Saturday, 23 July 2016

Review: 'Asking For It' by Louise O'Neill

Some novels you start with the knowledge that this one might just punch you in the gut and leave you wheezing for a while. I had that suspicion of O'Neill's Only Ever Yours two years ago and it proved completely correct. I still frequently think of it and it's at the top of my 'to reread' list. So when it came to Asking For It my suspicion was a knowing trepidation, which was completely affirmed. Before getting into my review I want to give a trigger warning. It might not be necessary but I will be discussing rape in this review and I don't want to accidentally upset anyone. Thanks to Quercus Books and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: Quercus Books
Publisher: 14/07/2016
‘She writes with a scalpel.' Jeanette Winterson 
‘Brilliant, harrowing’ Observer 
Does it matter if you can't remember? A novel about betrayal and consent, truth and denial, in the age of the smartphone it is a must-read for all teenagers 
It's the beginning of the summer in a small town in Ireland. Emma O'Donovan is eighteen years old, beautiful, happy, confident. 
One night, there's a party. Everyone is there. All eyes are on Emma. 
The next morning, she wakes on the front porch of her house. 
She can't remember what happened, she doesn't know how she got there. 
She doesn't know why she's in pain. 
But everyone else does. Photographs taken at the party show, in explicit detail, what happened to Emma that night. 
But sometimes people don't want to believe what is right in front of them, especially when the truth concerns the town's heroes . . .
Novels such as Asking For It are so incredibly important. To some it may seem as if our current culture is already filled to the brim with conversations about consent, drinking, rape and drugs, and that surely it wouldn't hurt to just calm down a little bit. But most of those television specials or well-meant social media hashtags can't be quite as effective as a book as brutal as Asking For It. If you're hoping that O'Neill will spare you in this book, that it will hold only encouragement but will keep the worst of the darkness far away then you're mistaking. This book won't tell you that as long as you have mace in your bag and a friend on the phone you will be fine walking through the dark park. Because it is not the dark park you have to fear.

Infographic representing that 3 out of 4 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim
Three out of four rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, a statistic which is so simple and is yet one which is too often brushed under the carpet. The graphic on the right comes from RAINN and it's horrifying. Young girls are taught to fear strangers behind bushes, when those aren't the only situations in which their eyes should be wide open. Alongside this, a Rape Crisis survey found that out of a 1000 women interviewed a third thought a woman couldn't be raped if she didn't fight back, while 60% thought it could only be only rape if the woman said 'no'. What these statistics show is how incredibly complex the conversation around rape and consent is, how many different factors play a role in people making their decisions on either, but also how much judgement people feel entitled to. For many people it remains a clinical debate, one from which they can distance themselves because 'it would never happen to them', and statistics such as this make no difference in that. But novels such as Asking For It can perhaps aid in making people understand the horror of the situation their discussing. O'Neill addresses the dark, the white, and the gray spaces with a baffling honesty which is at times almost overwhelming. But Asking For It is supposed to shock you, because rape should never be something we accept as a commonplace in our society.

Similarly as to how she did in Always Yours, O'Neill does not hold the reader's hand in Asking For It, sugarcoating the darkness and giving us or Emma a happy shining ever after at the end. Jeanette Winterson is absolutely correct when she says that O'Neill writes with a scalpel because her books cut. With an almost analytical gaze she takes apart the different layers of deception we throw over our lives; the affected laugh, the secret midnight studying, the guilty snacks, the unconscious demands and laws of social interaction which are perhaps at their strongest in high school, the intense difference in gender expectations. And when these are all stripped back, when O'Neill shows us her characters completely bare, and through them shows us ourselves, we find people who are absolutely terrified of doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, who abuse each other for what they think of as the greater good, people whose idea of self is completely controlled by outside forces. As humans we don't necessarily come out of Asking For It very well. Each person has a little silver lining, that bit of compassion or love which seems to lift them above the rest but that silver lining always comes with a cloud of darkness.

