Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Sunday Times: Review: Born Lippy: How to Do Female by Jo Brand — but is she out of date?


I really like Jo Brand. Growing up, I admired her as a feisty comedian. Now I love seeing her as a witty, curmudgeonly host on Have I Got News for You. All of which makes it tricky admitting that I dislike her book. But, I do.

Presumably in a marketing meeting it sounded brilliant: advice on “How to Do Female” from a mental-health nurse turned feminist comedian. The reality is more confused. The advice is scattergun, messy and disjointed — so one minute we’re talking about Princess Diana, the next bucket lists. One moment we’re on fly-tipping, the next parties.

The book often feels outdated, too (there’s a lot of talk about “in my day”). Brand’s claims that the female body is a site of “anxiety” and “shame”, and her dismissal of high-heels as “uncomfortable”, aren’t just boorish, but ignore the current empowering sexy-feminist wave. I don’t recognise her image of women desperately calling men, or being shamed for sleeping around. I don’t think her claim that periods are taboo is still true, given the run of tampon companies making “blood-normal” campaigns and tampon tax making endless headlines. At one point, complaining about the legal treatment of rape cases, she cites a judgment from “as recently as 1983”.


The Sunday Times: Review: Bloody Brilliant Women: The Pioneers, Revolutionaries and Geniuses Your History Teacher Forgot to Mention by Cathy Newman/Yes She Can: Why Women Own The Future by Ruth Davidson — female trailblazers

cathy newman

There will be some, and I might have been one of them, who will roll their eyes at these titles. Not more bloody feminism! But now I’ve finished them, I could hug Cathy Newman and Ruth Davidson for writing these two books.

Together, they tell a collective history that feels urgent and exciting, with Newman, the Channel 4 News presenter, exploring women’s past, and Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Tory party, tackling our future. Both books rebrand Herstory, a horribly hemp-and-hessian concept, and do so in voices that are modern, punchy and fresh.

Newman’s title misquotes, and reclaims Theresa May’s quip that she is a “bloody difficult woman” (as Ken Clarke suggested). The book’s chronology of exceptional women spans several centuries, from the 1800s to today. The style is poppy and informal, but the information is densely packed.

across the gender bar

Bloody Brilliant Women is full of fascinating stories about revolutionaries and pioneers: the first female journalists, the first policewomen, the first fighter pilots, the first computer programmers, politicians, writers, scientists and artists. There are determined individuals such as Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, one of the earliest female doctors, who in the 1860s had to learn French to obtain her qualification because the only medical school that would admit a woman was in Paris. There are gutsy women, such as 18-year-old Dorothy Lawrence who pretended to be a man so she could see action on the Western Front during the First World War, and the aeronautical engineer Beatrice Shilling, whose contribution to the Spitfire and Hurricane’s Rolls-Royce Merlin engines saw her receive an OBE.

And there are lawyers such as Dr Ivy Williams, who in 1922 was the first woman called to the bar (she went on to teach), and Helena Normanton, who followed suit as the first practising female barrister. Jane Drew, the modernist architect and town planner, is just one of the many women who helped shape modern society, in everything from the National Trust, to the welfare state and CND.


The Sunday Times: Review: My Thoughts Exactly by Lily Allen — the dark side of sex, drugs and fame

the sunday times

The most shocking thing about Lily Allen’s autobiography isn’t that she hired female escorts for sex while on tour, a story that’s already leaked out to the tabloids before the book’s released. If it’s titillation you want, it’s lap dancing off the page here. Allen doesn’t shy away from documenting the sex, drugs and pop that have accompanied her rise to fame. She names celebrities she has slept with — Liam Gallagher (in first class on a flight to the Fuji Rock festival), the art dealer Jay Joplin, Mike Skinner from the Streets. She writes about touring with Miley Cyrus, going to American strip clubs, having affairs with female backing dancers and consuming the amount of drugs you’d expect from someone who’s music A-list. She tells stories about going to Kate Hudson’s Halloween party and flirting with Orlando Bloom.

In someone else’s hands, all this would make for a rollicking hedonistic pop romp. But the most shocking thing about her book is how unhappy Allen is. My Thoughts Exactly is less rock’n’roll romp than misery memoir.

We have the nightmare of attending posh boarding schools. The tragedy of growing up as the comedian Keith Allen’s daughter. The indignity of finding early success that catapults her into the limelight at 22. The endless rows as she falls out with siblings, parents, manager, stylist, band.

It would be unfair to suggest she hasn’t suffered. She felt isolated and unnurtured as a child. She is scathing about her narcissist father; she says she rarely saw him between his philandering and drug-taking. She describes how her mother, the film producer Alison Owen, was so busy working or taking drugs she’d forget to collect Lily from school.

At a time when women are revealing the shadowy side to success, it’s honest to hear Allen’s raw account of the darkness behind the glitter. At times her experiences were “pitch black”. She was sexually assaulted by a record-company executive. She went through the horror of miscarrying her first son at 28 weeks. She suffered the terror of waking up to find a stalker in her bedroom (the police dealt with it appallingly). All these hardships she endured with little family support.


