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.

Quotes:
'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.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Review: 'The Witches: Salem, 1692' by Stacy Schiff

The Witches: Salem, 1692As some of you may know, I am fascinated by witchcraft and everything to do with it. So of course I couldn't resist a book about the infamous Salem Witch Trials, especially not by an author like Stacy Schiff who excels at historical biographies. The Witches tries to cover a wide range of influences on Salem and although at times it lacks focus and cohesion, it does make for interesting reading. Thanks to Orion Books for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Publisher: Orion Books; Little, Brown and Company
It began in 1692, over an exceptionally raw Massachusetts winter, when a minister's daughter began to scream and convulse. It ended less than a year later, but not before 19 men and women had been hanged and an elderly man crushed to death. 
The panic spread quickly, involving the most educated men and prominent politicians in the colony. Neighbors accused neighbors, parents and children each other. Aside from suffrage, the Salem Witch Trials represent the only moment when women played the central role in American history. In curious ways, the trials would shape the future republic.
As psychologically thrilling as it is historically seminal, The Witches is Stacy Schiff's account of this fantastical story-the first great American mystery unveiled fully for the first time by one of our most acclaimed historians.
The Salem Witch Trials are one of those historical events which have never been truly explained and keep playing on in popular culture. Massively popular films and TV shows such as The Craft, Charmed and Sabrina the Teenage Witch play on our interests in witchcraft and women, secrecy and public disaster. This fascination, which is largely an American one since Europe had quite an intense history with witchcraft itself, is in and of itself also interesting. Why does Salem prove so pervasive? Is it the role of women played during the trials that keeps us coming back and has helped feed films and TV shows such as those above? Or is it the fear of the Law not being able to control its public, of outrage outstripping reason? The latter is what inspired the famous The Crucible by Arthur Miller, itself a comment on the Red Scare of the 1950's, McCarthy's hunt for Communists in America. Salem can be many things to many different people, which explains the continuing interest that exists for it. However, this also makes it difficult for an author to bring something new and interesting to the debate. Schiff's The Witches continuously struggles with this difficulty.

Stacy Schiff sets out to complete quite an arduous task. On the one hand she has to describe one of the most illogical moments in American history which still baffles historians and cultural critics alike, and on the other hand there is a whole set of historical facts and details which she has to introduce to the reader to bring some semblance of logic into her book. Walking the fine line between speculation and fact is difficult and although Schiff does her best occasionally the book does veer off this line. Many books have been written about the Salem Witch Trials, as well as about European witch hunts in earlier centuries. Many of these books argue a particular angle, hoping to provide an answer as to why these trials happened, some more outlandish and sensational than others. Schiff's The Witches doesn't necessarily add a new interpretation or explanation, so readers looking for that will be disappointed. Schiff moves freely between discussing the chronology of the trials and discussing past events that carry some relevance to the proceedings. This means both extra and interesting information, but it also causes some confusion at times.

Schiff's writing style is what saves The Witches from being purely an academic textbook or becoming boring. She seems to intimately engage with her historical charges, investing time and energy in describing the New England winters or the claustrophobia of a Puritan village in the 17th century. Schiff's Salem feels more real than it does in many other books, not as alienating as it is sometimes described. At times this leads to characters being given an almost anachronistically modern mindset, and some descriptive analogies feel very off due to their modernity. But usually it helps couch the book's straightforward information delivery in an at times engaging narrative. What made The Witches interesting to me was how well-researched it is. Schiff clearly invested herself in the events surrounding Salem, not only in 1692, but also in the surrounding few years. Schiff's focus on the judges, and especially Increase and Cotton Mather, also sets it apart from other books about Salem and I learnt many new things from it. However, this also makes it fall a bit flat at times, the book not proving very engaging because it's not exactly going anywhere.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

The Witches is an interesting addition to the literature around the Salem Witch Trials. Although it doesn't offer a strikingly new interpretation of these events, it does cast a new and interesting light on some of the people involved. I'd recommend it to people interested not only in Salem specifically but also Puritan New England, witch trials and historic non-fiction in general.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Review: 'Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children' by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children, #1)As usual I am a little bit late to catch up with the world, despite meaning to do so years ago. Miss Peregrine first came out in 2011 and Riggs' novel pretty much became a hit straightaway. A fabulous mix between fantasy and mystery, combining prose with photographs, it was something else. So since 2011 I have been meaning to read Riggs' trilogy and here is me, finally following up on my intention. Thanks to Quirk Books for providing me with the brilliant film tie-in cover edition (see below), in exchange for an honest review.

