Saturday, 31 May 2014

MICHAEL TOLLIVER, MRS MADRIGAL & ME


Many people I know have a Tales of the City moment. For some it was back in 1978 when the series started. For others it was not until 1993 when the series that immortalised Barbary Lane hit our TV screens. As for me, I came late to the series. I had just moved to London after university when Significant Others was published in the late 80s. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven when I met Mrs Madrigal and her impromptu 'family' and discovered there were four more, earlier, and as yet unread, tales to explore.

I couldn't tell you which of Maupin's kaleidoscope of characters was my favourite - Michael (mouse) Tolliver and his unfeasibly handsome but ultimately doomed boyfriend Jon; Mary Ann Singleton - utterly uncool and straight off the bus from Ohio (not a million miles from yours truly); or hippy bisexual Mona Ramsay whose parentage is the pivotal plotline of book three. But presiding over them all was Mrs Madrigal, the mysterious dope-smoking landlady of the boarding house to which they all gravitated, 28 Barbary Lane. Mrs Madrigal with her mysterious history, long late night conversations and bohemian sense of style was the fantasy grandma I never had.

When many years later I finally made it to San Francisco, Macondray Lane in Russian Hill (immortalised as Barbary Lane) was one of my first ports of call. The wooden steps that led to it spidering up the hill just as the staircase leading to a fairytale land should.

Now in her 90s, the queen of that land finds herself the focus of the ninth - and allegedly final - book in the Tales of the City series, The Days of Anna Madrigal. I say allegedly - Maupin has pledged to end the series before. Even now, I refuse to believe him.

It's hard to say much about this wonderful book without fear of a spoiler. If you've followed the series from book one, I can't recommend this highly enough - it's a bittersweet sojourn with much loved friends and a few mysteries unravelled. If you haven't... I suggest you start at the beginning and read all nine. You have a treat in store.

But is The Days of Anna Madrigal  farewell? Maybe more au revoir.


The Days of Anna Madrigal by Armistead Maupin is published by Doubleday. See the entire Tales of The City backlist here.

(This blog was first published on Bazaar on Books, www.harpersbazaar.co.uk, 29 January 2014.)

FICTION'S LOVE AFFAIR WITH FASHION

It's no secret that clothes are social indicators. For a novelist, there is no better, more immediate, way to create a fictional world than to tell your reader what people are wearing - and more importantly, why. In the September 2013 issue of Bazaar, five times Booker- shortlisted and one-time winner Margaret Atwood argues that fashion is at the heart of every fantasy world she creates. Here's my edit of novels with fashion in their DNA.




The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood

One of my favourite Atwood novels, The Handmaid's Tale is also the best example of how fashion can set a scene. Set in a fascistic future where women are segregated into Handmaids and Wives, their social status is denoted by their robes - blue (wives) or red (Handmaids) - and nun-like wimples. In an instant we know who is virtuous and who, by definition, is not.


The Clothes On Their Back, Linda Grant

What we wear and how that defines us is woven into the very heart of Grant's novel. Roving from the fifties to the end of the twentieth century, it is the story of Vivien, the daughter of Jewish refugees, and her glamorous, leopard-skin hat-wearing uncle Sandor who teaches her how clothes shape our identity.


Anything by Jane Austen

Of course, Austen wasn't creating a world when she put pen to paper to write her first published work, Sense & Sensibility in 1811, but set in the 1790s, she was merely reporting it as she saw it, with a liberal coating of mordant wit. But now, thanks to the continuing relevance of the world she immortalised, it is impossible to say the words "Jane Austen" without thinking of an empire line dress.


Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

What better way to denote a mouse, a wallflower unsure of her place in the world, than to give her no name and dress her so dowdily ('in ill-fitting coat and skirt and jumper of my own creation') it's almost unworthy of mention. Rebecca, on the other hand, the first wife now written into literary legend is everything 'I' is not, from her handwriting to her effortless mastery of fashion. "You are so very different from Rebecca" is a constant refrain and fashion is central to showing that.
Buy Rebecca

Zero History, William Gibson

If you've never read Gibson this may not be the best place to start, but it is certainly the best example of how sf writers can use fashion to startling effect. Gibson has often addressed the way fashion and marketing shapes us, in Zero History his hero Hollis Henry is employed to track down a mysterious anti-fashion secret brand, in so doing he raises interesting questions about trends, brand and why we care so much about what we wear.
Buy Zero History 



The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides

This is a bit of a cheat because much as I adored this 70s-set novel about the five suicidal Lisbon sisters when I read it many moons ago, I'm conscious that the strong visual impression that lingered long after I turned the last page could belong as much to Sofia Coppola's strong visual interpretation as to Eugenides beautifully descriptive writing.
Buy The Virgin Suicides 

Anything by F Scott Fitzgerald

Like Austen, Fitzgerald was more a chronicler of an age than a creator of a world, but you only have to say the words Bernice Bobs Her Hair or Benjamin Button to hurtle headlong into a world of flappers, glamorous parties and a 1920s society hell-bent on destruction.

