feminism

REVIEW: Her Majesty’s Royal Coven by Juno Dawson

This book has trigger warnings for transphobia, homophobia, and racism, war and death of a loved one.

Narrated by Nicola Coughlan.

There’s a prophecy that the Sullied Child will bring about a demon so strong that it will cause the end of all witches, and even the end of the world. Decades on from a civil war, Helena, High Priestess of Her Majesty’s Royal Coven (HMRC), will do whatever she can to stop that from happening while her childhood friends and fellow witches have all left behind the bureaucracy of HMRC. Elle is focusing on being a wife and mother, Niamh is a country vet, and Leonie has defected to start her own more inclusive and intersectional coven. But when the child is found and the prophecy is looking closer than ever, the four friends must try and figure out the best course of action as loyalties are tested and conflicting ideals arise.

Her Majesty’s Royal Coven is told via the fours friend’s perspectives and it’s great to get inside each of their heads. Niamh and Helena probably have more focus and development than Elle and Leonie but it’s still an interesting look at female friendship and how some friendships can last decades while others get strained over time. Leonie is a Black, lesbian witch while the other three are all white and pretty middle class so the things she sees and how she reacts to things is often different to the others. She’s incredibly aware of the differences between them and how society treats Black women and gay women differently to whit, straight women but some of her childhood friends just see them all as women and therefore have the same problems.

There’s a lot of discussions in Her Majesty’s Royal Coven about what it is to be a woman and how transwomen fit into that. A lot of the anti-trans rhetoric that we hear nowadays is used though it’s always clear that it’s wrong. The discussions the characters have about being a woman and how that can be different for different people, women-only spaces and how trans people do (or don’t) affect cis people. I think having these discussions through a fantasy lens was interesting and worked well as you got to see pretty much every point of view (good and bad) that we see in real life but there’s also meaningful discussions and it makes some potentially big ideas more accessible.

I really enjoyed the setting of Her Majesty’s Royal Coven. It’s mostly set in the town of Hebden Bridge (a place I’ve visited a couple of times as one of my best friends lives there), but also a bit in London and Manchester. Having a witchy fantasy novel set in present-day Britain where the characters are all in their mid-thirties felt like this was truly for the British millennials like me. There’s a lot of 90s references as that’s when the girls grew up as well as references to more modern-day issues like Brexit and Covid. It was so nice to read a fantasy novel where the character are adults and have to juggle things like their families, relationships, and jobs while also having magic and responsibilities outside of the “normal” stuff. Plus, how witches and witchcraft is explained to have been a part of Britain (and the world) for centuries helps flesh out this modern interpretation of witches.

I borrowed the audiobook from my library and it was narrated by Nicola Coughlan (of Derry Girls and Bridgerton fame) and she was fantastic. She captures the different voices of the four women so well and makes the exposition just as compelling as when there’s a big action sequence. The final showdown is something I could easily visualise in my mind and was very cinematic. Her Majesty’s Royal Coven is the first book in an adult trilogy and I hope Nicola Coughlan narrates the other books in the series because I’d love to carry on reading these books that way.

Her Majesty’s Royal Coven has compelling characters and relationships and the different kinds of magic is great. It’s a story that’s exciting and thoughtful and packs an emotional punch too. I got really quite attached to a lot of these characters, Elle’s daughter Holly especially, and the ideas of fighting fate and prophecy were interesting too. 5/5.

REVIEW: Call Jane (2022)

Chicago, 1968. Joy (Elizabeth Banks), a housewife, is expecting her second child but when she learns that continuing her pregnancy could kill her in a time when abortions are illegal in America, she finds help in an unlikely place and goes on to work with the group of suburban women who helped her.

Call Jane does a great job at tackling a tough topic with both sensitivity and humour though never makes light of the dangers these women are in. Both the group known as Jane themselves as they organise illegal abortions, and the women who are having the abortions could face jail, and then potentially lose their jobs or families because of their actions.