Publisher: Quirk Books
A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. A strange collection of curious photographs.
A horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a deserted island for good reason. And somehow—impossible though it seems—they may still be alive.
A spine-tingling fantasy illustrated with haunting vintage photography, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children will delight adults, teens, and anyone who relishes an adventure in the shadows.
Who isn't fascinated by that which is different and that which is other? Riggs' Miss Peregrine features a whole cast of outcasts, a set of characters who are in some way different and peculiar. They feel taken straight out of fairy tales and myths and storytelling also plays a major part in setting Jacob up on his journey. Miss Peregrine also feels like such a mythical story, a legend which both explains and yet doesn't, which reveals just enough of a fascinating world peopled with fascinating characters to leave the reader desperate for more. Miss Peregrine is immensely helped by its sympathetic main character. It is not often that a teenage boy is written to be so interesting and insightful, shown to be capable of feeling and emoting, taking responsibility for his actions and showing an awareness for others. The fact Jacob struck me as much as he did feels like proof that these kinds of male characters are rarer than they should be. As a Medievalist who specialises in Old English and Old Norse I was also absolutely loving the names for some of the novel's peculiarities such as ymbryne and Syndrigast, all of which can be translated and interpreted in different ways. It's a sign of the attention and care Riggs has dedicated to creating his world and it majorly pays off.

Image result for miss peregrine's home for peculiar children movie novel cover tie inMiss Peregrine combines fantasy and mystery, different time zones and science fiction-elements. And all of this in a novel that is technically Young Adult. Riggs brings all of these different elements together very well, making them work with and for each other to give the reader a very interesting reading experience. While Jacob is your average, everyday American teenage boy, the situations he finds himself in are anything but average and ordinary. This combination of genres with this plot might not have worked for any other author, but in Riggs' hands Miss Peregrine becomes an immensely fun and interesting book. A personal highlight for me was the Historical Fiction side of the novel, which engages with some of the characters' history as well as the general contemporary history of Europe at the time. The Second World War left an indelible mark on Europe and I thought it was very gratifying to see how Riggs dealt with the aftermath of it for some of its characters. WWII doesn't often appear in the background of novels but when handled in the way Miss Peregrine does it can add immensely to the novel.


Riggs used to be a writer for film and TV and it definitely shows throughout Miss Peregrine. The novel is incredibly cinematic, Riggs going the extra mile both with his descriptions as well as by including the photographs which served as inspiration along the way. As he describes himself in the interview accompanying the film tie-in edition, there are moments in the book which feel like close-ups which allow for intimacy, while other moments are wide-angle shots, giving the reader a sense of grandeur and scale. Knowing this novel will appear as a film soon I'm incredibly excited for certain moments and certain sets, which I know will be stunning. The lay-out of the book is another major bonus. Not enough books try to engage the reader through how they're presented, but Miss Peregrine is also a visual reading experience. Not only is the typeface beautiful, but so are the illustrations and chapter designs. In combination with the authentic (!) photographs, it makes for an interactive and pleasurable read.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is an absolutely fascinating read and one of the best fantasy books to have come out in recent years. I can't believe I've waited this long to get my hands, and eyes, on it, and I'll be reading the rest of the trilogy, Hollow City and Library of Souls, as soon as possible. I'd recommend this to fans of Fantasy, Science Fiction and Mystery. It's a brilliant novel and you should definitely give it a try before the film comes out on the 30th of September!