Reviews of Books by Women – Are There Enough?

Although there are many successful women authors in the science fiction genre today, it still feels, at times, as though it’s a genre very much dominated by men. This came into stark relief for me when I attended a sci-fi panel at a lit fest a couple of years ago; the panel consisted of four white men, and I remember thinking: Really? What does this say about the genre? Do I, as a woman, have a chance of breaking into sci-fi? Am I confident enough to submit to a magazine where I don’t see that many stories by women being published? I was pleased to hear the chair of the panel apologize for the lack of diversity, saying that this wasn’t really representative of the genre, but when I questioned him on why, if this wasn’t representative of the genre, it had still come about, and whose responsibility was it – readers, writers, publishers, event organizers? – to ensure that panels (and the genre as a whole) were diverse, a good answer wasn’t forthcoming. But then I got heckled by a man at the back of the audience who called out, ‘But it’s all about the story!’ (the implication being a good story was a good story, no matter if a man or woman wrote it, but evidently these four men were superior at writing good stories… hmm). So that told me.

Shoreline of Infinity magazines, photo by Marija Smits

When I became serious about reading more contemporary science fiction, I came across the then new(ish) sci-fi magazine Shoreline of Infinity. In search of a good read, I took a look through the reviews page and was immediately struck by a) how few books by women were being reviewed and b) how few of the reviewers were women. This wasn’t anything particularly startling; if, like me, you’re aware of VIDA, and their collated statistics, their findings over the past 8 years make for a depressing read – in pretty much all of the literary magazines/broadsheets they found that reviews of books by women, along with women reviewers, were in the minority. And yet it is women who are in the majority when it comes to being book buyers.

It can be easy to throw up one’s hands and say: ‘Oh well, what a shame, these things will never change!’ but they will never change unless we all say, ‘Enough!’ and do our bit to read more books by women, more books by BAME and marginalized authors, and, crucially, to review those books so that they can get more attention and thus (hopefully) more sales, which will send publishers the message that yes, we want to read more from these writers, which should give them the impetus to publish more by these authors. (And as an aside, being part of the indie publishing world I can’t help but notice that it’s the indies who are leading the way in this respect – ever much more so than the risk averse let’s-publish-another-book-by-a-celebrity-it’ll-be-a-hit conglomerate publishers. The message from this article by Danuta Kean is certainly encouraging – that small indie presses are publishing more diversely and reaping the benefits in increased sales and new readers.)

I am now a reviewer for Shoreline of Infinity (in the main, I review books by women); I genuinely enjoy ‘doing my bit’ PLUS I get free books and get to exercise my critical reading skills. Bargain! And what I love about Shoreline is that they’re taking their low number of fiction submissions by women seriously. In fact, issue eleven will be a women-only issue. So if you’re a woman sci-fi writer, do check it out.

Other exciting things happening right now are this: the well-respected indie publisher And Other Stories will be making 2018 a year of publishing women only (in response to Kamila Shamsie’s original call for a year of publishing women). Influx Press have a current call for submissions from women of colour only. And Linen Press and Mslexia are continually open to submissions by women only. My press, Mother’s Milk Books, considers submissions from both men and women, but I tend to get a lot more submissions from women than men. I think some male writers may consider my press too “motherly” or too “milky” for them!

I would actually encourage any writer/reader to take up reviewing for a magazine, or, if reviewing for a magazine isn’t for you, then there’s other platforms to review on – a personal blog, Twitter, Instagram, Amazon, Goodreads etc. These are all good places to help spread the word about books by women.

I will leave you with the following reviews and a little nudge: go write a considered review of a book by a woman (bonus points for it being published by an indie press!).

 

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Pseudotooth by Verity Holloway

11 2017 Pseudotooth, by Verity Holloway

‘Never judge a book by its cover’ so the saying goes, but of course we all do, and Unsung Stories, a fab indie press, have a particular skill in creating great covers, so I wanted to read Pseudotooth the moment I set eyes on the cover.

Since most of my writing this year has concentrated on short stories, most of my reading has been of short story collections and anthologies, so I became rather worried about whether I’d actually be able to read a whole novel. And at just over 400 pages, Pseudotooth is a long novel. But, considering its length, it was a compelling read, and I seemed to fly through it.