The cast of characters created in Asking For It is immediately recognizable. Everyone who can recall their high school years will remember that clique of pretty girls, that group of jocks, those parties where underage drinking was no big deal, and all those fluid boundaries which left room for too much too soon. O'Neill's stroke of genius is most apparent in Emma. It would have been so easy to make Emma the innocent and sweet teenager who has never done a wrong thing in her life, the perfect girl who the reader can't help but love. But that girl would have been a complete invention and it would have stripped Asking For It of all its power. As she is, Emma is quite terrible at times. She snipes, she demands, she mistreats and above all, she is desperate for recognition. Perhaps it is her desperation to be seen, to be acknowledged and appreciated which is at once the most off-putting and the most recognizable thing about her. Teenage girls are constantly torn between being 'good' and 'bad', forced to walk the thin line between being desirable but not available, wanted but not had. Although much of this can be avoided by taking a step back from the crowd, this comes with the beautiful realization of one's irrelevance, which is quite a bitter pill to swallow at thirteen. Emma's need for affirmation comes from this tearing and it is something every girl will recognize. What happens to her thereby also becomes something every girl will have to face the chance of, and that is where the fear lies. How she describes the way in which Emma's town responds, how the national and international media respond, again strikes that balance between disgusting and recognizable. The blame and burden, which so clearly should not fall on the victim, is happily placed there by those who should know better. That in and of itself is a necessary realization.

It is necessary to be completely honest when it comes to novels such as this, themes such as this, because in the verbal shadows and "Blurred Lines" is where the danger lies. As an outspoken feminist I am incredibly exited that books such as Asking for It are not only being written but also being received so well, with readers avidly picking up O'Neill's themes and starting discussions about it. After reading Only Ever Yours I lent it to friends and my little sister, each of which took something away from the novel, and it will be the same with Asking For It. But here comes to part where I have to be almost shamefully honest. I'm a feminist and very outspoken about the need for conversation on topics such as rape, but there was a part of me which, at times, didn't want to keep reading. It's so easy to look away, to just close the book and keep the conversation hypothetical. To log in on Facebook and talk about the need for stricter follow up on rape accusations while ignoring how something like Facebook is used against women and girls every day. Asking For It is set in our world, in our now, and it makes it impossible to not face the fact that so is rape. O'Neill doesn't spare the reader and after reading this book I was shaken to the core. Not because I had 'never really thought about it', but because she brings it so close and as such also brings the realization that I've been so lucky so far. As said above, the way the conversation is now we are able to distance ourselves from all sorts of crimes that happen in our countries. Rape, war, murder, these all happen somewhere else. O'Neill reveals that it happens at home and that you play a part in it.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

Asking For It isn't fun. It's not a summer read which you can pick up and put down easily. It is an important novel though, one which can significantly contribute to people's awareness of rape and its consequences. Perhaps it will be too graphic for some, too brutal, but in my opinion this is exactly how we should write about rape. I won't have to tell fans of Only Ever Yours to read it, but to anyone who wants to confront themselves with the horror faced by so many women (and men), this is a must read.

I'd like to leave you with the links to both Rape Crisis England and Wales and RAINN. Do search them out if you need help or want information:


