Saturday, 18 June 2022

(M)otherhood: On the choices of being a woman, Pragya Agarwal

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In this blend of memoir and essay, Agarwal takes a deep dive into reproductive health while exploring her own motherhood journey with great honesty. She lays out in her introduction that she is writing from personal experience and that the book will therefore not cover every scenario. Nonetheless, she reminds us of the intersectional nature of the subject throughout, detailing how various factors can lead to very different experiences and outcomes.

An overarching theme is that of stigma and control in the way female bodies are viewed and treated. She demonstrates how this is true from the first signs of menstruation through to problems with fertility and the lack of purpose ascribed to women once they are beyond their childbearing years. The discussion of control over women’s bodies and the right to access safe and legal abortion feels particularly pertinent at the moment.

A lot of research supports the writing of this book. I was especially interested to learn about the realities of ageing sperm and how the age of men impacts fertility. It is a widely held belief that for women there is a ticking clock for having a baby, but that for men it is possible to father a child at any age. Although this might technically be true, the quality decreases greatly, potentially causing health issues in the foetus and playing an important role in miscarriage. Another area I’d never thought much about is how pregnancy tests were carried out before the ones we’re so familiar with today. It turns out injecting mice and frogs with a woman’s urine was used well into the twentieth century!

Alongside these fascinating tidbits and thought-provoking discussions is the tale of Agarwal’s own journey with fertility. Her first pregnancy which almost killed her was later followed by secondary infertility, punishing rounds of IVF, and ultimately surrogacy. Amid her desperation to become a mother again she considers what it is that drives her. Looking into surrogacy opens a discussion about ethics, guilt, and the narrow definitions society uses for pregnancy and motherhood. She struggles against doubts that she’s not a real mother because she’s not able to carry her babies or breastfeed them. New motherhood also wracks her with guilt not just about her newborns but also her teenaged daughter who’s increasingly fending for herself. It is an emotional book, evoking the endless worries and conflicts of trying and becoming a parent. Her husband’s presence in the book is on the periphery, appearing to reassure her against her concerns and providing a supportive presence. We don’t see much of how the process affects him.

This is a moving, well-researched book that will make you angry at times and deeply moved at others. The focus is on the impact of a woman’s body, and society’s view of it, on her life choices, but Agarwal also touches on other subjects. Most notably, her feelings of displacement, having grown up in India but now living in the UK. Both countries simultaneously feel like home and don’t. Her feeling of otherness comes through gently to start but more forcefully as her story develops. An engrossing, informative read.

Friday, 10 June 2022

Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert

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We first meet Charles Bovary as a schoolboy mocked for his outlandish fashion and an unfortunate mispronunciation of his name due to nerves. His mother dotes on him, focusing her attention on him and the running of their household instead of her increasing frustration with her husband. After one short marriage he finds himself enjoying the freedoms of single life, but then he meets Emma Rouault. He is completely besotted with her and she assents to marriage, imagining her life as a newlywed will meet all of her romantic dreams. Unsurprisingly, life doesn’t quite match up to her imagination, and she embarks on a series of affairs with tragic consequences.

Emma is immature, vain, and foolish. She abuses her husband’s naivety and love for her, thrusting them into grave financial difficulties. She tries only vaguely to conceal her misdemeanours and many of their friends suspect her indiscretions. Charles is loyal and blind to the reality of his marriage. Emma resents him for his happiness while she is so disappointed in her choice of spouse. Her expectations, however, were unlikely to be met, believing that he should know everything and excel in many fields. Charles is broadly mediocre, but in her distress she misses the value of his devotion. Despite her many flaws, Emma is not an unlikable character. Indeed, her belief that everyone else is living a far more exciting, lavish life is one that many can relate to. For those who have felt the depths of darkness descend, her despair at thinking about a future of misery will be familiar, the feeling of panic and helplessness at a future she does not want is claustrophobic and intensely upsetting.

This is a book of high drama and hoped-for passion. Emma does not do emotions by half, imagining herself in a great romantic story. It also deals with the more mundane aspects of married life, so despised by Emma. Charles feels the familiar conflict between pleasing his wife and obeying his mother’s wishes. He is stuck in a difficult situation with a demanding wife who doesn’t love him (a fact he remains blissfully unaware of for the most part) and a mother jealous of the affection he has for his wife, perceiving it to be a rejection of the love she has provided. He is no great romantic hero, but he is kind and loyal. Unfortunately, his story is never destined to end well. He is somewhat reminiscent of Emily Brontë’s Edgar Linton.