The humour and candour in Call Jane works because the situation of women having to illegally procure abortions aka basic healthcare, is the kind of situation where if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. Listening to male doctors talk about Joy as if she’s not in the room and not of value because the unborn child is seen as more important is laughable and frustrating.

Personally, I tend to think of Elizabeth Banks as a comedic actor so to see her as a lead in a more dramatic role was really different and she did a great job and is the heart of this story. Joy is an interesting character as she has her own biases that she’s never really considered before as she does have a more privileged background compared to some of the other women who come looking for abortions. It’s great to see how her attitude changes over time and how she almost gets a new lease of life as she does something meaningful and becomes more than a housewife and a mother – not that there’s anything wrong with either of those things.

Sigourney Weaver and Wunmi Mosaku play two of the prominent women in this underground abortion group that Joy meets. Weaver is especially brilliant and has pretty much all of the best lines and while the socio-economic factors of who has to get illegal abortions is mostly glossed over, Mosaku’s Gwen is an important Black voice in a group of well-meaning but white women.

The ending of Call Jane is quite abrupt and almost rushed which is a shame as the rest of the film was pretty well-paced and has an engaging script that does well to avoid some fo the clichés. It’s as if they didn’t quite know how to wrap things up or end this story without having a time jump. That being said, overall Call Jane is an enjoyable and unfortunately a timely film. If women could do this in the 1960s, what can they do today in order to have the freedom to chose what should happen to their bodies? 4/5.

As a sidenote, I highly recommend the documentary The Janes which goes more into depth about this group of women and the near misses they had with both the cops and the mob.

REVIEW: Hidden Letters (2022)

Documentary about how in modern day China, two women strive to preserve Nushu, an ancient secret language which bonded generations of Chinese women together through centuries of oppression in a clandestine support system of sisterhood and survival.

Hidden Letters paints a somewhat bittersweet picture of how the Nushu language is trying to be preserved and how the women preserving it are doing their best to keep their independence in a modern world. Hidden Letters covers culture, history, language, and how women fit into all of that.

Needless to say, I’d never heard of Nushu before and Hidden Letters was an interesting and informative documentary. There’s not a lot about how Nushu was invented as a language as it was something that was only came to light in the 1980s and often women had their writings buried with them when they died. It’s a secret language where they could talk about the hopes and fears when they were often kept locked in their chambers with their feet bound. It speaks of women’s strength when they refuse to be silent even when awful things are happening to them.

One of the young women the documentary follows is Hu Xin, a young divorcee, but even though her husband abused her, she feels like a failure as she’s neither a wife nor a mother and she feels like the whole point of being a woman is being a mother. It’s kind of sad that she feels this way but her friendship with He Yanxin, an older woman and an expert in Nushu, is lovely and continues the tradition of sisterhood that is such a big component of the language.

Simu Wu is the other young woman Hidden Letters follows and she faces similar difficulties when trying to find love. She sees the value in learning Nushu and the artwork she creates where the language is the focus and it’s a hobby she enjoys. Her fiancé on the other hand, sees it as frivolous and wants her to instead get a second job as getting enough money for them to buy a house and have a child is the only thing that matters to him. Her surprisingly progressive parents though are pretty awesome though.

It’s equal parts frustrating and farcical seeing how men just don’t understand the importance of Nushu and how it’s a uniquely feminine thing. At one point a group of two men and two women discuss on how to make Nushu more mainstream and one of the men says that Nushu has value but the main this is “how to exploit that value so it can be better marketed”. When one of the women pushes back on that idea and she’s quickly shut down. Sure, it’s a huge generalisation but women see the beauty and the cultural significance of the language as while things are certainly better compared to their ancestors, they can still relate to the horrible things the women experienced. Meanwhile, the men just want to find a way to commercialise Nushu and make money from it – exploiting women’s secret language like women have been exploited for generations.

Hidden Letters is a thoughtful and interesting documentary. Its observations are poignant as it shows how important and impressive Nushu is and that women and their voices still struggle to be heard today. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Gabon: The Fury and Cries of Women by Angèle Rawiri

Translated by Sara Hanaburgh.

