Be Awesome: Modern Life for Modern Ladies by Hadley Freeman

★★★ (3 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: Hadley Freeman, Guardian features writer and author of the popular ‘Ask Hadley’ column, presents the modern lady with twenty-three essays that remind us to ‘Be Awesome’.

I love Hadley Freeman’s writing for the Guardian, so when I heard she had a book out I really wanted to read it. It’s taken me around 18 months to get around to it as my library don’t stock it and sadly it wasn’t really worth the wait (I was so sure it’d be good that I even gave a copy to my friend Katie for her birthday shortly after it came out – I hope it wasn’t a complete letdown for her!). Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t an awful book, and it’s a million miles better than the-aimed-at-a-similar-audience Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, with its use of words such as “tranny” and sentences like “I have all the joyful ebullience of a retard”. It just wasn’t as enjoyable as I was expecting, and some parts just plain irritated me.

Let’s start with the good stuff, though. The opening section on learning to love working in an office was hilarious, even for someone like me who has only spent the briefest of times working in one. I loved her comments on the teenage mentality that surrounds alcohol even when people have been able to buy it for several decades: “expressed in the faux-shamefaced boasting about how hilariously wasted one was the night before”, and there’s an amazing long footnote about the plot of an imaginary Woody Allen movie set in an office (though you probably have to have seen a fair few Woody Allen movies for it to make sense). I also appreciated her observations on the way mainstream media reduces women to their bodies and nothing more; and on how women are supposed to appreciate any male attention they get without questioning whether they actually like the man concerned or would be interested in him had he not noticed them. As someone who has recently turned 30 I enjoyed the chapter entitled “You’re never too old for Topshop” which discussed some of the pros of exiting one’s teens and twenties which basically boil down to having learned from experience and being more sure about what you enjoy doing and want from life (more sure, not necessarily 100% sure. I doubt anyone ever is), and often have more choices available to you due to having more spending power (not that we all do, but I’ll get to that later).

Okay, onto the ranting. The chapter that annoyed me the most was (ironically?) “The ten commandments of being an unannoying vegetarian”. I’ve been veggie for around two thirds of my life, so feel well-placed to comment on this, and whilst some things I agreed with (not policing other people’s food choices or preaching about your vegetarianism – if people want more information, they’ll ask for it) others were just plain ridiculous. Example #1: Hadley you shouldn’t eat “mock meat products”. Why is it any of her business what other people do or don’t eat? Why should anyone care if it seems “to outsiders like being vegetarian means missing meat and having to make do with rehydrated protein products shaped into the vague shape of drumsticks”, especially as one of her other commandments is not to preach to others? Surely we should be supporting other veg*ns instead of telling them that there are “right” and “wrong” vegetarian foods? (And yes I say this as someone who loves Linda McCartney vegetarian sausage rolls. Guess that makes me really irritating). Example #2: Apparently it’s “annoying” to give people who are cooking for you advance notice of you being a vegetarian, and if they then cook some mighty meat dish you can’t eat anything of you just have to ask them for some crackers or something and eat them whilst everyone else chows down on the main dish (because to do anything else is to create “a self-centered fuss”. And demanding your host search their cupboards for something just for you, which you can exclude yourself from the group by being the only one eating, isn’t?). Personally I would find it a lot more annoying if I had a dinner guest over who didn’t tell me in advance what their food preferences were, then refused whatever I’d spent all afternoon cooking and demanded something else than if I was told in advance that a person preferred their food to be gluten-free or whatever and I’m sure the same goes for meat-eaters who are cooking for vegetarians.

My second-least-favourite chapter was “The Forwardthinkoriums”. It was essentially a rant about people asking women irritating questions about their plans for marriage/babies, which is fair enough, but the Forwardthinkorium concept it was buried in made reading it feel like wading through treacle. I suppose without it the chapter would only have been a third of the length, though…

Which brings me onto my penultimate point: as Be Awesome went along it got a lot less funny and a lot more repetitive. Some of the later chapters (not including the final ones comprising of lists of books and movies, which were pretty entertaining and gave me some new ideas for things to watch) felt like rewrites of earlier ones. There are only so many ways you can make the same observations about the pressure on women to marry and have kids, or the way the Daily Mail portrays female celebrities (to name but two examples). Finally, although touted as a feminist book Be Awesome was not intersectional at all, and like the Caitlin Moran tome mentioned earlier, was very much geared towards and focused on white, middle class, straight, able-bodied women – to the point where women not fitting the same profile as Hadley herself may struggle to find much to relate to (on a personal note I often felt that Be Awesome didn’t apply to me as I’m a SAHM with little disposable income who lives in a rural area rather than an urban centre, although I do share many of the same privileges as Hadley).

