What To Read Next?

Posted in Books
on June 8, 2019
my-reading-list

It’s been a funny old time of late. There’s been a lot going on recently – it’s been the sort of time where a lesser person (okay, me) might curl up into a ball and stop functioning. But, for once, this time I haven’t.

And I think a large part of that is down to the fact I’ve been reading way more than I have for a long time.

I’m behind on reviews (I need to sit down and just blitz them all out, I have the notes all ready to go, I promise!), but recently I’ve enjoyed Invisible Women, Graham Norton’s A Keeper, the To All The Boys I Loved Before trilogy (honestly, judge away, they’re fantastic and I devoured them), countless articles and ahem, fanfiction, as well as some other books that are firmly in the ‘I gave them a go, but I won’t be rereading’ category.

And, in amongst this topsy turvey world, which seemed, at times, pretty dark, these have been what’s carried me through. (Alongside my friends and my endlessly patient fiance* and family).

Now things are a lot calmer – and should stay that way, I’m starting to think about what I want to read next.

There was a time that I wanted to set myself the challenge of the BBC’s Big Read. These days, however,  it’s a little outdated – there’s a lot of popular books very of its time and there’s at least one Jeffrey Archer book on there which I don’t think I could bring myself to read. So, I did a bit of googling and found the Penguin list of 100 Must Read Classics. You can find the list here.

To flatter my ego, I’ve gone through and counted all the ones that I’ve read and can actually remember reading/the bulk of the plot.  And frankly, considering I did an English Literature degree, and then Master’s degree, I really should have read more than, um, 34.

There are some (Catch22 and Catcher in the Rye, I’m looking at you) that I am pretty sure I’ve read, but I’ve not given myself the benefit of the doubt, so I plan on re-reading.

I’m not setting myself the challenge of reading the whole list, that’s a touch overambitious, plus there’s a few things on there I have no desire to touch with a barge pole. (I just don’t get Victorian literature…mmkay?). But I will give it a good stab and I’m going to make myself attack some of the books that I’m not so keen of the sound of.

I’ll also keep reading all the non-classics that I can lay my hands on. This list should, at the very least, save me scrolling through page after page on the Amazon kindle store trying to find something that sounds like it might be okay. (I specifically call out Amazon’s Kindle store because I still have not forgiven it for the amount of times I’ve been caught out and accidentally bought self-published books, thinking they’re normal ones. Editors exist for a reason, people.)

I’ve also really enjoyed some non-fiction recently – a phrase I never really thought I’d say – except maybe about history books. But there’s not a scrap of history on this list, no… I mentioned Invisible Women above – I’ve just bought Nice Girls Don’t Get The Corner Office, started Bella Mackie’s Jog On, been recommended Love is Not Enough: A Smart Woman’s Guide To Money and then have How Brands Grow and Eating the Big Fish: How Challenger Brands Can Compete to get through on the recommendation of an exceptionally good Brand Marketing course I attended for work. It’s a lot of reading – and I’m back to my good/bad habit of being a book tart (picking up different books at different times, flitting between them and generally being a flirt).

Reading is my utter joy – It’s the reason that I set up this blog and it’s why I love writing reviews. It’s also the thing that I’ve got a bad habit of abandoning when everything is going tits up. (Please tell me I’m not the only one that’s such an nonce?). But recently, by putting reading back as my priority, I feel hundreds of times better. And it’s only taken me twenty-odd years to work this out.

Now, I’ll have to leave you here because I’m just about to receive a job lot of 42 vintage penguin books to work my way through, which Nick believes I have solely ordered for the purposes of table decorations at the wedding. Ahem. Poor, poor, naive, Nicholas.

*Wahay, he’s been upgraded. At, well, his request. You just wait until I start telling you all about the book themed wedding I’m planning.

International Women’s Day 2019

Posted in Opinion, Personal
on March 10, 2019

It was International Women’s Day on Friday, and of course, I have feelings.

Firstly, before anyone whinges – 19th November is International Men’s Day.

Now we have that over and done with, let me get on with the important stuff.

I work for a company that, unironically, had an International Women’s Day event chaired by a man, and with more male speakers than female – which probably tells you more than I could articulate about what it’s like to work there. What’s more, the majority of the talks focussed on the issues of having a family and work – as if that is the only difficulty facing women in the workplace.

