Book Review: The Wages of Sin by Kaite Welsh

Sarah Gilchrist has fled London and a troubled past to join the University of Edinburgh’s medical school in 1892, the first year it admits women. She is determined to become a doctor despite the misgivings of her family and society, but Sarah quickly finds plenty of barriers at school itself: professors who refuse to teach their new pupils, male students determined to force out their female counterparts, and—perhaps worst of all—her female peers who will do anything to avoid being associated with a fallen woman.

Desperate for a proper education, Sarah turns to one of the city’s ramshackle charitable hospitals for additional training. The St Giles’ Infirmary for Women ministers to the downtrodden and drunk, the thieves and whores with nowhere else to go. In this environment, alongside a group of smart and tough teachers, Sarah gets quite an education. But when Lucy, one of Sarah’s patients, turns up in the university dissecting room as a battered corpse, Sarah finds herself drawn into a murky underworld of bribery, brothels, and body snatchers.

Painfully aware of just how little separates her own life from that of her former patient’s, Sarah is determined to find out what happened to Lucy and bring those responsible for her death to justice. But as she searches for answers in Edinburgh’s dank alleyways, bawdy houses and fight clubs, Sarah comes closer and closer to uncovering one of Edinburgh’s most lucrative trades, and, in doing so, puts her own life at risk…

I came across the Wages of Sin some time ago and, intrigued by its setting and subject matter, put it on my long ‘to be read’ list. Then, a few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to hear author Kaite Welsh read from her book at a Noir at the Bar event in Edinburgh. I loved what I heard so much that I went home and started reading this book straight away – a decision I’m glad I made, since I absolutely adored this story.

The tale is a first person narrative, told from the point of view of Sarah Gilchrist, a young woman with a difficult past who is determined to become a doctor, despite the barriers and social stigmas of the late Victorian society she inhabits. Welsh’s Sarah is well-drawn; she is brave, resilient and just the right amount of vulnerable. As a reader it was very easy to get inside Sarah’s head and to see her world as she saw it – as frustrating as that was, at times! There are some great supporting characters too, from the brooding Professor Merchiston to the catty and snooty Julia Latymer. Welsh does an excellent job of making even the most unlikable character a touch sympathetic, whilst ensuring that in terms of the mystery, the reader remains as blind to their worst flaws and darkest secrets as Sarah is, until that crucial moment when the truth and the killer is revealed…

The setting for the story is 1890s Edinburgh, and Welsh does a masterful job of evoking the sights and smells of the ancient city, thick with slums, and contrasting this with the orderly and more privileged (but no less debauched) new town. As a piece of historical fiction this novel is superb, with Welsh firmly setting Sarah’s sleuthing tale in the context of the time, tackling issues from poverty and deprivation, to the social conflict surrounding female emancipation and sexuality with impressive sympathy and accuracy. At times it was hard not to feel as though I had been transported back to 1892!

A highly enjoyable read – I am looking forward to the next installment in the series already. Five stars.

The Safe Space

Ethersay is now six months old. To mark its half year anniversary, today I’d like to share some words I wrote which explain how my own experiences during the Scottish independence campaign eventually moved me to write this novel. 

For me, the day after the independence referendum was a blur of tiredness and disbelief. Everything was done on autopilot: taking the kids to school, picking them up, heading to the shops for some retail distraction. Everyone else seemed to be the same, too. I remember walking around Livingston shopping centre and noticing how quiet it was – the place itself was busy, but the people there were muted, sombre, reflective. Disappointment hung in the air like rain on a dreich winter’s day: disappointment in ourselves, disappointment in Scotland. Disappointment that the vision we had for our country would not, at that moment in time at least, be realised. And perhaps above all, an aching disappointment at the realisation that dependence had won.

Much of that disappointment, of course, would have belonged to those who voted Yes. But I always wonder how many of those who voted No woke up that day and realised that they felt disappointed, too.

