Reviews

REVIEW!! Unladylike: A Grrrl’s Guide to Wrestling by Heather Bandenburg

UnladylikeForget what you think you know about wrestling.

In the world of Heather Honeybadger, aka Rana Venenosa, there are no steroids, no tans, no million-dollar contracts – there is only lycra, a sweaty underground club and an unbreakable resilience. From the day that Heather steps into the ring of the punk wrestling school Lucha Britannia, she finds herself transformed into a person she never knew she could be.

How do you become a wrestler when you hate sports so much you can’t do a press-up? What makes feminists and wrestlers both mortal enemies and unlikely best friends?

For the first time, an independent female wrestler talks in depth about how she went from a sad, lost riot grrrl to an empowered, persevering fighter who has performed across the world. 

Despite being a teenager during the famous ‘Attitude’ era of WWE, I’ve never really ‘got’ wrestling. I can appreciate the showmanship and skill involved but, as a sport, it’s just not one I’ve ever really understood. Which probably doesn’t make me the obvious target audience for Heather Bandenburg’s memoir Unladylike, a chronicle of her life in the ring.

And yet, despite having next to no knowledge about wrestling – and even less about the Lucha Libra tradition that Heather becomes involved in – I thoroughly enjoyed this smart, witty and, at times, hard-hitting memoir about a young woman finding her identity and her place in the world through her absorption into the wrestling world.

Because, whilst Unladylike is a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of London’s indie wrestling scene, it’s also an incredibly identifiable personal story about finding what makes you happy, and coming to terms with the varied aspects of your own personality and your place in the world. Heather is unflinching in her portrayal and touches on issues of gender, sexuality, personal identity, self-belief, confidence and anxiety as she discusses her involvement and development within the world of female wrestling.

She also offers a considered examination of the trials that come with defining yourself as a woman in a male-dominated environment, casting a critically appraising eye over the history of women in the sport, and the struggles that many of them still face today.

Full of anecdotes and packed with fascinating details of life behind the scenes, Unladylike is also a riot to read. By turns funny, self-deprecating, insightful, it’s packed with sharp observational humour that makes for an easy, page-turning read. Sort of the reading equivalent of sharing a few drinks at the pub with a friend!

There’s also a series of great appendices at the end of the book explaining common wrestling terms, providing a brief history of female wrestling, and offering diagrams of moves – it was a useful addition that quickly helped to explain any terminology and really helped me appreciate the effort and skill that goes into each and every wrestling match.

A fascinating biography that offers a unique combination of personal memoir, sporting anecdotes, and feminist critique, Unladylike is a witty and enjoyable read that packs a surprising punch. Wrestling fans will, naturally, find much to enjoy here but, for those of us not familiar with the sport, Unladylike still has plenty to offer. If you’re looking for something a little unusual to add to your reading list, then you won’t go far wrong with this.

Unladylike by Heather Bandenburg is published by Unbound and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including the Unbound Shop, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon

My thanks go to the author for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review. 

Reviews

REVIEW!! The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective by Susannah Stapleton

Maud West CoverFor more than thirty years, Maud West ran a detective agency in London, having started sleuthing on behalf of society’s finest in 1905.

A tireless self-publicist, Maud’s exploits grabbed headlines around the world – a woman, solving crimes, how could they not? But, in order to thrive in a class-obsessed and male-dominated world, she was forced to hide vital aspects of her own identity. And – as Susannah Stapleton reveals – she was a most unreliable witness to her own life.

Who was Maud? And what was the reality of being a female private detective in the golden age of crime?

In this enthralling true story, Stapleton interweaves tales from Maud’s own ‘casebook’ with social history and extensive original research, forensically examining the stories Maud West told about herself in a quest to uncover the truth.

With walk-on parts by Dr Crippen and Dorothy L. Sayers, Parisian gangsters and continental blackmailers, The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective is both a portrait of a woman ahead of her time and a deliciously salacious glimpse into the underbelly of ‘good society’ during the first half of the twentieth century.

Combining the charm of a classic mystery novel with the diligent research and careful analysis of a biography, The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective is a rich and compelling story about secrets and lies in the golden age of crime.

A lover of golden age mystery novels herself, Susannah Stapleton is curled up on a winter’s night reading about Glady’s Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley when a thought strikes her – were there any real lady detectives in the golden age of crime? The resulting internet search brings up a Miss Maud West “London’s only Lady detective”, and starts Stapelton off on a journey filled with more red herrings and secret histories than even Agatha Christie might find plausible!

Without giving away too many of the details of Maud’s life, the unravelling of which is part of the joy of reading Stapleton’s painstakingly researched book, Maud West was a fascinating personality. Shamelessly self-publicising (it quickly becomes apparent that she is not, in fact, London’s sole Lady Detective at all), Maud sells her tales of derring-do to readers across the world, inventing numerous backstories and delighting thrill-seekers with her stories of foiled robberies, attempted kidnappings and dangerous continental drug gangs. But, as Stapleton digs deeper, ever questioning the truth behind Maud’s own account of herself, another story begins to emerge. Possibly less glamourous – and without a sinister blackmailer in sight – but no less compelling and, if anything, even more fantastical.

Interspersing her chapters with some of Maud’s delightful accounts of her endeavours, Stapelton has written an immensely readable blend of biography, social history and real-life mystery. I was fascinated to learn about the roles that private detectives played in the early part of the twentieth century, and encouraged by the initiative that so many early female pioneers took to advance their careers, such as the creation of the all-female ‘Efficiency Club’ to provide networking and advancement opportunities.

