Love, Hate & Other Filters

Maya Aziz dreams about kissing boys and going to film school in New York, but miles away, an unknown danger looms. A terrorist attack in another city unleashes fear and hate in Maya’s small town, changing her life and disrupting her future.

A stunning debut novel that celebrates the power of personal choice in a world that wants to put labels on us all.

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Love Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed is a charming read that packs a serious emotional punch. It reads like a Carly Rae Jepson song, all inexperience and desires, as yet unfulfilled. Maya is full of typical teenage girl fantasies – consumed by the idea of being loved and being in love (those are, at least in my opinion, different from each other), of independence from her parents and, her biggest and most secret fantasy of them all: moving to New York to pursue film making.

I love to read about teenagers with ambition, and Maya has that in spades. She wants to be a film maker, and there are few chapters where she doesn’t have her trusty camera with her, so she can, as she puts it, look back on herself when she’s an old lady and remember what it was like to be her now. Unfortunately for Maya, her desire to make film-making her career is one of the many areas where she clashes with her strict parents. Maya is Muslim American and a child of immigrants – her parents moved to America from India and have pretty traditional values and a strong idea of the path they want Maya to take, and it involves studying close to home, studying something that will ultimately lead to a job (this may just be because I am getting old or cynical or both, but I felt like I understood where her parents were coming from on this – who would want their kid to doom themselves the life of frustration and disappointment that is pursuing a creative career?!) and marrying a nice Muslim boy.

I really enjoyed how Ahmed approached Maya’s relationship with her parents. Though they were very strict, and, at times, SO frustrating, they were always sympathetic characters. It wasn’t that they wanted to hurt Maya with their actions any more than Maya wanted to hurt them with her own, it was more that there was a fundamental misunderstanding between them of their roles in each other’s lives – one that they spend much of the novel trying to navigate to various degrees of success.

And then, the bombing. Ahmed’s writing of the terrorist attack that kills dozens in the town over from Maya’s was painfully realistic. There was a real sense of that sad, suspended state of disbelief – this happened again? – you live in on the outside while the attack unfolds, and subsequently names and pictures of victims fill the news and us with all this loss from one senseless act of terror. Maya’s fear and sorrow over the attack is compounded by fear of the consequences if the bomber was Muslim – which the police suspect is the case. Suddenly her status as the only Muslim girl in her overwhelmingly white high school feels like a greater weight than usual – and that’s before the so called ‘revenge’ attacks on her and her family even start.

In Love, Hate & Other Filters, Islamaphobia is kind of like the monster under the bed. There are times when you can ignore it and go on with your life, but at the slightest change it won’t hesitate to pull you under with its claws and rip you to shreds – usually with an audience studiously looking the other way as it happens. The things Maya is subjected to after the terrorist attack are frightening and sickening – the sort of assumed safety we walk around with for much of our lives is totally taken away from her and her family as they become the objects of hate and revenge for crimes that have nothing to do with them.

I think what makes Love, Hate & Other Filters quite such a revolutionary book is that it’s a story about hate that actually isn’t about hate at all. It’s about a young woman fighting hatred, finding her way and claiming her space in a world she has just as much right to as anyone else

In this fantastic debut (!) novel, Samira Ahmed will put you through the emotional ringer – from the maddening, insulting and deeply sad state of current Western society to the heart-racing, anxiety inducing possibilities of first love and the future, it’s a novel into which you can’t help but throw your entire heart.

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All the Single Ladies

Today, only around 20 percent of Americans between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine are wed, compared to nearly 60 percent in 1960. Rebecca Traister sets out to investigate this trend at the intersection of class, race and sexual orientation, supplementing facts with vivid anecdotes from fascinating contemporary and historical figures.

All the Single Ladies is a remarkable portrait of how single women shaped contemporary American life.

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All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister is part sociological study, part memoir and part feminist polemic that combines to create a compulsively readable and intersectional text that, for me at least, was as empowering as it was educational.