Author Interview: Mark Robertson

Today I’m happy to be interviewing Mark Robertson, author of Off Key which I reviewed here recently. Mark, tell us a little about yourself – where do you live and what do you like to do when you’re not working?
I live in East Boldon, a village which lies a few miles north of Sunderland. I am fortunate in that I enjoy my job (I’m a musician). The pay is diabolical but the joys are many. When I’m not working I’m usually to be found dancing in salsa clubs. I strongly recommend them. If you turn up at the start of an evening there will be other beginners and someone on hand to teach you some basic steps, in a formal lesson. Dancing is, without doubt, nature’s own Prozac. It is impossible to dance and be miserable.

A few questions about your novel and the writing process:
What were some of the inspirations behind Off Key?

Now that I’m finished I can see the process I went through a little more clearly. I think I’ve always had a drawer in my head marked NOVEL/SCREENPLAY and at regular intervals I’ve chucked things in there that I’ve either heard or that have just randomly come to me. Eventually it contained enough to make something reasonably substantial. In more concrete terms I drew inspiration from the characters I met whilst playing music. Sometime ago I had a regular jazz gig with a group of older musicians. This outfit was occasionally augmented by visiting soloists from the UK and Europe. The guests were usually larger than life characters and the show would involve a lot of storytelling. The eleven PM curfew would never be met but such were the nature of these entertainers that the bar staff never seemed to mind. Harry Crabb, from my novel, was a concoction of a dozen different musicians blended together and then liberally marinated in alcohol.

Did you have an imagined audience in mind when writing your novel, and relatedly, are there any particular groups of people who you would like to read it?
Anyone who’s literate! I don’t want to sound glib but one of the chief motivator’s to getting the stuff from the “drawer” in my head into some kind of shape was the desire to inform people what it’s like to be a working musician because most literature/art about it seems to be tied to the cliché of becoming wildly successful. That outcome is rare but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t compelling stories to tell about the music world. It was essential to me to write something that wasn’t just going to speak to musicians … we already know what our lives are like and it bares very little comparison to the confection that “The X Factor” dishes up. I’d especially like it to be read by anyone that thinks a musical career is a short cut to fame and fortune. It is, however, a short cut to fun/growth/experiences/friendship and love.

What writing projects are you currently working on?
At present I’m not writing at all I’m just gigging and promoting Off-Key. I think the major advantage of self-publishing is not having an agent/publisher breathing down your neck to repeat your last trick. I think that’s the reason that so many writer’s second and third novels are rewrites of the first. I burnt with the desire to tell Off-Key. Unless I feel that sort of passion again I won’t write another novel.

How do you fit in writing around other commitments and pressures in your life?
While writing Off-Key I just chugged along until the thing was over. Sometimes I wrote straight through the night other times I didn’t touch it for weeks. It did however take about four times as long as I thought it would.

Do you have a photo of your writing space?

This is taken from my web-site and, whilst it is where I write, the alcohol and drug paraphernalia were placed there to make me seem more interesting. I’m afraid to say my narcotic of choice is probably Earl Grey tea.

Off Key is self-published. What were some of the best things about that, and what have you found most challenging?
Not having to write again if I don’t feel the urge (see above). Designing the cover was a joy although it required herculean amounts of patience … it took six months and involved five people but it’s successful completion was a big high when I saw the first copy. The greatest challenge has been copyediting and proof reading. I checked it myself almost endlessly then gave it to a best-selling author of my acquaintance who checked it. I then had it professionally proof-read twice … there are still a few misspelt words!

And some questions about your own reading:
Who are some of your favourite authors?

Thomas Hardy/Spalding Gray/ Nick Hornby/Spike Milligan/David Sedaris/ W. Somerset Maugham/Alan Bennett.

I tidied up my shelves for the photo because a lot of my books are filed somewhat informally on tables /drawers/ the microwave etc. (a capital offence, I’m sure, to many Book Bloggers . . . In my defence I haven’t arranged/highlighted the books that will make me seem smarter or better read than I am.) The eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted my emergency jar of marmite.

How much do you get to read, and where do you like to do it?
I’m a real newspaper junky so often fiction takes second place but I like to read every day, usually in bed.

Do you like to own your books, or are you happy to use libraries?
I like to own them so I can dip into them occasionally.

What are your thoughts on TV/movie adaptations of books and do you have any favourites?
I’m usually disappointed by screenplays of novels (I didn’t even dare see Love in the time of Cholera) although I enjoyed John Schlesinger’s 1967 adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd which looked beautiful and did a job.

Finally, please recommend a book to What Hannah Read’s readers!
I’m picking an over-looked gem here, rather than a monumental work of fiction, but I think Bill Dare’s Natural Selection would be loved by anyone who had enjoyed my book.

