Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Review: 'The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters' by Laura Thompson

Non Fiction is a tricky genre because if the reader isn’t intrinsically interested in the topic up for discussion it takes an amazing author to make the reader care for their chosen topic. On the other hand, if the reader is interested then the author has to make sure not to bore their reader out of loving the topic. Luckily for Laura Thompson, I am easily fascinated by interesting historical ladies. Although I had never heard of the Mitford sisters before The Six, the blurb caught my eye anyway and I’m very glad to have been introduced to these six sisters. Thanks to St. Martin's Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 06/09/2016
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
The eldest was a razor-sharp novelist of upper-class manners; the second was loved by John Betjeman; the third was a fascist who married Oswald Mosley; the fourth idolized Hitler and shot herself in the head when Britain declared war on Germany; the fifth was a member of the American Communist Party; the sixth became Duchess of Devonshire. 
They were the Mitford sisters: Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica, and Deborah. Born into country-house privilege in the early years of the 20th century, they became prominent as “bright young things” in the high society of interwar London. Then, as the shadows crept over 1930s Europe, the stark—and very public—differences in their outlooks came to symbolize the political polarities of a dangerous decade. 
The intertwined stories of their stylish and scandalous lives—recounted in masterly fashion by Laura Thompson—hold up a revelatory mirror to upper-class English life before and after WWII. The Six was previously published as Take Six Girls.

Biographies need a good subject. Although every life is interesting, not all of them make for a good book. Thompson didn’t have to worry about that since the Mitford sisters provide plenty of material. Living in the constantly changing 20th century, these six women were born into nobility and therefore into privilege. With a name and good looks, many doors were open to them despite their gender or the time they lived in. What makes them even more interesting is the different paths they chose, ranging from author, to socialite, to communist and fascist. Their story is also the story of 20th century England and Europe, of the decline of nobility and the rise of all kinds of ideologies, of the start of women’s rights. And all of this is enhanced by the glitter and glamour of the sisters’ celebrity.

Thompson runs into the same problem that many biographers do in The Six. Where do you start and how do you keep going? Birth might seem a natural beginning but unless you’re Mozart not a lot of interesting things happen in the first few years. Thompson starts The Six with a general discussion and introduction to the sisters, an overview of who they are and how the “Mitford cult” started. It makes for slightly confused reading at times, especially since confusing the sisters is a serious issue. What fascinated me the most were the close ties that a number of the sisters had with the Nazis, especially Unity who personally knew Hitler. It is this dark side of the sisters, covered in a sauce of English charm, which makes them fascinating.

There is a poignant relevancy to the sisters’ fascination with extreme ideologies. At a time where European teenagers from all walks of life run off to join ISIS in a bid to give their life meaning and do something “relevant”, it is both enlightening and terrifying to see that this isn’t something new. Thompson paints her six women with a sympathetic brush, trying to both show them for what they were while also showing their struggles. It can be difficult to read about the rich and fabulous having problems, but The Six does succeed in making the Mitford sisters feel like real women with real lives. There is something that feels English about country houses, dances, coming out balls and elopements, and it explains the continuing fascination with the Mitfords. They represent, in some way, a final hurrah of the upper classes, and they make for a fascinating read.

I give this book…
3 Universes!

I really enjoyed The Six and how Thompson shines a critical yet kind light onto these six women. It would have been too easy to stereotype them or to completely follow the glossy celebrity image of the sisters. I'd recommend this to fans of Non Fiction, biographies and women's Writing.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Review: 'The Ice Queen' by Alice Hoffman

The Ice QueenIn the last few years I’ve read and reviewed a number of Alice Hoffman’s books, both recent and older. With each I discovered new things about her writing which drew me in, kept me on the edge of my seat and fascinated. Thankfully, The Ice Queen is no exception to that rule. Initially published in 2006, it was the title that put this book at the top of my ‘Alice Hoffman books I still have to read’-list.