Trigger warnings for death of a child, animal abuse, and discussions of miscarriage and infertility.

Emilienne completes her university studies in Paris; marries a man from another ethnic group; becomes a leader in women’s liberation; enjoys professional success, even earning more than her husband; and eventually takes a female lover. Yet still she remains unsatisfied. Those closest to her, and even she herself, constantly question her role as woman, wife, mother, and lover. The tragic death of her only child accentuates Emilienne’s anguish, all the more so because of her subsequent barrenness and the pressure that she concedes to her husband taking a second wife.

The Fury and Cries of Women is set in the 1980s and it’s one of those stories that seems as relevant today as when it was first published in 1989. Emilienne has a good job (that earns more than her husband) and she’s educated but all society and those closest to her seem to care about is her ability to have children – and she’s not immune to those thoughts either.

The Fury and Cries of Women can be a tough read at times because Emilienne puts up with so much from everyone around her including her parents, her sister, her husband and her mother-in-law that it’s surprising to takes her so long to snap at them when I got so mad at them when just reading about it. Her mother-in-law is especially awful as she thinks Emilienne is not good enough for her son and she conspires to end their marriage, even reaching out to her son’s mistress. Meanwhile, while the things they say are still bad, at least it’s still clear that Emilienne’s family cares about her.

I feel like The Fury and Cries of Women would be difficult read for any woman who doesn’t have children, whether by choice or because they have their own fertility issues and heartbreak. The things characters say about women who don’t have children (never considering the fact they may not be able to) are incredibly harsh and are along the lines of “a woman’s purpose is to be a mother”, “you’re not a real woman if you don’t have children”, “it won’t be your husband’s fault if he leaves you because the role of the wife is to produce an heir” etc. Emilienne wants to have more children but ever since her daughter she’s not been able to carry a pregnancy to term in years. In fact, the opening chapter has Emilienne going through a miscarriage alone in her bed and she struggles to clean herself and hide the evidence from her husband of what she deems as another failure. Emilienne feels like a failure and when everyone around her is pretty much saying the same it’s not a surprise.

Her husband Joseph is pretty much absent from their marriage. He stays for days or weeks at his mistress’s house, moving clothes out of his marital home, ad constantly lies to Emilienne about where he’s been and who with, sometimes making her doubt her own mind. Joseph seems to have a sense of obligation to Emilienne but at the same time refuses to be the one to ask for a divorce and possibly give her a chance to be happy. Likewise, Emilienne refuses to ask for one because all the failures of their marriage would be placed at her feet.

The Fury and Cries of Women is a quick and engaging read even though it can be tough, seeing all the emotional and verbal abuse Emilienne. Also, it has a very abrupt ending and not a particularly satisfying one as none of the various conflicts in Emilienne’s life are solved. The Fury and Cries of Women doesn’t tie everything up neatly – or at all – which perhaps shows how true to life this story is. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – South Sudan: Making Peace and Nurturing Life: An African Woman’s Journey of Struggle and Hope by Julia Aker Duany

Julia Aker Duany’s life growing up in South Sudan, moving to America with her husband and children, and then returning to South Sudan in the 1990s to see how life has changed due to war and learning how best to help people.

Making Peace and Nurturing Life is the kind of memoir that’s very informative, not just about one person’s life and experiences but about so much more like the culture they grew up in and their country’s politics and conflicts. Julia Aker Duany describes herself as “an African, a Sudanese, a Nilotic from southern Sudan, a Nuer from Lou, a Gon from Rumjok section, a woman, a mother” and by the end of the book you really do have a decent understanding of what all those different aspects of her identity mean to her and how they have shaped her when growing up.

I found the culture shock between America and Sudan interesting because the things that she was surprised about weren’t necessarily ones that I’d seen mentioned in other memoirs or immigrant stories. Just generally Julia Aker Duany had a really interesting take on life, family, and responsibility and it was always interesting to see the connections between what was important to her as an adult to what she was taught by her mother and wider community.

