Summer Reading Part One: Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave

Instructions for a Heatwave Image

Apparently the summer is fast approaching although you wouldn’t know it on the Western seaboard of the Emerald  Isle – plus ca change and all that. As I type the sky is a moody grey, threatening rain or worse. I know there are downsides to a heatwave but right now a dash of one would be most welcome, which brings us to Ms. O’Farrell’s rather wonderful book.

Firstly, I must confess that Instructions for a Heatwave is – to my shame – the first Maggie O’Farrell book I have ever read. I say ‘shame’ because O’Farrell is one helluva novelist. If you love Anne Tyler – and really, how could you not? – you must check out O’Farrell’s work post haste. Her writing is spare but perfectly stitched together, the portraits she paints of individuals, families and places are flawless. They live and breath on the page. Did I mention how gifted she is?

We meet in the Riordan family in July 1976, as a tremendous heatwave grips London. Recent retiree Robert leaves the family home to ‘get the paper’ but when he doesn’t return matriarch Gretta rallies her children, drawing her fractured family together:  Monica the eldest, an unhappy divorcee, Michael Francis the middle child, a frustrated history teacher, and Aoife, the youngest and the wild child. What follows is a masterful exploration of family dynamics and the consequences of secrets that are on the verge of boiling point.

If commercial fiction leaves you underwhelmed Instructions for a  Heatwave  matches fine writing with an equally finely woven story, making perfect beach reading material. Now, all we need is some sun. Any ideas? For your listening pleasure, here I am reviewing Instructions for a Heatwave with Sean Rocks on RTÉ Radio One’s Arena:

The Dark Side of Chick Lit: Why It’s Time to Break Out of the Pink Ghetto

A truly terrifying re-imagining of  Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale via David Beresford / Huffington Post.


The greatest disservice the ‘chick lit’ moniker ever did was to suggest that all books shoehorned into the genre were of the same dismal standard. From Marian Keyes to Bridget Jones, from Jane Austen to The Time Traveller’s Wife there are countless of examples of fine authors and stories that have been lumped into the bracket partly because it is convenient for marketing departments and partly because women writing about romance is still seen as something that must be doused in pink ribbons, fairy dust and diamonds, a fact as vomitous as it is depressing.

Now before anyone blows a gasket yes, there are plenty of ‘chick lit’ books that aren’t worth the frothy mind-numbingness they’re written with but by the same measure there’s generally no shortage of crap in any genre you care to pick, including – dare I say it – the lofty heights of literature.

In university I had one professor whose open disdain for Jane Austen was bordering on venomous. ‘Parties and weddings, that’s all she wrote about!’ he liked to say, astonished that anyone could give a toss about such things. What he missed spectacularly, as Austen critics often do, is that people read Austen not just for the parties and the weddings but because love and the pursuit of love preoccupies everyone – men and women – at some point in their lives. That and because Jane Austen happened to be one the greatest storytellers ever, whose work I have no doubt will certainly outlive the misguided verbal farting of a crabbit English professor.

Publishers often don’t do women writers any favours either. Even books with little in them to merit the title of ‘chick lit’ are often marketed as such because hey, that’s what works folks! I remember the first book I read by Jojo Moyes*, absolutely loving it and getting quite defensive about the fact that it was pegged in a genre that to my mind downplayed its brilliance. It’s simply not fair that talented women writers with great stories to tell and important things to say get stuck in the pink ghetto of ‘chick lit’, while male authors have the freedom to write about anything they damn well please, including romance, without anyone feeling the need to treat them as a special interest group.

Perhaps the most annoying thing about the ‘chick lit’ genre is what the name implies; that the work of the women writing within its parameters is disposable, silly, undeserving of proper attention and criticism. While this may be true for some, it is certainly not true for all. As ‘chick lit’ is the one genre where women have a (dubious) head start in terms of getting published, ignoring it means we ignore the voices of already marginalized women writers and that’s unacceptable.

Sometimes the idea of taking ‘chick lit’ by its perky ponytail, combining it with its cinematic equivalent ‘the rom-com’ and burying them in a nuclear bunker somewhere so they can be adorkable together for all eternity without bothering anyone else is very pleasing to me. In the meantime, it would be nice if publishers tried to get a bit more creative about how they position and market female writers. The talent is there, the stories are there so why not try new things? Go a bit mad. And park the pink for a while. You might just be pleasantly surprised. I know a great many women readers and writers  who definitely will be.

*This article started out as a review of Jojo Moyes’ The Girl You Left Behind. Alas, the article drifted but if you’re looking for a great read on the beach this summer I’d heartily recommend The Girl You Left Behind and another of Jojo’s entitled Me After You. Both are best sellers for a reason: they’re very, very good. 

This article originally appeared on  The image used is a terrifying re-imagining of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale via Derek Beresford / Huffington Post

Tweet Nice: Why Showdowns on Social Media are no Fun for Anyone



This morning I read a really wise piece from entitled Social Media-Based Public Shaming Has Gotten Out of Control

The writer (Todd Wasserman) does a good job of getting to the crux of why social media shaming makes so many of us feel uncomfortable, namely because it often sidesteps properly addressing an issue in the real world and instead opts for an online tête-à-tête, the fall out from which can be really unpleasant for all concerned.