Original Publisher: Vintage Books
From the bestselling author of Practical Magic, a miraculous, enthralling tale of a woman who is struck by lightning, and finds her frozen heart is suddenly burning.
Be careful what you wish for. A small town librarian lives a quiet life without much excitement. One day, she mutters an idle wish and, while standing in her house, is struck by lightning. But instead of ending her life, this cataclysmic event sparks it into a new beginning.
She goes in search of Lazarus Jones, a fellow survivor who was struck dead, then simply got up and walked away. Perhaps this stranger who has seen death face to face can teach her to live without fear. When she finds him, he is her opposite, a burning man whose breath can boil water and whose touch scorches. As an obsessive love affair begins between them, both are forced to hide their most dangerous secrets--what turned one to ice and the other to fire.
A magical story of passion, loss, and renewal, The Ice Queen is Alice Hoffman at her electrifying best.
The Snow Queen is a beautiful mix between a fairy tale and magical realism. Naturally the two fit together very well but it takes a skilled author to recognise the differences between the genres and make them tangible. Wrapped in a fairy tale structure, Hoffman tells a magical story about reality, about a normal life. Hoffman’s novel starts off with the nameless main character warning the reader about the power of words. A simple wish comes back to haunt her and for the rest of her life she trusts neither herself nor wishes. Her lack of name and her ability to see the large patterns of life makes Hoffman's main character a perfect substitute for the reader. She is me, you, us, the reader who thinks they know exactly how the story ends and yet can't stop reading. This kind of meta narrative, a novel which discusses reading, writing and words, can backfire unless it is willing to go deep and Hoffman is very willing.

At the heart of this story lies the story of those struck by lightning. Once Hoffman's main character is struck she partially rediscovers her desire for life. She loses the colour red and misses it more than she thought, she suddenly discovers the relative void in her life and aims to fill it. Introducing a set of characters who have also been struck, Hoffman is able to offer glimpses into different people's lives and how many preconceptions both we and they themselves have of themselves. A student who seems cocky and sure of himself is actually crippled by fear, a lady who seems to be the definition of suburban quietness actually has a backbone of steel. Throughout The Ice Queen Hoffman draws the reader's attention to how much people hide behind their facades, that nothing is as lost, or as won, as it may seem. At times this is heartbreaking, but there is also joy in these rediscoveries of lives.

One of the reasons why Alice Hoffman has become one of my favourite authors is her ability to create magic with her writing. Not only is her use of imagery stunning, but she also knows how to string together sentences with a punch, to set up plot points early on that resolve themselves at the perfect moment and unravel characters one sentences at a time. It is especially the latter which draws me personally to Hoffman, since many of her novels focus on women. Unfortunately it is still rare to find a writer so willing to explore female characters, and especially female characters post-teenage years. Hoffman's main character is difficult, at times almost cruel, full of love and terrified. It's a joy to read and feel along with her character.

I give this novel...
5 Universes!

Some novels leave a void after they're finished and when The Ice Queen finished I wasn't quite sure what to do with myself. Hoffman's writing is magical and she is one of the best contemporary authors we have. I'd recommend this to anyone interested in Fairy Tales, Magical Realism and Women's Writing.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Review: 'The Penelopiad' by Margaret Atwood

The PenelopiadMargaret Atwood is an author who I've slowly grown to appreciate more and more over the years as the nature of her work and style actually starts to resonate with me. At this point she is one of my favourite authors, so whenever I see one of her books which I haven't read I pounce on it. I ran into this beautiful copy of The Penelopiad this weekend and of course it had to become mine straightaway.

Original Pub. Date: 2005
Publisher: Canongate
Now that all the others have run out of air, it’s my turn to do a little story-making. 
In Homer’s account in The Odyssey, Penelope—wife of Odysseus and cousin of the beautiful Helen of Troy—is portrayed as the quintessential faithful wife, her story a salutary lesson through the ages. Left alone for twenty years when Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan War after the abduction of Helen, Penelope manages, in the face of scandalous rumors, to maintain the kingdom of Ithaca, bring up her wayward son, and keep over a hundred suitors at bay, simultaneously. When Odysseus finally comes home after enduring hardships, overcoming monsters, and sleeping with goddesses, he kills her suitors and—curiously—twelve of her maids. 
In a splendid contemporary twist to the ancient story, Margaret Atwood has chosen to give the telling of it to Penelope and to her twelve hanged maids, asking: “What led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to?” In Atwood’s dazzling, playful retelling, the story becomes as wise and compassionate as it is haunting, and as wildly entertaining as it is disturbing. With wit and verve, drawing on the story-telling and poetic talent for which she herself is renowned, she gives Penelope new life and reality—and sets out to provide an answer to an ancient mystery.
Greek Mythology was one of my first passions and The Iliad and The Odyssey were probably the first major cultural cornerstones that I attempted. Later on, I studied Greek in school and translated passages of both and, what I'm basically am trying to say is that, Greek legends have always informed my reading. Oblique mentions of heroes, myths and gods were what made Romantic poetry palatable to me, while I love finding references to these myths in contemporary fiction as well. This novella is a part of Canongate's 2005 Canongate Myth Series for which, amongst many others, Jeannette Winterson and Michel Faber also worked their literary magic. Adaptations and twists on myths and legends can be very hit and miss. On the one hand they have a source material that has proven to be interesting, but on the other hand there is an expectation that the adaptation will add something new, truly make a difference in how the reader sees the "original" story. Atwood's The Penelopiad takes on of Homer's most famous women, Penelope, and gives her a voice. Atwood revives this woman, so often reduced to the silent caricature of "the faithful wife", and asks her what her childhood was like, how it felt to be so alone and abandoned, and how she ever managed to keep 150 suitors at bay.

