Clarry’s suddenly ruthless brother, pointing (while Clarry lurked miserably behind). ‘She’s been going there for years, ever since she was six, and she has never learned a useful thing. Sewing handkerchief cases, that’s all she did last term!’

When Peter’s school friend Simon Bonnington comes into their lives with his sister Vanessa, Clarry sees that there might be another way for her to live, and secretly applies to take the entrance test at Vanessa’s grammar school, much to her father’s annoyance and disappointment when he learns that she has been awarded a place.

In August 1914 Rupert enlists as soon as he possibly can with his school friend Michael and they go off to France together; Peter will never be able to follow them, having badly damaged his leg jumping from a moving train in the summer of 1912, in the hope of avoiding being sent to boarding school. Instead Peter leaves school and goes to Oxford on a scholarship, and encourages young Clarry to apply for a place as soon as she is old enough.

McKay writes brilliantly about the difficulties faced by young people during the First World War, whether it’s men struggling to be themselves at school, then being forced to grow up rapidly in the trenches of France, or women – particularly intelligent, clear-minded young women like Clarry and Vanessa – wanting to find a new way forward in life, despite the low expectations for girls at the time. The Skylarks’ War is realistic in that while Peter becomes a professor, Clarry is a teacher, enjoying her life, but clearly capable of doing just as much as her older brother. And it’s Clarry who, during the war, has to learn to run the household, cook and clean, as staff gradually leave her father’s house for war work.

This is no fairy tale, a happy-endings-all-around children’s book: Clarry and Peter’s father remains a remote and distant figure, attending neither Peter’s final school speech day nor either child’s Oxford graduation, and he is clearly not part of their adult lives; much-loved friends and relatives are dead – characters we have come to love and appreciate. The Skylarks’ War is a wonderful work, which I’m sure will stand the test of time, and will be added to my own personal set of “essential rereading” books.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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The Lido – Libby Page

Rating: 5 stars

If, like me, you’re feeling that summer is an awfully long way off, now’s the time to turn to a book to make you feel better about the wait, and I thoroughly recommend turning to The Lido. Like Flora and her mother Ingrid in Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons, the two leading characters in The Lido, Rosemary, who is 86, and Kate, 60 years her junior, feel liberated and free when they are swimming. But whereas in Swimming Lessons the swimming is done in the open sea in Dorset, for Rosemary and Kate their liberating swims take place in Brixton Lido, a much-loved local venue. Rosemary has swum there for her entire life and it’s the key cornerstone in her whole being, as she’s watched the city she grew up in changing and shifting around her. So when it’s under threat of closure for redevelopment as part of a proposed luxury development called Paradise Living, she starts a campaign to prevent this. Kate is a young reporter working on the Brixton Chronicle who is assigned the task of covering the story.

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In this, her first published novel, Libby Page writes beautifully both about her characters – Rosemary and her late husband George in particular are an unusual central focus in modern fiction, working class and childless, and portrayed in tender detail – and about her setting. The descriptions of Brixton are vivid and capture a real living place, chronicling vividly its changing nature, from Rosemary’s childhood in wartime right up to modern times. (George’s old greengrocers’ shop in Electric Avenue has become a trendy cocktail bar, for example.) Rosemary has many friends in the streets of her home town, so her shopping days are happy outings punctuated by long chats and treats; at home, however, she’s alone and missing George desperately.

Kate, on the other hand, is desperately shy, with no friends either at work or outside it, spending her evenings crying in her room in a house share.

She doesn’t tell anyone that often she feels like a sad, matted teddy bear you might see forgotten under a bench on the underground. She just wants someone to pick her up and take her home. … Kate’s loneliness sometimes feel like indigestion, at other times it is a dull echo at the back of her eyes or a weight that makes her limbs feel too heavy for her body.

Gradually Kate finds her way back to enjoying life – she has her eyes opened by Rosemary and her friends, and starts to become friends with them herself as she becomes aware of sides of Brixton she’d never previously known existed. She and Rosemary swim together and work together on a campaign to save the pool; she draws from Rosemary’s strength to become stronger herself, and when Rosemary is ill Kate steps in to find she is capable of doing so much more than she’d previously known – each of them needs the other in sometimes surprising ways. In addition, there’s a rich cast of other characters we come to know: members of Brixton’s eclectic community, from the teenage boy swimming at the Lido, to the gay couple in the bookshop, from the staff of the Brixton Chronicle to those working at the Lido, Rosemary’s old friends and colleagues. All play their part in this celebration of the triumph of hope, friendship and community over loneliness and feelings of loss.

Congratulations are due to Ms Page; I can’t wait for your next novel! Fingers crossed, too, for a film version of The Lido – there are two great lead roles here for both an older and a younger actor. Suggestions for casting?

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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