Prior to the referendum, I had started writing my first historical novel, having set myself the bucket-list style challenge of publishing a book before my thirtieth birthday. In that final, crucial six months of campaigning I had put my project on hold, throwing myself entirely into political activism in a way that I had never done before. Sure, I had campaigned for my party’s candidates in various elections, but this was different, somehow – it felt so vital, so momentous, so all-consuming. For six months, I lived and breathed the independence referendum. I walked miles; I chapped doors, delivered leaflets, worked on street stalls. I did everything I possibly could. If I give this my all, I remember thinking, then perhaps it will be enough. Perhaps we will win.

And then we lost. I still struggle to describe what it felt like once it was over, once I knew we hadn’t won. Emptiness, numbness, grief – none of those words seem to quite fit.  All I know is that at that point, all I wanted to do was throw myself back into writing, and I did. Thank goodness I had my book to focus on, to distract me, to give me something to think about other than politics during those long, dark autumn days.

During 2015 and 2016, I published my first book then wrote and published its sequel – two historical fiction novels, set hundreds of years ago in my native Lancashire. They were a welcome escape, intellectually and emotionally. They were somewhere I could go and not think about how absolutely gutted I still was and for a long time, that was great.

Gradually, however, I found my gaze shifting back towards the independence referendum. By this point almost two years had passed and so much had changed at a pace which is still astonishing. Creatively, it felt like the right time to look back, to take those experiences and those feelings and weave them into fiction. Then I had a dream (yes, really) about a woman who finds herself stranded on a remote island with no memory of how she got there. I remember waking up and immediately jotting down the idea, spinning its threads, developing it through questions: who is she? How did she get there? What is it that she can’t remember?

What if she was a Yes campaigner?

What if the referendum had irrevocably changed her life?

An idea was born; an idea which over the subsequent weeks and months became my third novel, Ethersay.

Of course, it is important to say that the woman in the book isn’t me, that she is a work of fiction, as is every other character in the book. But as the saying goes, you should write what you know. I also feel, to paraphrase another saying, that if you’re ever going to have a clear idea of where you’re going, then you must understand where you’ve been. Stories can help us to do that; they can resemble real life but be remote enough from it to provide a safe space in which to explore the emotional and psychological impacts of our experiences. Stories can help us to reflect, to digest, and to engage. Perhaps above all, stories can help us to come to a better understanding of ourselves.

And in my view, if Scotland is going to move forward as a nation, if we’re going to realise our massive potential as we navigate the murky, brexiting waters of present times, we need to do exactly that. I hope Ethersay contributes to that but if not, well, it was damn cathartic writing it.

Ethersay is available at Amazon / iTunes / Barnes & Noble / Smashwords / Kobo

Book Review: Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu

Vivian Carter is fed up. Fed up with her small-town Texas high school that thinks the football team can do no wrong. Fed up with sexist dress codes and hallway harassment. But most of all, Viv Carter is fed up with always following the rules.

Viv’s mom was a punk rock Riot Grrrl in the ’90s, so now Viv takes a page from her mother’s past and creates a feminist zine that she distributes anonymously to her classmates. She’s just blowing off steam, but other girls respond. Pretty soon Viv is forging friendships with other young women across the divides of cliques and popularity rankings, and she realizes that what she has started is nothing short of a girl revolution.

This book was a rare experience for me for two reasons. One: it is a young adult novel, which is not a genre I tend to read. Two: I loved it so much that I read it in less than twenty-four hours. Vivian, a sixteen year old high school student from a small town in Texas, decides to start a Riot Grrrl-inspired zine called Moxie to vent about the sexism and harassment which is commonplace in her school. Vivian’s small act of defiance quickly grows into a movement, empowering young women (and men) across the school to challenge the behaviours and indeed the wider school environment which are both so patently unacceptable.

I am loathe to use the term ‘girl power’ but effectively, that is what this story is all about. The homage to the Riot Grrrl movement of the early 1990s is heart-warming and (for those of us of a certain age) a little nostalgic. Mathieu does a really good job of crafting an engaging, entertaining plot filled with interesting, complex characters. The protagonist, Vivian, is drawn very realistically; a typical sixteen year old girl who just wants to get on with her studies and keep herself out of trouble. However, she also cannot help but see the unfairness and discrimination going on all around her and ultimately rebels, and rightly so! She is joined by her friends and classmates, an interesting supporting cast who are all different but ultimately come together in mutual support and recognition that they are more powerful together than apart.