The Penelopiad turns the story as we know it upside down. Rather than men standing at the centre of it, with women only providing the occasional impulse to action, women are what keeps Atwood''s novella going. Penelope as a narrator is direct and to the point, finally telling her side after centuries in the Underworld. She is almost blase about some of the injustices that she and the other women have faced, but there is also a constant edge to her desire to bring them to light. Atwood contrasts the demands that life makes of an upper-class princess, with those made of the working-class maids. Whereas Penelope comes to understand she only means as much to her family as the treasure she receives as a bridal gift, so the maids very quickly come to realise their lives are not their own. A kind of kinship grows between Penelope and her maids, but the difference in position always remains. Atwood also expresses this through the difference in their narration. Whereas Penelope speaks in first person narration, allowed to jump around in time and describe different moments as she sees fit, the maids form a typical Greek Chorus. They are largely anonymous, speaking with one voice, and constantly performing. They interrupt Penelope's story with bitingly ironic songs, never quite letting the reader or Penelope forget how they have been mistreated. Something that slightly irked me was the one-dimensional nature of Helen (of Troy), who comes across as the quintessential Mean Girl who knows she's beautiful and loves the destruction she causes. In the way that Penelope has been typecast as safe and boring, so Helen has been typecast as beautiful and destructive, both becoming emblematic of the opposing ideals women nowadays are still told to meet. Although Atwood brings in some class awareness with the Maids, I think she does slightly miss the boat when it comes to Helen.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that Margaret Atwood is a brilliant writer. Her writing in The Penelopiad is very simple without being bland, descriptive without overloading the reader, and purposeful without being obvious. Atwood clearly has a few points she is trying to make throughout the novella but she doesn't browbeat the reader with them. The novella also experiments with the form of her novel moving between straightforward prose and songs, with a detour to court transcriptions. With Penelope's narrative she sticks relatively close to Homer's own, but actually giving Penelope a role in her own life. Where she is a side-character in The Iliad, Atwood gives her a central role which presents her as a much more human character than Homer manages to. Atwood doesn't set out, I think, to revolutionise or overthrow the story as we know it, but rather make us aware of how much perspective matters. Where The Penelopiad really differs and becomes really interesting is in Atwood's take on the maids. Not only does she engage with the style of the Greek text, she also engages with class, as mentioned above, the idea of honour killings and the difficulty of female sexuality. Penelope doesn't necessarily come out of this novella better than she went into it, but Atwood manages to establish her as an actual human being than a cardboard cut-out of the Good Wife. Although Atwood doesn't push out the boat very far, she asks a lot of interesting questions in The Penelopiad which will definitely inform a reread of The Iliad and The Odyssey.

I give this novella...

4 Universes!

Overall I really enjoyed reading The Penelopiad. If you're new to Atwood it's perhaps not the best work to start with, since she doesn't employ all of her capabilities. However, this novella is an interesting take on one of the texts which underlies so much of Western culture and Atwood's women come out as more human, with all their good and bad aspects, than they were before.

Friday, 2 September 2016

War and Peace #13: III.xi.19 - III.xiii.19

I can't believe I am genuinely about to finish War and Peace... it's such a paperweight of a novel! Although it's taken me a fair time, it is still strange to think that this is my penultimate post about War and Peace! I'm hoping to read the rest of it over the weekend so I can post about it before I fly off to China next week. (More about that on Monday!) So, without further ado, let's get down and dirty with the Russians!

