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Archive by tag: Stephanie MerrittReturn
Sep 18, 2022

With a keen historian’s eye, Lucy Worsley pieces together the queen of crime’s life, work and misunderstood episode of mental illness, while Val McDermid, Natalie Haynes and others put a fresh spin on Miss Marple

Agatha Christie was arguably the first modern literary celebrity, and it follows that her long writing life, from her first published novel in 1920 to her death in 1976 at the age of 85, has been thoroughly picked over, not only by journalists during her lifetime but by the author herself in her autobiography. Any biographer wishing to bring a new perspective to Christie’s story is therefore working within obvious limitations, not least that many of the most intimate and revealing letters written or received by her were destroyed by family or associates. Barring the miraculous discovery of a hitherto unknown cache of documents, then, the best a new biography can hope to do is to offer a fresh interpretation of some very well-thumbed material.

Lucy Worsley’s Agatha Christie: A Very Elusive Woman is the first significant biography of Christie since Laura Thompson’s Agatha Christie: An English Mystery in 2007. Unlike Thompson, whose book was something of a hagiography, Worsley steers a careful course between sympathy for her subject and a brisk, no-nonsense acknowledgment of her flaws. In order to maintain this balance, she has to combine a feminist appreciation of the author’s achievements (and the ways in which male journalists and biographers have misrepresented her) with a stern contemporary condemnation of Christie’s more unsavoury views. “We have to face the fact that somewhere in the mass of contradictions making up Agatha Christie was a very dark heart,” she writes. “It’s not just that she could dream up stories in which even children can kill. It’s also that her work contains views on race and class that are unacceptable today.” It’s true that some of Christie’s books contain racist and antisemitic caricatures offensive to modern readers, though whether that’s evidence of inner darkness rather than simply the inevitable product of her background is debatable.

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Aug 22, 2022

Unafraid to confront messy contradictions, a second memoir from the author of Your Voice in My Head covers the end of her marriage and ‘tectonic shift’ from LA to north London

In 2011, Emma Forrest published a memoir, Your Voice in My Head, about her experience of mental ill-health. “I became, for a certain audience, the suicidal girl’s suicidal girl,” she writes in the prologue to her follow-up, Busy Being Free. This new book, she is at pains to point out, is in a different register. She is no longer suicidal. In the intervening years she has published novels, written screenplays and directed a movie; still readers who know her only through the first memoir treat her delicately. “Which feels confusing. Can you still be gentle with me if you know my struggles are merely domestic now?”

On the surface, Busy Being Free is about the end of her marriage to actor Ben Mendelsohn, and the tectonic lifestyle shift involved in moving from their LA mansion to an attic flat in north London, then solo parenting her young daughter through a pandemic. But it’s about a great deal more than that. Forrest is examining, with an unflinching eye and a formidable cultural frame of reference (the title comes from Joni Mitchell’s song Cactus Tree), what it means for a woman to find herself alone in her 40s and to redefine herself outside a context of marriage, motherhood and men.

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Aug 09, 2022

The novelist’s distinct mix of modern gothic and historical caper is well suited to this island tale of two motherless children, separated by centuries

From her debut, Himself, Jess Kidd has been carving out a genre all her own, an intricate collage of folklore, modern gothic, ghost story, historical caper and magical realism. The Night Ship, her fourth novel, brings together many of these elements in the stories of two lonely, motherless children separated by three-and-a-half centuries.

Mayken is the eight-year-old daughter of a wealthy merchant of the Dutch East India Company, sailing on the state-of-the-art ship Batavia to be put into her father’s care after the death of her mother in 1628. Nine-year-old Gil has also lost his young mother and in 1989 is sent to live with his taciturn grandfather, a fisherman who works the coral reefs of the Houtman Abrolhos islands off the west coast of Australia, where the Batavia was wrecked on the last leg of its journey to Indonesia. One of the first landmarks Gil sees in his new home is the Raggedy Tree, where superstitious fishermen hang ribbons and dolls to placate the unquiet spirit of a little girl said to haunt the island.

The Night Ship by Jess Kidd is published by Canongate (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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Jul 17, 2022

Withnail and I meets James Bond as two druggy neighbours and a celebrity crime novelist join forces to investigate a murder in Boyle’s deft, engaging thriller

Writing a crime novel now appears to be a well-established rung on the career ladder of white male television entertainers, achieved with varying degrees of success and skill, so it’s a relief to find that Frankie Boyle’s first work of fiction is an enjoyably dark and entertaining tranche of Glasgow noir. It contains all the deft wordplay you’d expect of him, and a few well-aimed, drive-by satirical shots at political targets along the way.