Friday, 22 July 2016

Friday Memes: 'Lie With Me' by Sabine Durrant

It's Friday and I'm flying to Germany! I don't know why I'm moving around this much when I have a massive dissertation to write but oh well... one has to go see one's mother! It also means a weekend of relaxation for me, which is great! Although to be honest, my penchant for procrastination really means I should get around to writing my dissertation. Lie with Me really drew me in by how tense it sounds and I did just read The Widow (hop over for my review) so it felt right! And the cover is very pretty and summery, no?
Twisty, tense, impossible to put down psychological suspense for fans of I Let You Go and The Widow. 
It starts with a lie. The kind we've all told - to a former acquaintance we can't quite place but still, for some reason, feel the need to impress. The story of our life, embellished for the benefit of the happily married lawyer with the kids and the lovely home. 
And the next thing you know, you're having dinner at their house, and accepting an invitation to join them on holiday - swept up in their perfect life, the kind you always dreamed of... 
Which turns out to be less than perfect. But by the time you're trapped and sweating in the relentless Greek sun, burning to escape the tension all around you - by the time you start to realise that, however painful the truth might be, it's the lies that cause the real damage... 
... well, by then, it could just be too late.
Book Beginnings and Friday 56 are hosted by Gilion over at Rose City Reader and Freda over at Freda's Voice.

Book Beginnings:
'August 2015It struck me in the night that it might have starter earlier. I sat up in horror and, in the darkness, used my fingernail to scratch the word 'BOOKSHOP' on the inside of my forearm. It has gone now: the skin is inflamed due to an infected insect bite, which I must have further scratched in my sleep. Still, the act of writing did the trick, as it tends to. This morning I can remember well enough.' 1%
I really like the set up of this! What is happening, why is she scratching things into her arm and what is it about a bookshop that was so important?

Friday 56:
'I downed the dregs and stood up, swaying my hips while clicking my fingers to show I was galvanised. It set slightly the wrong tone, a little too frivolous. Sometimes I forgot myself.' 56%
I always feel galvanised by coffee, it's my thing. But I don't think I necessarily sway my hips and click my fingers. I wonder why she has to watch herself though!

What do you think about Lie With Me? The cover is so vibrant, isn't it?

Thursday, 21 July 2016

War and Peace #10: II.ix.7 - II.x.3

I almost didn't get around to this week's chapters because of Star Wars Celebration and my father's birthday (the big 5-0) but here it is! This week's chapters aren't as drama-filled as the last few weeks, Tolstoy is taking a definite step back from the melodrama and focusing on his historical interest once again. Napoleon is back, Emperor Alexander is personally insulted, and Nicholas is confused about what heroism means.

Summary of Chapters:
We get a final chapter on Napoleon which is ends with war being declared. From there we go to Prince Andrew who rejoins the army after a visit back home. His father is still mistreating Princess Mary, who is sinking deeper and deeper into her martyr complex. He goes to the front in Turkey in the hope to run into Anatole Kuragin in order to have his revenge, but Kuragin runs back to Russia. Prince Andrew gets himself reassigned to Russia as well but stays with the army, rather than remain hell-bent on revenge. Nicolas Rostov also finds himself at the front, now in a more senior position and a bit more disenchanted with the high ideals of the army but content with the actual life in the army. Remember the hunt from two weeks ago? During a charge Nicolas gets a similar instinct and captures a young captain of the French army. Although he is awarded the St. George's medal, he feels deeply unsatisfied at having the idea of heroism turn out to be so empty.

From there we move to Natasha, who is incredibly ill. Doctors swarm around her and her family is also glad to be able to look after her. It turns out that it's her grief at last week's happenings weighing on her and she slowly recovers physically. Her joy in life, her vibrancy and, in many ways, innocence, have disappeared. She finds some solace in prayer, in awe before the power of God and working on forgiving herself and loving others. Meanwhile Pierre is still around, visiting her frequently. Natasha sees him as the best of people but not as a love interest, whereas for Pierre there is definitely love there. On the other hand this love is also inspired by his ability to pity her, which becomes less as she improves. However, he also becomes  a bit paranoid, thinking of Napoleon as the coming Antichrist and his own name as a form of the devilish 666, thereby tying his fate to that of Russia... yeah. When the Emperor comes to Moscow he becomes embroiled in  debate but love for the Emperor and Russia wins. Simultaneously the youngest Rostov, Petya, also seems desperate to join the army and falls under the spell of the Emperor and nationalist atmosphere.