Summary of Chapters:
A lot has happened since I last wrote about War and Peace. We left a very wounded Prince Andrew in the care of the Rostovs, without Natasha knowing, Meanwhile, chaos breaks out in Moscow, which the Russian in charge, Rostopchin, can't prevent and, quite honestly, doesn't even try to. There is a rather nice analogy to a queenless hive, in fact. When Napoleon and the French arrive they are also rather helpless, in fact only contributing to the Burning of Moscow. With all his friends gone and locked up in his mentor's home, Pierre returns to his crazy theories and comes to the "realization" he needs to assassinate Napoleon. Outside of Moscow, Natasha finds out Prince Andrew is a part of their entourage and seeks him out. The two re-confess their love for each other and she becomes his caretaker. Pierre meanwhile saves the life of an Armenian girl and is spontaneously arrested for it by the French. In St. Petersburg, meanwhile, everyone is going about their ordinary, pretentious lives. Except Helene is "ill", "in trouble", i.e. she finds herself pregnant by one of her potential suitors and is having it seen to. Unfortunately, however, she dies of complications. Quite a sad end for an interesting woman. This is quickly followed by the death of Prince Andrew, who is unable to recover from his wounds. Nursed by a heartbroken Natasha till the end, he dies after seeing Princess Mary and his son one last time.

Nicholas meanwhile continues to be conflicted between his newly found admiration for Princess Mary and his affection for Sonya. The latter, under pressure from Countess Rostov writes to Nicholas, freeing him from all obligations to her. Pierre has no time for love on his mind as he becomes a French prisoner of war. He witnesses the execution of fellow prisoners and finds himself locked up in rather horrid circumstances. In a way only possible with Pierre, however, he finds a kind of peace in how restricted his life is now, with none of the usual temptations. However, this changes once the French decide to leave Moscow and start a retreat, after suffering greater losses at the Battle of Borodino than they had expected. He and the other prisoners are forced to march, no matter how wounded or malnourished they are. The Russian army, despite its infighting and relative lack of warfare success, is hailed victor.

Feel of the Chapters:
As can be guessed from the summary above, a lot happens in these chapters. There is a constant back and forth between different characters, but now the large majority is involved in one way or another in the war against the French. As the Rostovs flee from Moscow, with Prince Andrew, the consequence of war on civilians is highlighted a bit but with how they are as a family one doesn't really feel it. In contrast, Pierre's experiences in the burning and ransacked Moscow do come quite close. His attempts to save a child as well as his experiences as a prisoner of war are amazingly described but also darken the tone of the novel significantly. The deaths of Helene and Prince Andrew also signal that both the novel and the world it inhabits are coming to an end. The Bolkonskis were "old school nobility", while the social climbing of the Kuragins was also a part of that old world, but th war with France changes the structure of Russia to quite a large extent.

General Points:

  • Tolstoy loves discussing history and what it is made up of. I truly enjoy reading his thoughts, how history flows and indivudla people are simply guided by these flows and can only do so much to lay claim to "having changed history".
  • Prince Andrew becomes a bit, how shall I put it, off-putting in his final few days. Although there is a nobility to him, his attitude of already having transcended this mortal sphere makes him inadvertently cruel to Natasha and Princess Mary.
  • No matter how much Tolstoy enjoys his own characters, he can't leave history behind. He always returns to the battlefield, describing battles, martial manoeuvres and the various opinions of various generals. Some of these, such as Kutuzov, are quite familiar to the reader, but at the same time there are so many people that it makes my head spin at times.
  • Helene dying of the complications of an abortion is almost a shame. On the one hand it feels like a punishment for her forwardness and her scheming, yet on the other hand even Tolstoy seems to pity her in how she is judged by other characters. He has a covert sympathy for her, I believe, and for her position as woman in society.
  • Pierre is still not my favourite character, but now that he finds some peace and quiet, even if it is as a prisoner, his sensibilities become a bit more interesting. He meets another prisoner, Platon Karataev, who engages him in conversation and teaches him some humility through his own behaviour.
The Burning of Moscow - unknown German artist
Something Extra:
One of the biggest moments in these chapters is the the Fire of Moscow in 1812. It all broke ut on the 14th of September after Russian troops and civilians abandon the city to the French troops. Although the Russians techniqcally won the Battle of Borodino, they don't have the strength to stage another battle and therefore retreat. The Fire raged for four days before it was finally put out and thereby destroyed three-quarters of the city.