Set in the aftermath of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, Meantime is narrated by Felix McAveety, a Valium addict and aspiring writer whose best friend, Marina, is found murdered in a Glasgow park – news Felix first learns when he’s woken by police demanding a sperm sample. Finding himself a suspect, Felix and his overweight neighbour, Donnie, also partial to mind-altering substances, decide to undertake their own investigation: “We were the two people least suited to investigating anything, but with the right drug combinations we could be whoever we had to be.”

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Jun 19, 2022

The Three Women author once again explores female desire and sexual power dynamics in a collection of stories that often feel shockingly true

Since the remarkable success of her nonfiction debut, Three Women, Lisa Taddeo has specialised in writing with gloves-off candour about female desire, in particular the kind that modern feminists are not supposed to admit to. Ghost Lover, her first collection of stories, is peopled by outwardly successful, empowered women who are emotionally or sexually in thrall to men, often men who are not remotely worth the time spent obsessing over them. Sometimes the women themselves know it – “He has no idea he is not interesting” – but still they persist in their self-abasement: “She wanted him more than her whole life.”

With Three Women, Taddeo established a talent for anatomising the contradictions inherent in (hetero)sexual power dynamics, the nuances of consent and how differently desire and fulfilment can appear to the woman doing the longing, compared with those judging from the sidelines. The characters in Ghost Lover are so many lenses through which to examine these same questions. Ari, the protagonist of the title story, has become a wealthy Netflix sensation by creating an app that messages potential dates on your behalf (“A way for girls, mainly, to be the coolest version of themselves, inoculated in practice against their desire”). But Ari is trapped in her own curdled love for her ex, Nick, who is about to marry a woman 10 years younger; Ari’s conviction that publicly denouncing him for an ambiguous instance of sexual assault will speed his return to her is as pitiable as it is deluded. But the reader also knows that Ari was abused as a teen by her stepfather. The tangled motives of early sexual encounters – including young women’s apparent complicity in their own manipulation – and the ways in which these shape women’s later responses to men is a recurring theme in Taddeo’s narratives, though she is careful never to draw moralistic straight lines.

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Jun 13, 2022

This caustically comic tale of a disaffected wife, back in print for the first time in half a century with a new introduction by Stewart Lee, is a cause for celebration

The poet, novelist and critic Rosemary Tonks vanished from public life in the mid-1970s after publishing six novels and two acclaimed collections of poetry, leading to fevered speculation about her fate. She had converted to fundamentalist Christianity and lived as a recluse in Bournemouth until her death in 2014, visiting public libraries with the intention of destroying as many copies of her literary works as possible. Fortunately, her writing has survived, championed by admirers such as Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books, who in turn brought her to the attention of Stewart Lee, who has written the introduction to this new edition of her 1968 novel The Bloater, back in print for the first time in half a century.

Lee’s mini essay is as funny as you’d expect; he advises readers to seek out Sono-Montage, the sound-poem Tonks made in collaboration with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, so that they might experience “the kind of transporting cutting-edge taxpayer-funded out-there art that would make the current culture secretary Nadine Dorries shit hot porridge into a hat”. But he also nails the truth beneath The Bloater’s caustic surface; Tonks’s characters are frantically dodging their feelings, “trying to choke off the terror of true love with witty banter and waspish put-downs”.

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May 24, 2022

The Canadian author once again mines her cultural background in a wonderfully drawn celebration of intergenerational bonding

Miriam Toews’s fiction always puts me in mind of the paintings of Agnes Martin: both artists use repeating patterns, creating distinct pieces from variations on the same basic elements. For Toews, the motifs that are reworked through all her books are largely autobiographical. She draws on her cultural background – growing up in a strict Mennonite community in rural Canada – as well as her family history: both her father and her sister killed themselves after long battles with mental illness. While these recurring themes are threaded through her eighth novel, Fight Night, the tone is markedly different from that of its predecessor, Women Talking. That book fictionalised a historic case of sexual assault in a Bolivian Mennonite village, where multiple women were repeatedly drugged and raped while unconscious; if they questioned the resulting injuries and pregnancies, they were told by the male church authorities that it was the work of the devil. There is a seam of grim humour in that novel, but Toews has said that holding the pain of these women while writing it was one of the most intense experiences of her life, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that she has shifted to a more obviously comic register.

