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May 2019

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Joanne Ramos talks to us about her debut, The Farm
21st May 2019

Joanne Ramos talks to us about her debut, The Farm

The Farm by Joanna Ramos

The Farm is Joanna Ramos' debut work, a thrilling dystopian novel concerning fertility, class and human rights. With an urgent voice and page turning pace it draws you into a world all too close to our own. It is a study of the political state of today and offers a glance at an alternative future.

We've a short Q&A with the author and an extract from the book below.

 


Q&A

 

Would you introduce your novel The Farm for us?

Imagine the most luxurious spa retreat you’ve ever seen. It’s got everything: gourmet chefs, private yoga instructors, expert masseuses. And, all of it’s for free. The catch? For the duration of their stay, the women at the spa are not allowed to leave the grounds, their every move is monitored, and they are completely cut off from the world outside—because these women are surrogates, and they’ve been hired to carry the babies of some of the richest people in the world. In exchange for leasing their wombs and agreeing to prioritize the life of the child inside of them, these women hope to earn big money upon the delivery of a healthy baby. But every trade comes with a cost, and sometimes, the cost is too steep.

 

Were there any specific events that inspired you to write it?

The ideas behind The Farm are ones that had consumed me for decades—ideas rooted in my experiences, and the people I’ve come to know, as a Filipina immigrant in Wisconsin, a financial-aid student at Princeton, a woman in the male-dominated world of high finance, and a mother of three in the era of hyper-involved, almost competitive, parenting.

 

One spur to writing the book was my realization, when raising my young children, that the only Filipinas I knew day-to-day in Manhattan were domestic workers—nannies, baby nurses, housekeepers. I got to know many of them, as well as caregivers from the Caribbean, South America and elsewhere, when I was at the park or playdates with my kids. Seeing the huge gulf separating their lives and mine, their children’s lives and prospects as compared with my children’s likely trajectory, reinforced a feeling I’d harbored for many years: that American “meritocracy” is hollow; that what determines success—mine or anyone’s—has as much to do with luck and happenstance as it does hard work and “merit”; and that the idea of meritocracy is used as a justification for glaring inequality.

 

It was out of this messy accumulation of ideas and observations that I wrote The Farm.

 

How close do you think we are as a society to the commodification of female bodies and reproduction in your book?

Surrogacy facilities exist. It was a short article in the Wall Street Journal about an Indian surrogacy facility that led me to imagine the The Farm. I didn’t research commercial surrogacy—I used the construct as a launching pad to create the world of Golden Oaks—but it exists already. In fact, almost everything in the book already exists, is already in practice. Whether this terrifies you or is a matter of indifference says a lot about whether you see this book as “dystopian” or not.

 

***

Extract

 

WHEN ATE ACCEPTED HER FIRST BABY-NURSE JOB MORE THAN TWENTY years ago, she had never worked with babies—at least, not the babies of other people. She showed up on the doorstep of the Prestons’ vine-covered brownstone in the rain. She held an umbrella in one hand, a bag in the other, and she wore a white nurse’s uniform. “Like a brown Mary Poppins,” Ate liked to joke, though Jane always thought it must have been intimidating, even for Ate—to be in a new country, her family so far away, starting a new life when she was already in her forties.

 

Ate had found the job through her friend Lita, who long ago returned home to the Philippines. Lita was then the Prestons’ house keeper. After work, when she and Ate and whoever was around the dorm were making dinner, she liked to tell stories about her bosses. The husband was okay, always working, but Mrs. Preston was strange. She liked her money, but she also despised it. She spoke witheringly about the “ladies-who-lunch” at her social club as if she was not one of them. She hosted black-tie parties in her bare feet. She took the subway to visit artist friends in Brooklyn and Queens but in the city she always used her driver, and before her baby was born, Lita heard her announce to her girlfriends that it was unnatural to outsource motherhood.

 

It took only two weeks for the baby, a boy, to convince her otherwise. He suffered from colic and cried night and day, inconsolable unless you held him in your arms and walked with him, up and down the townhouse stairs. When you stopped, even for a short while, he would begin to cry again. Finally, in desperation, Mrs. Preston begged Lita: “Find someone to help us.”

