Comedy Women In Print Shortlist Shadow Panel- Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen

Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen

Published by John Murray Press

Available at all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Routine makes Majella’s world small but change is about to make it a whole lot bigger.

*Stuff Majella knows*
-God doesn’t punish men with baldness for wearing ladies’ knickers
-Banana-flavoured condoms taste the same as nutrition shakes
-Not everyone gets a volley of gunshots over their grave as they are being lowered into the ground

*Stuff Majella doesn’t know*
-That she is autistic
-Why her ma drinks
-Where her da is

Other people find Majella odd. She keeps herself to herself, she doesn’t like gossip and she isn’t interested in knowing her neighbours’ business. But suddenly everyone in the small town in Northern Ireland where she grew up wants to know all about hers. 

Since her da disappeared during the Troubles, Majella has tried to live a quiet life with her alcoholic mother. She works in the local chip shop (Monday-Saturday, Sunday off), wears the same clothes every day (overalls, too small), has the same dinner each night (fish and chips, nuked in the microwave) and binge watches Dallas (the best show ever aired on TV) from the safety of her single bed. She has no friends and no boyfriend and Majella thinks things are better that way.

But Majella’s safe and predictable existence is shattered when her grandmother dies and as much as she wants things to go back to normal, Majella comes to realise that maybe there is more to life. And it might just be that from tragedy comes Majella’s one chance at escape.

What I Say

As I have got more and more into judging the novels on the Comedy Women In Print Shortlist Prize, one of the many things I have learned is that it means I have a responsibility to read all the books, whether it is one I would choose to read or not. That is the wonderful thing about reading, that in picking up books outside my comfort zone, I have not only found new authors, but also have had the chance to step into the worlds of unlikely protagonists like Majella O’Neill.

Big Girl, Small Town is absolutely and completely Majella’s story and we are with her every step of the way.

It takes place in a Northern Irish town called Aghybogey where Majella lives and works. In fact she has never been anywhere else, and the town she lives in is her world. She works for the minimum wage in a fish and chip shop, and is also dealing with her Mum who is an alcoholic and utterly dependent on Majella. Her father is no longer living with them, having vanished as The Troubles raged around them.

The domestic and mundane life that Majella and her family has, is set against the world around them, and although The Troubles are known as an historical event, in Majella’s world they are part of the fabric of her family’s history too. We learn that her Granny has been murdered in her own home, and in spite of it, Majella has to carry on as normal for her Mum and for herself.

Majella is autistic, although that is never explicitly stated, and we see how she has to naviagate her life by establishing routines and strategies for dealing with the world around her. Everything is very black and white for her, and to cope with situations like the suggestive and rude male customers at the Chippy, she had to ‘learn’ the socially acceptable way to deal with them so that she can function.

I thought Michelle handled this really sensitively – Majella copes by stimming – which for her is rocking on the balls of her feet and flicking her fingers. This isn’t made into a huge part of the story, but as readers we can see it, and it is the little details and quietly mentioned rituals and routines that add poignancy and emotion to what Majella is dealing with.

Her bedroom at home becomes her haven – a place where she can make it just as she wants it, even though the rest of the house is like a bomb site. It is her place to eat, to watch her Dallas DVDs, to think and to be in peace. For me, one of the most touching scenes in the book is when Majella treats herself to a new luxurious duvet set that she has paid for herself. It is joyous to see how wonderful it makes her feel, but tinged with sadness that she has no one to do that for her.

Majella and her mother almost become local celebrities because of her Granny’s murder, but as awkward and uncomfortable as it is for Majella, it almost gives her an air of untouchability and celebrity by association. In a strange way, this helps Majella exist in a world where repetition and the tedium become her comfort.

I would have to say that Big Girl, Small Town is not a cosy, comfortable read. The humour and laughter is balanced by the less than palatable part of Majella’s life. She has unromantic sex with Marty her married work colleague because she wants to have sex, not because she is attracted to him, and through the novel the sex she has is unemotional and without passion. The sex scenes and the way sex is talked in almost a biological sense fit in with the story because Majella is very matter of fact and direct too.

The novel also shows us the stark reality of life for people in a town who do not have a lot of money, and are trying to survive the day to day grind. At times this may seem bleak, but it is also important to note that there is an innate sense of community and at times humour too. Everyone knows everyone else, although it might seem like they don’t, they look out for each other and try to help as much as they can.