I’m not saying that it isn’t great that my company has men that want to support women. Of course it is – but surely, of all days, International Women’s Day is the time for men to listen to women, to understand our experience, and take that on board when you’re dealing with female colleagues.

It says a lot that my company thought they needed to have male hosts and speakers in order for this day to have a pull, or enough gravitas to go.

It says a lot that no males from my department attended; and even more that most of those males manage females.

Women have been telling men for years that we do not need you to speak for us. You can’t speak for us. You don’t know the ways in which we’re judged that you’re not. And most of you aren’t even aware of the unconscious bias that you show to us. Women are, factually, held to account for a lot more than men are. We are expected to behave a certain way, look a certain way and communicate in a certain way. When we don’t, our behaviour is held up to much higher levels of scrutiny. And it is exhausting.

A lot of men seem to only discover women’s rights when they have daughters. Indeed, yesterday, that is what most of the men that spoke concentrated on. Yes, it’s absolutely fantastic that you want to change the world for your daughter – but what about your wife? Your sisters? Your mother, your female cousins, your friends? They’re all going through the same thing, and they’ve all had to prove themselves again and again, while men are judged on their potential. It is not acceptable to be ignorant to the inequality that women face, until you produce your own little female.

I grew up in a household where my parents, both teachers, never made me feel that as a woman, I couldn’t do anything that I wanted. My mum was a deputy head, while my dad preferred to be a class teacher – so my household was unusual in that my mother was in a senior position to my father. However, I never really saw it like that – I saw both my parents working just as hard as each other. I saw my father’s passion for classroom teaching, and my mother standing up for other teachers in her school. From them, I got the message that as long as I worked hard, I could do anything I wanted.

And then I went to an all girls school. While these aren’t a perfect solution, I never for a moment thought that there were things I couldn’t do just because I was a woman. Again, here the message was that if you work hard you’ll do well. And this was the message I took with me through school and university.

Then I arrived in the world of work, and the full force of what the world is really like hit me square in the face. It is exhausting to be a woman in the workplace. My experience, and the experience of many of my colleagues, is that men are judged on the best of their results, the things they have achieved and the positive leadership skills they possess. Women are judged on the things they don’t do, their personality – being too soft or not soft enough – their achievements are balanced out with criticism of what they could have done better. Women receive the message that in order to achieve they have to adapt their personality to be more like a man’s – and yet, when they do this they’re judged for not being soft enough, gentle enough… I could go on.

I’ve listened to men explain feminism to me one day, but go on to invite me to calls because they ‘need the female touch.’

I’ve mentioned before that my no always seems negotiable, but my male counterparts is not – but this goes further. I adapted the way I communicate in emails after reading advice from female leaders in the workplace (‘take out the fluff, and be more direct’) only for my male managers to have a problem with this. I don’t know any man who has been told to be softer, friendlier, or chattier in emails. It wouldn’t be appropriate. When a man is assertive it is celebrated. If a woman is…. Well, she’s a bitch and she needs to work on her people skills. If you’re independent as a man you’re showing initiative. If you do that as a female, then you are dragged back down and because you need a man to show you how to do it.

I wish I was exaggerating – but this is the experience I’ve had in many different workplaces. It’s the experience many of my friends have had. It’s the experience we need to change.

The double standard perpetuated by men that think they are feminists astounds me. These are the men that I find more dangerous than the dinosaurs that think a woman’s place is in the kitchen – because they at least are shouted down. The men that I’m talking about cannot see how they treat females differently to males, and do it in subtle, but career blocking ways. They try to tell you that standing up for yourself is wrong, that not acting in the way that they believe a woman should is wrong, that all the good work you do doesn’t count because sometimes you’re a bit grumpy.The idea that men behave perfectly at work is a myth, yet I have never spoken to a male who has been reprimanded for it in the way that females are.

Hell, I’ve seen men that shout at women be promoted, while the women are held to account for not being particularly willing to be in meetings with those shouty men again. Because for that man the ‘work’ they do is apparently so much more important than the way they act. But for women, the way they act is more important than the work.

Is it any wonder women are burning out at work much faster than men? Is it any wonder that so few women reach the top leadership positions when the standards are held so much higher?