Elegance, Kathleen Tessaro

Not so much a novel about fashion, Tessaro's bestseller is a homage to innate personal style and, more, the inner confidence that goes hand in hand with it. Louise Canova has neither, but the real-life character Madame Antoine Dariaux does, in spades. (Naturally, she's French...) When Louise discovers a secondhand copy of Mme Dariaux's A-Z of style and tries to follow her advice, her life is transformed...
Buy Elegance 


Breakfast At Tiffany's, Truman Capote

Another novel that may owe its fashion credentials as much to the movie as the slim-but- perfectly-formed novella (which is frankly way grittier than the movie). I can't think about this book without thinking of a Givenchy clad Hepburn, any more than I can think about mid-town post-war Manhattan without thinking about the ultimate "American geisha" Holly Golightly.

And finally...

Some self-publicity. My last novel, originally titled What To Wear To Your Best Friends Funeral - and ultimately retitled To My Best Friends - has, at its heart, our relationship with clothes and what they say about us. (And please don't be put off by the cover!)
Find out more about To My Best Friends.

(A version of this blog first appeared on Bazaar on Books, www.harpersbazaar.co.uk, 1 August 2013)

IN PRAISE OF READING WOMEN


If you spend any time at all on twitter, you should have a look at the hashtag #ReadingWomen2014. The brainchild of writer Joanna Walsh, it was started in response to the bias of literary editors towards male writers (and indeed male reviewers); not to mention the tendency of publishers to dumb down their female authors’ books by giving them non-scary covers (ie pink).

Walsh thought she might get it in the neck, as twitter is wont to do. Instead, it took off.

As Walsh puts it ‘I’ve listened to female writer friends grouse when their books are given flowery covers though their writing is not; when reviews, or even publishers’ press releases, describe their work as ‘delicate’ when it is forthright, ‘delightful’ when it is satirical, ‘carving a niche’ when it is staking a claim.’

One literary editor (ironically, Claire Armistead of the Guardian) told Walsh that her ‘own feeling was that there is an issue of confidence among women writers’. Walsh disagrees and so do I. Most of the female writers I know are confident and ballsy. Just look at the twitter feeds of Amanda Craig and Daisy Goodwin, Linda Grant and Susan Hill, Sophie Hannah and Jojo Moyes, if you need convincing. Whether of so-called commercial women’s fiction, domestic suspense (god forbid that women crime writers be called crime writers), or plain old literary fiction (although arguably they get a marginally better ride from reviewers) and they have one thing in common: they are all fed up with being put in the corner in a pink frock.

Walsh is not the first to draw attention to this. Jennifer Weiner – the American author of bestsellers In Her Shoes, Good In Bed and many more – has made it her business to shout about the imbalance, arguing that if her name were Jonathan (Franzen) or Jeffrey (Eugenides) her books would have had an entirely different reception. My instinct is, she’s not wrong.

As a female author with some pink-ish covers to my name, I’m all for it. But as a reviewer, I don’t want to evict male writers from this blog - I’ve read some amazing books by men in the past year or so, just as I have by women, and have reviewed accordingly. But for the record, here are some of the novels by women – be they commercial, literary or crime - I’ve read and enjoyed in the last year.

Dark Matter, Michelle Paver
The Burning Air, Erin Kelly
Sharp Objects and Dark Places, both by Gillian (Gone Girl) Flynn
Life after Life, Kate Atkinson
The Silent Wife, ASA Harrison
Amity  & Sorrow, Peggy Riley
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte
Instructions on a Heatwave, Maggie O’Farrell
The Carrier, Sophie Hannah
The Roundhouse, Louise Erdrich
Now You See Me and Like This Forever, both by SJ Bolton
Kiss Me First, Lottie Moggach
Sisterland, Curtis Sittenfeld
How to be a good wife, Emma Chapman
Waiting for Wednesday, Nicci French
Me Before You, Jojo Moyes
The Camomile Lawn, Mary Wesley
The Hive, Gill Hornby
The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud
The entire backlist of Lesley Glaister
Apple Tree Yard, Louise Doughty
The Other Typist, Suzanne Rindell
Firefly, Janette Jenkins
The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer
The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes
Longbourn, Jo Baker
Almost English, Charlotte Mendelson
The Sleeper, Emily Barr
Night Film, Marisha Pessl
Black Sheep, Susan Hill
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
Burial Rites, Hannah Kent
Fabulous Nobodies, Lee Tulloch
The Savage Altar, Asa Larsson
The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery

Tweet the female authors you love with the hashtag #readingwomen2014


(This blog first appeared on Bazaar on Books, www.harpersbazaar.co.uk, 22 January 2014)

HOW TO BE A HEROINE


I have found my best friend in book form. There have been many over the years (sad Nora no-mates that I am), but this is like stumbling into the kitchen at a party and discovering everyone you ever liked in one room.