Flaubert is famous for having spent years writing and re-writing Madame Bovary, obsessing over every sentence. The result is a compelling read with a dramatic conclusion. 

Wednesday, 1 June 2022

Tasting Sunlight, Ewald Arenz (trans. by Rachel Ward)

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This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thanks to Random Things Tours and Orenda Books for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

On a hot September morning Sally runs away from the clinic where she is being treated for anorexia. Liss is steadily going about her business in the fields when her tractor gets caught in a ditch. Sally stopping to help sets in motion a friendship that will change both of their lives. Liss invites Sally to stay the night and soon she’s been there for several weeks, eagerly absorbing information about the farm. Her parents are searching for her, and the new friends can’t stay in their little bubble forever - will the progress they’ve made be strong enough to survive the intrusion of the outside world?

When Sally arrives she is angry and distrustful, tired of the endless fake concern of those paid to look after her. She finds Liss refreshing - she doesn’t ask probing questions, and when she asks for assistance Sally knows she can say no if she wants to. Her life has so often felt out of her control and disjointed, as though she were born into the wrong family, that this new-found autonomy does her the world of good. She loves being around nature and learning how to use the produce to make food and drink. On the farm exercise feels purposeful, and it helps her begin to reframe her relationship with her body.

Liss harbours a lot of hurt - ghosts of her father make it hard for her to enjoy the land, and there’s an unspecified loss that sucks the meaning out of her life. Sally’s presence gives her company for the first time in many years, and her innocent wonder at her home offers her the opportunity to see her life through new eyes. She resists the temptation to intervene, but there are moments where she slips up and things become fraught between the two of them. Sally sometimes pushes too hard to get to the bottom of Liss’s secrets, seemingly unaware of the contradiction between her own desire for privacy and her actions.

In the latter parts of the book we learn more about Liss’s past and why she has ended up alone, living a life she never wanted. It is a sad tale, and when Sally learns snippets of it through third parties she is forced to confront how much she really knows about this woman who she lived with for a month.

Farm life is described vividly, and although the hard work and less desirable aspects of it are not hidden, it sounds quite idyllic. The changing of the seasons and the shifting landscape are brought to life. You can clearly picture the colours, the drops of rain on the plants, the smells and noises. Ultimately it feels peaceful and wholesome and it is this combined with friendship that helps both Liss and Sally see a little hope in the world.

This is a beautiful, evocative book that will transport you to another life. I didn’t want to leave.

Tasting Sunlight is out on 23rd June 2022, pre-order your copy:
Bookshop

Wednesday, 25 May 2022

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Taylor Jenkins Reid

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Evelyn Hugo has had a rollercoaster of a career, with smash hits and near career-ending moments aplenty. One thing that’s always remained, however, is people’s interest in her seven marriages. Now seventy-nine and having refused publicity for many years, she’s finally ready to tell the whole truth. What secrets will she reveal, and why has she chosen Monique Grant, an unknown journalist, to share her story?

Evelyn knows from a young age that she wants to make something of her life, and it soon becomes clear that her looks will help her get there if she’s willing to give men what they want from her. She has no problem using people to achieve her goals, and that includes her various husbands. Some of her marriages are more like good business deals, others genuinely based in love. The older she becomes the more she longs to be loved for the real Evelyn, not the construction she has created for the public. This wrestling with a desire for an extraordinary life and the opposing craving for privacy is played on often. She encourages co-stars to be seen on the arms of men they can’t stand for the headlines. She is calculated and ruthless but she is not shamed for it. There may be things she regrets, but her ambition is not portrayed as a failure as it so often is in a female character.

She is well aware of the power of her sex appeal yet also feels the shallowness of it. Her beauty is not a moral virtue but rather something she was born with. She finds it odd to be admired for something she didn’t achieve herself, and the more she is in the world of the Hollywood elite the more keenly she feels the difference between being desired and being loved.

