Book review: All Men Want to Know (ARC)

Firstly, many thanks to Penguin UK and NetGalley for letting me review this book in advance, as always, this does not influence my review in any way. Just to let you know, All Men Want to Know is due to be published 6 August, 2020. You can pre order copies from the usual places!

All Men Want to Know

Author: Nina Bouraoui

Genres: Women’s literary fiction, auto-fiction, lesbian literature

Publication date: 6 August, 2020

My rating: ★★★★

This is a deeply moving work of “auto-fiction” told through the life experiences of its author, Nina Bouraoui. It combines the authors real life experiences growing up, but is a work of literary fiction in style and scope. Nina has lived a torn life, and one situated between two continents; Africa and Europe. She spent most of her childhood in Algeria where her Father was from before her Mother chose to move to Paris, because of the outbreak of Civil War.  This toing and froing between two cultures, means that Nina struggles to come to terms with her identity, “France is an outfit I wear: Algeria is my skin, exposed to the sun and storms.” 

The entire novel is told through vivid, first person narration. This may put some readers off, as there’s no typical story structure. However, I loved the sense of depth this created. The prose often reads as part poetry, part inner monologue of Nina’s thoughts, feelings and memories. I found it a harrowing read, as Nina never shies away from the honesty of her experience and the pain she has endured. In this day and age, we are so used to seeing peoples’ ‘real life’ experience through a filtered lens which often bears no reality, however, this novel strips it back to the bare bones. Thus, making it a moving depiction of the difficulties of coming of age, accepting oneself and learning how to live. It is a powerful portrayal of inner tournaments and the pain people go through during the process of accepting themselves.

Despite the novel lacking a traditional structure – it is divided loosely into four sections of memory which are used to account for the different periods in Nina’s life. These are: knowing, remembering, becoming and being. Each comment on her life at its different stages – from living in Algeria and witnessing its turbulence as a country, to beginning her new, independent life in Paris at the age of eighteen and toying with her sexuality. Due to this dual upbringing across continents – Nina grapples with her sexuality –  she has been attracted to women for most of her life, however, accepting this has been her biggest struggle, “I want to know who I am, what I am made of, what I can hope for…” 

Image: Algeria skyline via Pixabay

Homosexuality is still illegal in Algeria today, which relates to the difficulties of not just Nina’s own acceptance of herself, but the society in which she grew up. In Paris, she feels freer to explore this, due to living in a more accepting, Western culture. She acknowledges this cultural and personal struggle vividly, “I’m a victim of my own homophobia” in which the reader is a witness, as Nina documents her first difficult experiences with love and the initial anxieties these bring. 

Knowing, draws on Nina’s past experience in Algeria, as she accounts traumatic experiences of witnessing her Mother being sexually assaulted, and depicts the variable climate of Algeria which was going through civil unrest. I couldn’t help but feel this exposure must have impacted Nina’s conception of herself, which then impacted her attitudes towards her sexuality and ability to form relationships with women. She had to get over her own boundaries before those imposed on her from others. 

Remembering, documents visions of her past which are mainly in Algeria. Despite the country’s beauty she remembers that, “violence is etched into the land, unending violence” and this struggle is symbolic in her own boundaries to self acceptance. Becoming, is the most ‘present’ aspect of this autobiography, as it follows Nina’s life as a young adult, living in Paris. She frequents a local, lesbian nightclub in the hope of finding love with other women. This is the most interesting part of the book, as it shows how her past struggles and different cultural upbringings shape her identity and coming to terms with herself. She goes up and down like a yo-yo between being proud of her sexuality and path in life, to feeling disgusted, “I’m nothing but a faggot” which demonstrates the tumultuous rage often experienced with coming of age sexuality. But, with an added distressing aspect – her home country of Algeria, would imprison her for displaying her love for women. 

Image: Paris nightlife via Pixabay

Being looks back on her life. This element shows herself starting to accept her identity and letting go of the past. She appears to have found happiness and self love, as a relationship with another woman blooms, “I am the same but I’ve changed, I’ve let go, I’m floating free on this waking dream….” The kind of self acceptance Nina finds, was relieving to read, after Nina’s continuous periods of self doubt. Finally, she appears to be content. 

A stunning, autobiographical portrayal of the inner, psychological battle. Torn between two cultures and two ways of living, this documents Nina’s transition between hiding from the world and herself, and embracing it. Harrowing and dark at times, but also uplifting and beautiful.

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Book Review: The Shelf (ARC)

First of all, a huge thank you to NetGalley and Bonnier Books UK for sending me an advanced copy of this book – but please note, this doesn’t influence my review. The Shelf is due to be published on 9th July, 2020. It is currently available for pre-order via Amazon and Waterstones.