Julia Aker Duany is a professor and academic who loves learning so it’s interesting and invaluable to have a woman from Sudan explain things that are usually generalised by white/Western academics. She makes a point to criticise the textbooks she learnt from in America as the were titled things like “Women in the Third World” and didn’t really differentiate between the women in these “Third World” countries, cultures, or tribes. She has an in-depth knowledge of both places and how she used her knowledge of women’s traditions to help empower women and solve conflicts in Sudan was really impressive.

Making Peace and Nurturing Life is a very readable book and it explains complex things in an accessible way. I’ve learnt a lot about many different countries and their histories through my Read the World Project but this is one where I really feel I have a firm understanding of what started the conflict between northern and southern Sudan and how events have had knock on affects for its people.

N is for Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)

Seventeen-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is pregnant and can’t get an abortion in rural Pennsylvania where she’s from without parental consent. In order to get the procedure, she and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) travel to New York and end up staying there days and nights longer than they anticipated.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is one of those quiet, almost contemplative films that says so much with so little. The relationship between Autumn and Skylar is great. They are quite different, Autumn is more reserved while Skylar is a bit more confident, but there’s so many moments where they communicate with just a look or a gesture. As the audience too, you don’t need the characters to say things like “I feel like this because X happened” because you can tell the history of these characters through how they act. Autumn and Skylar don’t actually talk to one another much, at least not about big important things, but you can still see how they care for one another and how supportive Skylar is of Autumn’s decision through their actions.

This is a sign of a great script, great directing, and great performances from these two young actors. Flanigan especially is incredible. She can convey so much with just a look and her fear, frustration and sometimes desperation is clear to see. Likewise, when it looks like she will be able to have an abortion, her relief is almost palpable. There’s a scene in the clinic where a counsellor is asking Autumn a series of questions and it’s pretty much one long take focused on Autumn’s face as we hear the councillors voice off screen and Flanigan’s performance is just stunning. It’s not just what she says and the answers she gives, it’s what she doesn’t say in the pauses and hesitation as she is forced to relive her experiences and realise that some of what’s happened to her was not OK.

So often in teen shows or movies the teenage characters are played by actors who are in their mid-twenties and look far older than what their characters are supposed to be. In Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Flanigan and Ryder do look like a couple of seventeen-year-olds who are out of their depth. This is probably a combination of their natural looks but also the making up and costumes as Skylar especially sometimes looks like she’s trying to be older than she is.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is such an important and timely film. It shows the lengths women, including teenagers, go to in order to get the healthcare they need and to make the choices that are right for them. It does all this without being overtly political or preachy which is to its benefit. Some will say that Never Rarely Sometimes Always is political purely by the nature of its subject matter but women’s healthcare and the right to choose what happens to their bodies shouldn’t be political. 5/5.

REVIEW: The 8th (2020)

The 8th tells the story of Irish women and their fight to overturn one of the most restrictive laws on abortion in the world. After a 35-year struggle the pro-choice side have to radically shift tactics to try and bring this historically conservative electorate over the line.

Living in the UK and having Irish friends via social media I remember hearing about the campaign to repeal the 8th amendment. Though I had no real idea of the real-world implications of such an amendment, that put the rights of the unborn the same as any living human’s rights – meaning the unborn had more rights than the pregnant woman, often even if her health was at risk. Seeing this documentary really highlights how passionate people were on both sides of the argument, and the different ways they’d go to try and get their message out there.

Ailbhe Smyth, a feminist and campaigner, is one of the main people the documentary follows. She’s one of the prominent figures in the Yes campaign and through her and the team’s various members, from door-to-door campaigners to the core organisers and communications specialists, you see what their plans were and how they implemented them. The other main person on the Yes campaign the film follows is self-described glitter-activist Andrea Horan. She is the owner of a nail bar and shows what it’s like when a “normal, not political person” gets into politics and behind a cause. She can mobilise young women in a way that other may not be able to and she shows that you can be interested in makeup and nails while still being passionate about women’s rights.