 

Lita immediately thought of Ate, who she knew needed the money. She told Mrs. Preston that her friend was a nurse and an expert with babies. This was truer than not. In Bulacan, Ate had worked in the church’s free clinic in the summers, and she had raised four children almost entirely on her own.

 

Because Ate had no expectations, she could be patient. She did not mind walking the baby up and down the stairs, sometimes for hours, kissing his mottled face as he raged and whispering ocean sounds to remind him of the comforts of the womb. She took him on long walks in Central Park even when it was drizzling and cold. In the stroller, with the earth bouncing beneath him, the baby grew calm. He sucked on his fingers and stared up at the moving sky. Back in the townhouse, when the afternoons wore thin, the baby would arch his back and begin wailing anew, and Mrs. Preston would become agitated. Then, Ate would send her upstairs to rest and begin the walking—up and down, up and down, the baby pressed to her chest.

 

Ate was hired to stay with the Prestons for three months, but Mrs. Preston extended Ate’s term once, then again, and still again until the baby was almost a year old. Mrs. Preston told everyone Ate was a savior and that she would never let her go. But when her friend Sarah bore a baby girl and also developed postnatal depression, Mrs. Preston asked Ate to help her. Ate worked with Sarah until her baby was ten weeks old. After that she moved into the penthouse of Sarah’s sister Caroline, who kept Ate for twelve weeks. Caroline passed Ate on to Caroline’s husband’s friend from college, Jonathan. This family recommended Ate to Jonathan’s colleague at the bank, the one whose wife was carrying twins, and so on. In this way, Ate became a baby nurse.

 

Because Ate had the Prestons’ baby sleeping through the night at eleven weeks, despite his colic and fussiness, and Sarah’s baby at ten, and then Caroline’s at nine, she became known for her sleep routine. This was the reason families fought each other to hire her, she told Jane. There were couples who called as soon as they found out they were expecting or even earlier, when they were still hoping to conceive. Ate would tell these parents that she did not book jobs until the fetus was twelve weeks along. “This is the only way to be fair to all the others,” she explained, although she admitted to Jane that this was not the real reason. The risk of miscarriage in the first trimester was too high; how could she schedule her work around wishful thinking with rents to pay and mouths to feed?

 

Ate also understood that for parents such as these, who had everything and more, being unavailable made her more desirable.

 

Ate began enforcing her sleep regimen when the baby was very small, just two or three weeks old. Without training, a baby of this age feeds often, every hour or so, and it constantly seeks comfort on the mother’s breast. If you hired Ate, though, she would stretch out the feedings right away, so that your baby fed every two, then three, then every four hours. By eight weeks or ten she would have your baby sleeping through the night, depending on the baby’s sex and weight and whether it was born prematurely or on time. For this the mothers with the arms like ropes and whipped-cream skin called Ate “the Baby Whisperer.” They did not know that Ate stood all night over the crib in the darkened nursery holding a pacifier to the baby’s lips. When the baby fussed, Ate lifted him to her drooping chest and rocked him until he was drowsy but not yet asleep. Then she would put him down again. Night after night, this way, until the baby was accustomed to eating only during the day and falling asleep by itself at night. After this, sleep training was easy.

 


Joanne Ramos author photo

Joanne Ramos was born in the Philippines and moved to Wisconsin when she was six. She graduated with a BA from Princeton University. After working in investment banking and private-equity investing for several years, she wrote for the Economist as a staff writer. She lives in New York City with her husband and three children. This is her first novel.

Author Photo © John Ramos

 

 

Angela Saini dissects race science in her new book, Superior
16th May 2019

Angela Saini Dissects Race Science in Her New Book, Superior

Superior by Angela Saini

In her latest book, Superior: The Return of Race Science, award-winning science journalist and author of Inferior, Angela Saini, dissects the fallacious basis for the scientific concept of race. Exploring its origins and tracing its development through Darwin and eugenics, Saini unpicks the cultural assumptions and political narratives underpinning the historic understanding of racial difference. Superior also examines the current resurgence of race science and the uses of racial categories, for example in medicine, that allow vestiges of this discredited theory to retain credence. Encompassing the work of geneticists, anthropologists, historians and social scientists world-wide, Superior is a rigorous and essential study that lays bare the insidious nature of race science.