Fight Night is an exuberant celebration of female resilience – though it too is shot through with grief and pain, and its power is in showing how these are not merely inseparable but interdependent. The plot is spare and focuses on the relationship between three generations of women in one Canadian family, most particularly on the bond between the narrator, Swiv, and her grandmother, Elvira. These characters are at once wholly themselves and reassuringly familiar; they share DNA with a number of predecessors in Toews’s fictional universe. Swiv most nearly resembles Nomi Nickel, the teenage narrator of A Complicated Kindness, and there is an obvious link between them: Nomi’s childhood nickname was “Swivelhead”, from her habit of absorbing adult conversations by whipping her attention between the speakers. Elvira shares a name and part of her biography with the author’s own mother; in the novel, she too has lost a husband and a daughter to suicide and escaped a repressive small-town religious community with an authoritarian leader.

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May 08, 2022

The novelist shows her expertise in the briefer format in tales of sexual power, self-delusion and flawed personality

“This book came out of years spent learning to be a writer, a process that will never be complete,” Maggie Shipstead writes in the acknowledgments of her first story collection, You Have a Friend in 10A. It may sound over-earnest – indeed, the whole section does – but with Shipstead there’s always a sharp layer of self-awareness just beneath the surface. In this case, it works as a knowing wink to the reader, since the second story in the book, Acknowledgements, is narrated by a solipsistic young male writer as he considers how best to use his novel’s acknowledgments to air long-held grievances against former mentors and women who’ve turned him down.

Shipstead’s third novel, the extraordinary historical epic Great Circle, was shortlisted last month for the Women’s prize, following on from her Booker shortlisting and giving the impression that she is something of an overnight success. But the stories in You Have a Friend in 10A chart the evolution over more than a decade of her unnerving ability to capture a character’s inner life in a few choice phrases and to pinpoint the unique collision of personality flaws that will trigger the story’s drama. In the most haunting piece here, Souterrain, she reverses cause and effect, moving backwards between present-day and wartime Paris to show how a careless remark or a small lie can have fatal consequences, the ripples of guilt and shame spreading through generations.

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Apr 24, 2022

A memoir by the Pulitzer-winning New Yorker writer offers a fresh look at the most profound experiences of our lives

“Just as every grief narrative is a reckoning with loss, every love story is a chronicle of finding,” writes Kathryn Schulz in her eloquent and tender memoir, Lost & Found. “And so, much as my father’s death made me wonder about the relationship between large losses and smaller ones, falling for someone made me think about what finding love has in common with the broader act of finding anything at all.”

This is the deceptively simple premise of this slim book: losing and finding are such seemingly unremarkable elements of everyday life that we rarely pause to think about their significance, until, of course, it comes to losing and finding people, experiences that are among the most profound of our lives and that go to the heart of what it means to be human. Living through these life-changing moments in quick succession – she met her partner shortly before her father died – means Schulz is ideally placed to consider, through the prism of her own experience, the various ways people have tried to make sense of loss and discovery. Like her late father, she possesses a “panoptic curiosity”, drawing on cultural and artistic history, poetry, psychology, philosophy and scientific theory to examine what is at once universal yet intensely personal.

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Apr 18, 2022

A tale of female disempowerment in the 50s and 60s gets a culinary tweak in this sweet revenge comedy

Every now and again, a first novel appears in a flurry of hype and big-name TV deals, and before the end of the first chapter you do a little air-punch because for once it’s all completely justified. Lessons in Chemistry, by former copywriter Bonnie Garmus, is that rare beast; a polished, funny, thought-provoking story, wearing its research lightly but confidently, and with sentences so stylishly turned it’s hard to believe it’s a debut.

Since the success of The Queen’s Gambit and The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, there’s been a renewed interest in stories of pioneering women fighting to prove themselves in traditionally male arenas in the years – late 50s and early 60s – before second-wave feminism took off. Elizabeth Zott, the heroine of Lessons in Chemistry, follows firmly in their footsteps; the book also nods to the rediscovery of TV chef Julia Child as a trailblazer, and even echoes Breaking Bad’s Walter White in Elizabeth’s mantra: “Chemistry is change.”