Pseudotooth is a difficult-to-categorise novel though. It’s not exactly magical realism, but not quite speculative fiction either; yet the writing is lyrical, the narrative dreamlike, the themes – trauma, mental health, otherness – powerful and thought-provoking. The protagonist, a young woman called Aisling Selkirk who is having unexplained blackouts (pseudo-seizures), is a well-drawn and sympathetic character, the milieu (first, the austere and chilling parsonage, and then the is-it-real-is-it-not realm of ‘Our Friend’) fascinatingly image-rich. I’m not entirely sure the more open-ended ending is for me (I love a good strong resolution) but I think that’s very much up to the individual reader. Pseudotooth really got me thinking about the issue of how best to support young adults with mental health issues, and I would love to discuss it with any one else who has read it.

 

Bone Ovation by Caroline Hardaker

11 2017 Bone Ovation, by Caroline Hardaker

Bone Ovation is a debut poetry pamphlet, published by Valley Press, another indie press I greatly appreciate. As I’ve mentioned before, I find it takes me a long time to read a full poetry collection, but pamphlets are a brilliant way to slip some poetry into your day. You can carry them in a coat pocket or bag and dip in (and out) of them easily.

The theme of the pamphlet is ‘bones’ and in many of the poems the theme is obvious, in others, not so much. Many of the poems are written from a woman’s point of view, or are about a particular woman; I loved some of the characters – the girl from ‘The Girl Who Fell in Love With the Mountain’, the enigmatic being from ‘The Paper Woman’, the woman from ‘The Woman is Like a Picasso’. But my favourite is definitely the soul-gobbling grandmother from ‘The Rains’.

 

The Rains

 

Each raindrop contains a soul

I’m told, and sleet is nought

but the urgent need of the dead to meet

their loved ones once more in the mortal world.

To stroke their skin, to leave a living trace;

a tear drop – a thin, translucent meridian.

 

My grandmother never used an umbrella

and would tip back her head and eat the rain.

She said it made her feel alive again.

 

CAROLINE HARDAKER

 

Reading this collection I was struck by how, in places, it reminded me of Angela Readman’s The Book of Tides, a very fine collection indeed, due to the striking imagery, the layered and rich vocabulary, the magical/fantastical themes throughout. Yes, there were (to my mind) some poems that weren’t wholly successful, either because they were too opaque for my taste, or they had the occasional line which had end rhymes or internal rhymes that didn’t quite work, but overall, I felt this to be a strong debut, and one that makes me want to read more from this up-and-coming author.

 

Waking Mama Luna by Jessica Starr

Waking Mama Luna, by Jessica M Starr

This is a slim, self-published collection of 5 tales about womanhood and motherhood. I actually read this a fair while ago and meant to review it a lot earlier, but of course, life got in the way. The stories remind me of traditional fairy tales since they are plainly-written, with no literary frills added for effect. Some of the tales are tragic, some are resolutely happy, some are instructive. The whole collection makes for an easy, uplifting read and I remember really looking forward to ‘treating myself’ to another story because they felt so full of love, so familiar, so comforting. And really, what more can a reader (especially one who loves fairy tales) ask for from a book? Thank you Jessica!

 

mumturnedmom
And finally… huge thanks and WELL DONE to Sara for all her hard work on The Prompt linky. I am sorry to hear that this is the last ever The Prompt link-up (this week’s prompt was ENOUGH) but I am sure that Sara will continue to keep on inspiring and connecting (in particular) women writers.
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Narratives of Water and Earth: 4 poetry collection reviews

Although I write, edit and publish poetry, I genuinely find reviewing poetry challenging. It inevitably makes me think of the way we used to pick apart poems at school (I have a particular memory of sitting at my wooden desk in my English class and dissecting one of Wilfred Owen’s most famous war poems, ‘Dulce et Decorum est’). Now I’m sure there’s a great deal of value to studying a poem in this way, because understanding the mechanics of any art gives you a better appreciation of how a skilled work of art is created, but it cannot, in any major way, alter the viewer’s (or reader’s) subjective reaction to the piece of art (book, poem etc.). When I first read Wilfred Owen’s poems they caused an emotional response in me. Then, later (in critical, objective mode) I was able to study the poem to work out precisely how he’d used language to produce that emotional response.

 

There is always some debate about exactly what a review is – is it a critical (and objective) analysis of the piece of writing? – or is it a reader’s emotional (and so, subjective) response to the piece? And with poetry, there’s the added problem of the much-argued-over-question – what exactly is poetry for? What is it supposed to do? Well, it’s not really going to offer escapism like a commercial fiction beach read will. Nor will it provide detailed information like a useful non-fiction book. I suppose it’s closest relative in terms of form is the literary novel (or flash fiction length-wise) due to their shared emphasis on the crafting of words and insight into the human condition. Yet poems can also be funny and political and peaceful and about things like shoes and goldfish and Newtonian mechanics. During the years I’ve spent editing poetry I’ve come to the conclusion that the poem’s main raison d’etre is to make the reader feel something: to create an emotional response. Otherwise it’s little more than a list of ingredients on a cereal packet. Diverting enough whilst eating breakfast but not memorable. So coming at it from that angle (and also with the knowledge that, technically, all these writers produce high-quality work) I wanted to share my reactions to the following four poetry collections.