The tenth Book starts with a description of why the French were beaten in Russia, by a combination of winter and angry Russians. From there we flit to Bald Hills, the home of the Bolkonskis, where the old Prince Bolkonski is mad after Prince Andrew told him off for mistreating Princess Mary. He is getting a bit senile, not realizing how close the front is to their home. He sets up his bed in a different part of the house each night and is losing his grip on himself.

Feel of the Chapters:
The talk of war is both interesting and significantly less exciting than the rest of the plot. On the one hand it is crucial in describing Russian history and the world in which Tolstoy has set his story, but on the other hand it stands apart from the story and could me dismissed. However, it does allow for the male characters to do some necessary growing up. Especially for Nicholas the front is a good place in the sense that he becomes a lot more sensible and responsible whenever he is there.

Pierre is a confusing character. In these chapters he gets a sense of foreboding disaster, and sets out the numerical value of the French alphabet, thereby realizing that 'L'Empereur Napoleon' brings him to 666. He then manipulates his own name enough until it also brings him to 666 and from that he happily concludes he has a crucial role to play in the upcoming events. Within roughly 200 pages Pierre has joined a secret society, been kicked out of it and started believing in religious mumbo jumbo. I'm hoping that he'll become a little bit less self-involved and self-important, indulges himself less and actually does something with his life. Maybe then I can start liking him.

General Points:

  • It's interesting how Tolstoy describes how split the Russian army's leadership is. After the third group it becomes a bit tiresome to see so many men chasing after glory, convinced of their own right and wisdom, which is exactly what Tolstoy wants you to see. Men standing in their own way could be the subtitle of this novel.
  • I'm very confused about Pierre. Before starting I read that through Pierre Tolstoy would discuss philosophy and wax poetical about the world. On the one hand Pierre is definitely doing this, but he also strikes me as quite annoying?
  • Because these 20 chapters focus so much on (historical) action at the front, it feels a little bit empty of human emotions. There are little glimpses here and there but after the relatively intense few chapters on Natasha and Prince Andrew, we've definitely entered the post-drama cool down.
  • I wonder how exactly Tolstoy feels about the nationalism rising in Russia. The frequent cries throughout these chapters about the power of Russia, wanting to die for Russia, giving everything for Russia, etc. become quite a lot. Especially 15-year old Petya signing up to the army, his father initially against it until the mood sweeps him along, feels like a reminder 

Something Extra:
Today I'm only sharing Napoleon's portrait, which is perhaps one of my favourite historical portraits. He looks so determined to invade Russia and at the same time it's like he's looking at a snowy Russian field going, 'Oh shit...'. This portrait was made by Vasily Vereshchagin, who devoted a series of painting to the Patriotic War of 1812. Don't tell me this isn't the funniest portrait you've ever seen!

'They satisfied that eternal human need for hope of relief, for sympathy, and that something should be done, which is felt by those who are suffering.' 54%
This is Tolstoy's comment on the many doctors that visit Natasha's bedside. I'm not quite sure why I liked it but I did. However, it also goes to show how seemingly devoid of emotion was in these 20 chapters.
'His love for Natasha, Antichrist, Napoleon, the invasion, the comet, 66, L'EmpereurNapoleon, and L'russe Besuhof - all this had to mature and culminate, to lift him out of that spellbound, petty sphere of Moscow habits in which he felt himself held captive and lad him to a great achievement and great happiness.' 55%
In my opinion Pierre definitely lost tough with reality for a little bit. If he is supposed to be Tolstoy's representative in this novel then why is he coming up with strange conspiracy theories about his name in numbers coming up to 666? I find it intensely odd...