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Mar 19, 2022

The spy novelist, whose latest book tells the story of her grandfather Kim Philby and the Soviet agent Edith Tudor-Hart, talks about the perils of writing about family, and why female spies get overlooked

Charlotte Philby, 39, is a former investigative reporter and the author of three critically acclaimed spy novels. She is also the granddaughter of Kim Philby, the notorious double-agent known as “the third man” in the Cambridge spy ring. Her fourth novel, Edith and Kim, tells the linked stories of her grandfather and Edith Tudor-Hart, a Jewish photojournalist born in Vienna, who studied at the Bauhaus, married an Englishman, worked as a Soviet agent in London and introduced Kim to his Russian handler. Philby lives in Bristol with her husband and three children.

Putting real historical characters into a novel is a minefield, especially those who existed within living memory. How much more so when it’s your own family?
My relationship to my grandfather is complex and constantly evolving. I’m conscious that his story belongs to different people in different ways, within our family and also more widely. I think part of the appeal of writing this book was trying to reconcile the ways in which I’ve come to understand him: as a grandfather; a father; a friend; a traitor; an idealist. But I had to find the right way to approach it. When I happened upon the story of Edith Tudor-Hart, I knew that she was the person I had to write about. She’s always cast as a bit player if she’s mentioned at all, but she was a remarkable woman. Anthony Blunt referred to her as “the grandmother of the Cambridge spies”.

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Mar 06, 2022

Mystery and fantasy weave a tangled web in this richly atmospheric debut novel set in turbulent 17th-century Norfolk

Witch trials, with their heady mix of religious fervour, misogyny and repressed desire, have held an enduring fascination for fiction writers. Rosie Andrews’s enormously enjoyable debut, The Leviathan, takes this familiar setup and makes of it something strange and original: part horror story, part fantasy, part historical mystery.

The body of the story takes place in 1643, at the onset of the English civil war. The narrator, Thomas Treadwater, a young man enlisted to fight for the parliamentary forces in order to redeem himself from an indiscretion with his tutor’s niece, returns for Christmas to his family farm in Norfolk with a sense of foreboding; his 16-year-old sister, Esther, has written to him of “a great ungodly evil” that has entered the house in the form of a new servant, Chrissa Moore. Tom arrives to find all their livestock dead, his father incapacitated by a stroke and Chrissa arrested for witchcraft. In order to delay her trial, she has claimed to be pregnant with his father’s child.

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Feb 27, 2022

Whether reflecting on pet preoccupations or the pressing issues of the day, the novelist remains a bold and fascinating thinker

Margaret Atwood was recently described in a Guardian interview as “arguably the most famous living literary novelist in the world”, and she is undoubtedly the most venerable. In the Introduction to Burning Questions, her third collection of essays and nonfiction pieces, spanning the years 2004 to 2021, she laments, with her characteristically tongue-in-cheek style, her much-lauded productivity: “Looking back at my sporadic, badly-kept and not very informative journals, I notice that one of the leitmotifs is a constant moaning about taking on too much. ‘This has to stop,’ I find myself saying.”

And yet – thankfully – she hasn’t. One of the most notable aspects of this collection is how engaged Atwood, now 82, has remained with the pressing issues of the day, and how vigorously she continues to pursue the public life of a writer; many of these pieces first took the form of speeches. When her long-term partner, Graeme Gibson, died during her 2019 tour for The Testaments, she carried on with her international speaking commitments – a decision of which she writes, “given a choice between hotel rooms and events and people on the one hand, and an empty house and a vacant chair on the other, which would you have chosen, Dear Reader?” In tribute to Gibson, the final section of Burning Questions includes the introductions she wrote to reissues of two of his novels, as well as the foreword to his The Bedside Book of Birds.

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Feb 06, 2022

This hymn to climbing and the natural world is beautifully written but may be too technical for casual readers

Mountains have been firing the imaginations of writers and adventurers for centuries, and Anna Fleming’s debut is the latest addition to a long tradition of literary reflections that includes Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain and Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind, both of which have clearly influenced Fleming’s writing.

There has been a vogue in recent years for memoirs by women seeking to immerse themselves in the natural world as a means of overcoming some deep trauma: divorce, addiction, the death of a parent. Fleming’s book has no such heroine’s journey at its heart; she just loves climbing. At one point she mentions the end of a relationship driving her to a more intense focus on her craft, but skates quickly across the surface of her feelings: “Some people turn to drink, I relaxed on the rock.”

