Boxing Day Best Books
Christmas is over and we are faced with the daunting prospect of filling those dead days leading up to New Year's Eve. Seeing as the Harpy team initially came together over a mutual love of books, we thought this seemed the perfect opportunity to share a selection of our favourite reads to eliminate your post-Christmas blues - (because, as we all know, a good book cures all). Being festive is fun but exhausting, so take the weight off your feet and have a well-deserved rest. Force down that last mince pie and grab a book! Happy reading!
The Power by Naomi Alderman
Winner of the 2017 Bailey’s prize for fiction, The Power ruthlessly explores an alternative reality in which women develop the ability to electrocute at will when they reach puberty. The youthful are able to awaken this power in the elderly, and with a ripple effect, the implications of womanhood are transformed. The patriarchy is violently overturned, but the world in its place is not the safe space many of us had envisaged; men are awestruck, vulnerable, covetous and pitiful, with few exceptions. As the conventional distribution of power between genders is reversed, oppressed women worldwide break free, but in the midst of revolution vengeance takes priority over justice. Alderman’s split-narrative enables the reader to experience this phenomenon through the eyes of a journalist, a politician, a cult leader, and the daughter of a mafia boss in London. The Power is a truly immersive example of contemporary speculative fiction; it’s bloody, liberating and terrifying all at once - you will devour it with both dread and morbid fascination.
Recommended by Alys Marshall
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
First published in 1989, Dunn’s Geek Love has since reached cult status. Following the lives of the Binewskis, a family who run a travelling carnival, Dunn’s National Book Award finalist set the precedent for 'this modern freak-show vibe.'1 Al and Lil Binewski, struggling to survive in a harsh, mid-century America, devise an inconceivable business venture. With the help of a cornucopia of drugs and radioactive materials, they breed their own freak-show, altering their children’s genes in order to spawn a non-normative cast of carnival attractions. Arty, with flippers for hands and feet, Oly, a hunchback dwarf, Siamese twins Ely and Iphy, and the telekinetic Chick, are the result. A zealous yet tender undoing of heteronormative notions of beauty, family, power and love, Geek Love pushes the limits of what has been patriarchally determined as ‘human’. Though not outwardly a feminist novel, it contains strong female characters who both resent and utilise their patriarchally subjugated sexuality. Of interest also is the Machiavellian Arty, the only of the Binewski’s offspring to use his ‘difference’ to assert a new normalcy. The most toxically masculine of the lot, Arty also attempts to sexually dominate his twin sisters. An unforgettable and universally life changing read, Geek Love leaves a bittersweet taste long after the last page has been turned.
Recommended by Rose Collard
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April is a dose of hot cocoa on a chilled winter night. It is a warm and syrupy 1922 novel that takes delight in friendship. Following an advert in The Times ‘To Those who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine’, four women – initially strangers to one another – decide to share the rent on a small castle on the Italian Riviera for a month. Lifting the women from the mundanity of their everyday lives in a dreary grey London spring, and dropping them into the sunbathed Mediterranean, the novel follows the unexpected relationships formed between Mrs Wilkins, Mrs Arbuthnot, Mrs Fisher, and Lady Caroline Dester – and the positive consequences such friendships have on all other aspects of their lives. It is vital to feminism that women support and encourage one another; I love that while it isn’t always easy in The Enchanted April, Elizabeth von Arnim makes it achievable and rewarding, even between unlikely individuals.
Recommended by Lydia Bruton-Jones
Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake
Darkly disturbing, unnerving and outlandishly ridiculous, Titus Groan is a perversely magical read. Mervyn Peake’s richly eloquent and detailed narrative succeeds in enveloping the reader, garnering their obsessive attention for the duration of the novel. We are plunged into the world of Gormenghast and the severely dysfunctional Groan family upon the birth of Titus, the future Earl of his decaying ancestral home. The castle is occupied by an array of bizarre characters; and all are indescribably weird. Fuchsia, the daughter of the Earl, is especially memorable. She is erratic, clumsy, frantic and unpredictable; a virtually impossible character to define or understand. She hates being told what to do and often escapes to the attic so that she can be alone and play make-believe; an activity which gives her the power to express herself, and enables the partial deconstruction of a reality which confines and rejects her. A defining element of the novel is the oppressive structures of sanctimonious tradition and patriarchal ideology, which combine to create an overpowering sense of claustrophobia and disintegration. Fuchsia, in particular, suffers under these constraints. But it’s not all doom and gloom! Yes, there’s murder, suicide, imprisonment and indiscriminate cruelty, but Titus Groan is a very silly book and thoroughly enjoyable. A neglected Gothic masterpiece, Titus Groan and the other two books in the trilogy - Gormenghast and Titus Alone - are must-reads, especially if you fancy something a little darker after the exuberant frivolity of the festive period.
Recommended by Ellie Wriglesworth
Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb
The heroine of Ship of Magic is a woman in relentless pursuit of her right to be captain of the ‘liveship’ Vivacia. Althea Vestritt is prideful and dogged, unable to bend herself to meet the expectations of society, and as such is turned out by her family and forced to leave her home of Bingtown. While Hobb’s novel is a thrilling tale of sea serpents and talking ships, the subtle structures of gender inequality that pervade are disturbingly pertinent to the real world. The injustices and power relationships at work in Ship of Magic consistently challenge conventions of female agency and sexuality, leaving the reader agonised and enthralled as events unfold. Hobb’s skill is creating truly compelling, three-dimensional characters, whose complexities cause the reader not only to feel empathy with villains, but also to question the righteousness of Althea’s claim to Vivacia. This novel is a challenge to a genre which has so often been associated with highly masculine narratives that lack rounded female protagonists. Strikingly truthful in the representation of adult themes of sex, drugs, and ideas of selfhood, Ship of Magic is a tale of justice and identity that will have you swept away on its imaginative tides.
Recommended by Althaea Sandover
Title art by Jackie Morris.