 

The Book of Tides by Angela Readman (Nine Arches Press)

The Book of Tides, by Angela Readman

As the title explains, Angela Readman’s third collection is (mainly) about the sea. And just like the sea, the poems are full of beauty, mystery and restrained power. There are so many layers to the poems, that as soon as I had finished reading the one poem I had to read it again. On each rereading the poem would offer up more gifts – insights into female power and what robs women of this power, what it means to love and be loved, as well as stunning and original imagery. I came away from the book with the sense of having witnessed the profound (yet almost invisible) turmoil of soul-work in action.

 

And I rushed to your house, a waterfall, ready

to pour whoever I thought I was into your arms.

 

From ‘The Morning of La Llorona’

 

Empires of Clay, by Becky Cherriman (Cinnamon Press)

Empires of Clay, by Becky Cherriman

I think there’s no doubt that earth is less attractive than water. Earth dirties, water cleans. When they mix, as they often do in the UK in the form of soggy clay (or mud) they create a mixture that is both unwelcome yet somehow honest and humbling. Plant life springs forth from soil, and for many of us it is soil that will receive our bodies when we die. The poems in Empires of Clay have been described as “earthy, erotic” by Steve Ely and I completely agree. Of course I love the poems about motherhood (they appeared in Becky’s debut pamphlet, Echolocation, which my press published) but what really struck me about this collection was how skilled Becky is in writing about how we experience our memories and what it is that we do (or not do) with them. Her poems ‘Forgotten Well’ and ‘Stray Rein in January’ particularly impressed on me. Her writing really does have a haunting quality to it.

 

I remember that and approaching the bridge –

the fearsome echo

of something I couldn’t fathom

 

 

reverberated in my bones like…

There was snow?

Yes, I recall the thaw of someone else’s

footprints as I stumbled back.

A train, Karen said and we watch it flash

towards the future, trailing its echo

 

From ‘Stray Rein in January’

 

 

Deadly, Delicate by Kate Garrett (Picaroon Poetry)

deadly-delicate-by-kate-garrett

This slim pamphlet, like Angela Readman’s The Book of Tides, also contains narratives of water, but the life of the outsider (pirates, specifically) is the main theme. These poems are, as the title suggests, both delicate and deadly; on rereading they reveal a precise yet subtle crafting, but what I particularly enjoy about Kate’s poems are how she manages to get whole stories into the poems. This really is remarkable, considering the brevity of the form. (I also happen to currently be doing my own research about female pirates for a story, so this has provided me with much inspiration.)

 

Now she wakes: deadly, delicate.

She presses her lips to my

breasts – once, twice – my hands smooth

her hips, and we love once more.

But I lose her each time

to breeches, boots and ship.

 

From ‘Crack Jenny’s Teacup’

 

Earthworks, by Jacqueline Gabbitas (Stonewood Press)

Earthworks by Jacqueline Gabbitas

 

First up, I have to say that I am a huge fan of Stonewood Press, and the Stonewood Press thumbprints series. Martin Parker’s wonderful design and illustrations always perfectly set off the words within. And what words! In Earthworks, there is the quiet power and timelessness of hills, wood and stone. What struck me about these poems is how much love they contain – for fields and animals, rocks and earth, words and connections between humans. I have returned to this collection often.

 

But pain is a measure, living a delay:

These hills, they promise nothing for sure.

See? How the skies drag blue over grey.

And always the centre is flint, is clay.

 

From ‘High Hills’

 

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Poetry is often seen as inaccessible, unreadable, dry. But I believe that much poetry today is vibrant and accessible, and that some of the best work is coming out of the indie press scene. Slim pamphlets are a lovely “way in” to poetry world; a larger collection is probably for someone with more time and energy to invest in the reading of poems. I won’t lie – poetry collections take me a long time to finish because I read only a few poems at a time so that I can absorb them properly, but a slim pamphlet – time-wise – feels very manageable. All the collections above are beautifully presented and, overall, enriching and satisfying. I highly recommend them, and if anyone knows of any collections to do with fire or air, please let me know. They may well provide a good counterpoint to this post!

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