Majella’s life outside work consists of her looking after her alcoholic Mum and eating food from the chippy alone in her bedroom. She seemingly just accepts that this is her life, and gets on with it, however heartbreaking it may be for us as the reader to see.

I thought that it was a brilliant plot device of Michelle’s to have Majella working in a chippy, as it is a focal point for the town, and gives the reader a chance to meet all the different characters who go there. It may seem like nothing much happens on a daily basis, but by hearing their stories, we learn about the reality of life in Aghybogey. Going to the chippy is part of their routine and gives some people structure, other people a place to gossip, and for some characters it is their connection to the world beyond their front doors.

Big Girl, Small Town finally offers some hope for Majella after her Grandmother passes away, and a will is read, and when she realises that someone believes in her she finally starts to believe in herself. Majella understands that she has the potential to change her life – all she has to do is to find her courage. If you love a novel that is packed with larger than life characters and writing that moves from laughter to sadness and back again, then Big Girl, Small Town should absolutely be on your reading list.

It is at times undoubtedly challenging to read, as you really feel for Majella and the seemingly bleak life she leads, and it was painful at times to watch what happens to her. This I think is what Michelle is trying to show us – that although Majella is seemingly caught in a world without hope, the chance to change her story is always present – she just needs to believe in herself enough to take the first step.

Comedy Women In Print Shortlist Shadow Panel – Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Published by Trapeze

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Queenie is a twenty-five-year-old Black woman living in south London, straddling Jamaican and British culture whilst slotting neatly into neither. She works at a national newspaper where she’s constantly forced to compare herself to her white, middle-class peers, and beg to write about Black Lives Matter. After a messy break up from her long-term white boyfriend, Queenie finds herself seeking comfort in all the wrong places. 

As Queenie veers from one regrettable decision to another, she finds herself wondering, What are you doing? Why are you doing it? Who do you want to be? – the questions that every woman today must face in a world that keeps trying to provide the answers for them. 

A darkly comic and bitingly subversive take on life, love, race and family, Queenie will have you nodding in recognition, crying in solidarity and rooting for this unforgettable character every step of the way. A disarmingly honest, boldly political and truly inclusive tale that will speak to anyone who has gone looking for love and acceptance and found something very different in its place. 

What I Say

If like me, you are on bookish social media (a lot in my case!) you cannot have failed to have heard about Queenie. When it was published in 2019, it was everywhere, and I have to admit that for that very reason, I bought a beautiful teal hardback signed copy, and then put it on my shelf and promised myself I would read it. I didn’t.

When I found out it had been shortlisted for the Comedy Women In Print Prize, it was the perfect time to read it, because all the noise around it had quietened down and it meant that I could now give Queenie my undivided attention.

I am so glad I did, because I loved this novel.

Queenie seemingly embraces and lives life to the fullest – she has a supportive family, a group of quite frankly fabulous friends, a great job and a relationship with Tom. The novel opens with Queenie at a Sexual Health Clinic with her Auntie Maggie, but it transpires she has suffered a miscarriage, and that actually her relationship with Tom is on an extended break, and he doesn’t want anything to do with her.

What is also evident throughout the novel is the amount of casual racism which permeates every part of Queenie’s world. Strangers want to touch her hair and men on dating apps make awful sexual and racist comments constantly. Tom is white, and although his family appear to have no issue with him dating a Black woman, it is their thoughtless and internalised racism that comes to the fore in throwaway comments or behaviour.

Queenie has a brilliant group of friends she nicknames ‘The Corgis’ – the fabulous Kyazike, her kind work colleague Darcy, and the ever analytical Cassandra. Queenie has an amazing and enviable bond with these women, and their WhatsApp exchanges are so natural and real, that it felt as if I was part of the group too! Their sense of protectiveness and being true and real with each other really reminded me of how powerful and needed female friendships are.

Although Queenie seems to enjoy her job on a national newspaper, she is frustrated by their lack of embracing her efforts to talk about wider issues that affect Black people. Gina her boss is exasperated at times by Queenie’s disengagement with her role, but you get the sense that Gina sees Queenie’s potential if only she could too.