It probably started with Pippi Longstocking. Or maybe she's just the first I can remember. Pippi was followed by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Anne of Green Gables and Nancy Drew and endless, endless fairy tales. (It will be obvious by now that I was one of those children who had a deep-seated belief that I was really adopted and it was only a matter if time before my real parents came to claim me.) As I grew up, I transferred my literary affections to Lizzy Bennett, and then on to Tess of the D'urbervilles and Sylvia Plath. Cheery, I know.

So How To Be A Heroine by Samantha Ellis is my dream book. The book I (and I'm sure many of my book-loving friends) wish I'd written. A memoir in literary heroines. Ellis was inspired to write the book after a (gentle) dispute with her real-life best friend over whether Cathy Earnshaw or Jane Eyre was the more worthy literary role model. Cathy's selfish romantic spirit versus Jane's independent (and dare I say pious) nature...? It was a tough call. (My vote would go to an entirely other Bronte character, the strong-willed Helen Lawrence/Graham, but that's a whole other blog.) Over eleven chapters, Ellis explores heroines as diverse as Anne of Green Gables, Flora Poste, Scarlett O'Hara and Scheherazade, the way in which they shaped her, and indeed us. The result is a nostalgic - but not deluded - homage to the women who made her, and indeed me. I loved it.

One final thing: As if that's not enough, the bibliography by chapter at the end is enough to keep you reading for a year or more. In fact, I'm kindling them all now. Samantha Ellis, I will be sending you the bill.



(This blog first appeared on Bazaar on Books, www.harpersbazaar.co.uk, 15 January 2014)

TAMARA, QUEEN OF SHOES


If Tamara Mellon didn't exist you'd have to make her up. In fact, as she is happy to point out herself, and does so within the first chapter of her memoir In My Shoes, plenty of people already have. Danielle Steele for one. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least four or five others.

The plucky little rich girl - financially privileged, emotionally deprived, fighting back in fabulous shoes. But the thing about Mellon is, if you did make her up, your editor would give you a look and suggest you think about making her more plausible. "That wouldn't happen," your editor would say. People don't sue their mothers/almost lose their business on Christmas Eve/throw out their addict husband and then give the crucial evidence in court that leads to him being found not guilty of criminal conspiracy. They don't date millionaire heirs, actors and Hollywood moguls. They don't launch a shoe brand that goes on to be as big as Sex And The City, the TV series that in no small part made its name, and then walk away.

But Tamara did.

In My Shoes is the story of how she did. Scrap that. It's her story of how she did. So if you're after bipartisan, look away now. Her story of how an addicted accessories editor who got sacked from Vogue went into business with an East End cobbler, became a multi-millionaire single mother via rehab, boardroom bust-ups, family courtroom dramas that leave a spectacularly bad taste in your mouth, and an experience with a succession of private equity investors ("they should stick with cement factories and soy beans") that would be enough to deter even the most fearless entrepreneur for good.

Tamara - more shoes than most


Mellon takes no prisoners - from Jimmy Choo himself ("a creative head with no creativity" who purloined loo rolls from low-rent hotels) to his niece Sandra Choi ("still my biggest disappointment") to Robert Bensoussan Mellon's nemesis and one-time CEO ("exercising control appeared more important than what was good for the business") to all the men who talked down to her, patronised and under-estimated her over the years. (More fool them.) And then there's her mother, the beautiful, brittle, ex-Chanel model Ann. Condemned as alcoholic, cruel, abusive and sociopathic. Mommie Dearest has nothing on her.

If Mellon wasn't as tough on herself as she is on everyone else you could be forgiven for thinking that this was more about settling old scores. But for every bit of juicy backstabbing gossip, there is a handy morsel of MBA-lite to wash it down. And, of course, there will be two sides to every story (in this case, possibly 15), but I'm willing to bet not one of them will be anywhere near as entertaining as In My Shoes.


In My Shoes: A Memoir (Portfolio Penguin) is out now. The paperback is available on July 3rd. 

(This blog first appeared on Bazaar on Books, www.harpersbazaar.co.uk, 3 October 2013)