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Dec 26, 2021

Zoë Playdon uncovers the timely story of a Scottish lord who had to fight for his gender and his inheritance

Historical biography always involves a certain amount of detective work, but Professor Zoë Playdon has had to contend with an additional challenge in the writing of her first book, The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes. As the title implies, information about her subject was not just scant, but much had been actively suppressed. Now Playdon’s determined labours have brought this extraordinary story to light.

Playdon first came across Sir Ewan Forbes-Sempill in 1996 as the result of advising on a legal challenge to allow transgender people to change their birth certificate – something that had been the norm in the UK until the late 1960s, although it was unclear how or why the law had changed. In the wake of their defeat, they were approached by a solicitor named Terrence Walton, who provided a missing piece of the puzzle.

The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes by Zoë Playdon is published by Bloomsbury (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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Aug 02, 2021

Whether examining sex dolls or transhumanism, the novelist brings her skill as a storyteller to these ambitious, hugely entertaining essays

Jeanette Winterson is not usually considered a science-fiction writer, yet her novels have always been concerned with alternative realities, and for more than two decades she has drawn on the imaginative possibilities offered by technological and digital advances. Her 2000 novel, The Powerbook, was an early exploration of the fluid identities and connections offered by virtual personae; The Stone Gods (2007) combined history with interplanetary dystopias and featured a relationship between a robot and a human. Her most recent fiction, Frankisstein, reworked Mary Shelley’s story of an artificially created intelligence into a modern novel of ideas about the present and future limits of AI and the implications for art, love, sex and biology.

Now, in 12 Bytes, her first collection of essays since 1996’s Art Objects, Winterson examines all these preoccupations without the mediation of fiction, though the narrative style is as conversational and erudite as you’d expect from her, peppered with irreverent asides and mischievous flashes of wit (“Dry as dust I don’t do,” she has said of the previous collection). The 12 essays here are grouped into four “zones”, loosely covering the past, the imagination, relationships and the future, and together offer an eclectic odyssey through the history of technological progress – a history that for too long sidelined some of its most influential figures because they were inconveniently women or gay, and has only recently begun to restore their reputations. Winterson pays tribute here to the contributions of Ada Lovelace and Alan Turing, along with women such as Stephanie Shirley, the founder of all-female company Freelance Programmers, and the forgotten teams of female programmers during the second world war, their work unacknowledged for decades because it didn’t suit a narrative of male expertise.

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Jul 12, 2021

A damaged woman embarks on a sexual odyssey in this visceral exploration of empowerment and consent

Lisa Taddeo’s bestselling debut, Three Women, made headlines as much for its process as its theme; Taddeo spent eight years moving around the US, immersing herself in her subjects in pursuit of an intimate portrait of the sex lives of (straight, white) American women. In each of her three case studies lurked the shadow of past or present abuse; female desire, the book seemed to conclude, is inseparable from what has been done to us by men.

Her first novel, Animal, explores the same territory. “I am depraved,” announces her narrator, Joan, with a mixture of pride and shame. At 36, she has a fierce sexual appetite, but she also regards sex as currency, an approach she learned at a young age from her aunt: “She taught me that men will use you unless you use them first.” Much of Joan’s inner monologue – and her dialogue – is concerned with the ambiguity she feels about her own desires, and her obsession with the constant power plays between men and women. “There are rapes, and then there are the rapes we allow to happen, the ones we shower and get ready for,” another woman tells her.

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Jul 05, 2021

Drawing on a wealth of research, Sieghart explores the unconscious bias that belittles and undermines half the population from infancy – and how it can be overcome

Some years ago, Mary Ann Sieghart found herself at a dinner seated next to a banker, who asked what she did. She listed her impressive portfolio career – political columnist, former associate editor of the Times, broadcaster, chair of a thinktank. “Wow, you’re a busy little girl!” he responded. She was 50.

This is one of numerous depressing examples related by successful women of what Seighart calls “the authority gap” – the way women are belittled, undermined, questioned, mocked, talked over and generally not taken seriously in public and professional life. The gender pay gap, obviously a related issue, is by now a well-documented and measurable phenomenon, so much so that it is marked by equal pay day, symbolising the point in the year when women effectively stop earning relative to men. The authority gap is more insidious and harder to calculate because, as Sieghart shows, so much of it is down to unconscious bias. Even more depressingly, women can be just as guilty of this bias in favour of male authority, because it is ingrained from what we see modelled to us in our own families and the prevailing culture from childhood.