Synopsis

Amy suddenly has to prepare herself for a surprise holiday with her boyfriend. He’s even ordered a limo to pick them up. Blindfolded, Amy can barely contain herself for what she thinks is going to be a proposal. However, a dreamy vision of a proposal holiday is soon turned into a nightmare – as Amy realises she has been left alone on a TV set.  Jamie has taken her here to dump her. As if a break up isn’t hard enough, Jamie makes sure Amy is as publicly embarrassed as he can. 

Amy and five other dumped women soon discover they are on a new reality TV show called ‘The Shelf.’ The goal is to win the program through a series of challenges that prove their compatibility and motherly instincts. By a public vote, one of them will be crowned The Keeper. An inherently sexist premise of course, but I gathered this was the point.

Review

Image: via Helly Acton

Title: The Shelf

Author: Helly Acton

Genre: Women’s Fiction

My rating: ★★★☆☆

With many parallels to Love Island – The Shelf puts its female contestants through a hard time, with constant rolling social media coverage featuring the public’s opinion of each candidate. Winning the public vote is harder than it seems. Will the women realise they are better off without their exes who had the nerve to dump them on a reality TV show? Each candidate is put through a series of challenges designed to test them – from plastic babies to hosting the perfect tea party.

This is a compelling, re-interpretation of the ‘chick-lit’ genre. Unlike the standard women’s romance novel that results in the leading female character happily in love with her dream man, this novel illustrates the importance of a happy ending that doesn’t have to depend on finding love – but loving yourself.

Amy, the protagonist, has put herself through two years of slog in her relationship with Jamie, endlessly hoping that he would pop the question. She had grown used to his taunts about her body, her neediness and other ‘faults,’ but had placed them to one side in the hope they would get married and have a happy future. Throughout this time, she had lost parts of herself – it takes the entire duration of the novel for her to realise this.

Single over thirty is like an illness that’s too awkward and depressing to talk about.”

Instead of aiming to become the male ideal embodied by ‘The Keeper,’ she decides to portray an important message to women. That you are always enough on your own, and you don’t need anyone else (but especially a man) to complete you. For me, this is where the important, feminist message comes across. In having a character like Amy as the protagonist, the novel really thrusts to the forefront the significance of women being their own person and not succumbing to societal pressures.

Amy is the modern day Bridget Jones with an essential twist, she ditches the yo-yo diets, marriage expectations, and the fairytale Mr Darcy, replacing these with a new appreciation of herself and living life the way she wants to. I found this feminist take incredibley refreshing and much needed in this social media driven age, where everything is about women comparing themselves to others. It is so easy to get sucked into the highlight reels of others, that we forget to be ourselves. And this is exactly what the novel is commenting on.

Image: alison rachel via Pinterest

Life on a reality TV show is peppered with the glare of social media all over the contestants, each are judged 24/7 by the timelines fuelled by the public. The setting is incredibly similar to Love Island. If I’m honest I found some of the similarities, such as the baby challenge, very cliche, which detracted from the novel’s more poignant message. Although I enjoyed the read, even laughing out loud from some of Amy’s comical one liners, I did find the plot predictable from the start. I think basing it on the parameters of Love Island, meant it was bound to be predictable in some ways.

The show is dominated by old fashioned, male chauvinists who believe women should still be a 1950s housewife, much to most of the contestants dismay.

“Selfish Jackie! Distant Gemma! Bitter Kathy! Desperate Amy! Boring Hattie! And last but not least, Easy Lauren!”

However, having a lead character like Amy is central to this book as it goes against the very grain that the TV show setting creates. Amy does not let herself be lured into society’s pressures on women – but uses the experience to go against this, and against what she previously thought her life should value. This is a part of the book that I really liked. Amy’s strength of character and likeability really drives the novel and reveals its best parts and the central message to women.

“I am my own keeper…Be your own keeper. Each and every one of you.”

Above all, I admire this book because it’s message is an imperative one that puts contemporary feminism at the forefront of the social media, digital age. Amy goes through a journey of self discovery and realises she doesn’t need a man to make her happy. The societal pressures on getting married and having children is a false one, which can distract women from being their best selves. This ideal is often glamorized in the romance genre – I am very thankful this book did the opposite.

This book is different to anything I usually read but it certainly ticked a lot of boxes. It made me laugh out loud, I loved the main character, and appreciated the important message it conveys to women about self love. However, it didn’t blow me away, because I found the plot quite predictable and cliche. The ending was also disappointing and I was left wanting to know more. That said, I definitely enjoyed reading this book and was drawn in by the initial strange events when Amy realises she is not, in fact, going on a dreamy romantic holiday.

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