Through extensive research and interviews with women from a range of racial and economic backgrounds, Traister paints a fascinating portrait of female singlehood in the US  – though as a single woman living in the UK most of it felt entirely applicable.

I don’t think I’ve ever read such an intersectional feminist text written by a white lady. It’s an exploration of the decline in marriage and rise of female independence that consistently holds the feminist movement to account for its failings and exclusion of women of colour, queer women and working class women throughout history and today. Traister makes sure to acknowledge at every step that the barriers and obstacles white women face are so often different than those faced by women of colour, and that the standards those women of colour are expected to meet are unrealistically and absurdly higher.

All the Single Ladies casts a huge net, looking at women’s careers, friendships, unmarried and single mothers, sex, adult virginity (chosen and somewhat accidental – the I was busy doing other things  people we very rarely acknowledge), religion and fertility. Traister manages to tackle it all with a relatively neutral brush (apart from when Phyllis Schlafly came up but you kind of have to give a girl a break as far as that can of worms in concerned), covering a wide range of lifestyles without casting judgement on any of them – single through choice or circumstance, married happily, unhappily or divorced, there was no sense any particular lifestyle was superior.

Ultimately, that’s the point I took from the book. That women – all women – should be able to live however to hell we want. You know, like white men have been doing for literally the whole of history. Get married or don’t. Have kids or don’t. What we want, and what I desperately hope we’re heading towards is a future in which women can live however they like without all the misogynistic bullshit.

Single, partnered or in a long term relationship, I can’t recommend this book enough. Looking at the strides we’ve taken in redefining womanhood, married and single life in the last century was inspiring – and looking at where change still needs to happen totally motivating. Traister is a fantastic writer, and I had a great time being enlightened by her.

‘A true age of female selfishness, in which women recognised and prioritised their own drives to the same degree to which they have always been trained to tend to the needs of all others, might, in fact, be an enlightened corrective to centuries of self-sacrifice.

Amina Sow agrees. The advice she gives everyone is “Always choose yourself first. Women are very socialised to choose other people. If you put yourself first, it’s this incredible path you can forge for yourself.” Amina too understood how she sounded as the words were coming out of her mouth. “If you choose yourself people will say you’re selfish,” she said. “But no. You have agency. You have dreams. It takes a lot of qualify a man as selfish.”’

Heck. Yes.

The Belles

In the opulent world of Orléans, the people are born grey and damned, and only a Belle’s powers can make them beautiful.

Camellia Beauregard wants to be the favourite Belle – the one chosen by the queen to tend to the royal family. But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favourite is not everything she always dreamed it would be. Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that her powers may be far greater – and far darker – than she ever imagined.

When the queen asks Camellia to break the rules she lives by to save the ailing princess, she faces an impossible decision: protect herself and the way of the Belles, or risk her own life, and change the world forever.

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The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton is one of the most hyped releases of the year so far, and for me, at least, it did not disappoint. It has been a long while since I’ve lost myself in a fantasy world so completely. The novel is the epitome of slow burn, a choice that is vital to a narrative in which absolutely nothing is what it initially seems.

Clayton has packed so much into these pages: a riveting mystery, a terrifying villain, deep analysis of the commodification of women’s bodies and how the idea of beauty in itself can be monstrous. It’s a book about high status people, and people who were taught to believe they had such status while actually never having any power at all. There are two hot guys in it: a charming prince and stern, disapproving guard. I would have both, and I hope by the end of the series, Camellia does.

In the world of Orléans, beauty is the most valuable commodity available. Everyone except the Belles is born grey and shrivelled with red eyes, but with the power of the Belles they are able, depending on their resources, to turn themselves into either a regular looking human or a spectacularly ‘beautiful’ one. In this story, the regular humans we spend time with are all either royals or noblemen and women and so their lives are consumed with keeping up with the latest beauty trends – everything from blue skin to metallic golden hair. Each procedure is incredibly painful, but people go back time and again because living in their natural grey form is completely socially unacceptable. Their lives and resources are all consumed by achieving beauty.

Sound familiar?