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Jun 20, 2021

The police force’s former highest ranked BAME officer tells of her 30-year fight against entrenched racism and sexism

In August last year, when the Metropolitan police ended its active investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence after 27 years, the Met’s commissioner, Cressida Dick, gave an interview in which she rejected the idea that institutional racism still persists in the force. Former chief superintendent Parm Sandhu, the highest-ranked BAME (her preferred term) woman in the Met, begs to differ. Black and Blue is her account of a 30-year career that saw her break through multiple glass ceilings, but which ended in her resignation in 2019 after charges of gross misconduct and a spate of damaging media stories.

Her alleged offence was to have lobbied on her own behalf for honours, a technical breach she concedes, but she points out that she could not rely on the old boys’ network that benefits her white male colleagues. She was later exonerated, and notes that black and minority ethnic officers are twice as likely to be investigated for misconduct as their white counterparts.

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Jun 14, 2021

Charting the parallel lives of two women – one an aviation pioneer, the other a modern movie star – this daring novel reaches great heights

A great circle, Maggie Shipstead’s third novel explains on the opening page, is “the largest circle that can be drawn on a sphere”. The equator is one; so is every line of longitude. The novel’s heroine, pioneering aviator Marian Graves, was attempting to become the first person to fly a great circle intersecting both poles in 1950 when her plane disappeared somewhere in the Antarctic. Decades later, her enigmatic, fragmentary journal is discovered, wrapped in a life-preserver. “What I have done is foolish; I had no choice but to do it,” she has written.

Great Circle is a daringly ambitious novel, traversing in Marian’s story the history of early-20th-century aviation, Prohibition, the Great Depression and the second world war. Threaded through it is a parallel contemporary narrative, recounted by disgraced Hollywood starlet Hadley Baxter, who is trying to revive her career by playing Marian in a biopic. Hadley’s drily cynical voice has more than a touch of Fleabag about it, offering a knowing and prematurely jaded insider’s view of the movie industry (“my career is no longer a blow job-based barter economy,” she remarks). She is positioned as a counterpoint to Marian, whose pure and single-minded determination to fly contrasts sharply with Hadley’s tendency to drift through life with occasional bouts of self-sabotage. “I needed the relief of being someone who wasn’t afraid,” Hadley confesses. But both women, in their separate ways, are pursuing freedom in a male world that wants to confine them within preconceived ideas about who and what they should be. “We’re celebrated for marrying,” Marian writes to her twin brother, Jamie, “but after that we must cede all territory and answer to a new authority like a vanquished nation.”

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Jun 07, 2021

The shocking mistreatment of women by the medical establishment is laid bare in a compelling social history

During the recent anxieties about the AstraZeneca Covid vaccine and its possible link to blood clots, many women felt obliged to point out, on social media and in the press, that the risk of fatal thrombosis was significantly higher from using hormonal contraception, and yet this continues to be prescribed to millions of women without anything like the level of concern or scrutiny that the vaccine has received. The potential danger of a medication that only affects women is less of a headline-grabber, it seems. In fact, when the pill was first licensed in the US in 1960 it contained more than three times the levels of synthetic hormones than the modern version, and the side-effects – including fatal pulmonary embolisms and thrombosis – were deliberately downplayed. It took a sustained grassroots campaign by women’s groups to bring the issue to the attention of a congressional hearing in 1970. “From the beginning, the pill was couched as a way for women to take control of their bodies and fertility,” writes cultural historian Elinor Cleghorn in her debut book, Unwell Women. “But this also means that the costs – physical and mental – remain women’s burdens.”

The history of the pill is just one fascinating episode in this richly detailed, wide-ranging and enraging history of how conventional medicine has pathologised, dismissed and abused women from antiquity to the present. A male-dominated medical establishment, influenced by religious, cultural and political ideas about women’s bodies – particularly with regard to sexuality and reproduction – has inflicted immeasurable suffering on women and girls, often with a sense of righteous zeal. Some of the cases Cleghorn unearths could come straight from The Handmaid’s Tale. There’s the 19th-century London surgeon Isaac Baker Brown, an avid proponent of clitoridectomy to cure the hysteric and nervous disorders thought to be brought about by excessive masturbation in young middle-class women. Or the American neurologists Walter Freeman and James Watts, who pioneered the craze for lobotomies in the 1930s and 40s – by 1942, 75% of their patients were women. “In an era when a mentally healthy woman was a serene wife and mother, almost any behaviour or emotion that disrupted domestic harmony could be interpreted as justification for a lobotomy.”