Read an extract from Superior, below.

To hear Angela Saini discuss the core themes of her book with journalist and author Reni Eddo-Lodge, come along to the event at our Charing Cross Road flagship shop. For more details and tickets, go to our event listing page.

 


It was not long after the British Museum was founded that European scientists began to define what we now think of as race. In 1795, in the third edition of On the Natural Varieties of Mankind, German doctor Johann Friedrich Blumenbach described five human types: Caucasians, Mongolians, Ethiopians, Americans and Malays, elevating Caucasians – his own race – to the status of most beautiful of them all. Being precise, ‘Caucasian’ refers to people who live in the mountainous Caucasus region between the Black Sea to the west and the Caspian Sea to the east, but under Blumenbach’s sweeping definition it encompassed everyone from Europe to India and North Africa. It was hardly scientific, even by the standards of his time, but his vague human taxonomy would nevertheless have lasting consequences. Caucasian is the polite word we still use today to describe white people of European descent.

 

The moment we were sifted into biological groups, placed in our respective galleries, was the beginning of the madness. Race feels so real and tangible now. We imagine that we know what we are, having forgotten that racial classification was always quite arbitrary. Take the case of Mostafa Hefny, an Egyptian immigrant to the United States who considers himself very firmly and very obviously black. According to the rules laid out by the US government in its 1997 Office of Management and Budget standards on race and ethnicity, people who originate in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa are officially classified as white, in the same way that Blumenbach would have categorised Hefny as Caucasian. So in 1997, aged forty-six, Hefny filed a lawsuit against the United States government to change his official racial classification from white to black. He points to his skin, which is darker than that of some self-identified black Americans. He points to his hair, which is black and curlier than that of some black Americans. To an everyday observer, he’s a black man. Yet the authorities insist that he is white. His predicament still hasn’t been resolved.

 

Hefny isn’t alone. Much of the world’s population falls through some crack or another when it comes to defining race. What we are, this hard measure of identity, so deep that it’s woven into our skin and hair, a quality nobody can change, is harder to pin down than we think. My parents are from India, which means I’m variously described as Indian, Asian, or simply ‘brown’. But when I grew up in south-east London in the 1990s, those of us who weren’t white would often be categorised politically as black. The National Union of Journalists still considers me a ‘Black member’. By Blumenbach’s definition, being ancestrally north Indian makes me Caucasian. Like Mustafa Hefny then, I too am ‘black’, ‘white’ and other colours, depending on what you prefer.

 

We can draw lines across the world any way we choose, and in the history of race science, people have. What matters isn’t where the lines are drawn, but what they mean. The meaning belongs to its time. And in Blumenbach’s time, the power hierarchy had white people of European descent sitting at the top. They built their scientific story of the human species around this belief. They were the natural winners, they thought, the inevitable heirs of the great ancient civilisations nearby. They imagined that only Europe could have been the birthplace of modern science, that only the British could have built the railway network in India. Many still imagine that white Europeans have some innate edge, some superior set of genetic qualities that has propelled them to economic domination. They believe, as French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in 2007, that ‘the tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history . . . there is neither room for human endeavour nor the idea of progress.’ The subtext is that history is over, the fittest have survived, and the victors have been decided.

 

But history is never over.

 


Angela Saini Author Photograph

Angela Saini is an independent British science journalist and author. She presents science programmes on BBC Radio and her writing has appeared in the Guardian, The Times, Prospect, New Scientist, Wallpaper, Vogue, Marie Claire, Science, New HumanistWired, Stylist and the Economist among others. She has won a number of national and international journalism awards. Superior is her third book.

 

 

Alex Reeve on identity
13th May 2019 - Alex Reeve

Alex Reeve on Identity

The House on Half Moon Street

Alex Reeve's Leo Stanhope books are intelligent and atmospheric historical crime novels set in Victorian London. The hero, Leo Stanhope, is a coroner's assistant—and a man in love, who, in the first in the series The House on Half Moon Street, is drawn into a dangerous murder investigation in which everyone has secrets to hide. In The Anarchists' Club, Leo's identity is threatened when he becomes embroiled in a murder case once again and comes under pressure to give a false alibi to the leading suspect. 