You may expect from the title that this will be a book full of drama and heartache, and although this is true, a lot of it has nothing to do with the husbands. Really this is a love story, of Evelyn and her one true love, of loving someone the world would condemn you for, and the lengths you’d go to in order to protect it. This central love story is realistically drawn. Neither partner is perfect, and they allow their flaws and pride to tear them apart. Evelyn struggles to put her career second and it is a painful lesson to learn what she can lose. With time, she comes to reflect ‘You have worked so hard for a life so grand. And now all you want are the smallest freedoms. The daily peace of loving plainly.’ Will she be able to attain the quiet, loving life she craves?

We meet Evelyn when she is all alone, everyone she truly loved departed. Her story is all-consuming and it can be frustrating when the narrative cuts back to the present. The mystery of why she chose Monique hangs over these sections but it doesn’t feel as though you get enough time with her to really care. Monique learns some important lessons through her time with Evelyn, but in the early sections her story can be slightly muddling and always pales in comparison to Evelyn’s. The moment you realise what the reveal is going to be still sends shockwaves through you however.

An enthralling novel with such a compelling protagonist that you’ll forget she’s not real.

Thursday, 19 May 2022

Elizabeth of York: The Last White Rose, Alison Weir

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This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thanks to Random Things Tours and Headline Review for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Weir starts her new Tudor Rose trilogy with an exploration of the life of Elizabeth of York. Eldest daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, she is brought up to rule. Her life from a young age is full of danger and disruption however, as she goes into sanctuary while her father is briefly in exile. Once he returns things don’t settle down for long with family losses, betrayal, and her father’s untimely death which throws her life into disarray. Her uncle takes the throne and there’s rumours he murdered her brothers, before plotting to marry her to make his reign more legitimate. The Wars of the Roses are a dangerous time, with the country in an almost constant state of flux. The promise of a marriage to young Henry Tudor seems to be the clearest way to get Elizabeth a crown and secure the dynasty, bringing an end to the wars between the Lancastrians and Yorkists. It’s a decision that will have huge consequences for the course of English history.

This is an expansive book, covering Elizabeth’s life from the age of four through to her death. Her life is naturally very different to that of the average reader, but there are still hints of the normal embarrassments and challenges of growing up. She struggles to come to terms with the reality of some of her relatives’ behaviour, so starkly contrasted to the way they’ve always treated her. Elizabeth and her sister Cecily are close, and they delight over beautiful gowns and comfort each other in moments of difficulty. It is her interactions with her siblings that make her feel most human, the constant desire for power and the complex games of betrothal put her at a distance.

Indeed, Weir does not shy away from the suffering caused to the family when young children die, or siblings are killed for others’ gain. Often when people think of history and the prevalence of death there is a perception that maybe the losses didn’t hit as hard as they would today. This novel counters that, with every loss being a devastating blow, every child loved deeply, despite at times appearing to be mere pawns. 

Weir centres women in many of her books, and this is no exception. Where history may have silenced them, fiction brings to life their internal lives. Elizabeth’s mother is no helpless maiden, forcefully putting across her point and influencing her husband’s decisions. Elizabeth herself plays an active role in trying to secure the throne and is willing to do what is required to get what she wants.

Personally, I found it hard to connect to characters whose main motivation was securing power for themselves, but for many history enthusiasts I’m sure this book will be a delightful dive into an important historical figure whose story is often overshadowed by the men around her. Full of historical detail and dealing with some famous mysteries from the time, there’s a lot to sink your teeth into.



Wednesday, 11 May 2022

The Vanished Bride, Bella Ellis

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Elizabeth Chester has vanished in mysterious circumstances. Without disturbing anyone in the night she appears to have been the victim of a gruesome crime. Matilda French, the Chesters’ governess, is an old friend of the Brontë sisters and has the misfortune of being the one to discover Elizabeth’s room covered in blood but with no sign of a body or forced entry. Mr. Chester is not keen on an investigation, and with the over-zealous housekeeper Mrs. Crawley thoroughly scrubbing the room clean shortly after discovery, there’s not an awful lot of leads. The Brontë sisters, looking for some adventure and anxious that the disappearance of a woman should not go unnoticed, step up to do some detecting.