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May 02, 2021

The third of Levy’s memoirs, which sees her leaving home for a fellowship in Paris, is a drily funny contemplation of what it means to be a female writer

Deborah Levy’s trilogy of what she calls “living autobiography” – Things I Don’t Want To Know, The Cost of Living and, now, Real Estate – has been an extended experiment with the form. These first-person narratives, “using an I that is close to myself and yet is not myself”, are at once memoir, cultural analysis and self-interrogation, attempts to keep past and present simultaneously in view as she pursues the question of how a woman – specifically a woman artist – should live in the second act of her life.

In Real Estate, as in The Cost of Living, Levy is preoccupied with the meaning of home, that “gendered” space that has so long been regarded as the domain of women. What does it cost a woman to make a home or to unmake one? The Cost of Living examined the author’s decision, in her 50s, to leave her marriage of 23 years and the family home that grounded it, and create a different kind of home, in a “crumbling apartment block” with her teenage daughters. In the chaos of this all-female household, she found creative liberation: “My 50s had been a time of change and turbulence, energetic and exciting. A time of self-respect and perhaps a sort of homecoming.”

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Apr 18, 2021

This fictionalised account of the Egyptian uprising of 2011 has an eye for telling detail in the choice between struggle and self-preservation

Early on in Alaa al-Aswany’s new novel, The Republic of False Truths, a conversation takes place between an older and a younger man that proves bleakly prophetic for what is to follow. Essam Shaalan, once a student protest leader in the 1970s, is now the manager of a foreign-owned Cairo factory; Mazen Saqqa, a young engineer, is the son of Shaalan’s former comrade and a union representative for the striking workers.

“You want to know the truth?” Shaalan tells Saqqa. “Egyptians don’t revolt, or if they do, their revolution is bound to fail because they’re cowardly and submissive by nature… The Egyptians love a dictatorial hero and feel safe when they submit to despotism. In Egypt, the only thing your struggle can lead to is your own destruction.”

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Mar 29, 2021

This superb fictionalised account of the 1645 Essex witch trials, by an award-winning poet, resonates painfully with the experiences of women today

It’s hard to think of any recent time when a historical novel about the persecution of women wouldn’t resonate painfully with current headlines, but AK Blakemore’s exceptionally accomplished debut feels especially pertinent now, as women’s protests against their treatment by men are met with further aggression or accusations of hysteria. The Manningtree Witches is a fictionalised account of the Essex witch trials of 1645, and includes excerpts from the trial records, fleshed out in the imagined narrative of one of the accused women, 19-year-old Rebecca West.

Though the early skirmishes of the civil war are far from the Essex coast in 1643, when the novel begins, a profound sense of destabilisation pervades the country: “It is an upside-down time. If the herring and trout were to rise from the waterways and take flight like birds it would surprise no one, for surely God’s Day of Judgment is near at hand…” The men of Manningtree are away fighting, there are food shortages and the threat of famine, the women scrape out a hard living from the land and water, and into this combustible mix arrives the enigmatic Matthew Hopkins, the man who will go on to be known as the Witchfinder General.

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Mar 01, 2021

Katherine Angel’s thought-provoking book examines the limitations of the concept of consent, while Vanessa Springora’s powerful memoir recounts the horrors of its abuse

In a post-#MeToo world, consent has become the failsafe marker by which all sexual encounters must be judged; indeed, to a sexual culture that has cheerfully made all manner of kink mainstream, the absence of clear consent might be considered the only measure left by which any kind of sex should be judged immoral.

But as Katherine Angel shows in her succinct and thought-provoking book Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, consent itself is a murky concept that cannot be separated from existing power dynamics: “Much sex that women consent to is unwanted, because they agree to it under duress, or out of a need to feed and clothe themselves and their family, or a need to remain safe.” There is also the danger that a woman’s freely given consent in one area will later be used to exonerate a man’s violation of different boundaries.

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