(Note on the photos: the author photo is copyright Pete Zulu, the other photos are copyright Mark Robertson.)

Two-View Book Review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Joining me for this review is Janet, who you may remember joined me in reviewing Fangirl back in May this year. An English teacher & blogger, you can find her on Twitter as @jbistheinitial.

★★★★ (4 stars) from both of us.

Synopsis from Goodreads: The year is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned, the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. In South London, in a large silent house now bereft of brothers, husband, and even servants, life is about to be transformed, as Mrs Wray and her daughter Frances are obliged to take in lodgers. With the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, the routines of the house and the lives of its inhabitants will be shaken up in unexpected ways. And as passions mount and frustration gathers, no one can foresee just how far, and how devastatingly, the disturbances will reach.

Why did I read this book?
J: I’ve read everything else Sarah Waters has written and, with the exception of The Little Stranger, loved every one of her books.

H: Like Janet, I’ve read all Sarah Waters’ previous books. Some I’ve loved (Fingersmith, The Night Watch) others a little less so (Affinity, The Little Stranger) but even those that aren’t my favourites have been memorable and atmospheric.

Favourite thing about the book:
J: The beautiful imagery of the prose. A room drenched in sunlight, “richly yellow now as the yolk of an egg.” Or the house, after the lodgers have made their ‘lurid’ mark, looking, “as if a giant mouth had sucked a bag of boiled sweets and then given the house a lick.”

H: The way the novel brought 1920s London alive. I loved the period details and learning more about a time that I didn’t know much about (it seems to be under-represented in literature when compared to the late Victorian era or the world wars); I felt fully immersed in it.

Other positives:
J: + The characters of Frances and Lilian were both likable even when their actions seemed morally dubious (to say the least!) and I was really rooting for them.
+ As with all of Waters’ books, the sense of historical place is beautifully done. She evokes post-WW1 London, with all of the social and cultural upheavals the war caused for both men and women, perfectly.
+ The moral ambiguity of the second half of the novel is cleverly done, and I liked the way in which Waters keeps you guessing about Lilian’s true motives.
+ The way in which Waters described the quiet grief of the women who lost sons, brothers, husbands, in the war.

H: + As Janet also mentioned, the prose is gorgeous (but not overdone).
+ Although this wasn’t as un-put-down-able as Fingersmith, I very much wanted to know how the story would end – as evidenced by my managing to finish this 500+ page epic in less than a week.
+ I liked that there weren’t clear answers about the way certain key characters (Frances’ mother, Leonard, Lillian) were feeling, and in the first example, how aware she was of particular events. The people in the novel felt real to me.
+ I didn’t expect the twist which comes around halfway through at all (though maybe I should have? I’m probably the only person who didn’t see it coming. I was thinking of completely different ideas for where the crime element would come in).

Least favourite thing about the book:
J: Like The Little Stranger, I found it dragged a bit towards the middle and at times I skimmed over whole pages. But that might also be because I’m a notoriously impatient reader. On the whole, I’d say I liked this book very much but didn’t quite love it.

H: Similarly to Janet, I wasn’t a fan of the plot’s structure. Some bits dragged, other (quite key) events felt rushed, the ending was too abrupt and I was hoping for more twists.

Other negatives:
J: I can’t think of any.

H: Me neither.

Favourite character:
J: A suffragette who threw her shoe at an MP? Of course I’d admire Frances the most! I particularly liked those glimpses of her past, Wartime self (and in fact would quite happily read a whole book about her antics), which made the scenes of her scrubbing floors and making ends meet for her mother all the more filled with pathos. I also liked Christina very much.

H: Frances. She seems to think deeply about the needs of others (particularly her mother) and I liked that (initially, anyway) she strove to find pleasure in the small things in life, as her life had become far flatter than she’d expected.

Least favourite:
J: Leonard

H: Lillian. I couldn’t warm to her at all. I found there were more than just a few undercurrents of manipulation and selfishness to her behaviour, and couldn’t trust her motives at all. I also found her rather pretentious even at the best of times (though admired her dress-making skill).

I recommend this book to:
J: ~ Anyone interested in the inter-war period and particularly women’s lives.
~ Anyone who’s read and liked Sarah Waters in the past, as it’s a great return to form.
~ Anyone who enjoys crime novels (although I have to say that, compared to the wonderful twists of her early novels like Fingersmith and Affinity, The Paying Guests was short on surprises).

H: ~ I think Janet’s said it all, really! There is a gay element to the story too, so if you’re looking for a novel with a gay romantic element you could do worse than to choose this.