As Queenie starts to grudgingly accept that she and Tom are over, she starts to meet other men – Queenie wants sex and is unapologetic about it. Some of the sex scenes in Queenie are very graphic, at times brutal and disturbing, and one experience she has with a man called Guy was really difficult to read. In fact when she goes to the sexual health clinic, the staff think she is a sex worker, and that the extent of her injuries give them concerns as to whether she has had consensual sex or has been assaulted.

The men she encounters are not looking for a relationship, and the fact she is Black is something they almost see as a point on their score card. What becomes evident to the reader as the novel progresses is that Queenie is using sex as a way to try and feel something, a connection, a sense of power, but it is really masking her mental deterioration and subsequent breakdown. There is also the sense that something in Queenie’s childhood is always simmering constantly at the back of her mind, and that is has shaped how she sees her own relationships.

This is what really resonated with me about Queenie – is that this young woman who seemingly has so much to look forward to is trying so hard to be so many things to so many people, but is also dealing with the fact that she is estranged from her Mum because of the actions of another man. Queenie’s world starts to unravel – a man she has been pursued by and slept with alleges she has been harrassing him, she is then suspended from her job, loses her home and is forced to move in with her grandparents.

Her decision to seek counselling is something her grandparents find difficult to accept, but eventually they understand why she has to. For me, Queenie’s grandparents were two of my favourite characters. Their love and care for Queenie was such a powerful thing to read, and the fact that they dealt with her in the only way they knew how- by refusing to let her dwell on what she was going through was really affecting for me.

Slowly by confiding in her therapist Janet, Queenie starts to let her and us as readers into her life, and we see exactly what happened and why she is estranged from her Mum. Little by little, Queenie starts to rebuild her life and when the man who got Queenie suspended at work is found to have lied about their consensual sex, it is finally time for Queenie to take the next steps in life, but this time, she is in control.

As a forty-nine year old white woman, I thought I was not the target market for this book. I was wrong.

Candice Carty-Williams has written a novel that draws you in from the first page, and it is witty, warm, and a joy to read. At times it is undeniably challenging too, and honestly I found some of the sex scenes very hard to read. It made me think so much about the world Queenie lives in, and the reality of life for Black women in Britain today. Queenie is a novel that is many things, it is fast moving, funny, tender and at times heartbreaking too.

What is at the heart of this novel for me is the realisation Queenie comes to as to how important and necessary family and friends truly are. Above all, it introduced me to Queenie and her world, and I very much hope I get the chance to meet her again really soon.

The Blessed Girl by Angela Makholwa

The Blessed Girl by Angela Makholwa

Published by Bloomsbury

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say.

Young, beautiful and ambitious, Bontle Tau has Johannesburg wrapped around her finger. Her generous admirers are falling over themselves to pay for her Mercedes, her penthouse, and her Instagrammable holidays. It’s her duty to look fabulous – after all, people didn’t sacrifice their lives in the freedom struggle for black women to wear the same cheap T-shirts they wore during apartheid.

Bontle’s come a long way, and it hasn’t been easy. Her shrink keeps wanted to talk about a past she’s put firmly behind her. And what she doesn’t think about can’t hurt her, can it?

Blessed adj. [pronounced bles-id] 
The state of being blessed, often referring to a person, usually female, who lives a luxurious lifestyle funded by an older, often married partner, in return for sexual favours.

What I Say.

“All men are dogs, and I’d rather be crying in a Ferrari than in a Polo Playa, honey.’

I had actually bought a copy of The Blessed Girl before I was asked to be a Shadow Judge for the Comedy Women In Print Prize because it looked just the kind of novel I was looking for! I was thrilled to see it being Shortlisted and now I had the perfect reason to sit down and read it!

Let me tell you right from the very first page, I am so pleased I did.

Make no mistake, Bontle Tau is a protagonist quite unlike anyone you have ever met before. From the moment you start reading The Blessed Girl, it is abundantly clear this young woman is passionate, determined, and defiantly unapologetic for the life she is leading. She seems to live and narrate her life directly to us as if she exists on social media, and is constantly filtering and editing her world until it gets the maximum number of likes.

Bontle has a lifestyle that many of us would be envious of. A gorgeous apartment, designer clothes, a fabulous car and Instagrammable holidays we could only dream about. The thing is, and as she tells us from the start, Bontle is a blessed girl, which means that her lifestyle is solely funded by the powerful and rich older men she sleeps with.