The ideal of beauty is a trap so thoroughly entrenched in how society functions that its value is never questioned, an idea Clayton personifies with the Belles, who initially believe they are and very much appear to be of the highest status in society, but are in fact little more than slaves. When we first meet Camellia and the other Belles they are travelling from where they grew up, completely cut off from the rest of the world, to take on their roles in society. They’re (mostly) excited to start, and (mostly) don’t question their role or status, believing as they have been taught that they are vital to society’s function – that makes them really important, right? If ‘important’ means working long hours with no days off for no money in a way that slowly destroys your body and depletes your powers all while being totally cut off from everyone you’ve ever known AND never allowed to leave your new ‘home’… then sure… *side eye*

This is where Clayton’s slow burn style truly comes into its own. Even while as the reader you’re thinking ‘there is something seriously wrong with this situation’, the Belles aren’t, because this is all they’ve ever known. They are slaves who have been tricked into believing they’re Goddesses, and it takes some serious time – and trauma – to de-programme themselves from the propaganda they have received for their entire lives.

Oh, it’s just SO GOOD.

I have not been this excited for a sequel in ages. You know that bit at the end of Handmaid’s Tale season 1 where June and the other handmaids refuse to murder Janine as ordered, then they all march off together and June thinks “they should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army”*? I CAN’T WAIT for the Belles to have that moment.

Bring on book 2!

*side note, almost a year later I cry EVERY TIME I even think about that scene and, in fact, had to pause writing this post to go compose myself. I don’t know about you, but that was probably the greatest moment of fictional catharsis I have EVER experienced.

March favourites

March: two lots of snow, endless rain and the occasional glimpse of sunlight. I am so ready for spring. Despite the weather, it’s been quite a good life month. The company I’ve been writing for the past year have extended my contract yet again, leaving me free of career panic until the autumn. It’s funny to think that this time last year I was in a constant state of anxiety about having zero life direction, but now that I do, and not only that but am actually earning money doing the thing I ultimately want to spend my life doing,  I live in constant fear of it all going away. This adulthood thing never lets up.

This is why we have books and Netflix. Speaking of, without further ado, here are my favourites for March:

TV: Jessica Jones & Sneaky Pete

Come on! There was no way I could choose only one. I adored both of these shows from their premieres and having them both return in the same month was the best kind of televisual gift.

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JJ thoughts: Why do I love you so much when all you ever do is hurt me?

Sneaky Pete

Sneaky Pete thoughts: I am so ready for some kind of Marius and Julia heist situation. Also real Pete is such a gem he almost (*almost*) made up for the lack of Eddie in season 2.

Podcast: The 50th episode of The Bright Sessions

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The Bright Sessions, for the uninitiated, is a wonderful fictional podcast by Lauren Shippen about people with supernatural abilities in therapy. It’s very much the Buffy the Vampire Slayer of podcasts – a tense and dramatic supernatural show that is actually a heart-rending examination of fucked up people and their messy lives. I adore it, and for their fiftieth run, in true Buffy style, they did a musical episode. At the start, I was smiling in the uniquely joyful way you do when your faves burst into song unexpectedly, by the end I was a tearful, emotional mess. This weird little show packs a serious emotional punch, and I will be very sad when it ends later this year.

Random stuff: The Bleed

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I used to be a huge fan of the Lenny Letter. When it first came out it felt like it was addressing this huge gap in my reading life, as well as showing me a model of what I could achieve with my own writing if I really put my mind to it. Though Lena Dunham is a controversial figure and has frequently been wrong, even as I was irked by her, I stuck with the newsletter, because I thought what it was doing was of value. But after how she and Jenni Konner responded to Aurrora Perrineu’s allegation of sexual assault against their friend Murray Miller, I was out. Both Dunham and Konner betrayed everything they ever stood for – and I just didn’t feel right supporting their work after that. But I missed Lenny, and wanted an injection of women-centred journalism coming in my inbox on the reg. Enter The Bleed, the Call Your Girlfriend podcast newsletter. Every month, Aminatou, Ann and Gina post a list of the articles they loved from the month, and it is informative and fantastic and has somewhat plugged the hole left behind by Lenny – though if you have further suggestions of high quality feminist content online please throw them my way.