The above-mentioned Rostopchin caused some of the fires to be started so the French wouldn't be able to take control of the Kremlin, for example. But still no explanation has been found for how most of the fire started, and why they weren't put out. Part of the reason might have been, however, that Moscow was still largely constructed of wood. However, it makes for one of the saddest moments in the novel when both the Rostovs and later the prisoners of war look at their ruined city. And as an extra extra: one of Rachmaninoff's Preludes is even named after it, occasionally.

'The other was that vague and quite Russian feeling of contempt for everything conventional, artificial, and human - for everything the majority of men regard as the greatest good in the world.' p.712
This is how Tolstoy describes the feelings that convince Pierre to consider attempting to assassinate Napoleon. I love how he, perhaps unconsciously, presents all Russians as slightly snobbish. On the other hand I have to admit that this feeling is also what drives me on quite a lot so what does that say about me?
'Man's mind cannot grasp the causes of events in their completeness, but the desire to find those causes is implanted in man's soul.' p.777
I am definitely a fan of how Tolstoy describes history and man's role in it. I agree with him that in every human being there seems to be that desire to figure out the why's and how's of the world. 
'The absence of suffering, the satisfaction of one's needs, and consequent freedom in the choice of one's occupation, that is, of one's way of life, now seemed to Pierre to be indubitably man's highest happiness.' p. 797
I have to agree with Pierre here, this sounds like the height of happiness! If one could order one's life based on one's free choice, there would be nothing to complain about. And the absence of suffering is something we'd all like, I think.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Review: 'Moscow in the 1930s: A Novel from the Archives' by Natalia Gromova, trans. Christopher Culver

Moscow in the 1930s: A Novel from the ArchivesI absolutely love reading translated works. Although preferably I'd like to read everything in its original language, that is simply not an option so the work of translators is invaluable. As I've been trying to expand my literary horizon I have become aware of a very large, Russia-shaped hole in said horizon. However, in recent years Glagoslav Publications has been working on translating previously untranslated Russian, Ukranian and Belarussian authors. My first dip into their works is Gromova's "novel from the archives". Thanks to Glagoslav for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 05/05/2016
Publisher: Glagoslav
Moscow in the 1930s: A Novel from the Archives reveals Moscow as it was in a bygone age, a city now found only on old maps, but an era that continues to haunt us today. The novel features a wide cast of characters, who are all tied together by the author herself. 
The reader plunges into the remarkable Moscow literary scene of those days, and literature aficionados will encounter within a number of important locations for the history of Russian letters: the Dobrov house, Peredelkino, Lavrushinsky Lane, Borisoglebsky Lane – and also the names of legendary figures such as Olga Bessarabova, Maria Belkina, and Lydia Libedinskaya. 
History is brought to life: the author introduces the reader to Leonid Andreyev, leads us on a tour of the side-streets and alleyways of the Arbat district, and shows us the tattered notebooks of Olga Bessarabova. All this has long since fallen away into history, but now it proves so easily accessible to us. 
The Russian literary scene is one of giants. Authors such as Tolstoy, Pushkin and Bulgakov have left their traces on literature throughout Europe, and even the world. In combination with its authors' brilliance, Russia also experienced a number of cultural changes in the 20th century which only to some extent found an echo elsewhere in the world. The Russian revolution and the following Communist Era had a profound influence upon Russian authors and poets, both male and female, and Moscow in the 1930s introduces the reader to a whole range of these authors and poets. Natalia Gromova, in many ways, stands at the centre of this novel, uniting in her own life experience all the people she describes. History is fascinating, especially in how it influences the lives of people, changes their course irrevocably or unites them again after years and years. As such, Moscow int he 1930s' charm, then, lies in how intimately it opens up the lives of some of Russia's most remarkable people. As someone who is still quite a novice when it comes to Russian literature, this novel feels like a great introduction to the works that sprang from this short yet tumultuous part of Russian history.