As a documentary The 8th is a mixture of talking heads and in the room-type footage. What’s interesting is the talking heads all are from before and during the campaign, so these people don’t know which way the vote will go and are basing all their thoughts on what was currently happening in the campaign. With hindsight this makes some of their observations quite amusing.

Maria Steen, a journalist who is supporting the No Vote, does make a good point. She believes that culture and society should change so that women don’t feel they have to have abortions if they want a career, that the working environment and social services should be more inclusive so that women can be supported when having children and that their careers aren’t negatively affected by having children. In an ideal world this would be the case, and she and everyone else who believes that should continue to fight for that, but until society is fairer, women need to be able to have access to safe and legal abortions so that they can make the choice about their bodies and their future safely.

Not only does The 8th cover the run up to the voting day, but it also includes past events in Irish history that are to do with women’s reproductive rights and how various cases have gained support from the people before. One example is of a fourteen-year-old girl who was raped by a schoolfriends father. She and her family were banned from flying to the UK for an abortion, something that all pregnant women who were seeking an abortion – no matter the reason – would have to do in order to have one safely. There was outcry because how on earth is the foetus have more rights than the living, breathing child that was raped?!

The 8th is a rousing and passionate documentary. While it does it’s best to show both sides of the debate, it’s clear that it is a film that’s behind the pro-choice message. The way the campaigners adapted their message to appeal to those undecided voters, to be compassionate and not scaremongering, and how they stuck with their methods even when it looked like things were turning against them is impressive. 5/5.

REVIEW: Moxie (2021)

Fed up with the sexist and toxic status quo at her high school, a shy Vivian (Hadley Robinson) finds inspiration from her mother’s rebellious past and anonymously publishes a zine that sparks a school-wide, coming-of-rage revolution.

I read and reviewed Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu way back in 2017 and I equally had high hopes for the film and was apprehensive as I liked the book so much. I’m very pleased to say that I enjoyed the film and I think it’s generally one of the best book to movie adaptations I’ve seen in a long time.

Moxie is a coming age story that focuses on girls finding their voices and learning to stand up for themselves, rather than being all about a formative love interest. While Vivian is the one to almost unwittingly start this feminist revolution in her school, she is far from the only girl who has something to say. With the arrival of the zine Vivian finds herself with a whole new group of friends, all girls who are tired of the status quo and they each bring ideas of what they could do next to make their voices heard.

Vivian is a great character. She’s the kind of girl who’d always been quiet and just kept her head down but once she started paying attention, she quickly gets frustrated by how girls are treated at her school. Vivian is inspired by Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena) who’s not afraid to stand up for herself when popular jock Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger) will not stop harassing her and by the double standards when Kaitlynn (Sabrina Haskett) is told her wearing a tank top is against the school dress code, but the boy sat next to her wearing practically the same thing isn’t. Vivian is fallible, she makes mistakes as her rage at what’s going on often targets the wrong people and she’s learning about what being a feminist means and inclusivity as she goes. Vivian’s shocked when her best friend Claudia (Lauren Tsai) points out the privilege she has compared to her as the child of immigrants who have sacrificed a lot for her. Slowly Vivian learns while there are universal challenges facing women, there are ones she’d have no knowledge or experience of due to her upbringing.

Moxie is very aware of what’s been happening in the real world. You hear snippets of new stories about the #MeToo movement in the background and the English teacher (Ike Barinholtz) finds it difficult to say or do the right thing as a man and an authority figure when the girls start standing up for themselves and asking “difficult” questions. While that scene is used for comedic effect, it shows how awkward and difficult some find talking about these things because they have, unfortunately, been the norm for so long.