Personal Update & Some Blogging About Blogging

fredandsib Here’s a photo of my little boy holding an ultrasound photo of his little brother, who is due in February 2015! (& a toy egg, which he insisted also featured in the photo.) So far I’m finding pregnancy easier second time around – I had hyperemesis gravidarum in my first pregnancy and, although I’ve still been more unwell than most pregnant women, this time it’s been far more manageable with no hospital visits, and now, at 21 weeks, all sickness seems to have passed. I can feel the baby moving around and am generally just enjoying the experience of having a tiny human growing inside me. I can’t wait to meet the little guy, and am amazed at how fast the first half of the pregnancy has gone by.

What will having another baby mean for What Hannah Read? I’m not entirely sure. One thing I am sure of is that I won’t be deleting this blog. I’ve been writing here for nearly three years now and would like to keep it going for a good while yet. After all, the early childhood years may be intense but they are (too) short, and I’ll have plenty of time later to be reading books and writing about them. I know from friends with more than one child (and from the experience of having had a baby) how time for hobbies tends to disappear when there is a baby in the house or more than one child to care for, so I’m not promising myself or anyone else that I’ll keep writing long(ish) reviews here – it may be that all I can manage for a while after baby bro appears are quick reviews, or even monthly round-ups of my reading… I might struggle to even get time to read at all (though I’m sure I’ll find a way). But What Hannah Read won’t be disappearing, although it may turn into a “lite” version of itself for a while and I hope you’ll all stick with me.

Roomies by Sara Zarr & Tara Altebrando

★★★★ (4 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: When East Coast native Elizabeth receives her freshman-year roommate assignment, she shoots off an e-mail to coordinate the basics: television, microwave, mini-fridge. That first note to San Franciscan Lauren sparks a series of e-mails that alters the landscape of each girl’s summer — and raises questions about how two girls who are so different will ever share a dorm room. As the countdown to college begins, life at home becomes increasingly complex. With family relationships and childhood friendships strained by change, it suddenly seems that the only people Elizabeth and Lauren can rely on are the complicated new boys in their lives . . . and each other. Even though they’ve never met.

Why did I read this book?
I absolutely loved Sara Zarr’s How To Save A Life when I read it nearly two years ago and have been wanting to read more of her work since (which is tricky as Angus Libraries don’t stock her books – bad decision on their part! So thanks to Hayley for this one.). I was also drawn to the told-through-emails concept of the novel, and although I quickly discovered Roomies isn’t an epistolary novel in its purest form this had advantages too (and there were still emails, of course!).

Favourite thing about the book:
So many things! I suppose that both characters felt real and had distinct voices, as without this the novel wouldn’t have worked. The way their relationship developed felt believable too, if a little dramatic in the final third.

Other positives:
+ The combination of emails and standard first-person narrative allowed an exploration of what Elizabeth (nickname EB) and Lauren were thinking alongside what they actually said (well, wrote) to each other. This brought an awareness of how each was shaping the correspondence, their relationship and the images of themselves that they wanted to portray (as well as the parts they wanted to leave out).
+ On a related note, this let Roomies provide a wider exploration of the online world versus the “real world”, which was also highlighted by Lauren’s best friend Zoe, a vlogger. Lauren says several times that Zoe thinks the people who watch and comment on her videos are friends, but Lauren clearly doesn’t believe that and is skeptical of how “real” a friendship can be if it’s not predominately conducted face-to-face. EB is more flexible, and often seems to use her phone/laptop (and the contact with others they provide) to distract herself from stressful or boring moments. How and why we use technology to communicate with others is an issue we can pretty much all relate to (and one us bloggers probably think about more non-bloggers) and I enjoyed the opportunity to unpick it a little.
+ Roomies considered how things like wealth/class and family set-up can influence us, and as part of that showed that there is always something about others that we envy: Lauren envied EB her privacy, freedom and being from a slightly wealthier family whilst EB envied deeper things about Lauren’s life – namely her having siblings and  two loving parents.
+ The book didn’t judge either character for their feelings or choices around sex, although I did feel a bit of judging coming from both characters about friends of theirs who drank a lot. Perhaps this is an American thing – as in the UK you can drink at 18 it probably isn’t a big deal for teenagers to do so then (or a year or so before) as it is in the US where you have to be 21 to buy alcohol. Also, maybe I’m getting old, but I agree with Lauren and EB about it not being cool to get completely wasted.
+ Roomies handled complex and conflicting emotions around growing up and leaving home very well, acknowledging that the inevitability of change can seem sad, but that good also often comes of it.
+ I got the chance to relive that last summer before university, where you know huge changes are afoot but have no idea quite how things will work out. On a personal note I related to both characters starting relationships that summer as that was when my partner and I got together (and we’re still going strong 12 years later, despite being at universities at the opposite end of the country for 4 years so I have hope for both couples in this book!).
+ Lauren and her boyfriend are of different races and I felt this element of the story was handled well. I liked the parts about people feeling awkward about it partly because they were determined to show they had no issue with it (and that Keyon himself broke a lot of the tension around the issue through humour). This plotline also allowed both characters to engage in some privilege checking, and consideration of why they didn’t have more interracial friendships, without making it into a capital I Issue.
+ Although the two of the four dads mentioned at any length in the book behave like dicks (understatement) the boyfriend characters are portrayed very positively – they are respectful, caring, funny and great to be around (though we’ll leave EB’s ex out of this discussion…).

