The New Me by Halle Butler review – deliciously dark satire of office life


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The expectations of a privileged antiheroine and the colourless reality of life in an advanced service economy collide in this pitch-black comedy

The New Me is a depressing novel. It’s about a depressed young American woman called Millie, who works in a depressing temp job, while spiralling into even greater depression at the prospect that the job might become permanent. It is also bleakly funny: “I think I’m drawn to temp work for the slight atmospheric changes,” Millie writes. “The new offices and coworkers provide a nice illusion of variety. Like how people switch out their cats’ wet food from Chicken to Liver to Sea Bass, but in the end, it’s all just flavored anus.”

Butler’s debut, Jillian, also used the office as a backdrop. Such a setting could be considered brave for a novelist: most jobs are tedious, to complain at length about how tedious they are ...

From foot-binding to feminism: a millennial charts China’s rapid change


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Karoline Kan’s memoir Under Red Skies charts the very different lives of three generations of women in her family. She talks about a giddying journey

When I sit down with Chinese journalist Karoline Kan to talk about her memoir, Under Red Skies, it is 5 June: the day after the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Kan’s emotional discovery of what is euphemistically referred to as “the June Fourth Incident” forms a moving part of her memoir about life as a millennial in China. “China collapsed for me suddenly,” she writes of the day she used a VPN to skirt web censorship and first learned of the killing and injuring of thousands, as she binged hungrily on suddenly accessible western coverage. “I no longer understood what was in front of me. I had no faith in what I had been brought up to believe.”

She explains: “When you ...

Kylie Jenner’s party was stupid. But it won’t curtail the power of The Handmaid’s Tale | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett


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Celebs can drink their Gilead cocktails. Margaret Atwood’s story remains a pertinent warning about misogyny’s mission creep

I felt a small spark of joy yesterday, as I imagined Margaret Atwood’s facial expression when confronted with the news that a member of the Kardashian family – Kylie Jenner – had provoked internet outrage by organising a Handmaid’s Tale-themed party. The novelist is known for taking no prisoners, and the footage, which shows Jenner and her friends squealing as they are confronted with Handmaid-themed costumes and cocktails, lays bare some of the most flagrant stupidity I think I have ever witnessed.

Was I particularly offended? Before anyone cries “snowflake”, I was not. But I was astonished at the ignorance and privilege of the women in the video, who will never suffer if Roe v Wade is repealed, abortion is outlawed in the US and women’s bodily autonomy is drastically curtailed. The ...

Saltwater by Jessica Andrews review – a coming-of-age debut novel


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A story told in fragments as working-class Lucy finds her way in the modern world

The protagonist of Jessica Andrews’s debut novel is a young woman trying to carve out a place in the world. Lucy moves from Sunderland to university in London, struggles to fit in and survive financially, and then, after graduation, retreats to her late grandfather’s cottage in Ireland. It’s a standard coming-of-age narrative, but also features something very rare in literary fiction: a working-class heroine, written by a young working-class author.

The story is told in numbered fragments, a modish narrative device that doesn’t always work. Saltwater is billed as “for fans of Sally Rooney and Olivia Laing”, but Andrews has little in common with either. You can draw a much stronger line to Sara Baume, whose novel A Line Made By Walking follows a young woman’s breakdown in another Irish cottage, or Jenny Offil’s Dept ...

Julia Armfield: ‘There’s freedom in the monster being the norm’


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The 28-year-old says her often macabre stories are about how our bodies contain and betray us – and are ‘not, not horror writing’

Julia Armfield is the sort to describe The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as “beautiful and weird”. This strange choice makes more sense when you read her debut short-story collection, Salt Slow, which could easily have those words on the back cover. “We burned what we could of Simon Phillips in a pit at the end of the garden,” opens her story The Collectibles, in which a trio of female flatmates scavenge bits of men’s bodies while drinking and ordering pizza. It is beautiful, and also weird.

Salt Slow’s stories are both mesmerising and terrifying, in which your sleep can take on a wraith-like form and step out of your body (this story, The Great Awake, won the 2018 White Review short story prize); where a ...

Bird Summons by Leila Aboulela review – lyrical examination of identity


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Three Muslim women embark on a Scottish pilgrimage in a tale that combines religious insight and Celtic myth

Three times Women’s prize-longlisted author Leila Aboulela has garnered high praise for her books about the experiences of Muslim women in Britain, lyrical works examining homesickness, grief and the liminal nature of immigrant identities. Sudanese but settled in Aberdeen, Aboulela is the author of four novels and two short-story collections with Islam at their heart. Her 1999 debut The Translator chronicled a grieving Sudanese widow’s deepening friendship with a non-religious Scottish scholar, and the questions of faith and desire thereby provoked. Minaret (2005) told the story of an upper-class secular Sudanese woman’s path to Islam while exiled in London. And last year’s short story collection Elsewhere, Home was praised for its intimate gaze into the lives of characters existing between their birth and adopted countries.

Her latest novel through the eyes of ...

Why are so many women writing about rough sex? | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett


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After #Metoo, it’s no surprise a new generation of female authors is exploring sexual abuse and dominance

Recently I have found myself wondering about the prevalence of rough sex in new fiction written by women. It’s viscerally present in You Know You Want This, the new short-story collection by Kristen Roupenian (who shot to fame last year with Cat Person, published in the New Yorker): I found some of the scenes so unpalatable that I had to keep putting it down. They (spoiler alert) include a woman strangled to death as part of a sex game; a man who imagines his penis is a knife when he has sex; and a woman who says to the guy she is sleeping with: “I want you to punch me in the face as hard as you can. After you’ve punched me, when I’ve fallen down, I want you to kick ...