Some companies are better than others, some men are better than others. I’ve met a couple of men who really do champion the women they work with – and when I work with them it’s amazing how much easier I find every day. It doesn’t take much to change, but it does require you to take a long, hard look at yourself and ask yourself some difficult questions.

One final thought – I read recently an article that argued that asking women to lean in was bad advice, because that’s asking them to emulate male behaviour – which is not necessarily the way to get the best results. It argued that most managers are incompetent (I wish now, I had the link) because people tend to get promoted due to their overconfidence in their ability, not because of their work standards. Promotions based on this overconfidence are not good promotions; confidence is not the trait that we should be celebrating. We don’t want more incompetent managers – male or female – we need to look more objectively at what talents people do actually have. I think once workplaces start doing this and stop only appreciating ‘male traits’, women will have a much easier path at work.

Until then, I will keep being a difficult woman, who points out when I am treated differently to the males in my work place.

How Do You Like Me Now? – Holly Bourne

Posted in Books, Five Star, Reviews
on August 16, 2018

Guys, I think I’ve finally cracked it.

I’ve finally found a hyped book that I actually like!

I know, nobody is more surprised than I am. And I went in full sceptical, only to find myself hooked by about page five.

I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review. 

How Do You Like Me Now? By Holly Bourne is a fast-paced, contemporary novel, in equal parts funny and heartbreaking.

In her twenties, Tori Bailey wrote a memoir come self-help book entitled ‘Who the fuck am I?’ , which propelled her to social media stardom, as a lifestyle guru and all round envy of all. She seems to have it all. Now in her thirties, she’s struggling to write her follow up book, as the happily ever after she wrote about is unravelling day by day.

It goes without saying that between your twenties and your thirties, things change. Your friends change, their priorities change, and the things you once thought were wonderful don’t seem that way anymore – and sometimes the things you once thought were awful don’t seem so bad. Holly Bourne really captures this feeling of change and uncertainty in a very neat way – and a way which feels particularly visceral and real. This novel is, in many ways, the story of Tori Bailey realising that the world does not necessarily move at her pace, and things change whether you want them to or not.

There is a sort of hubris at play. Tori is not an unlikeable character, not by a long way, but because of the life she’s led, she does assume that most people envy her and want her lifestyle. She is somewhat shocked when faced with the realisation that people don’t. When her best friend (who, though she never says it in quite so many words, Tori clearly regards as less cool, less pretty, less thin, and therefore unable to be as happy as her) chooses a settled relationship and a family over going out and getting drunk, Tori sees it as a betrayal. There is a lack of empathy for the fact that people might want a baby, a husband, a job which is secure but not necessarily exciting, and that’ll be enough to be content. From this point on it’s a steep learning curve for the woman who is still cashing in on the belief that her life is just a slightly more glamorous version of what it was when she was in her twenties.

Tori’s problem is that she always seems to be chasing the next big dream – aka the way of capturing her fan’s attention, and Instagram likes. And it is quite clearly apparent why quite early in the book. Her relationship with Tom – ‘Rock Man’ from her book – is at its best neglectful and at its worst abusive. There is one particular passage which is hard to read, and is very powerful – you’ll know if when you read it – where Tom’s behaviour moves from disinterest and into abuse of trust. It’s heartbreaking to see how desperate Tori is for him to love her or show her any affection – or really just have a good time with him. As a reader you’re screaming at her to just leave him, but of course, it’s not quite as simple as that. Tori is crippled by the idea of letting her fans down, of losing her dream and fairytale ending. She blames herself for Tom’s behaviour – believing that if she was just a little bit prettier, or more exciting, Tom would come back to her. Tom, in turn, gaslights her and throws her a bone every time she’s about ready to end with him, and generally treats her appallingly. Real life, for Tori, is a vicious circle that is a world away from the fiction she portrays on her social media.

There are times when this novel reminds me of the Black Mirror episode where your social media rating affects everything – your life, your job, where you live… Only it’s as if Tori is the only person who knows she’s in this bubble. She is so afraid of facing the truth because she’s made such a public display of how wonderful everything is. Social media penetrates every moment of her life; if she’s not posting on it, she’s reading it. All her friends are posting their life events on there (babies, weddings, engagements etc etc), as if they’re living a second life on the platform. And for Tori, social media is very much a competition. She’s bet her livelihood on it. She’s consciously made her life public on a scale that none of her friends has, so when it starts to unravel, she feels forced to keep up the appearances.  It’s not quite as narcissistic as I’m making it sound (well, it sort of is), but it’s also desperately sad. Tori is trapped by the walls she has built herself, and though deep down she knows what she needs to do, she is paralysed against doing it. So instead it manifests through her acting out in different ways.