Least favourite thing about the book:
Aside from the email/dual narration elements which set the book apart from others a lot of the plot is composed of standard YA tropes – friendship troubles, romance, family annoyances etc..

Other negatives:
– Relatedly, the plot was quite predictable overall.
– And this wasn’t a life-changing “wow! You must read all read this!” sort of book, hence 4 stars rather than 5. But I did enjoy it a lot.

Favourite character:
Mark. And in case you’re wondering, out of the two main characters I liked EB best, probably just because I related to her more (and I thought Lauren could be quite judgemental at times). That said, I preferred Lauren’s “voice” and her sections were the most enjoyable to read because of that (I wonder, did Sara Zarr write her bits and Tara Altebrando EB’s? I’d love to know, and to know how they co-ordinated writing together. But I can’t find anything about it online. Boo.).

Least favourite:
Mark’s dad and EB’s dad both behaved prettily shittily.

I recommend this book to:
~ People who like YA/NA literature, obviously.
~ Anyone wanting to relieve their last-summer-before-university (or, er, to know what it might be like. Obviously not everyone is as old as me, some of you have yet to experience it!)
~ As Katie pointed out in our joint review of Rainbow Rowell’s Landline, if you like to match books to seasons this would be a good summer read (though of course we’ve just passed the summer here in the northern hemisphere, so you may have a while to wait to do that).

Two-View Book Review: Landline by Rainbow Rowell

Today I’m joined by my long-time since-childhood friend Katie, who doesn’t have a blog but really should, as she always has lots to say about books (as evidenced here) and is a very talented crafter.

whr landline

★★★★ (4 stars) from both of us

Synopsis from Goodreads: Georgie McCool knows her marriage is in trouble. That it’s been in trouble for a long time. She still loves her husband, Neal, and Neal still loves her, deeply — but that almost seems besides the point now. Maybe that was always besides the point. Two days before they’re supposed to visit Neal’s family in Omaha for Christmas, Georgie tells Neal that she can’t go. She’s a TV writer, and something’s come up on her show; she has to stay in Los Angeles. She knows that Neal will be upset with her — Neal is always a little upset with Georgie — but she doesn’t expect to him to pack up the kids and go home without her. When her husband and the kids leave for the airport, Georgie wonders if she’s finally done it. If she’s ruined everything. That night, Georgie discovers a way to communicate with Neal in the past. It’s not time travel, not exactly, but she feels like she’s been given an opportunity to fix her marriage before it starts… Is that what she’s supposed to do? Or would Georgie and Neal be better off if their marriage never happened?

Why did I read this book?
K: I’ve read two previous books by Rainbow Rowell (“Attachments” and “Fangirl”) and enjoyed both of them, so I was keen to read more of her work (and still am!).

H: I read Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl earlier this year and whilst I didn’t love it as much as most of my friends seem to (unlike in the case of Landline where I seem to have enjoyed it more than everyone else I know) it did make me interested to read more of her work.

Favourite thing about the book:
K: I like stories that have a strong element of emotional introspection combined with the action, and frequently find that books have too much action and too little thinking for my taste. However in this respect “Landline” suited me perfectly and I got very emotionally involved in the story. I thought that the portrayal of a couple fourteen years and two children into their relationship was very convincing, and especially liked that at no time did Rainbow Rowell suggest that maintaining such a relationship was either easy or supposed to be easy. I found some passages of the book quite painful and I did cry several times, primarily at the events of the book (especially at Georgie’s sense of a closeness slipping away and being unable to stop it), but also because of memories they recalled. A lot of the emotional involvement was triggered by the way the book was structured- each chapter is given a date in 2013, but under these headings the reader is taken back to the very beginning of their relationship (and before) and all the intervening stages, particularly a period around Christmas 1998. I think that this structuring was very successful.

H: I say this a lot, but: how easy and enjoyable to read it was. I read it on a day when both my toddler and I had bad colds and it was an ideal distraction for me whilst we huddled on the sofa under a blanket (he preferred to watch endless Peppa Pig, so Landline was a good distraction from that as well as from the cold).