Special mention: Mike Coulter’s Instagram account

He is an adorable man and I love having him in my feed.

Did you have a fun March? Any faves I should know about?

 

The F Word

Here’s to the girl who knows you inside out. The work wife, our long distance confidant, and tea chat companions. To the one who is cripplingly honest, and the new friends we’re yet to meet.

When I look back on my life almost every decision, experience and memory comes with a female companion somewhere behind the scenes – supporting me, pushing me, or telling me outright that I’m in the wrong.

If I could offer one piece of invaluable advice for women and girls of all ages, it’s that there is nothing more important than creating and maintaining strong, positive and happy friendships with other women.

They might be complex and emotional, but they’re the mini love stories that make us who we are; they move us into new homes, out of bad relationships, through births and illnesses, and they shape us into the women we want to become.

The F Word is a celebration of female friendships… all strings attached.

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The F Word: A Personal Exploration of Modern Female Friendship by Lily Pebbles is the love letter to the strength, tenacity, complexity and fun of female friendships I’ve always wanted to read.  One of my besties sent it to me as an International Women’s Day gift.

Yep. I’m lucky like that.

It has bothered me for a long time the relatively low status that friendships have. We’re all about love and sex, as if those relationships are the only ones you need, so much so that, for some people, that becomes their truth. I think we’ve all had at least one friend who vanishes without a trace the moment they get into a romantic relationship. But for me, my female friends are some of the most important in my life – and not just because I’m single. In the past, female friendships have also been the sources of some of my greatest heartbreaks. I still feel a little bit sad thinking back to when I was 9 and my best friend at the time, Lara, told me that she didn’t want to be my best friend anymore, because I didn’t ride horses and Zoe did ride horses so she was going to be best friends with her instead. Brutal.

In The F Word, Lily covers all that and more. Through a collection of her own experiences interwoven with those of the women around her, she breaks down different kinds of friendships and the roles they play in our lives. She sketches familiar figures, from the ‘work wife’ and the ‘big sister friend’ to the BFF (it’s not a person, it’s a tier) and the BFFN or ‘best friend for now’.  Crucially, I think, she made clear that #friendshipgoals isn’t only one thing – it isn’t only the 90s Friends-style daily hangouts in your nearest coffee shop, sometimes it’s only seeing someone a couple of times a year but always being able to pick up right where you left off. Other times it’s organising Skype dates with someone who lives on the other side of the planet, or drifting away for a time only to come back together later on, when your lives are once again in sync. She makes clear that the length and depth of a friendship is much greater than a single Instagram post, which, in a world where something is only legitimate once it’s online, is important.

There is so much goodness in this book. Whether she’s discussing how to be a good friend, maintaining friendships even once you’re romantically attached or the thorny subject of toxic friendships, Lily approaches it all with empathy and a sort of calm wisdom I’m told you find once you’ve reached the end of your twenties. Lily, as anyone who has ever dived into her YouTube videos will know, is a very calming presence, and that sense of her is sprinkled all over the book. I can easily imagine myself returning to it on a rainy Sunday when I’m in need of a comfort read.

Most of all, The F Word leaves you feeling inspired by your community of women, and even more crucially, open to letting more into your life. This book is the perfect antidote to the Mean Girls crap we’ve been fed out whole lives. Female friendships are the best. I’m so happy we’re finally acknowledging it.

 

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

Here. Take this key. It might open a house, a heart, a secret.

What links each of these stories in Helen Oyeyemi’s collection is keys: keys that are gifts, threats, invitations, gateways. Keys that haven’t found their locks. Here, as characters slip from the pages of their own stories only to surface in another, you will find vanished libraries and locked gardens, lovers exchanging books and roses, and a city where all the clocks have stopped…

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What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is a delightfully magical collection of short stories by Helen Oyeyemi. Her small but richly imagined worlds are captivating, and at the end of every story I was left aching for more.

