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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An Intention and Meet Starry-You

 

To date I’ve not been one to declare an intention publicly (I’m more the quiet person in the background puttering on with their work – vague intentions in my head, but never ‘out there’) so it feels a bit strange to do this, but I can see one big positive of declaring an intention of mine: that it’ll (hopefully) keep me accountable and on track to actually doing the thing that I want to do.

So here goes. I have a little dream of putting together a book – a collection of short stories in the SFF genre – and (whisper it) getting it published and ‘out there’. At the moment the whole publishing thing is not something I’m thinking about too much – it’s the whole good quality short story stuff that’s keeping me occupied!

But you see, something absolutely wonderful happened to me a short while ago. First, my story ‘His Birth’ was shortlisted in a competition. (The Wellcome Trust sponsored ‘Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities’ Creative Writing Competition.) And then second, it got awarded 2nd place by the judge Adam Roberts, who is like some kind of god when it comes to science fiction writing. And believe me, it gave me such a boost (and actually, some much-needed validation) that I started to think, Maybe I can do this. Maybe I can allow myself to consider putting together a short story collection. Maybe.

So… it’s going to take me a good long while (my writing happens at around midnight once or twice a week, or on the weekend) but I’m in no rush. The main thing is to get around 12 good short stories written that I want to include. Now, I’ve got a couple already that I want to include, but there’s still a whole lot more to write. And, there’s also the fact that only about 1 in 5 of the short stories I write are actually good enough to put in a collection. This I know because I only consider a story ‘good enough’ if my husband (aka my editor extraordinaire) really likes the story (and that only ever happens in approximately that ratio!).

So I’m going to aim to increase my publication history when it comes to short stories (no doubt there will be plenty of rejections ahead – perhaps some acceptances too!) but the main thing is that I persevere.

Inspired by Maddy’s image of her ‘Self-Doubt Demon’ I decided to draw a character that represents the opposite: the ‘Supportive Star’ (aka Starry-You in reference to the Pokemon, Staryu). Or does Sammy Star work better? Who knows? Basically, this little guy (or is she a gal?) is there to say: Well done! and You can do it! You got this! Because sometimes we all need a little encouragement when things get tough and the self-doubt demon appears…

 

Yay! You can do it! Starry-You by Marija Smits

Yay! You can do it! Starry-You by Marija Smits

 

Anyway… wish me luck, and if you ever have a spare moment please do ask me about how things are going. It will be good incentive for me to keep going!

Lastly… my blog turned 4 last month (although sadly, I was too busy to do anything about it then) but I’m creating a little something for a giveaway I’m going to run, so please do pop back in the next week or two if you’re interested in seeing what I’ll be giving away in celebration of my 4th blogiversary.

 

Some zentangle-art-to-be, photo by Marija Smits

Some zentangle-art-to-be, photo by Marija Smits

 

So, ta ta for now, and I hope to see you soon!

 

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On our summer holiday, reading, writing and having an epiphany

As it seems to have been an age since I last blogged (though I’m still just about managing the once-a-month blog post!) I thought I’d go with a list to help me put into words all the big things that have been happening around here.

 

  1. HOLIDAYS
Blue beach. photo by Marija Smits

Blue beach, photo by Marija Smits

Our one week away to Wales at the start of August was lovely, and very much needed. The weather wasn’t great and a couple of planned trips out got cancelled for various reasons (beach inaccessible due to a completely full car park, a favourite restaurant/café closed etc.) and our youngest got a cold on the first day so, of course, we all ended up snotty/sore throaty BUT, the holiday was still hugely beneficial. It was great to simply get away from the pressures of work and the never-ending call of social media and I got some reading and writing done too. I even managed to get an hour or two all to myself to write on the beach while my husband went out with the kids. Writing on the beach accompanied by the sounds of the sea, a coffee and a pain-au-chocolate was pretty amazing. And at the end of the week I even got to swim in the sea. Bliss!

