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Tuesday 18 September 2012

Sluttery Book Club: Girl Reading by Katie Ward

We're girls who read. Let's read Girl Reading? If there was ever a reason to pick up Katie Ward's first book, that was it. This one was Kat's suggestion. Let's get stuck in!

What's the book about? Here's the Amazon blurb: Seven portraits. Seven artists. Seven girls and women reading.

A young orphan poses nervously for a Renaissance maestro in medieval Siena. An artist's servant girl in seventeenth-century Amsterdam snatches a moment away from her work to lose herself in tales of knights and battles. An eighteenth century female painter completes a portrait of a deceased poetess for her lover. A Victorian medium poses with a book in one of the first photographic studios. A girl suffering her first heartbreak witnesses intellectual and sexual awakening during the Great War. A young woman reading in a bar catches the eye of a young man who takes her picture. And in the not-so-distant future a woman navigates the rapidly developing cyber-reality that has radically altered the way people experience art and the way they live.

Sian: There's a lot to like about Girl Reading, but I didn't love it was much as I thought I would and that made me sad. I love the concept, but I don't think the dialogue worked when the stories switched - some of it jarred with me and the book is quite dialogue heavy. Katie's writing has been compared to David Mitchell's and I can see why. I think if you loved his books, you'll really love Girl Reading. I do wonder if it can be called a novel, to me it's a collection of short stories that interlink. That opens up more interesting questions for me, but it also means that I didn't have time to get into the stories as much as I would have liked to. Featherstone of Piccadilly was certainly my favourite story and I could have read an entire novel about those characters, but as soon as I'd got immersed in the story, it was over.

As much as I didn't get lost in the book as much as I'd wanted to, I did want to. I'd definitely pick up another of Ward's books, I just didn't get on with this one.

Kat: I have a coterie of "to read" books from the Sunday Times Culture books section, and I'd had this on my list for ages. It took me most of the first story to settle in to Katie Ward's style, but then I was hooked. I found the writing quite distant - I'd just finished Rebecca which really pulls you in, and I generally prefer that - but I adored the characters so much and each story hooked me further. Such powerful women, too. There are no clich├ęs here: I found the story of Maria, an 18th century Countess grieving for her dead female lover, particularly engrossing because I love that period of history, but am so used to reading about the traumas and tribulations of heterosexual love affairs. Even the women in nominally powerless situations leap off the page - and Ward's way with a description is envy-making. One line sums up jealousy beautifully: "It looked as if you were giving to her something of yourself which you held back from me." No spoilers here, but I'm so pleased at how this book has grown on me. I spent my year abroad in Siena, the setting of the first story, and reading this was like being cast back into a strange, but marvellous dream.

Laura: Confession time – I haven’t actually finished Girl Reading. I know, I know. It’s really short! I should’ve finished it long ago! Put a black mark beside my name.

Like Sian, I feel a little disappointed that I don’t love this book. I like it well enough so far – but I suspect like is as good as it’s going to get for me. It’s not that Katie Ward doesn’t spoil us with some beautifully-crafted sentences, and certainly her concept is bold and her subject matter engaging – it’s just that at the end of each chapter I’m left feeling a little, um… I’m not sure. Deflated? Underwhelmed? Cheated? I feel like I should want more from each story, yet I don’t. Maybe that’s a good thing? I haven’t decided yet. Also, the lack of speech marks is DOING MY HEAD IN. 

I’ve read elsewhere that the final chapter ties the whole book together, cementing it as a novel rather than the collection of short stories it appears to be. Perhaps my opinion will change once I’ve finished. Ward spins a fine yarn, so that alone will propel me to the end. I’ll let you know if I change my mind and like turns into love. 

The Sluttery Verdict: We're divided again! It sounded like the perfect book for all of us, but there wasn't enough for us get our teeth into. There's a fine turn of phrase to keep us engrossed, but it took us a while to settle into the stories. Kat loved it, the rest of us wanted to and we're pretty sure that some of you will too. Looks like we're giving Katie Ward the thumbs up rather than this specific book. Disagree? That's half the fun of Book Club! Dive right into the comments and tell us why.