Other positives:
K: + I found it really gripping and read it in under a day.
+ I found all the characters believable.
+ The writing style was engaging and did not annoy me at any point- though some typos in the kindle edition!
+ I liked the shadowing and repeats throughout the story, for instance Georgie being so desperate for a call from a high school boyfriend that she even drags the cord phone into the bathroom with her, and then doing something very similar in 2013 when she takes her iphone plugged into her laptop into the toilets because she’s so anxious to hear from Neal. Other examples of echoes and shadowing include both Georgie and Neal’s behaviour over the 1998 and 2013 separations.
+ I really liked that Georgie wasn’t obsessed with her size/ weight especially post babies and especially as someone working in an industry where such things are given an extremely inappropriate degree of importance. I also liked that it didn’t seem to bother anyone around her either. I thought that it was especially telling that Seth, who was characterised as being quite shallow in regard to women’s appearance, wasn’t bothered (or even particularly concerned by what she wore) and was entirely motivated in his feelings towards her by who she was rather than what she looked like. I found this treatment of women’s bodies very refreshing and think the book as a whole is quite body positive.
+ I really appreciated the attempt to treat the sexes with equality. It was great that Neal was a happy stay at home father and I liked that nobody commented that it was in any way unusual or odd that Georgie had a more powerful and lucrative career (even when Neal was in paid employment), or that he spent more time directly caring for their children.
+ However, I’m also going to talk about a slight possible negative here as it is linked. It did concern me that the set up for this book was that Georgie spent too much time away from her family. She was working in an industry involving awkward hours, and as the main and later the sole breadwinner in her marriage, I wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do about it, and felt that some of Neal’s criticism/ the sense that a reader was supposed to be critical was unfair. However, on the positive side I did not feel that this was handled in a sexist manner, for instance I did not get the impression that if the main breadwinner were male it would be fine for him to be extremely career driven and ignore his family. I more felt that Rainbow Rowell was suggesting that this behaviour isn’t great in anyone, and possibly the point of the book is that alternatives can be hard to find.
+ The Christmas setting definitely made me think of A Christmas Carol/ Ebeneezer Scrooge derived stories (and it was name-checked at the end), which mostly feature a male character who does not spend enough time with his family. I think that Rainbow Rowell deliberately flipped this to involve a female protagonist, but while on the one hand this is an act against sexism (it is wrong to assume that it is a male thing to abandon family for work, or only negative in females), I am not sure if there are enough career women in male dominated industries for some treatments of this theme not to look like attacks against career women in general, rather than just examinations of one individual woman’s behaviour. While I feel that Rainbow Rowell did avoid this, it does concern me slightly as a trope. This is a tricky issue, and while the sexes should face equality in criticism as well as in access to advantages, it can feel that as women still have so very far to go, additional knock-backs (even if unintentional and in the interests of equality) can be unhelpful. If we existed in a state of perfect equality such a concern would not arise, and any form of letting women off more lightly than men would certainly be sexism and should certainly be condemned, but I am just not sure we are there yet. While any individual who does not conform to sexual stereotypes (e.g. a career woman) should not be treated as a sacred being not to be questioned, it would be too easy for an unthinking person to take elements of this story and similar ones, and use them to reinforce sexual stereotypes, e.g. that women should not care about career as much as a man. In an ideal world neither men nor women would have to sacrifice family in order to achieve either career success or the ability to support that family, but with the world as it is all we can do is not criticise on the basis of gender those individuals who do so.
+ However, ultimately I think it would be wrong to criticise Rainbow Rowell for writing as if a greater level of equality has been reached than generally seems to have been. It is to her credit that she should seek to normalise equality, and therefore while I mention it as a concern, I think that overall the book deals with equality issues in a positive manner.

H: + I liked the magical realism/sci fi/fantasy/speculative fiction (choose your favoured term) plot device of the phone that allowed Georgie to talk to her husband over a decade previously. It felt believable and the time travel paradox was solved (kind of) by Georgie deducing that the conversation from the future had caused Neal’s actions at the time.
+ Landline largely consists of people talking to each other and not much else, but you know what? I like that.
+ Georgie’s family were fun to read about, and I liked the subplots involving her mother’s pregnant pug and her sister’s pizza-delivery-person crush.