Here, Alex talks to us about the origins of his trans protagonist, his fears over cultural appropriation, and why he decided to put Leo back at the heart of his novel.

 


Identity theft

 

The first time I contemplated writing about a trans character I was sitting on a train, staring at the empty seat next to my co-worker, who happened to be a trans woman. The train was packed, people standing in the corridor, but for some reason no-one was sitting in that seat – at least, until a teenager on her phone barged through the crowd and plonked herself down.

 

My co-worker didn’t comment, but she must have noticed the glances. At that moment, I felt a burst of compassion and an inner rage. Surely, the most fundamental right we have as humans is to choose who we are?

 

I’d been considering writing a historical novel for a while and wondered whether it could feature a trans character. I decided to do some research. At least, I thought, things must have got better over the last hundred-and-fifty years.

 

Apparently not much. Then as now, there were numerous examples of trans men and women, as well as, presumably, lots of people who lived their lives in peace and obscurity. However, many of the same issues existed then as now too: misinformation, misunderstanding, legal ambiguity, societal disapproval, and physical and mental health issues.

 

At some point in my research process, someone appeared in my head almost fully formed. He was in his mid-twenties, the child of a small-town vicar, and had left home at fifteen to become Leo Stanhope. He was a bit of a romantic, innocent in some ways, sure of who he was but also amused by it. I started seeing the world through his eyes and hearing his voice explaining, sometimes impatiently, how the world would seem to him. Once he arrived, he wouldn’t leave.

 

I loved Leo, but I could see a million problems, the biggest being cultural appropriation. I’m not a trans man, so do I have the right to tell this story?

 

I tried everything. I undertook writerly contortions you wouldn’t believe.

 

First, I made Leo a sidekick, the friend of the central detective. But the story kept veering back towards Leo. Every time I looked, he was hogging the focus like an attention-seeking toddler.

 

Next, I tried demoting him, making him a ‘C’ character, hardly in the novel at all. But that looked like pure tokenism and was dramatically unsatisfying. It simply wasn’t the story I wanted to tell.

 

After that, I took a couple of weeks to think. What was it that so fascinated me about this story?

 

The answer was obvious all along. What I cared about was identity; the right of every individual to decide who they are. And if that was going to be the story, Leo had to be at the heart of it. That was why he had taken up residence in my head.

 

I still felt concerned about cultural appropriation – which has never completely gone away – so I gave myself a rule: this wouldn’t be a novel about being trans, it would be a novel about a man who happened to be trans. That clarified everything for me. Leo was confronted by a tragedy anyone might face; it was neither caused or solved by his being trans. He has a unique perspective, but being trans is just one part of who he is, not the sum of it.

 

Even so, I wanted to get the views of trans people, so I approached The Beaumont Society, a group run for and by trans people, and showed a draft to Jane Hamlin, the President. She was incredibly patient and supportive, and gave me belief that I could at least add usefully to the growing debate.

 

On one level, The House on Half Moon Street is a straightforward historical crime novel, because I adore historical crime novels. But underneath that, it’s also a story about identity. Almost every character in the book has had to change to survive. They’ve aligned to the powerful forces of gender politics, class, money or ambition. Many of them have changed their names, how they dress and how they speak. That was the dramatic irony that compelled me to finish it: Leo is the least changed of all them.

 

Leo has simply stopped pretending to be someone else.

 


Alex Reeve Author Photograph

Alex Reeve lives in Buckinghamshire and is a university lecturer, working on a PhD. The House on Half Moon Street is his debut novel, and the first in a series of books featuring Leo Stanhope.

 

 

Read an extract from There There by Tommy Orange
9th May 2019

Read an extract from There There by Tommy Orange

There There by Tommy Orange

"Orange’s rousing call for his people to be recognised, full of his generation's anxiety and determination, resonates long after you've finished the book. All of this delivered in bold, assertive prose, whose idiosyncratic rhythms strikingly carry both action and lyricism."