The Sunday Times Books: Moranifesto by Caitlin Moran

From bacon to Bowie via FGM and feminism: the writer both inspires and frustrates

The one thing you cannot fault Moranifesto on is its title. It is accurate and reflects the best and worst of this book. If you like Caitlin Moran you will love how Moranifesto (mostly a collection of her columns in The Times, strung together as a “rallying call for our times”) feels as though she has plonked herself down next to you in the pub and is knocking back gin while holding forth on topics such as high heels, cystitis, the Oscars and FGM. Yet the book’s sheer eclecticism is also its drawback. At times it seems that there is no coherent theory linking the opinions in it, other than Moran herself. Which is great for a column, but is it enough for a declaration on life?

Reading a book that is essentially like getting drunk with Moran is, of course, brilliant. I could spend every weekend necking Prosecco with her in the loos of a Vauxhall gay club. I love how unpretentious she is. The way she writes about why bacon rules and Ant and Dec rock. She is hilarious on hipsters and hangovers and gorgeous on music. And her pieces on David Bowie, “pale like bone; voice like ice breaking”, are only more beautiful given what has passed since.

Still, politically, I can’t make sense of Moran. At times, on working-class matters she is excellent. She is right that her (once) working-class voice is rare in the media, and insightful on issues such as the spare room subsidy, London’s spiralling property prices and Benefits Street.

But if at points she nails class, at others she ignores it. It is frustrating reading her euphoria about London 2012 when she fails to discuss the aftereffects. In one chapter she is trilling about how the Olympics made the whole world “fancy London”. In another, she is worrying about London’s grotesque rents, without ever connecting the dots. It was, after all, the Games that helped boost East London’s property prices, forcing some locals out.

It feels odd that someone who understands the inequality that capitalism perpetuates (and highlights how people raised on benefits struggle to make it to London, let alone into the media) can support prostitution without examining the economic conditions that might lead someone to make that career choice.



Ebury £20 pp435


Sunday Times – book review – Fifty Shades of Feminism

Fifty Shades of Feminism edited by Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbachv

Can slipping “Fifty Shades Of…” into a title sex up feminism? Presumably that’s what the editors were thinking when they dreamt up the wet leitmotif for this book. A compilation of 50 essays by female writers on what being a woman today means.

Why all women contributors? That rather suggests feminism is exclusively women’s work.

Read the full review here:


Sunday Times – Book review – Invisible: Britain’s Migrant Sex Workers by Hsiao-Hung Pai

Invisible: Britain’s Migrant Sex Workers by Hsiao-Hung Pai

An undercover journalist reveals the working lives of the thousands of migrant women flocking to Britain’s sex industry

Street life: sex workers in BristolStreet life: sex workers in Bristol (SWNS)

When the American journalist Gloria Steinem put on a bunny outfit and went undercover at the Playboy Club in New York in 1963, she exposed the reality of working women’s lives in a trailblazing essay, I Was a Playboy Bunny. By echoing the battles that all 1960s women faced, her notes on the pros and cons of bunny work made her a feminist hero. With humour, she managed to humanise and familiarise sex workers and make them “one of us”.

In Invisible, an examination of migrant workers in the modern British sex industry, the Taiwanese-born journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai has also gone undercover. ­Posing as an undocumented Chinese immigrant, rather than putting on a bunny uniform, Pai took maid’s jobs in brothels in Burnley, Lancashire, and in Stratford and Finchley in London, in an attempt to illuminate the murky world of the women — almost exclusively from Asia and eastern Europe — gravitating to Britain’s sex trade. But, while Steinem’s investigation left her arguing that “All Women Are Bunnies”, Pai’s book has a rather different effect.

Read the full article here:


The Sunday Times: The Yellow World

Katie Glass Published: 28 October 2012

In Spain, Albert Espinosa’s The Yellow World has turned him into a cross between Oprah Winfrey and Dale Carnegie: he is so famous that his book outsells Harry Potter and women tattoo his mantras on their backs. Part memoir, part self-help, it is the story of how, between the age of 14 and 24, Espinosa lost his leg and part of his liver to cancer.

Except it’s not really about that at all. Instead, it is 23 things cancer taught Espinosa about life — that positive thinking, for instance, overcomes the pain of chemo, and that losses can be good, such as the time Espinosa threw a farewell party for his leg, inviting along a girl he once played footsie with and a dog that almost bit it, and requesting that his guests travel “on foot”.

The Yellow World is a sunny, wildly optimistic utopia — and I’d hate to live there. After a while, Espinosa’s claims (“I was happy when I had cancer. I remember it as one of the best times of my life”, or “it makes me happy to think about those kids who died”) become so glib and obsessed with positive thinking that fear is given no space to breathe. A more insightful story might have engaged with that fear.

Instead, the best moments of this book are when Espinosa lets cancer in: his bittersweet memories, for example, of his bald-headed hospital friends sneaking to the car park to soak up the sun, or whispering to the newborns in their wards at night. They are moments infinitely more inspiring than any of the passages on self-help.