Least favourite thing about the book:
K: Contains Spoilers (sorry if you do not like spoilers but I cannot answer this question without them!)
Lack of resolution at the end, which led to my other problem- lack of clarity about what point, if any, this book is trying to make. For me the book ended too abruptly as I had become involved with aspects of these characters lives that were never concluded. I could understand that both Georgie and Neal were unhappy and that it was not particularly anyone’s fault, but I wanted to know where there was to go from there. The only level of conclusion was that Georgie promised to “try harder” (based on a promise made to 1998 Neal) and Neal promised to do likewise (though one questions how he felt she did post 1998, and whether he thought it would be more likely to happen this time). I felt invested enough in their relationship to want more specifics, and also thought that they both had been trying already, so wanted more specifics to help me feel more hopeful about the future I desperately wanted them to have together. I don’t know much about being a US TV comedy writer, but I get the impression that you are either succeeding and earning a lot, but with a massive time commitment, or you are not doing anything and are not earning enough to support a family. Perhaps there is more middle ground? I don’t know, but I certainly am not clear how Georgie can stay in this profession and give more time and support to her family. Perhaps she is supposed to get a new phone (and charge it regularly!) and call them all a lot from work? Perhaps she is supposed to do fewer last minute jobs?- but surely the nature of the position is last minute jobs? I did not get the impression that Georgie was supposed to abandon her dream career and find something where she could work more regular hours, so am left wondering what is supposed to happen.

I was also left wondering about the “Passing Time” scripts and whether they did get to make the pilot. A closed door happy ending where they make the show, it’s a massive success and they don’t sell out at all, while at the same time Georgie gets to spend more time with Neal and the girls would be massively over simplistic and out of character with the rest of the book, as it was not about easy answers or complete solutions, but I really did want some sense that when they got back home from Omaha there was going to be some concrete improvement, and that Georgie’s romantic gesture was not going to be a brief and soon forgotten aberration in a continuing downward spiral.

In a book that was so concerned with people’s emotions I really would have liked more reported conversation between Neal and Georgie at the end- especially an explanation as to why Neal didn’t return any calls. Neal seemed very keen that they not discuss anything too deeply, and that does not give me much hope for a relationship in which a lack of communication seemed to me the chief problem. However, even with this reservation I did like the book, and feel that perhaps Rainbow Rowell’s desire to suggest that there are no easy answers meant that she could not make the ending more concrete. Also, the lack of complete closure has left me thinking about the characters beyond the book’s end, and perhaps this was another thing Rainbow Rowell was intending.

H: It was inconceivable to me that Georgie didn’t think about how changing the past could undo her children’s existence as soon as she realised she was talking to past-Neal, and that she even considered trying to change the past for her/Neal’s sake when that would obliterate their lives.

Other negatives:
K: – I found 2013 Neal’s behaviour quite hard to understand and couldn’t tell whether this was Rainbow Rowell’s intention. Georgie left repeated messages for him both on his phone and with his mother and their daughters and he didn’t call back. It later emerges that his phone has “died”, but it would seem that he has had opportunity to call before this, unless he believed that his phone had died earlier than it actually did.
– Also, it seems somewhat irresponsible to leave himself uncontactable when he has custody of the children and (BIG SPOILER) we later learn that he is even more uncontactable because his mother no longer even has a landline (which seems really odd to me in an area at risk of emergency conditions from heavy snowfall, but maybe that’s what they do?).
– I can understand that Neal was irritated with Georgie for consistently putting her work ahead of their relationship and their family life, but he had taken their two small daughters away for Christmas, and to me it seemed strange that he wasn’t either personally ensuring that the girls had contact with their mother (they had some limited but not very meaningful contact when he wasn’t there), or discussing how the children were doing with his wife. Maybe I have unrealistic expectations on this?
– Everything else I learned bout Neal made me like him, and to me this non-contact seemed out of character in its irresponsibility. Similarly I found it strange that Neal would go out in heavy snow without his phone, leaving two small daughters alone with his mother. Possibly this is supposed to be consistent with his relaxed attitude about leaving doors unlocked- he genuinely thinks that nothing bad is going to happen- but this was not made clear. Even if his own phone was not at times available to him it seemed odd that he never borrowed one as Georgie frequently did. Possibly Rainbow Rowell was trying to suggest the depths of his irritation by this behaviour, but I would have liked more clarity on this, as there was no resolution of this issue or much reference to it when they did meet again.
– Possibly it would have been difficult to combine the conceit of only talking to Neal in the past with reasonable 2013 contact, but I would have preferred a different method- for instance if Neal only managed to leave messages, or if those with him passed on messages from him when he was out and Georgie rang. Ultimately for me it just seems out of character to go so totally silent. While this may have been supposed to match Georgie’s total silence in 1998, I felt that the situations were too different (primarily in the existence of two small children) to make comparable behaviour seem natural.
– It was slightly improbable (even given the improbability of having a “magic” phone in the first place!) that Neal had been having extensive conversations with Georgie in 1998 and neither the fact of them nor the information exchanged ever came up between them in the subsequent fifteen years. However, this did add another example in support of what we learned about them finding it difficult to communicate in some areas.
– A slight personal negative is that I think a lot of the references were lost on me- US TV, films, songs etc. I didn’t feel this hindered my enjoyment of the book particularly, and I could have looked them up! However, if this is something likely to bother you, be warned, there is a fair bit of it!