In terms of the plot Mathieu deals well with a range of issues which confront young women, from sexist jokes in the classroom, to the institutional sexism of targeting female students over their appearance, to the most sensitive and serious issues like sexual assault. I also liked that the story was not framed as boys versus girls; indeed, not all the young women in the story were keen feminists (at first, anyway) and not all of the boys were participating in the sexist behaviour, with some actually joining in with the Moxie revolution. The result is a realistic story about growing a movement, taking back control, and realising that we are all more similar than we are different. It is also a story about feminism and what it means to be a feminist in an age when people often talk about feminism as though it’s no longer relevant. I’m not normally one to quote at length from books but these few lines, when Vivian realises the power of what she’s started, really struck a chord with me:

“This is what it means to be a feminist. Not a humanist or an equalist or whatever. But a feminist. It’s not a bad word. After today it might be my favorite word. Because really all it is is girls supporting each other and wanting to be treated like human beings in a world that’s always finding ways to tell them they’re not.” 

In short, this was a highly entertaining, relevant and powerful read. Five stars.

Book Review: Black Wave by Michelle Tea

Grungy and queer, Michelle is a grrrl hung up on a city in riot. It’s San Francisco and it’s 1999. Determined to quell her addictions to heroin, catastrophic romance, and the city itself, she heads south for LA, just as the news hits: in one year the world is Officially Over. The suicides have begun. And it’s here that Black Wave breaks itself open, splitting into every possible story, questioning who has the right to write about whom. People begin to dream the lovers they will never have, while Michelle takes haven in a bookshop, where she contemplates writing about her past (sort of), dating Matt Dillon (kind of), and riding out the end of the world (maybe). 

New from Michelle Tea, novelist, essayist, and queer counter-culture icon, Black Wave is a punk feminist masterpiece and a raucously funny read for everyone … except, perhaps, for Scientologists.

Black Wave is a story which dances on the blurred lines between fiction and memoir in order to examine the crux of a very pertinent question: who has the right to tell a story, and about whom? The narrative through which this examination takes place is undoubtedly entertaining, following the fortunes of Michelle, a twenty-something gay writer living a fairly drugged-up and alcohol-enabled existence against the backdrop of a late-nineties San Francisco on the verge of environmental collapse. When Michelle makes a clean break and heads to LA, it also coincides with the pronouncement that the end of the world is nigh. From there, things get very weird, very quickly.

To be truthful with you, reader, I’m still grappling with how I feel about this book. Structurally it almost operates as two shorter novels, with part one set in San Francisco and part two in LA and there is a sense of detachment from the first part as the reader moves to the second. This was perhaps intentional but as a reader I felt bereft of some of the characters I’d got to know in part one, who were barely mentioned again. It is also written as a third person narrative, which again fed into the overall sense of detachment. Given that Tea was clearly wishing to play around with the memoir concept, this would have worked better for me written as a first person narrative. I think this would have made it easier to read, as well as allowing the reader exclusive access to Michelle’s mind which, from a third person perspective, was sometimes pretty unfathomable.

And yet, despite my difficulties with these aspects of how the book was written, I kept reading. There is no doubt that the plot is compelling: the journey of this individual through the end times is not one which can simply be abandoned halfway through. In addition, Tea’s creation of a sense of place and time is outstanding: I could almost see the toxic waste, the rotten trees crawling with infestation; I could feel the dirt and smoke of the polluted air on my skin.

Despite my frustration at trying to understand Michelle at times, I found her to be well-drawn, realistic and complex. Some of her decisions and development sometimes felt a little abrupt; for example, in one brief chapter later on in the book we are suddenly informed that she has now stopped drinking. Given the apocalyptic backdrop sudden changes were mostly forgivable but as aforementioned a different narrative choice might have served to smooth the reader’s path a little.

Finally, there is no doubt that this book has its funny moments, and the celebrity cameos are second to none – well, it is LA and Tea is playing around with the ‘who can write about whom’ question.