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Teasers: 'Yevgeny Onegin' by Alexander Pushkin, trans. A.D.P. Briggs

It's my father's birthday!! So what is more appropriate than sharing teasers from one of Russia's most famous works? Well, perhaps there would be more appropriate books to share but not as fun. Yevgeny Onegin and Pushkin are institutions in their own right so I'm really happy to be reading it. I'm also excited for it because I have seen a ballet based on it! And I haven't read verse in a very long time...
The aristocratic Yevgeny Onegin has come into his inheritance, leaving the glamour of St Petersburg's social life behind to take up residence at his uncle's country estate. Master of the nonchalant bow, and proof of the fact that we shine despite our lack of education, the aristocratic Onegin is the very model of a social butterfly - a fickle dandy, liked by all for his wit and easy ways. When the shy and passionate Tatyana falls in love with him, Onegin condescendingly rejects her, and instead carelessly diverts himself by flirting with her sister, Olga - with terrible consequences.
Yevgeny Onegin is one of the - if not THE - greatest works of all Russian literature, and certainly the foundational text and Pushkin the foundational writer who influence all those who came after (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, etc). So it's no surprise that this verse novella has drawn so many translators. It's a challenge, too, since verse is always harder to translate than prose. (Vikram Seth, rather than translating Onegin again, updated it to the 1980s in San Franciso in his The Golden Gate). 
A.D.P. Briggs is arguably the greatest living scholar of Pushkin, certainly in the UK, and as such he's spent a lifetime thinking about how to translate Pushkin. Briggs is an experienced and accomplished translator, not only for Pushkin (Pushkin's The Queen of Spades) but for Penguin Classics (War and Peace, The Resurrection) and others. Briggs has not only been thinking about Pushkin for decades, he's been working on this translation for nearly as long. It's a landmark event in the history of Onegin translations and this edition is accompanied by a thoughtful introduction and translator's note.
Tuesday Intros and Teaser Tuesday are hosted by Diane over at Bibliophile by the Sea and Jenn over at Books and a Beat.

Tuesday Intros:
'Not for the stately world's amusement 
But as your friend, I'd have been pleased 
To dedicate for your perusal 
A better pledge, a worthier piece 
Truer to your exalted spirit, 
Brimming with limpid poetry, 
And holy dreams by which to fill it.' 1%
I love the beginning of this, the translation flows really beautifully. I like that Yevgeny Onegin is dedicated, or written for a friend in this way. A problem with verse, however, is that usually you don't get much of an introduction so I have no idea what is going to happen.

Teaser Tuesday:
'And local folk were much enthralled, 
Which then gave rise to lots of guesses, 
And enigmatic noes and yesses, 
And jokes and judgements, some quite rude: 
Tatyana - was she being wooed?' 42%

I think we can all recognise ourselves in the situation that Tatyana finds herself in. The guessing and the prodding that starts when someone is maybe being flirted with. It's both the most awkward and exciting thing. But considering the blurb I feel like this guessing game may have some bad consequences.

Have you heard of Yevgeny Onegin and Pushkin? Do you read a lot of verse?

Monday, 18 July 2016

Review: 'Bloodline' by Claudia Gray

BloodlineI have just spent a whole three days at Star Wars Celebration Europe in London, immersing myself in all the Star Wars I could possibly desire but on the train there and back and in the queues I was reading Bloodline. From the moment it was announced this novel has intrigued me, since the political themes of the Prequel-trilogy are what keeps me fascinated. Thanks to Penguin Random House for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, and for being absolutely lovely at SWCE!