Elodie, Marketing Team

 

There There is Tommy Orange's debut novel. Inspired by the author’s own experiences as a member of a Native American community in urban Oakland, California, it is a book of great social and political urgency told through a multi-generational story encompassing violence, hope, identity, dislocation and the beauty and despair woven into the history of a nation and its people. We have an extract from this remarkable book, below.

 


Orvil manages to get the regalia on and steps in front of the full length mirror on Opal’s closet door. Mirrors have always been a problem for him. The word stupid often sounds in his head when he looks at himself in the mirror. He doesn’t know why, but it seems important. And true. The regalia is itchy and faded in color. It’s way too small. He doesn’t look the way he hoped he would. He doesn’t know what he expected to find. Being Indian didn’t fit either. And virtually everything Orvil learned about being Indian he’d learned virtually. From watching hours and hours of powwow footage, documentaries on YouTube, by reading all that there was to read on sites like Wikipedia, PowWows.com, and Indian Country Today. Googling stuff like “What does it mean to be a real Indian,” which led him several clicks through some pretty fucked-up, judgmental forums, and finally to an Urbandictionary.com word he’d never heard before: Pretendian. 

 

Orvil knew he wanted to dance the first time he saw a dancer on TV. He was twelve. It was November, so it was easy to find Indians on TV. Everyone else had gone to bed. He was flipping through channels when he found him. There on the screen, in full regalia, the dancer moved like gravity meant something different for him. It was like break dancing in a way, Orvil thought, but both new—even cool—and ancient-seeming. There was so much he’d missed, hadn’t been given. Hadn’t been told. In that moment, in front of the TV, he knew. He was a part of something. Something you could dance to. 

 

And so what Orvil is, according to himself, standing in front of the mirror with his too-small-for-him stolen regalia, is dressed up like an Indian. In hides and ties, ribbons and feathers, boned breastplate, and hunched shoulders, he stands, weak in the knees, a fake, a copy, a boy playing dress-up. And yet there’s something there, behind that stupid, glazed-over stare, the one he so often gives his brothers, that critical, cruel look, behind that, he can almost see it, which is why he keeps looking, keeps standing in front of the mirror. He’s waiting for something true to appear before him—about him. It’s important that he dress like an Indian, dance like an Indian, even if it is an act, even if he feels like a fraud the whole time, because the only way to be Indian in this world is to look and act like an Indian. To be or not to be Indian depends on it.

 


Tommy Orange Author Photo

Tommy Orange was born and raised in Oakland and is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. He is a recent graduate from the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. He is a 2014 MacDowell Fellow, and a 2016 Writing by Writers Fellow. He currently lives in Angels Camp, California.

 

 

Shari Lapena on being inspired by Agatha Christie
6th May 2019 - Shari Lapena

Shari Lapena on being inspired by Agatha Christie

An Unwanted Guest

An Unwanted Guest is Shari Lapena's third crime novel. Set in an inn in the middle of nowhere with guests cut off from the outside world by a raging storm, it is tense and atmospheric. Below, Shari tells us how Agatha Christie inspired her latest book, and why psychological thrillers have such an enduring appeal.

 


My inspiration for An Unwanted Guest was Agatha Christie’s famous novel, And Then There Were None. It fascinated me when I was young. I started playing with the idea of how to write something like that, where everyone is trapped in an isolated place, and people start to die, and the characters in the story—and the reader—have no idea who the killer is or who will die next. I wanted to take that story and update it a bit, give it darker psychological underpinnings. I must say, working something like this out was very challenging and I have more admiration than ever for Agatha Christie’s diabolical mind. I also enjoyed developing the setting, making it a larger part of the story than in my previous novels. I wanted the setting—the old fashioned, isolated luxury hotel, the ice storm, the wind—to come alive.  Mitchell’s Inn is not really based on anywhere I’ve ever been—it’s based more on the kind of place I’d like to visit. There was a deliberate choice on my part to make the hotel date from the early 1900’s, the sort of place an Agatha Christie-like murder mystery might occur. It has that period feeling. If you’ve ever been in Durrant’s Hotel in London, or in the Pera Palace in Istanbul, as I have—that’s the sort of era and ambience I was after. Of course, I’ve transplanted it to the Catskill Mountains, rather than in the middle of a cosmopolitan city, because I wanted my characters to be trapped in a remote location.