If you like stories which mess with your mind a little and leave you with a sense that you don’t quite know how to feel about them, then Black Wave could well be for you. It’s a slightly baffled 3 stars from me.

Over the Sea to Skye…

Phew, it’s the end of another quick and busy week! Thank you to everyone who shared, liked or otherwise supported spreading the word about the Ethersay sale this week. And of course, thank you to those who picked up a copy of the book! The sale went really well, with Ethersay peaking at number 2 in the ‘Religious and Inspirational Mystery’ category on Amazon UK. I admit after seeing that I did become a temporary rankings obsessive – it may take me most of the weekend to calm down after all the excitement!

The topic of today’s post is not strictly book-related as I thought I’d share some reflections and photos from my recent travels. Two weeks ago, I finally went a place that I’ve wanted to visit for years. After much wistful thinking and hint-dropping on my part, my family and I spent a week on the Isle of Skye off the west coast of Scotland. Alert readers might have already guessed about my love of rugged Scottish islands – much of the imagery and landscape in Ethersay, for example, is inspired by Scotland’s western isles, some I’ve visited, others I haven’t. I also might have hinted at my enthusiasm in a previous post about my short visit to the Isle of Bute in February!

In my mind, the Isle of Skye has always been the epitome of wild, magical beauty and I have to say, after a week on the island, the reality did not disappoint. Today I thought I’d share a few of my favourite photos with you, taken all over the island during a week of walking, generally great weather and otherworldly scenery.

So, I have now returned home, feeling refreshed and ready to get on with some writing. I still have a novella to finish and a few new projects which I am keen to get underway. And of course, I have the Words and Deeds Anthology which I plan to put together, for which I am still seeking submissions until 30th April.  I think it’s safe to say that the Spring break is almost over, and it’s going to be a busy time ahead!

We Are The Fallout

Happy Easter Monday folks! Today I am really happy to share with you my short story which has been published by Coffin BellCoffin Bell is a new quarterly online journal of dark literature which publishes poetry, flash fiction, short stories, and creative nonfiction exploring dark themes. You can find out more about what they do here.

My story is called We Are The Fallout, and is a dark political tale about the nuclear apocalypse. The story focuses on the experiences of a young woman and her mother who are travelling together on a cruise ship of holidaymakers which, having survived the initial destruction, now must find land and attempt to survive against hopeless odds. I was inspired to write the story by current global and political events. When watching the news one evening, I found myself wondering about the worst-case scenario: what if you were somewhere in the world where you survived the bombs, but know that you are ultimately doomed by the environmental consequences and are powerless in the face of your own fate? How do you deal with that? What happens next?

We Are The Fallout muses on the terrible possibilities. You can read the story here.

Ethersay Sale!

Hi folks, I hope you’re all well and enjoying the Easter break! I’ve just returned from a holiday on the gorgeous and majestic Isle of Skye and I’m feeling pretty relaxed and refreshed after enjoying some wonderful family time in the great outdoors. More about my travels to come in a later post (once I’ve sorted out all my photos), but for now I’ve got a little bit of book-related news to share with you – this week, for six days only, I’m having a wee Ethersay sale!

Friday 6th April marks 698 years since the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath, the declaration of Scotland’s independence made in 1320. To mark the anniversary, my novel Ethersay, a contemporary story set during the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, will be on sale for 99p / 99c on Amazon Kindle.

Crossing several genres, including mystery, political fiction and women’s fiction, Ethersay is a must-read for fans of modern Scottish literature. The sale will run from 1st – 6th April so don’t delay! If you’ve already read and enjoyed Ethersay please feel free to share the sale information on social media – the more shares, the more people get to know about it!

Grab your Kindle copy of Ethersay here.

 

Awesome Authors of the Womankind

Today is International Women’s Day, a day which commemorates the women’s rights movement around the globe. It is also known as the United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace – two very big and very pertinent topics in these turbulent, unpredictable and sadly occasionally regressive times. The 2018 International Women’s Day campaign theme is #PressforProgress, a timely reminder that there is still much to do in terms of achieving gender parity across the globe. It is important, I think, to celebrate our considerable successes, and 2018 marks one of the biggest achievements of women in 20th Century Britain with the centenary of some women gaining the right to vote. But it is equally important to be reminded that there is more work to be done – the recent #MeToo, #TimesUp and gender pay gap campaigns can attest to that.