Pub. Date: 03/052016
Publisher: Penguin Random House, Century
When the Rebellion defeated the Empire in the skies above Endor, Leia Organa believed it was the beginning to a lasting peace. But after decades of vicious infighting and partisan gridlock in the New Republic Senate, that hope seems like a distant memory.
Now a respected senator, Leia must grapple with the dangers that threaten to cripple the fledgling democracy—from both within and without. Underworld kingpins, treacherous politicians, and Imperial loyalists are sowing chaos in the galaxy. Desperate to take action, senators are calling for the election of a First Senator. It is their hope that this influential post will bring strong leadership to a divided galaxy. 
As the daughter of Darth Vader, Leia faces with distrust the prospect of any one person holding such a powerful position—even when supporters suggest Leia herself for the job. But a new enemy may make this path Leia’s only option. For at the edges of the galaxy, a mysterious threat is growing. . . .
Lucasfilm caused much consternation a while back when it was announced that the Star Wars Extended Universe, holding dozens of stories ranging hundreds of years of Star Wars history, would be scrapped in order to create a cohesive canon of stories that would support the main narrative of the seven films. Lucasfilm created the Story Group which oversees that a continuous and logical story is told in each medium, that the games support the films, that the novels inform on characters and developments, etc. Gray's Bloodline is set roughly between the Original trilogy and the new The Force Awakens, in many ways tasked with providing more information about crucial plot elements in the latter film. However, at the heart of this novel is the character development of Leia Organa, the Princess who became a General. Whereas The Force Awakens didn't give Leia very much to do, Bloodline has Leia become very active, having to respond to the potential crumbling of the political system. The struggle between being 'the daughter of ...' and being her own person is also really interesting and is exactly what has been missing from Leia's story so far. The Original Trilogy focused on Luke and his relationship with Vader which was, in many ways, much shorter and sweeter than Leia's. Bloodline will give a lot of people the answers to questions they've been asking for a while and will give them the Leia they know, active, provocative and above all beautifully independent.

As I said above, I am really interested in the political elements of Star Wars. It is one of the ways in which Star Wars has continued to comment on contemporary social anxieties and thereby continues to be relevant and informative. In the Prequels we see the break down of a Republic, see a democratic institution become corrupted and be replaced by a dictator. In the Originals we see this dictator rule the Empire, which is destroyed by the Rebellion. In many ways we saw reflected in this both the Cold War anxieties about fascist conformity as well as the 21st century's conflict about centralisation and political power in and of itself. In Bloodline are explored two political opposites which are currently incredibly relevant to Europe's situation. On the one hand we find the Centrists, who believe in a centralised government for the whole Galaxy, preferably with a single ruler. On the other hand there are the Populists who believe there should be no overall control because it too often leads to tyranny. With her experience fighting against the Empire, Leia is solidly Populist but Gray shows her willingness to open up to new ideas. Star Wars has always been about political and it is great to see new authors continue to use Star Wars to make politics interesting to new readers and fans, to translate our own world into this fictional one and thereby elucidate it. Relevance to contemporary society is what makes a book special, in my mind. As such, Bloodline is not only an important novel to the Star Wars Galaxy but also to our own world.

Writing a tie-in can be quite difficult. A character as well-known and beloved as Leia, who has a recognisable voice, is a challenge to any author. Thankfully Claudia Gray is not only a great writer, but she also has experience writing Star Wars. Her Lost Stars from last year proved her capability to write within this universe, and with Bloodline she cements her status as one of the best of the current tie-in writers. Moving fluidly between description and dialogue, fighting and discussion, reflection and action, Gray never loses the plot. Gray nails characters like Leia and Han, which the reader knows, and introduces fascinating new characters which I'd love to see again. Moving between different narrators, with most of the focus lying on Leia, Gray doesn't let her readers off easily, placing the blame solidly on one side. Rather, Gray shows the ambiguous morality of a world which seems on the brink.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I really loved Bloodline. It not only captures the Leia we know very well, it also introduces us to aspects of her we didn't yet know. Gray makes this story her own and fills in crucial gaps in the Star Wars canon. Whether you're a dedicated Star Wars fan or only loosely interested in Sci-Fi, I'd recommend Bloodline as an example of the perfect tie-in novel.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

War and Peace #9: II.viii.10 - II.ix7

Unfortunately I was right in my predictions of how everything might take a turn for the worse after last week's relatively happy chapters! It's always interesting to see the way a change in one character's storyline affects the other characters, especially when they become as closely tied together as Tolstoy's characters (finally) have. It still feels like a soap opera, but now that we've roughly reached the halfway mark Tolstoy is also interjecting into the narrative with some historical and political arguments, which is definitely spicing up the book.