Our journey back was even more exciting since our car broke down a few miles away from home. Yes, it was a huge annoyance, and yes it has cost us a lot (the car was pretty much written off…) but I’m still very thankful that the breakdown didn’t happen on the motorway. While we were waiting for the breakdown truck to get us, I even managed to write a little more of my new book…

 

  1. READING

 

Reading has consumed any free moments, as usual. I do want to mention some books that I’ve read recently, and which have made an impression on me. I love to help out authors by writing reviews but I’m aware that there’s not enough time in my life to do each of them justice (it can take me an age to write a review) but it seems that the least I can do is mention them here.

 

Fiction:

Moss Witch by Sarah Maitland

Moss Witch And Other Stories by Sara Maitland. I love the way that Sara has taken various concepts and ideas from various scientific fields and built (or hinged) stories on them. Some stories, I feel, work better than others but each is beautifully written and page-turning. Of course, I found the bits written by the scientists fascinating too. If you’re a fan of short stories and/or wishing to learn more about science I’d highly recommend this.

I’ve got so many other fiction books on my to-read list that I have no idea what I’ll read next fiction-wise, but I’d like to make a start on White Lies by Lynn Michell (of Linen Press).

White_Lies by Lynn MItchell

 

Poetry:

The Magnetic Diaries by Sarah James

The Magnetic Diaries by Sarah James

What Sarah has done with this narrative of poems that echo the book Madame Bovary is remarkable. I thought it highly original and fascinating in the way that Madame Bovary was fascinating to me when I read it many, many years ago; Emma Bovary is a difficult character to empathise with and yet I was transfixed by her unravelling life… If you enjoy contemporary poetry or would like to read something that gives an insight into the darkness of a mind overwhelmed by depression, I’d highly recommend it.

Although I’ve got various other poetry books on my ‘to-read’ pile Ruth Stacey’s book Queen, Jewel, Mistress has caught my eye and I hope to get it one day soon! (Maybe at Free Verse: The Poetry Book Fair, in London on 26th September, where I will be selling my Mother’s Milk Books books.)

Queen, Jewel, Mistress, by Ruth Stacey

Non-fiction:

How to Win Writing Competitions by Cathy Bryant

How to Win Writing Competitions by Cathy Bryant

I bought this book because I’m a fan of Cathy’s writing, although I did initially think that surely there wasn’t a lot more I could learn about submitting to magazines or writing competitions. But you know what, I was wrong. As I wrote in my Amazon review, “I’d certainly recommend this to amateur writers but also to those who think they know the drill by now.” Oh, and it includes one of the funniest short stories I’ve ever read.

 

Take It Cool, photo by Marija Smits

Take It Cool, photo by Marija Smits

 

Take it Cool by Jonathan Pinnock

When I received this book I knew very little about reggae, or the slave trade, but by the end of the book I knew a whole lot more and was glad that I’d stretched myself by reading something I’d probably not normally consider reading. This book is fascinating and as creative non-fiction goes, a highly-enjoyable read. The author is a fine writer and very, very funny; he has the kind of self-deprecating, weird humour that really tickles me and I laughed out loud at many parts. I’m really glad to have found Jonathan through my random stumblings across the internet (I won the book in a giveaway on his blog) and want to read more of his books — his short story collection Dot Dash sounds brilliant, as does Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens. What a fab title!

 

Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

This book introduced me to the powerful idea that a writer must be aware of what kind of story they’re writing before they write it. He uses the acronym MICE for the four kinds of story there are:

 

Milieu

Idea

Character

Event

 

And even though many novels are a mixture of the above (i.e. there are various sub-plots in a book that can be any of the above) a writer can potentially fall into various traps if they set about, say, writing an idea story that then morphs into a character story. Anyway, I know that every writer has their own favourite how-to books but there’s something about Card’s writing style, and his approach to writing, that really clicks with me. And although I’ve seen the movie of his book Ender’s Game, it’s made me want to read Ender’s Game when I next have a free moment.