How to refocus the spotlight on female writers


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Women too often have their lives rather than their books reviewed. Writers including Joyce Maynard and Olivia Sudjic consider how this can be resisted

What does exposure mean for a female writer? It’s a question with which the novelist Olivia Sudjic grapples in a new book-length personal essay, Exposure, just released by the crowdfunded publisher Peninsula Press. In this blend of memoir and critical analysis, Sudjic interrogates her own anxiety around the issue, reflecting on the social media age and critically appraising some of the most urgent contemporary writing by women. In doing so, she references a new canon of sorts, encompassing fiction and non-fiction (and the autofiction that resides between), which includes work by Rachel Cusk, Roxane Gay, Sheila Heti, Chris Kraus and Elena Ferrante.

“Although I didn’t want it to be writerly, there wasn’t that much in the way of very contemporary essays about writing,” Sudjic tells ...

Shaun Prescott: ‘Australians were born of genocide and we can’t erase that’


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His debut has been hailed as ‘an uncanny masterpiece’. The Town’s author explains how the eerie setting of his novel is rooted in his background in small-town Australia, and the elusiveness of what that means

The unnamed town at the heart of Shaun Prescott’s debut novel is a nondescript place, filled with shopping malls and petrol stations, supermarkets and parking lots. It is surrounded by “tentacle roads”, patrolled by a bus that no one ever boards. There’s a radio station with no listeners, and a pub with no customers. A highway leads out of the town, but when the narrator – also unnamed – walks down it, the outside world appears unreachable. “It was only possible to see the full extent of the town if you spent many years there,” he notes. “Only then could you see the barriers shimmer at its edges, and know what the edges meant.”

...

Free love, flower power and fallouts: how kids cope with communes


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Nostalgia for 1960s counterculture is everywhere – on Instagram, TV and in fashion. But what was life really like for the children of hippy parents?

It’s not easy being a child of the revolution. While hippies sought to explore alternative ways of living through a spiritual quest for enlightenment and mind-altering drugs, their children weren’t always thrilled to be the guinea pigs in child rearing experiments. In most depictions, hippy kids face a whole spectrum of issues as a result of their parents’ decisions to embrace alternative lifestyles, with mild packed-lunch embarrassment at one end and severe neglect at the other. “You could hear people having orgasmic sex all the time. All night, like mating baboons, gibbons,” Noa Maxwell told this newspaper, recounting his experience of growing up in the ashram featured in the recent Netflix documentary Wild, Wild Country. When he was six, he got accidentally stoned eating ...

You cannot be ‘well read’ without reading women | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett


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Male authors rarely recommend books by the opposite sex, while customers are reportedly bragging in bookshops about avoiding female writers – when will this be corrected?

Lauren Groff did something brilliantly subversive last week. In her New York Times By the Book Q&A – an interview in which authors are asked such questions as “What’s the last great book you read?” and “What book by somebody else do you wish you had written?” – she named only women authors. You may not notice it at first, but about halfway through it clicks – perhaps because naming only women in a discussion about great books is so unusual, a point that she hammers home when asked about her ideal literary dinner party:

“I would invite every woman writer I have mentioned here, plus hundreds of others I did not have space to name. I would serve unlimited quantities of ...

Sophie Mackintosh: ‘Dystopian feminism might be a trend, but it’s also our lives’


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The Water Cure’s author says she has not written a new Handmaid’s Tale, but it would be hard for any story centred on women’s lives not to be feminist

“The novel is set in the future but it could be now, it’s not a million miles away,” Sophie Mackintosh tells me, in her soft Welsh lilt, sitting in an east London cafe. “Sometimes you scroll through Twitter and there is a horrible story like the Belfast rape case. You see a lot of really upsetting stories. That can throw off your whole day. You get angry, and that can make you feel sick. So I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch to imagine a world where you get ill from patriarchy.” She laughs, with irony.

Mackintosh’s debut novel, The Water Cure, is riding a new wave of clever feminist dystopian fiction. Publishing loves a trend, and the ...

Hera Lindsay Bird: ‘I still don’t think of poetry as a serious career option’


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The New Zealand poet reveals the exploding helicopters, 90s sitcom references and unembarrassed passions that have gone into her eponymous debut

It is an ungodly hour on a Wednesday morning and Hera Lindsay Bird’s disembodied head is telling me about the time that she wet herself at a supermarket checkout. “It was one of the great humiliations of my life,” she says, over Skype from her home in Wellington, New Zealand.

The reason I’m dragging it up again is because it is referenced in the first poem of her debut collection, the self-titled Hera Lindsay Bird, which came out to acclaim in New Zealand in 2016 and is released in the UK this month. “To be fourteen, and wet yourself extravagantly / At a supermarket checkout,” the poem Write a Book begins, “As urine cascades down your black lace stocking / And onto the linoleum / Is to comprehend what ...

Books teach children vital lessons – disobey your parents and you could end up in a pie | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett


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Whether it’s Peter Rabbit or Tracy Beaker, books offer children valuable insights into the world. Let’s not allow austerity to restrict their access When I was younger, the thing I wanted most in the world was a Sega MegaDrive so that I could play Sonic the Hedgehog, Street Fighter II and Donkey Kong. But my pleas fell on deaf ears. As childhood sob stories go, it’s hardly one of the worst, though (the fact that my youngest brother now owns almost every game console in existence is a textbook example of how parents relax their rules with each additional child). What not being allowed to play video games did mean, however, was that I spent most of my childhood reading. It may sound swotty, but when I was little, being let loose on a well-stocked library felt like being taken to a toy shop and allowed to choose whatever I ...