Summary of Chapters:
Last week left us on the bring of potential (romantic) disaster for Natasha and Tolstoy well and truly gets into it in this week's 20 chapters! We start still at the opera, where Anatole makes his move on Natasha who, for the first time, receives the complete and utter romantic attention of a man and is consequently overwhelmed. Helene happily plays go between and invites her around the next evening. Natasha, romantic innocent that she is, assumes her confusion over Anatole and Prince Andrew can only mean she loves them both. When Anatole kisses her that evening she feels she must love him and therefore ends her engagement with Prince Andrew. Sonya sees one of Anatole's letters and confronts Natasha, who is almost deliriously in love. They are staying with Marya Dnitrievna, who finds out from Sonya that Anatole and Natasha are planning a kidnapping/elopement which is just about prevented. Natasha is heartbroken, especially when it is revealed that Anatole is already married and couldn't actually care less for Natasha's feelings. Pierre buys his silence and sends him back to Petersburg. This is the moment Prince Andrew makes his return, coldly accepting the breaking off of the engagement and hiding his wounded heart behind more coldness. Pierre is initially also very disappointed in Natasha until her sadness awakens his own heart.

We leave Natasha recovering from a suicide-attempt in Moscow and move to the Russian border where Napoleon decides it's time to invade Russia again. There is a fascinating chapter on history and ow we perceive it, and then there is a lot of talk about rivers being crossed, emperors being mad, and marshals being sent around. Boris manages to be right in the middle of things while remaining utterly unimportant. A certain Balashev is sent to Napoleon with a letter by Emperor Alexander, who is not pleased to be invaded by someone who is supposed to be an ally. He is received with lacking courtesy and when he does meet Napoleon it is in the very room from which Alexander sent him away five days earlier, now conquered by the French. Napoleon goes on a massive rant against Russia and the Russian Emperor and everyone seems embarrassed by it.

Feel of the Chapters:
Whereas the initial chapters describing the growing affection between Natasha and Prince Andrew felt refreshing and rosy, this week's chapters have a distinct sense of tragedy about them, as well as a more hectic feeling. There is no peaceful and happy lingering. Rather Pierre, seemingly the go-between of everyone, rushes from one house to the next, with the whole affair and failed elopement occurring within a few days. In some ways this makes the sentence on Natasha feel even harsher because it all happens so quickly. One does pity Prince Andrew but then his own pride and unwillingness to go against his father did make him absent for a whole year without any true reassurance. It is an odd situation in which everyone is slightly guilty for looking away or looking too closely.

The chapters regarding Napoleon and Tolstoy's digression on the nature of History are fascinating, and yet the question of how it is entirely relevant does linger. They feel distinctly different than the chapters in which he focuses on his own characters, an yet there is an edge to his "historic" writing because it allows him to express his own opinions, perhaps even dabble in some history-making himself. Having recently read Les Mis it is also interesting to see Napoleon described from a different perspective, by a different country and culture.

I think more than any of the other chapters, these have been a perfect example of the incredibly double standard enforced upon men and women, both previously in history but even today. It is clear that Anatole is purposefully setting out to seduce Natasha, knowing she'll make an easy victim because she's so young and having no intentions whatsoever to behave honourably. Natasha is, perhaps, foolish enough to fall for it but Tolstoy actually shows  part of her thought process better than he perhaps intended. Natasha blames herself for how far she already feels involved and sees love as her only way out of her predicament. She then rushes into it head on, while Anatole equally happily distances himself again once he is offered money by Pierre. Sure, Pierre is disgusted by him but yet Anatole gets of scot free and, after all, what was anyone really expecting from him? But no, virginal and kind, lovely and young Natasha, she is now the fallen woman, she has sinned, she is stupid and just as bad as all other women. Pierre doesn't truly forgive her until he sees her cry and realizes he might love her. The consequences of this "affair" fall well and truly upon Natasha's shoulders when she is the only true victim. Not only has she been actively played by Anatole, she is also being raised in a society which restricts her contact with men and her behaviour so much that she becomes an easier victim. I am curious how this will develop, what continuing consequences it will have. But so far Natasha seems to be "ruined". But perhaps the love of a man, a Tolstoy-approved man, i.e. Pierre, can save her... blegh.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Review: 'Smoke' by Dan Vyleta