What's next on the list? This time we're letting you decide! Tweet us, or talk to us on Facebook telling us what you think we should be reading (fiction, non-fiction, we don't care). We'll have a look at what you recommend and we'll decide on a new book later this week.

WARNING: We've kept all spoilers out of this post, but we can't promise that you won't read spoilers in the comments. Don't say you weren't warned.


  1. Quite a marmitey response to Girl Reading. I love the cover though. I've left a comment on Facebook along with a recommendation for your next read or a future read. Shoot me for being biased, but I've been a fan of your site for years and I would love you to pay Gunshot Glitter a mooch and see what you think. It is out on Amazon, it came out last month. I planned to approach you formally next week, but if you ask a question like that, how could I resist not piping up? Enjoy the behemoth, I think you'll find it a breath of fresh air. x x

  2. Marvellous Readers18 September 2012 at 20:14

    Your responses to ‘Girl Reading’ totally match my own. I read it on my Kindle and as a result, I didn’t read any of the cover blurb before beginning it. I was therefore left wondering, at each new chapter, about the huge gaps in time/eras and whether characters would later resurface. Like someone said,I also wondered whether I was actually reading a series of thematically linked short stories, rather than a novel. That was until I got to the final chapter and everything was tied together.

    Like you all, at times I really enjoyed the book. It is clearly really well researched and written by someone with a very good understanding of language and how to evoke a sense of time. I was really drawn to some of the characters and in particular some of the more feisty women. However, at times I felt that the book was quite hard to read. Dreams, parallel thoughts/conversations, ghosts, memories etc. were all described, often without any warning, so it took a while to work out what was going on. Sometimes I also thought that Katie Ward was trying a bit too hard to signal the era, particularly in the case of 2008.

    Nonetheless ‘Girl Reading’ got me thinking and I hope Katie Ward publishes again in the future, as I think she will be a really interesting novelist to look out for.

    1. I really loved the ghosts in the Featherstone, and then BAM! they were gone. I wanted to get my teeth into some of the characters, especially the really feisty ladies, I was just left a little bit empty by it. That said, we may have struggled with the book in some cases, but we're not totally put off by it - I think that's a really good thing.

      Marvellous Readers, what do you think we should read next? The new Marian Keyes has been floated...

  3. I'm very much with you on the wanting to love it, but ending up not getting that into it. As soon as I engaged with one story it moved on, and while I can see the final section was an attempt to pull it all together it just didn't quite work for me; it felt like it was swinging too much into a fantastical element.

    Whose section was your favourite? I loved Jeanette's story and also the very first one at the beginning, although I wish I knew how it turned out for her...

    Katie Ward's writing is great though, so I'd defiantly keep an eye out for some more of her writing though.

    1. I wonder if this is something similar to my issues with Margaret Atwood - often too many genres in one book so I feel pulled in all sorts of directions. Not everyone likes every genre so it's hard to have a book like this where a reader is going to enjoy the entire thing.

  4. Marvellous Readers18 September 2012 at 21:38

    Hmmm. Next book. Well I'm longing to read the new Pat Barker. Im also reading Jonas Jonnasons book and so far I'm really enjoying it. Tracey Chevalier or Hilary Mantel would be good for the historical novel lovers.

  5. Amazing suggestions chaps, thank you! My dad gave me his Kindle a couple a months ago and I've just got the hang of it - that buy button is worryingly easy to press.

  6. I took this on holiday with me and the format made for great holiday reading (I mean that in the nicest possible way), as the chapters were really easy to read in chunks. There were definitely stories that stood out for me too - in fact, the two specifically mentioned above, Featherstone of Piccadilly and the one about the Countess. I feel like Katie Ward is making lots of different interesting points and the last story almost (but not quite) pulls them all together. That hasn't stopped me gently mulling it over since finishing it. I'm looking forward to sitting down with a fellow slut and properly dissecting the book.

    She's a great writer, and I was really interested to see the praise on the book blurb from Hilary Mantel as lots of the book, Featherstone particularly, reminded me of Beyond Black (which I really must re-read!).


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