The story unfolds with a few red herrings and some incredibly dark character development, but I was never really swayed from my initial conviction. I’m usually fooled by every wrong turn an author lays out so it felt as though the truth was only thinly concealed, although I admit there were some details I didn’t see coming. As a mystery I’m not sure it would satisfy a more seasoned reader of the genre.

The characters are really the main heart of the novel. The Brontës, of course, but the side characters also contain a wealth of interest with complex motives and conflicting emotions. The Brontës feel like a realistic family with bickering and teasing commonplace. They seem occasionally to be a tad one-dimensional with very clear roles to play that they don’t often diverge from.

There are a lot of nods to events and characters from their novels, as well as real-life locations associated with them. I’m unusual in not particularly enjoying easter eggs in my books and films, but I’m sure for readers who do enjoy such things this book will utterly delight. Ellis draws on many well-known events and circumstances for the Brontë enthusiast but there are also many that could easily be missed. This is obviously an author who knows the Brontë story well and does something new with it.

Branwell’s presence is a worry to the sisters as they hope to help him out of his downward spiral. They’re all too aware of the limitations of their gender and his inclusion in some of their activities serves in both giving them a veneer of authority and keeping him away from the pub. There are some sweet moments in which he is loveably hopeless, yet they remind us that it is the women who have done the hard work.

Gender roles are central both to the plot and the general feel of the novel. The sisters are consistently frustrated by the limitations placed on them as women and the need to pretend they are working for men to have people take them seriously. Anne is still smarting from having lost her role as governess due to Branwell’s antics, yet we also see what a difficult, often unenviable life it is. Elizabeth Chester was not much better off - married to a man who would increase her material wealth but not make her happy. This seems to be the two unhappy options for women, and the Brontës are outliers who are aware of the precarity of their situation. They nonetheless focus their investigations on men, missing potential clues. The darker side of this is of course the awareness of the prevalence of male violence and the often helpless situations women find themselves in.

There are some quite gothic moments in the novel, and as you might imagine, Ellis often centres them around Emily. With mysterious signs of the first Mrs. Chester in the attic, some genuinely disturbing scenes involving a human skull, and hints at the other-worldly, there are definitely some hair-raising moments. Chester Grange itself is quite the gothic construction with its hidden passageways and secrets.

This is an easy read with a fun premise. The three sisters complement each other nicely to form a successful team of detectors. For fans of cosy crime and the Brontës this is a great choice.

Wednesday, 4 May 2022

The Carnival of Ash, Tom Beckerlegge

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This post if part of the blog tour for the novel. Thank you to The WriteReads and Rebellion Publishing for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Cadenza is a city in turmoil - its leader recently dead and a whole host of intrigue and violence occurring just below the surface. The risk of this instability is heightened by the ever present threat of its rival, Venice. Cadenza is a city of poets, where literary talent is highly valued and there are libraries around every corner. This historic setting might sound idyllic to the booklover who picks up the novel, but it doesn’t take long to realise a respect for and love of literature doesn’t undo the darker parts of human nature.

The book is split into twelve cantos, effectively short stories focussing on different characters. It took a little while to get used to the fact we weren’t coming back to the characters to continue their stories, although some do make guest appearances in other cantos. The stories range from the darkly humorous to the deeply disturbing. We first meet Carlo Mazzoni lying in a grave, an unsympathetic gravedigger quite happy to bury him with the intended inhabitant, but not to dig a new grave. Carlo soon decides against the idea and is encouraged to face his troubles. Other stories contain accounts of horrible mutilations, betrayal, and explore the depths people will sink to in order to gain power.

In one canto we meet Vittoria/Hypatia, an ink maid who spends her days writing letters that fulfil her clients’ fetishes in exchange for money. She has her own desires and painful secrets however, as well as a mysterious stranger who knows far more about her than she can comprehend. Her story shows that even in this alternate history women’s desires are frowned upon and that acting on them is cause for severe punishment. 

There are some truly gruesome descriptions and seemingly depraved characters, with the truth behind the public facade revealed gradually. The sexual and violent content won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you can stomach those scenes the rest of this chunky book is likely to have something to interest most readers, so varied are the cantos. The world is richly described and you can easily imagine Cadenza to be a real city. I’ll be interested to see what Beckerlegge does next.