Moxie is a film with so much heart. It might stumble a bit in the third act, but then again so does Vivian, and it’s perhaps not as revolutionary for an older audience but for young people it’s a film that can prompt discussions and encourage them to fight for what they believe in. Also, so much of this film is about girls supporting girls and the different relationships between friends, and it’s a breath of fresh air to see this quite diverse group of friends supporting each other. Moxie is fun, funny and inspiring and to top it off it has a killer soundtrack. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Cyprus: Selfie and Other Stories by Nora Nadjarian

A collection of twenty-five short stories that are narratives about women on journeys of self-discovery.

First of all I want to give a shout out to the publisher, Roman Books. I love a pretty cover as much as the next person, but the actual packaging of the book was something I don’t think I’ve had before. It’s a cover that feels really nice to hold, it’s all buttery and smooth and I just really liked that and don’t think I’d ever really noticed the texture of a book before.

Anyway. Onto the contents of the book!

Twenty-five stories in a 88 page book means some are super short. I think the longest was seven pages, a few were only a page in length and the rest were somewhere in between. A lot of them certainly packed a punch while being so short. The writing in a lot of them have a dreamlike quality to it. It would lead you in one direction and in the final sentence or paragraph would reveal something that would make you look at the whole story differently. It’s really quite impressive as that was often all done in less than three pages.

The stories are all about or from the points of view of women. Some are written in first person, others in third, and they are all about love, loss, and relationships. Whether it’s romantic relationships or familial ones, it shows the different aspects of women’s relationships and how they can change depending on age. “Origami” is about a ten-year-old girl learning that her father left her and her mother before she was born and how that reshapes her entire outlook on both her parents while “Lemon, Stars” is about two sisters.

A lot of the stories have a melancholy tinge to them, and some are downright sad. “Mrs Gaslight” is, as you might be able to guess from the title, about a woman in an emotionally abusive relationship, and how even if her sister sees the problems, she refuses to. It’s the second story in the collection and I think having it so soon into the book makes it even more impactful.

Selfie and Other Stories is a well-written and interesting short story collection. It’s been a long time since I’ve read short stories that are this short and I’m always impressed how the author can create an atmosphere in so few words.

READ THE WORLD – Honduras: 13 Colors of the Honduran Resistance by Melissa Cardoza

Translated by Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle.

In 13 Colors of the Honduran Resistance, feminist author and activist Melissa Cardoza tells 13 stories about women from the Honduran resistance in the aftermath of the June 28th, 2009 coup against President Manuel Zelaya.

I’ve said it before, but I really do learn so much about the world through my Read the World Project. I never knew that the first coup of the twenty-first century happened in Honduras and just eleven years ago. Maybe it’s naivety on my part, but I really thought other nations interfering with a countries politics and helping armies kidnap progressive Presidents was a thing of the past. Though, look at the 2016 US election and that proves that’s not the case.

13 Colors of the Honduran Resistance is very short and each of the stories are punchy and effective. Cardoza really brings to life the strength and determination of the people as they protested continuously for hundreds of days. Different people protested in different ways and these stories show their fear of violence from the police and military, but also the ways they fought back.

It’s the women in this resistance who are the focus of this book. What Melissa Cardoza does well is show all the different people from different backgrounds and how they find ways to protest. There are teachers and cleaners, mothers, grandmothers, and daughters, Black women and trans women – they all learn from one another and it’s about the bonds they have during this time of resistance and uncertainty.

The edition of 13 Colors of the Honduran Resistance I read was a bilingual edition, meaning you got to see the Spanish and English versions of the text side by side. As someone who’s relearning Spanish after studying it at A Level, it’s nice to be able to read a book in its original form, with the English right there. There was also footnotes to explain certain events or references which was very helpful.

I learnt a lot from 13 Colors of the Honduran Resistance about the turmoil Honduras has gone through and the people who protested against an unjust coup. But also it reaffirms the strength and perseverance so many women have and how important their camaraderie is. It wasn’t just women in Honduras protesting, women organised in other Central American countries and joined the resistance. Whether it was a small group of half a dozen women, or a huge march of thousands, these women made sure their voices were heard, even when the risk of violent repercussions was so prevalent.