 

In writing the story, I think I was also inspired by the state of the world these days. I think a lot of what we’re seeing nowadays is people’s baser natures coming to the fore, unfortunately. I am constantly reminded, reading the news, that the veneer of civilization is very thin. In that sense, Mitchell’s Inn is a microcosm of the larger world. When people are threatened, their darker side will come out. We only have to look at history to know that people—large numbers of people, not just isolated individuals—are capable of terrible acts. However, there are always some people who resist that pull into the dark.

 

I’ve loved reading mysteries, thrillers, psychological suspense my entire life. I think what makes thrillers perennially popular is that they are so involving—so hard to put down. They generally have a relentless forward momentum that readers enjoy. You have to know what’s going to happen next, and you want your questions answered. I think the particular appeal of the psychological thriller is that it goes deeper, it’s more emotional, more internal than a straight ahead thriller. You’re dealing more with the interior thoughts and motivations of the characters, and I think that interior aspect of it really adds to the suspense. The writer is toying with the reader’s thoughts and emotions, planting ideas and possibilities and tantalizing the reader with them, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks, and go down some scary paths. I myself am a very emotional writer, and the psychological suspense novel encourages you to go deep into people’s emotions—all of them, even the very dark ones—and I find people, and what makes them tick, absolutely fascinating.

 


Shari Lapena author photo

Shari Lapena worked as a lawyer and as an English teacher before writing fiction. Her debut thriller, The Couple Next Door, was a global bestseller. Her second thriller, A Stranger in the House, has been a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller. Her third book, An Unwanted Guest, is out in 2018.

 

Photo credit: Tristan Ostler

 

 

Crime writer Alafair Burke picks her top 5 Harlan Coben novels
3rd May 2019

Crime writer Alafair Burke Picks Her Top 5 Harlan Coben Books 

New York Times bestselling author Alafair Burke's lastest novel, The Better Sister, is a gripping and intelligent thriller about two sisters and the family secrets they are dying to keep hidden. Here, Alafair recommends five books by one of her favourite writers Harlan Coben.

 


Perennial number one bestseller, Netflix executive producer (No Second Chance, Safe, the upcoming The Stranger), and Dad of Suspense (I made that up) Harlan Coben is a “one-sitting writer” for me. Every year—sometimes twice, if we’re lucky—I set aside an entire day, preferably on a beach, to jump into his trademark stories that blend seemingly everyman characters with high-tech twists and a ton of heart. I’ve read every one of his gripping titles. Here, I think, are my five favorites… so far. It’s telling that four of these are in recent years. Coben is the rare writer who manages to get better and better.

 

Tell No One

Six YearsThe StrangerHome Run Away

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tell No One (2001)

Coben’s first standalone thriller after seven series books proved that he could fill a big canvas with an intricate plot and new and memorable characters. There’s a reason this one was nominated for pretty much all the awards. Quintessential Coben.

 

Six Years (2013)

The title comes from the six years that have passed since Jake Fisher watched Natalie marry another man. Jake’s deep dive into a perplexing mystery involving his ex-flame only works if the reader truly believes that Natalie is the love of Jake’s life, and darn it if Coben doesn’t make the love feel intensely real and utterly consuming.

 

Run Away (new, 2019)

Coben’s social media makes it clear he’s a devoted father and a proud teller of “Dad jokes.” His latest book oozes with a father’s love for and willingness to do anything for his daughter. Only a dad could have written it.

 

Home (2017)

I’m cheating a bit here because I love the entire Myron Bolitar series (the first was Deal Breaker, and I love to read a series in order). But this one is a favorite because it makes clear, in surprising and soulful ways, that Myron and his steadfast pal Win are all grown up now.

 

The Stranger (2015)

Coben has a way of making you laugh in one chapter only to pull your heart out and stomp on it in the next. This one had me bawling my eyes out and enjoying every second of it. I’m dying to watch the TV adaptation coming from Netflix.

 

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