The book is also a compelling account of the difficulties of biographical research, especially when the subject is a little more ordinary than the royals or the political influencers that usually get this sort of treatment – and when they don’t necessarily want the facts of their life to be discovered. Although not able to fill all of the gaps, Stapelton is nonetheless able to craft together the essence of Maud’s fascinating life, pulling together the various traces that this enthralling woman left behind.

Doggedly researched and deliciously entertaining, The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective, is a testament to the life of a forgotten pioneer who forged both an enduring personal life and a successful career in an era when women’s options were limited. Combining biography, mystery, and social history, this is one piece of literary sleuthing that golden age fans won’t want to miss this summer.

The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective by Susannah Stapleton is published by Picador and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon.

My thanks go to the publisher and Netgalley UK for providing an e-copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review. 

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Non-Stop Non-Fiction

I recently took a glance over my ‘Read’ shelf on Goodreads and was surprised to see how many non-fiction titles I’ve been reading of late. Whilst I’ve never been adverse to reading non-fiction, I’ve always considered myself  primarily a fiction reader. Yet out of the last ten books I’ve read, five have been non-fiction and my only recent 5* Goodreads review went to a non-fiction title. So why the sudden change in my reading habits?

I think primarily it’s because I’ve been super busy  recently so most of my reading has taken place in snatched bites of time. 5 minutes over my morning cup of tea, 15 minutes before bed, 10 minutes whilst waiting for an appointment. A whole day to sit and read – or even a few uninterrupted hours – sounds like a complete luxury to me at the moment. Reading in small doses means its hard to settle into a plot-heavy novel where it’s important to recall who all the characters are, what happened in the last chapter and what person A said about person B ten pages ago.

 

The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child MurdererThis coincided with my discover that the true crime genre – something I’d always worried would be sensational and tacky – has become home to some thought-provoking, genre-blending books that scratch the itch left by ‘Serial’ and ‘S-Town’: two of my favourite podcasts in recent years.

First up, I listened to the audiobook of Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer‘. Although not actually as focused on the ‘sensational’ murder as the blurb and advertising would have you believe, this was a fascinating piece of narrative non-fiction covering such varied topics as early mental health treatment in Victorian England (surprisingly progressive) and the role of bandsmen in the trenches of WWI (much larger than they’ve been given credit for). Complete with the narrative drive that Summerscale is known for, this was a great audio – although the ‘mockney’ accent the narrator used for some of the characters nearly drove me to distraction!

Killers of the Flower Moon: Oil, Money, Murder and the Birth of the FBIDavid Grann’s ‘Killers of the Flower Moon‘, subtitled ‘Oil, Money, Murder and the Birth of the FBI’, is ostensibly a book about the murders of a number of Osage Indians throughout the 1920s, but opens up into a discourse on power, money, land rights, injustice and racism. It was a sensitively written, fascinating and powerful examination of a largely forgotten piece of  American history. Grann’s writing is a brilliant blend of journalistic drive (he knows how to work a cliffhanger!) and stylised reportage and I was keen to check out more of his work so also read ‘The Devil & Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness and Obsession‘, which is a collection of his shorter essays and articles. I didn’t enjoy this as much as ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ – as with all essay collections, some pieces held my interest more than others – but it confirmed my opinion of his writing style and I’m looking forward to starting ‘The Lost City of Z‘ soon.

The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a MemoirAlexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s ‘The Fact of a Body‘ is a slower-paced combination of narrative true crime with memoir resulting in an emotionally raw yet moving examination of the lasting effects of historic abuse. Juxtaposing the 1992 molestation and murder of a young boy by a paedophile with the author’s own repressed feelings about abuse within her own family. Not an easy read by any means, and with subject matter that will undoubtedly have triggers for some readers, but a skillful and intimate blending of two genres that really pushed the boundaries of what I thought a ‘true crime’ book could be.

Most recently, I’ve read ‘True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Disappearance of Maura Murray‘ by James Renner. This is written in short, snappy chapters – often only one or two pages each – and is also a blend of personal memoir and true crime. Less literary in style than ‘The Fact of a Body’ and with more of the narrative drive found in Grann or Summerscale’s work, this is a dual investigation of the strange disappearance of a young woman from rural New Hampshire and of Renner’s own complicated true-crime addiction. It definitely had that page-turning quality although, because the focus is less on a historic case and on an open, unsolved investigation, I did experience a level of unease about some of the speculative elements of Renner’s investigation. It’s a compelling narrative to be sure – and Renner does a good job of keeping the primary focus on his own mentality and raison d’etre – but there are some leaps into the dark corners of the internet and  toying with outlandish amateur theories that left me feeling a cold.

So do I intend to carry on with this non-stop slew of non-fiction? More than likely. I’ve got a short break planned this coming weekend which is a much needed chance to get absorbed into a nice chunky novel. But I have become more aware of how my reading habits need to change to fit around my lifestyle in order to avoid a slump. When I’m busy, non-fiction is just easier to read in short doses. So maybe I need to use non-fiction as my weekday reading and make fiction my weekend choice, when I can indulge in a lazy morning sipping tea and curling up with a good book? If it stops me from entering those hideous periods when I just don’t read at all, it’s certainly worth a try!

I’d be interested to know if anyone else finds their reading habits have changed with their lifestyle and if you find yourself reading differently at different times? Drop me a comment down below or send me a message over on Twitter. And, until next time, whether it’s fiction, non-fiction or something in between, Happy Reading! x