I think it is this which makes Tori so relatable, even though she is a social media celebrity. She’s flawed and she’s sad. Everyone has been in a situation which doesn’t quite feel right – be it a job, a relationship, a lifestyle, a place – and making a decision to change is not an easy one. We’ve all had moments where our lives seem to be switching upside down, our friends are moving on without us, we’re running out of time to achieve everything we want to. Holly Bourne does a very good job of capturing the emotions related to this.  We’ve all said things we don’t mean to our friends. Tori’s feeling of betrayal as her friends move on and she’s forced to look at her life in a new, harsh, life is very visceral. Her feelings are so raw and well written that it made me pause as I was reading.

I was in places moved to tears, in others frustrated and annoyed with the characters. And if that doesn’t capture the feeling of being in your late twenties and early thirties, I don’t know what does. So yes, Tori does occasionally grate on you, she is self obsessed, she is a little vacuous occasionally, but she’s meant to. Bourne manages to write a book about, essentially, “finding yourself” for the second time, without it being twee and preachy. That’s impressive. The ending is open, and I do hope there will be more from Tori. I would love to see her what happens next – and how she recovers her sense of self.

I completely recommend this book, 5 stars (and a couple of tears). 

How to Keep a Secret – Sarah Morgan

Posted in Books, Reviews, Three Star
on June 14, 2018
How To Keep A Secret

 

I received an ARC copy in exchange for a fair review.

I’ve read a couple of Sarah Morgan’s books over the years. How to Keep A Secret is a departure from her previous style – and a welcome one.

The story is based around three generations of women from the Stewart family. Grandmother Nancy has always seemed a little distant to her daughters. Lauren appears to have the perfect family life in London, but her daughter Mack, is starting to act out. Jenna married the perfect man, and seems to have it all. But when tragedy hits, and Lauren finds herself back in her old family home in Martha’s Vineyard, the secrets that have pulled them apart start to unravel.

Each chapter starts from a different perspective, so we know what the characters are hiding before they reveal it to their family. And boy, are there a lot of secrets going on with the Stewarts. You do sometimes wonder if they have ever spoken frankly to one another! It’s devastating at times to see their carefully crafted lives crumbling apart. It takes time, but eventually they all manage to channel their anger, hurt, frustrations, betrayal – I could go on – into something much more positive.

Although positioned as a romance book – and there are romances in it – this is much more a book about family, friendships and moving on from things that seem too big to ever get over (be it a past, a betrayal, or a future plan that seems out of grasp). How one event can shake you to your core and effect your future forever. And mosty, how keeping a secret can harm you, instead of helping.

There is a lot going on in How To Keep A Secret but Martha’s friendship with Alice is one of the elements I wanted to highlight because it has been clearly thought about. In a book like this, if one friend wrongs the other in the way Alice wrongs Martha, she would be unforgivable – unredeemable – from thenceforth stricken from the narrative except to be spoken about in unflattering tones. However, here, Martha tries to rebuild the friendship in quite a positive way. I think that’s a lot more realistic, and a lot more powerful. It showed greater character development and strength from Martha than casting her lifelong friend out would have. It was very enjoyable to read.

A couple of minor points are undeveloped. Lauren’s love interests are a little unbelievable, for different reasons which will become apparent when you read it. The relationship with Scott in particular is altogether rather too convenient. It was a little predictable in parts, and I felt the ending was lacking a little energy compared to the beginning – but that was only a very slight niggle.

I enjoyed that not everything is quite wrapped up in the end, but there is an acceptance that it’s okay for things not to be. So much of the characters’ struggles have been brought about because they desired so much to appear outwardly perfect. Jenna, Lauren, Martha and Mack have been through too much to really have a ‘happy’ ending, but in its place they have found female solidarity, a closer family unit, and found that sharing is better than concealing.

Overall, an enjoyable book, and one I will doubtless re-read, with a couple of limitations. I’d give it three and a half stars if I could, but I can’t so it’ll have to be 3.