Part of this novel's appeal lies in its archival nature. I myself am very interested in archives, what people collect and why, how they keep records of their lives and who finds them. Connecting the various threads of other peoples' lives, finding out something about the past and being able to track its course through history is enormous fun. There is a voyeuristic pleasure in reading someone's love letters, especially if they're written by such lyricists as Gromova reveals. What I greatly appreciated about Moscow in the 1930s was Gromova's express interest in those we haven't heard of, the names that weren't noted down by history, the women  who played a role but never got the credit. As Gromova herself says:
'It always seemed to me that background figures, people who are much more difficult to glimpse or learn anything about, offer the possibility of imagining the world of the past in a much fuller way.'
Her novel subsequently, paints a fuller picture of the 1930s in Russia, and mainly of its literary elite, than I have ever read before. What also makes Gromova's archival research interesting is her awareness of how much of Russian (and Eastern German as well, for example) history was spent with people reporting on each other, telling stories, keeping receipts etc. It adds an extra layer to her writing which strikes a chord.

Gromova writes beautifully. What would have been a dull book in anyone else's hands becomes lyrical in hers. Although she happily moves around between subjects, even between time periods and places, there is a continuous sense of experiencing history which makes Moscow in the 1930s fun and interesting. She begins the novel with the analogy of a key she found as a child and how she never found the door that it fits, but that throughout her life she has repeatedly found both keys and doors in the archives which have led her to a fuller understanding of history. These types of analogies run throughout the book as she moves between different houses and different people. In a novel such as this, which so intensely engages with people who had an awareness of the beauty and power of writing, Gromova had the responsibility to echo some of this language and she does so admirably. That it comes across in translation is a brilliant bonus for people like me, Christopher Culver does an excellent job at translating Natalia Gromova's prose, letting it flow easily as well as beautifully.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I greatly enjoyed Moscow in the 1930s, although I didn't read it all in one go. It's a great novel to read sections of at a time, to dip into as if dipping into history, for an hour here or there. There is always a difficulty when it comes to foreign books because something is always lost in translation, but Moscow in the 1930s is a complete and engaging read for those interested. I'd recommend it to those interested in Russian literature as well as archival work, because it makes the latter sound incredible exciting and fun.

Waiting on Wednesday: 'Hag-Seed' by Margaret Atwood

In the last few years, by which I mean the last six, I have done a complete 180 on Margaret Atwood. When we read The Handmaid's Tale in high school, despite enjoying it, I absolutely hated the way we were taught about it and how we were told to analyse it. Basically, school ruined one of the best pieces of speculative and feminist literature for me for a while. Then, when I get a bit older and university taught me that it's completely fine to ignore what your teachers think, I started to reappreciate not just The Handmaid's Tale but also Margaret Atwood. I've been slowly working my way through her books, emphasis on slowly, and am currently reading The Blind Assassin. So it should come as no surprise that I am going to share a Margaret Atwood book this week!

Waiting on Wednesday is hosted by Jill over at Breaking the Spine and everyone can share an upcoming release that they are anticipating! Hop over to Breaking the Spine to join and leave a link to your post in the comments below! My anticipated read is:

Hag-Seed (Hogarth Shakespeare)Pub. date:11/10/2016
Publisher: Hogarth
Hag-Seed is a re-visiting of Shakespeare’s play of magic and illusion, The Tempest, and will be the fourth novel in the Hogarth Shakespeare series.
The Tempest is set on a remote island full of strange noises and creatures. Here, Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan, plots to restore the fortunes of his daughter Miranda by using magic and illusion -- starting with a storm that will bring Antonio, his treacherous brother, to him. All Prospero, the great sorcerer, needs to do is watch as the action he has set in train unfolds.
In Margaret Atwood’s ‘novel take’ on Shakespeare’s original, theatre director Felix has been unceremoniously ousted from his role as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Festival. When he lands a job teaching theatre in a prison, the possibility of revenge presents itself – and his cast find themselves taking part in an interactive and illusion-ridden version of The Tempestthat will change their lives forever.
There’s a lot of Shakespearean swearing in this new Tempest adventure…but also a mischief, curiosity and vigour that’s entirely Atwood and is sure to delight her fans. 
Margaret Atwood, Shakespeare and swearing? Sign me the f**k up! I haven't had a chance yet to read any of Hogarth's special Hogarth Shakespeare releases but they're all on the list!

So, which upcoming release are you looking forward to? As said, do share a link to your post!