 

The next non-fiction books on my to-read list are The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron and Raising Boys by Steve Biddulph. I’m also desperate to read Angela Topping’s book: Focus on ‘The Bloody Chamber’ by Angela Carter. I’ve asked for this several times for birthdays and Christmases but it hasn’t been gifted to me as yet. Fingers-crossed it’ll be in my stocking this year!

Focus on The Bloody Chamber

 

Work-wise, I recently read a fantastic manuscript by Becky Smith and then I re-entered the world of another fantastical literary world, as created by Alison Lock. I’m super-excited again about the fact that I get to work with writers of Becky and Alison’s calibre as part of the publishing venture that is Mother’s Milk Books. (And I also wanted to say that it was a pleasure to watch Ana Salote — author of Oy Yew — in action recently at a bookshop event for children. Seeing the children lose themselves in the words of her book was simply magical).

 

Oy Yew by Ana Salote

 

  1. WRITING

 

Although now it seems ridiculous that I ever had an ‘epiphany’ moment about my writing, I must say that this is what happened to me this summer. My first novel was mainly a character story (it was a commercial fiction book set in the contemporary world. Well, mostly the 1990s, but to my mind that’s still pretty contemporary!). Various events powered the story along. For a good long while I toyed with the idea of getting it ‘out there’ but now that I’ve re-read it I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t really want it out there. It was written as part of my own personal writing apprenticeship (a 10 year long apprenticeship!) and now I want to move on to other things. Quite honestly, I just don’t think it’s good enough to be published. And I don’t think it’s necessary (or a good idea) for me to expend time and energy on trying to edit it further and publish it. Also, it made me think long and hard about what I do want to write and try to get published, and as I’ve got a fair few story and novel ideas in my head that are of a fantastical nature I suddenly realized — WOW! — I’m a sci-fi and fantasy writer.

TB The Forgotten & The Fantastical cover 2015 version 5 colour Lt Oksana font with outline scaled

That was my big epiphany (which kind of seems silly now as only in March I was writing an introduction to The Forgotten and the Fantastical and explaining how my name means fairy tale in Latvian, and how books of a fantastical nature had always been a big part of my life). Hmm… why didn’t I get it back then? Anyway, no matter, I’m thoroughly enjoying focussing on writing my second novel which is, yes you guessed it, a great sprawling work of fantasy. I’m not ever going to completely pigeon-hole myself into just that one genre – I’m still enjoying writing poetry and I do have the odd short story and novel idea not in the sff genre, but on the whole, yes, I’m a writer fascinated by the fantastical…

31emljRrCpL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_

Which is also why I simply had to read How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card. For someone fresh from their epiphany of ‘I’m an sff writer’, this has been a pure joy to read and I want to go out and buy the following two books that Card mentions in his How-To book: Helliconia by Brian Aldiss and Wild Seed by Octavia Butler. In fact, I want to get all the SF Masterworks. I’m smitten!

 

  1. ART
Broken engine in the boot, photo by Marija Smits

Broken engine in the boot, photo by Marija Smits

Sadly, because of work busyness and writing busyness and family busyness (not to mention the pesky business of dealing with a knackered car – see above!), I’ve only managed to do a little sketching. But, and this is a very bittersweet but, but when my youngest starts school in September (just a few days away) I’m planning on spending a little time focussing on painting and drawing. I think it’ll help me to adjust to this huge shift in our family dynamic. I’ve been an at-home mother with either one or two kids at home for 8 years now and yes… although I will welcome not having to deal with holiday sibling squabbles every 5 minutes and not having an audience when either on the loo or in the shower, the house will seem strangely silent, and yes, no doubt, I will weep.

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I hope you all had healthy and happy holidays and I wish you all the best for whatever autumn brings. It’s currently bringing us the joy of blackberry smoothies and homegrown green beans and tomatoes!

Fruit & veg snack, photo by Marija Smits

Fruit & veg snack, photo by Marija Smits

Thank you also to Maddy and Chrissie for once more taking on the fine thing that is What I’m Writing. Welcome back y’all!

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