She also knows exactly what she has to do and how she has to look to ensure that the men who bless her stay with her and continue to fund her day to day existence.

We find out that Bontle is actually still legally married to a man called Ntokozo. They met when they were young and got married, much to the disdain of Ntokozo’s family, and for a time seemed to be happy. Unfortunately Ntokozo’s work as a doctor, and the pressure he was under, led to him becoming addicted to drugs. Bontle felt isolated and unhappy, and decided she needed to find a way to live her own life and be free from him.

As Bontle decides to pursue the life of a Blessed Girl, she seems to relish the fact that these men will give her whatever material things she wants in exchange for sleeping with them. Bontle knows this, but doesn’t have a problem with it, and is also running her own hair weave business. She regards these men as transactions in her life as a means to her achieving her own dream of opening up her own boutique. While it may be uncomfortable for us to read about Bontle’s choices, for me, the fact that she was so direct and aware of what she is doing and why, helped my understanding.

As the novel progresses, Bontle is regularly sleeping with three men – Teddy Bear, Mr Emmanuel and Papa Jeff and she has no qualms about stealing them from other women – even her friends, if they will give her what she wants. When Teddy Bear needs her to be the front of his building development she does so half heartedly, but is motivated by the fact that she will receive a nice big payment for doing so!

To assume that this book is simply a light hearted, fluffy story about Bontle’s Blessed world would do Angela Makholwa’s novel a huge disservice. What works so brilliantly is the way in which in a slow and understated way, we start to see how Bontle’s childhood and relationship with her mother and brother Golokile has shaped the choices she makes now. The perfection of her present world is set against the harsh and uncompromising reality of Bontle’s past childhood home, and the way her mother raised her and failed to protect her.

We see how Bontle is trying to cope with both of her lives, help her brother make a better life for himself and for her mother to understand what she did affected Bontle so deeply. When we finally see what happened to Bontle, suddenly I understood why the life she leads now is the one she feels will help her achieve her dreams. It may seem like the men are using her, but Bontle is using them too.

Hand on heart, I absolutely loved The Blessed Girl. It is funny, fast paced and opened my eyes up to a whole new world of Blessed Girls and Blessers that I had never heard of before. It may be uncomfortable reading at times, but the thing about The Blessed Girl is that as readers we need to understand the world Bontle came from and why. Angela’s writing is incisive, smart and puts Bontle front and centre of everything, which is where she absolutely deserves to be.

I loved it.

Thank Goodness I Can Tell You…!

As you may have gathered by now, keeping quiet is perhaps a challenging thing for me at the best of times – especially when it comes to talking about books!

For a while now, I have been keeping a secret that has been so hard not to share with you all because I am really excited about it!

Well, today is finally the day I can reveal all!

I am so thrilled to tell you that I have been asked by the fabulous Comedy Women In Print Prize to be part of their very first Shadow Blogger Panel!

Over the next few months, myself, Susan Corcoran, Janet Emson, Stacey Garrity and Danielle Price will be reading and reviewing all the novels on the Shortlisted Published Comic Novels Authors Shortlist who are:

 

Michelle Gallen for Big Girl, Small Town from John Murray

 

Beth O’Leary for The Flatshare from Quercus Books

 

Angela Makholwa for The Blessed Girl from Bloomsbury Books

 

Nina Stibbe for Reasons to be Cheerful from Penguin

 

Candice Carty-Williams for Queenie from Trapeze Books

 

Abbi Waxman for The Bookish Life of Nina Hill from Headline

Jeanette Winterson for Frankisstein from Vintage

You can read more about all the fabulous authors and their novels here

The winner of our Shadow Panel Winner will be announced in early September, and the Judge’s decision will follow.

It feels SO much better to finally be able to tell you all, and I can’t wait to start reading all these novels and telling you all about them as I go.

Here’s hoping you all follow along with all of us and the hashtag #CWIP and do please tell us what think about the shortlist. As you can guess, I’ll be talking about this a lot, all over Twitter and Instagram- it’s so important to me that you all feel involved with this amazing prize too!

So, what do you think? Any there you can’t wait to read? Any that you have read already and loved? Please do let me know – I love to chat to you all about books, so any feedback or anything else you would like to see from me, just let me know.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I have some rather fabulous books to read…

Love

Clare xx