While we are talking about reminders, it feels like a good time to mention that I’m still accepting submissions for the Women’s Suffrage Anthology I plan to put together this year. The deadline for submissions is April 30th, so don’t delay! Find out more here.

It also feels like an appropriate day to talk about influential, inspiring women! There has been a great deal of discussion about this in recent weeks, with media and news outlets running features and polls and creating lists of female greats from the arts, politics, history and other cultural icons. In keeping with this spirit I thought I’d put together my own list, specifically focused on some of the female writers, past and present, who have inspired me on my own journey:

Philippa Gregory

The Queen of Historical Fiction is one of my all-time favourite authors. Without a doubt Philippa Gregory was the writer who inspired me to embark on my own journey into writing historical fiction. Her keen eye for historical detail and deep understanding of the characters she portrays sets an extremely high standard for literature and, in my opinion, has helped to raise the reputation of a genre which was often dismissed as whimsical.

Virginia Woolf

I remember reading Woolf’s essay, A Room of One’s Own, and not being able to get her words out of my head. As a female writer in the 21st century context, this idea of the value and importance of literal and figurative space is one that I return to frequently as both a source of reflection and creative inspiration. So who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? Not me.

Susie Orbach

I read Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue at university as part of my first year undergraduate Women’s Studies course. It was a book which really resonated with me and got me thinking seriously for the first time about body image, about the way we see ourselves and the social moulding of women and girls which begins at such a young age. I remember being struck by the notion that losing weight could really be about losing space – in the literal sense women striving to diminish themselves and take up less room in the world. Powerful stuff which has stuck with me all these years later.

Naomi Wolf

Another favourite from my time as a Women’s Studies undergrad, Wolf’s sharp look at beauty and physical perfection as a means of social control is the sort of book which will change the way you look at beauty ads! I loved this book – it was a real eye-opener and the first time I had read anything which challenged me to look, REALLY look at the images that I, as a young woman, was being bombarded with on a daily basis.

Christina Rossetti

If I’m in the mood for reading classic poetry, it’ll probably be something by Christina Rossetti. Her work is beautiful and stunning, and In the Bleak Midwinter is still my favourite Christmas carol.

Charlotte Bronte

It’s quite hard to choose between the Bronte sisters but for me Charlotte is my favourite, largely because I absolutely adore Jane Eyre. Writing at a time when female writers were subject to considerable prejudice (a fact which Bronte herself observed when choosing her masculine-sounding nom de plume Currer Bell), Charlotte and her sisters’ works stood out and are celebrated as classics to this day.

Elizabeth Gaskell

Another celebrated writer of the Victorian era, Gaskell wrote novels, short stories and biographies during her career, including the first biography of Charlotte Bronte. My favourite of her books is without doubt North and South – for me this novel is the epitome of the Gaskell’s sharp and capable social commentary framed within a wonderful story of romance across the class divide.

Mary Wollstonecraft 

A writer and a woman who needs no introduction. I read Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman as a student of history. I am still in awe of that book.

Tracy Chevalier

Best known for The Girl with the Pearl Earring, for me Chevalier is one of the best historical writers of modern times. Like Philippa Gregory, her work has inspired me on a personal level. Her stories are captivating; literary and yet wholly accessible. Falling Angels is my favourite of her books; I found its exploration of the late Victorian cult of death utterly fascinating.

MJ Rose 

Rose is the author I credit with introducing me to historical fantasy. In recent years I have read a lot of her books but without doubt my favourites are her Daughters of La Lune series. The stories are (quite literally) magical while the settings, from Belle Epoque Paris to New York in the roaring twenties, are rich and evocative. As a writer her books have given me a new perspective on writing about magic and weaving a touch of the fantastical into stories.

So, that’s my list! Which female writers do you find influential or inspirational? Please feel free to comment below. 