H:In my review of Fangirl I picked up on Rainbow Rowell’s occasional use of discriminatory language, and whilst Landline wasn’t quite so bad in that regard she does again use the phrase “spazzing out”. Yay for ableism (not). It is rather incongruous that she uses terms like this when elsewhere in her novels she tries to be inclusive e.g. the LGBT issues addressed through a few characters in Landline and the mental health issues faced by Cath and Wren’s dad in Fangirl.
– The lead character is called Georgie McCool. Seriously?
– The love triangle between Neal, Georgie and another person seemed rather manufactured and to come out of nowhere towards the end of the novel rather than being developed along the way – there weren’t enough hints early on that this person felt more than friendship towards the other.

Favourite character:
K: The book is almost exclusively about Georgie and her feelings, so there is far less detail about other characters, making it difficult to choose a favourite among them. I did like Georgie and I liked everyone else as far as we knew them.

H: Heather. I’d also like to note that whilst I couldn’t relate to Georgie very much (I am so not career-minded! No criticism of anyone that is but work has never been the focus of my life. Maybe because I’ve never had a cool job like writing for a living?) I did like her for the most part.

Least favourite:
K: I didn’t really have a least favourite. For a while I didn’t like Seth much, entirely because of his tendency to view all women to some extent as sex objects, and the way he dehumanised women by liking to have a “parade” of them going through his bed and life. However, ultimately it was suggested that he wasn’t happy with these aspects of himself, and as more details of past and present were revealed he emerged as a more supportive and less shallow person than he had initially appeared.

H: There wasn’t anyone I disliked, and although at times Neal annoyed me he also reminded me a bit of my partner (who can seem aloof to those who don’t know him well) so overall I had to like him.

I recommend this book to:
K: ~ The bits about US TV, the script writing sessions, and two writers feeling that their show in production fell far short of their ideals, reminded me strongly of “Episodes”, so “Episodes” fans might like this book.
~ Anyone wanting to match books to seasons, as this book has a strong Christmas setting.
~ Anyone interested in emotional introspection in books, especially where there is more mental than physical action!

H: People who want an easy, unchallenging read. This is, essentially chick-lit, which is a genre I usually avoid (because when I do venture into it I end up ranting on for hours about how awful it is), but written with warmth, intelligence and respect for its characters who are way more than stereotypes.

Quick Review: Mother Island by Bethan Roberts

★★ (2 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: One warm June morning, Maggie Wichelo, a lonely young woman, arrives at the comfortable Oxford house in which she works as a nanny. Everything appears normal. Her glamorous employer, Nula, who also happens to be her cousin, is so tired that she goes back straight back to bed. Samuel, the two year old boy she looks after, is pleased to see Maggie and can’t wait to start crashing his diggers into the skirting board. Dedicated, efficient, and fiercely protective of Samuel, Maggie considers herself an excellent nanny, and Nula and her over-confident husband Greg have had few complaints about her work. But this is the morning on which Maggie will abduct Samuel, loading him into a hired car, and driving him to a remote boathouse on the island where she spent her teenage years: Anglesey, known to the locals as Môn, Mam Cymru, or the Mother of Wales. For Maggie, everything goes back to the island. This is the beautiful, menacing and mysterious place where she spent the summer, aged fifteen, watching her brother Joe fall in love, her parent’s’ relationship disintegrate, and her uncle Ralph paint the glorious Menai Strait. The island is where Maggie’’s life fell apart, and it is where she will attempt, in her own way, to put it back together again…

This was originally going to be a two-view review but in the end I just didn’t have strong enough feelings about it in either direction to warrant a full-length post. As entertainment Mother Island was alright, but it felt like an amalgam of so many books I’ve read before (especially Harriet Lane’s Her, though I didn’t loathe this one), was irritatingly middle class (I am seriously sick of reading about upper middle class people with their big cars, swanky homes, dinner parties, media careers and money-as-no-object – give me a book by Kerry Hudson instead any day. Unfortunately it’s often not clear until you start a book that that is the world a story is set in so I keep finding myself in it) and had a pretty silly plot (Maggie has the day she kidnaps Samuel planned almost to the minute but no clear ideas about what she will do once she reaches Angelsey, other than reuniting with her brother). I didn’t like any of Mother Island‘s characters (I felt sympathetic for Nula’s possible PND experience, and liked that Maggie didn’t stay at Oxford University when she realised she hated studying there, despite pressure from her family, but I couldn’t relate/warm to either of them overmuch) and although the book is marketed as being a great exploration of motherly love I didn’t feel that theme came across very strongly until perhaps in the closing scene (where the love Maggie’s mother has for her shone through).