The sweeping stories in the collection range from magical realism to utter fairy tale, and though they are diverse in terms of setting and narrator, all of Oyeyemi’s characters seem to share a sense of being at a loss, whether it’s the stepfather who seeks to comfort his teenage daughter, grieving after the discovery that her favourite pop star and the erstwhile love of her life, Matyas Furst, is a violent criminal, to Monste and Lucy, two women with nothing in common but the keys they wear around their necks, both of them symbols of a person who promised to return, but, thus far as least, hasn’t.

The collection is like a tangle of threads, with side characters from one story suddenly appearing as the narrator in another. A character we might have perceived as evil in a previous story suddenly pops up elsewhere, totally changed observed by a different pair of eyes. In perhaps my favourite pair of stories “is your blood as red as this? (no)”  and “yes”, we first read the story of trainee puppeteer Radha’s unrequited love followed by what happened next, narrated by Radha’s puppet, Gepetta.

As you’d imagine just because of the form, some of the stories are deeply, and, I think, deliberately, unsatisfying. They seem to end just as it’s getting good, and I was left reading the final pages repeatedly, looking for the resolution Oyeyemi had denied me. The characters almost always left me before I was ready for them to go, and I think it’s a testament to Oyeyemi’s skill that in such a short period of time she had me utterly invested in narrators who often did nothing to ease me into the situation. More often than not the story would start in the middle of the action and it was the job of me, the reader to put the pieces together and catch up from the clues she dropped along the way. Other stories were very and surprisingly cathartic, with baddies getting their comeuppance and some, and centuries-old conflicts ended by one person willing to wave the white flag.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours took me by surprise. As I’ve mentioned before, short stories aren’t always my thing, but these captivated me and I have not stopped recommending them to people.

I have decided I for sure need some more Oyeyemi in my life. Fortunately for me, she’s written plenty for me to choose from.

The End We Start From

In the midst of a mysterious environmental crises, as London is submerged below flood waters, a woman gives birth to her first child, Z. Days later, the family are forced to leave their home in search of safety. As they move from place to place, shelter to shelter, their journey traces both fear and wonder as Z’s small fists grasp at things he sees, as he grows and stretches, thriving and content against all the odds.

This is a story of new motherhood in a terrifying setting: a familiar world made dangerous and unstable, its people forced to become refugees. Startlingly beautiful, The End We Start From is a gripping novel that paints an imagined future as realistic as it is frightening. And yet, though the country is falling apart around them, this family’s world – of new life and new hope – sings with love.

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The End We Start From by Megan Hunter is a snack of a novel. At only 127 pages, I finished it in only a couple of sittings, and the spare beauty of Hunter’s writing along with the expansive yet simplistic story snapped me right out of the reading slump that’s plagued me throughout February. It was one of those reads where, when I reached the end, I closed the book and just sort of stared at it for a minute like ‘how did you do this to me?

The End We Start From is a Belletrist book club pick from a few months back – as much as I love Belletrist, I unfortunately cannot read along in real time because they pick literary new releases, which are always hardback and my bank account, sadly, just can’t handle that kind of abuse. Needless to say, Emma and Kara have done it yet again. This. Book. Is. Gorgeous.

Hunter began her career as a poet, something that is wholly evident throughout the book, which is both lyrical and simplistic in style. There is a deliberate vagueness to her writing that works to create just the right amount of intrigue and the right amount of universality in a book concerned with the ways in which people cling to normality when thrust into extraordinary situations.

This is a story about the end of the world, yes, but that is only the backdrop. The lead story is that of new motherhood, of the sheltered world families go into when it is just them and their new baby. The catastrophe they are surrounded by is constant, but within that we sit in a strange oasis of calm where I raises her baby Z, and although the outside world encroaches, it doesn’t overwhelm – even if it does. Because whatever is happening outside, with the floods and the fights, I still has a baby to look after.

This is a gorgeous, strange, unique, haunting and ultimately uplifting novel. I can’t recommend it enough.