Book Review: A Case of Serendipity by K J Farnham

Ruth Bateman is at her wit’s end. If Bucky’s Beans doesn’t stop spamming her phone with discount codes for frou-frou java concoctions, she’s going to flip. After multiple failed attempts to unsubscribe, Ruth takes to the company’s Facebook page to vent her frustration over the never-ending texts.

When attorney, Henry Mancuso, stumbles upon Ruth’s complaint, he has no idea that a simple Facebook scroll is going to change his life. Now, he has to get Ruth to agree to a class action lawsuit when she’s just looking for some peace on her mobile device—not a drawn-out case against a coffeehouse giant.

As Ruth and Henry battle the legal waters, a friendship full of fun and spontaneity blooms. But could something more be brewing between these two and this coffeehouse case?

In short, I absolutely adored this book and found it very difficult to put it down once I started reading. A Case of Serendipity is a contemporary light romance novel which focuses on Ruth, a quirky divorcee and Henry, a workaholic lawyer, who are thrown together by fate after Ruth becomes the lead plaintiff in a case against Bucky’s Beans Coffeehouse.

The novel is a first person narrative and each chapter alternates between either Ruth or Henry’s point of view. This choice of narrative works well and gives the reader the opportunity to really get to know both of these characters who, thanks to Farnham’s flawless style and effortless descriptions, are extremely well drawn. Farnham has a real gift for creating likable characters, the sort of characters who make you want to go along with them for the ride, who make you want to root for them. Ruth and Henry are no exception and by the end of the novel I struggled to decide which I found more endearing; off-beat Ruth with her wild hair and appreciation of life’s simple pleasures, or Henry with his neatness, seriousness and intensity.

The story itself is absolutely delightful – without giving too much away, this is a real ‘feel good’ novel, a genuine light romance about two people who seem to complement each other so perfectly that you can’t imagine them not ending up together. Whether they do or whether they don’t…well, you’ll just have to read it to find out.

If you like romance without erotica, well-rounded, likable characters and uplifting plots then this book is for you. Highly recommended – five stars.

A Case of Serendipity is Farnham’s fourth novel, and will be released on 20th March. It is available for Kindle pre-order at the special price of 99p on Amazon UK.

Book Review: Nasty Women by 404 Ink

Nasty Women is a collection of essays which address the question of what it is to be a woman in the twenty-first century. Edited and published by new, independent Scottish publisher 404 Ink, the collection was put together in the aftermath of and in response to the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency. The editors’ note explains that they wished to make a stand against this, to give a platform for voices speaking against the hatred prevailing across the globe and to show that in an age of ‘post-truth’ real experiences still matter.

I found the experience of reading Nasty Women enjoyable, challenging and thought-provoking. The twenty contributors tell their stories and explain their perspectives with such candour that it is impossible not to be affected. A range of experiences are covered and a huge diversity of subject matter is explored; disability, sexuality, race, religion, class, gender, all relating very sharply to the twenty-first century context.

All reading is, of course, subjective and like any other reader I did find some particular favourites, some essays which resonated with me or challenged me most. I adored Becca Inglis’s Love In A Time of Melancholia – like Inglis I am a grunge and Hole enthusiast and found her reappraisal of Courtney Love, her life and work and her exploration of her own attraction to Love’s music and celebrity highly relatable. I loved Alice Tarbuck’s Foraging and Feminism: Hedge-Witchcraft in the Twenty-First Century – not only did this appeal to my sensibilities as a witchcraft scholar, but I loved the sense of power that Tarbuck described in returning to the understanding of nature, to the rediscovery of old gifts. I was also deeply affected by Jen McGregor’s Lament: Living with the Consequences of Contraception – this essay and McGregor’s sense of betrayal by something which was supposed to symbolise liberation and progress stayed in my mind long after I had read it.

Irrespective of the stories they were telling, however, I loved the way that the essay format meant that the women themselves, as essayists, were placed firmly at the centre of their own stories: the subjects of the lived experiences, the ones in control of the narratives. These were their stories; as a reader I might not always be able to relate, but I could certainly learn something.

An excellent and thought-provoking read. Five stars.