When I first joined Twitter, I remember being transfixed by the tweet-fights that would pop up in my timeline occasionally. I couldn’t believe that some people would argue so publicly and viciously with strangers or even their peers. It made entertaining reading for a little while but the novelty soon wore off. I wondered, ‘how can you adequately debate anything in 140 characters? And why debate in the first place when  your positions are so polarized there isn’t a hope on this green Earth you’ll find common ground?’

It was also plain to see that while these arguments were happening in the digital world, they were upsetting people in the real world without achieving very much except, in some cases, providing fodder for the grind of the 24/7 news media we’re surrounded by.

When it comes to social media Twitter is my drug of choice and while I enjoy it, I’m very aware of its weaknesses, which I’m reminded of almost daily. Sometimes, though it pains me to say this because I know it plays into the mindset of social media ‘haterz’,  social media sadly becomes little more that an echo chamber of negativity and cynicism. Other times, it tips over into an ‘angry mob’ mentality that leaves me scrambling to log out, even when the subject of the rage is entirely deserving. It can feel like a group feeding frenzy – everyone trying to out do each other with their outrage – and that makes me uncomfortable and also a little confused as to how all this digital rage makes a real difference to the actual issue.

For me all these issues with social media come back to one basic rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t write it, say it or do it in the real world or to someone’s face, then don’t do it online. Consider it the Golden Rule of the Internet, along with this one aka Wheaton’s Law from Will Wheaton of Star Trek: Next Generation fame, who simply says, ‘don’t be a dick’. And what could be easier than that?

Image via curlysar on Flickr.

Gone Girl Book Review for Arena on RTÉ Radio One

Image via Crown Publishing

Image via Crown Publishing

We have to wait until June 5th to find out if Gillian Flynn’s wildly enjoyable Gone Girl pips the all-conquering  Bringing Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel to the literary post in this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize).

Thus far, Gone Girl has been snubbed by major awards in the US, supposedly because the book is strictly speaking a thriller and therefore less than literary, a stance I wholly disagree with. A win for Glynn in June would be entirely deserved. She has managed to create a book that combines and transcends traditional genres and is packed with the type of blistering prose any author would be proud of, literary or otherwise.

Luckily for me, I was asked to review Gone Girl for Arena, RTÉ Radio One’s nightly arts and culture show presented by Sean Rocks, the fruits of which you can enjoy below or above by clicking on the speaker icon.

Gone Girl Review for RTÉ Radio 1 Arena

And if you if fancy a written review of the book, here’s one I did for the fabulous

Dear Wikipedia: You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone


A few days ago, my partner in marital bliss made a donation to Wikipedia. I’m sharing the ‘thank you’ email he received in response with you because it is lovely and because it also further opened my eyes to the invaluable work Wikipedia do, without fanfare, every single day for anyone with access to the Internet. Wikipedia may not be perfect but it is vitally important and the web would be a much poorer place without it.

Hope you enjoy the email.

Dear Gareth,
Thank you for donating to the Wikimedia Foundation. You are wonderful!
It’s easy to ignore our fundraising banners, and I’m really glad you didn’t. This is how Wikipedia pays its bills — people like you giving us money, so we can keep the site freely available for everyone around the world.
People tell me they donate to Wikipedia because they find it useful, and they trust it because even though it’s not perfect, they know it’s written for them. Wikipedia isn’t meant to advance somebody’s PR agenda or push a particular ideology, or to persuade you to believe something that’s not true. We aim to tell the truth, and we can do that because of you. The fact that you fund the site keeps us independent and able to deliver what you need and want from Wikipedia. Exactly as it should be.
You should know: your donation isn’t just covering your own costs. The average donor is paying for his or her own use of Wikipedia, plus the costs of hundreds of other people. Your donation keeps Wikipedia available for an ambitious kid in Bangalore who’s teaching herself computer programming. A middle-aged homemaker in Vienna who’s just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. A novelist researching 1850s Britain. A 10-year-old in San Salvador who’s just discovered Carl Sagan.
On behalf of those people, and the half-billion other readers of Wikipedia and its sister sites and projects, I thank you for joining us in our effort to make the sum of all human knowledge available for everyone. Your donation makes the world a better place. Thank you.
Most people don’t know Wikipedia’s run by a non-profit. Please consider sharing this e-mail with a few of your friends to encourage them to donate too. And if you’re interested, you should try adding some new information to Wikipedia. If you see a typo or other small mistake, please fix it, and if you find something missing, please add it. There are resources that can help you get started. Don’t worry about making a mistake: that’s normal when people first start editing and if it happens, other Wikipedians will be happy to fix it for you.
I appreciate your trust in us, and I promise you we’ll use your money well.
Sue Gardner
Executive Director,
Wikimedia Foundation
Image via

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