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Review: 'The Arrival of Missives' by Aliya Whiteley

The Arrival of MissivesSpeculative Fiction is a genre I have only slowly grown to appreciate as my own taste in fiction has developed over the last few years. Part of my initial confusion at some classics of the genre, such as many Margaret Atwood books, lay in their speculative nature, which simple seemed to lie just outside my grasp. What changed that for me was Aliya Whiteley's The Beauty which became one of my favourite novellas and started some very interesting conversations. So when I saw one of Whiteley's latest novellas within my grasp I, of course, went straight for it. Thanks to Unsung Stories for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 09/05/2016
Publisher: Unsung Stories
The Arrival of Missives is a genre-defying story of fate, free-will and the choices we make in life. In the aftermath of the Great War, Shirley Fearn dreams of challenging the conventions of rural England, where life is as predictable as the changing of the seasons. 
The scarred veteran Mr. Tiller, left disfigured by an impossible accident on the battlefields of France, brings with him a message: part prophecy, part warning. Will it prevent her mastering her own destiny?
As the village prepares for the annual May Day celebrations, where a new queen will be crowned and the future will be reborn again, Shirley must choose: change or renewal?

The Arrival of Missives clocks at a 120 pages and is an incredibly engrossing and quick read. Whether a novel reads quickly, as such, has nothing to do with page count. A short story can feel like War and Peace if badly written, while War and Peace can fly by if Tolstoy is your thing. In the case of Whiteley's novella, time flies by while you're reading. It is almost impossible to put it down halfway through, so well-written and thought-provoking is it. It is one of Speculative Fiction's tasks, and opportunities, to shine a light on society, its traditions and customs, and express its dissatisfaction with it. As such, authors of Speculative Fiction have access to a whole range of tools from other genres such as Historical Fiction and Science Fiction in order to create alternate histories in which certain ideas or traditions take centre stage. In the end, however, the world created is always one which is painfully recognizable and that is where the crux of the genre lies. Whiteley is brilliant at creating worlds which are similar enough to our contemporary one but with enough "Other" elements or influences that there is a constant sense of the uncanny about it as well. As a consequence the reader sticks close by her characters as guides through these 'uncomfortably familiar yet not' worlds.

At the heart of The Arrival of Missives is the young Shirley Fearn who grows up in rural England shortly after World War I, a conflict that forever changed Europe. As men died on the battlefields in France, women found themselves in a world which gave them both more responsibilities as well as freedoms, which were promptly curtailed again. Shirley is a fascinating main character who has a set idea of what it is she wants and finds all kinds of other futures laid out for her by those around her. Partly because of her own awakening self, Shirley gives the reader an unflinching insight into the gender-relations of her village and her growing awareness of the social relationships around her. Fascinating especially is her relationship with her mother, a woman she thinks has either never dreamed or immediately conformed, and of whom her opinion slowly changes throughout the novella as Shirley herself is confronted with the latent desires of society regarding women and their lives.

Much of Shirley's journey throughout the novella surrounds her trying to find her own way to live. As she tries to unravel and avoid the strands of other people's plans around her, she becomes more and more tangled in a plan that seems as inevitable as fate. Whiteley astutely asks the reader to think about fate, what it means to have someone to tell you you a destined for one thing and for someone else to present you another fate, seemingly equally destined. It's close to impossible to discuss the novella's arguments more without revealing significant plot spoilers, but Whiteley discusses choice and fate and whether either exists in a way that feels personal rather than academic. Her narrative takes unexpected turns and although some of her choices may seem strange, there is an undeniable sense of truth to what she writes.

First with The Beauty, and now with The Arrival of Missives Aliya Whiteley has established herself as one of my favourite contemporary authors. She has a very strong voice and a fascinating mind and both shine through her prose on the page. There is an immediacy to Shirley's narration throughout, a sense that the reader is right there with her experiencing life in rural England. I'm still convinced that first person narration should only be used when an author knows they will absolutely nail it and thankfully Whiteley does exactly that in The Arrival of Missives. Shirley reads like a teenage girl, attracted to the world and at the same time disgusted by it. She feels intensely, but is also still new to the world. By the end of The Arrival of Missives I absolutely loved her. This novella asks questions to which it doesn't necessarily provide answers but which it asks you to at least think about yourself.

I give this novella...

5 Universes!

The Arrival of Missives is one of the best novellas I have read since I read Whiteley's The Beauty. It keeps readers on their toes and thinking throughout, constantly exciting and engaging. On the one hand I wish for more, and on the other hand Missives is perfect as it is. I'd not only recommend it to fans of Speculative Fiction but also to anyone willing to give something a little bit different a try. It won't disappoint.