Sometimes the mere idea of a book is enough to be intriguing, a concept that is the perfect mix between what you've been waiting for and what you'd never have expected. That is how I felt when I read the blurb for Smoke by Dan Vyleta. Here was something interesting, something different, that had the feel of a contemporary classic about it. The fact that the cover is intriguingly stunning in all its editions also helps. And I am incredibly pleased to say that Vyleta didn't fail me. Thanks to Netgalley and Orion Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: Orion Publishing Group
Publisher: 07/07/2016
'The laws of Smoke are complex. Not every lie will trigger it. A fleeting thought of evil may pass unseen. Next thing you know its smell is in your nose. There is no more hateful smell in the world than the smell of Smoke . . .'
If sin were visible and you could see people's anger, their lust and cravings, what would the world be like?
Smoke opens in a private boarding school near Oxford, but history has not followed the path known to us. In this other past, sin appears as smoke on the body and soot on the clothes. Children are born carrying the seeds of evil within them. The ruling elite have learned to control their desires and contain their sin. They are spotless. 
It is within the closeted world of this school that the sons of the wealthy and well-connected are trained as future leaders. Among their number are two boys, Thomas and Charlie. On a trip to London, a forbidden city shrouded in smoke and darkness, the boys will witness an event that will make them question everything they have been told about the past. For there is more to the world of smoke, soot and ash than meets the eye and there are those who will stop at nothing to protect it . . .
I have a habit of racing through books, picking them up and not putting them down until they're done. On the one hand this ravishing of books is brilliant because you get a great story and all its excitement in one quick fix. But on the other hand it means the pleasure of each book also dissipates very quickly, leaving you looking for the next read and almost forgetting about the last. In the case of Smoke I decided to take my time, savour it, so to say. At almost 450 pages, Smoke isn't a short book, but there is also a quality to the experiences it describes which are better taken one gulp at a time. Vyleta's concept of visible sin, of Smoke and Soot showing our innermost thoughts, revealing passion, anger, hate, fear and more is fascinating, both to read about and think about. As Thomas, Charlie and Livia make their way through the book their struggles with revealing these emotions is very interestingly described and developed. Initially it might not be such a bad idea, to know whenever you're sinning because that way you can change. But as Smoke rolls on Vyleta introduces more and more complications, forcing the reader to not only think about the positions his characters are in but also about their own perceptions of sin and morality, what makes something wrong and when one can "sin" with a clear conscious.
For me the novel's strength lies in its trio of main characters. Raised in the upper class of a society that is built on vilifying those who Smoke, who see it almost as a degenerative trait, Thomas, Charlie and Livia all struggle with coming into their own in different ways. At the same time they are also thrown into the intrigues of a bigger world, where more is at stake than staining your pillow and getting detention. Many YA novels focus on the difficulty for teenagers to find a balance between following their instincts and desires while also developing into a mature and function member of society. The struggles between feeling and knowing, passion and reason, sin and morality, are at the heart of a lot of books. Visualising it and showing the consequences of going too far into either direction is one of the things that makes Smoke stand out. It also allows Vyleta to honestly describe both the vile and beautiful sides of human passion. Some despicable things happen in this novel, terrifyingly recognisable from the world we live in. But there is also the beautiful awakening of emotions which uplifts parts of the novel. I wouldn't consider this a spoiler but the tension between Thomas, Charlie and Livia is also worked out really interestingly, providing an interesting twist on what we usually see in novels.

What made me think very highly of Smoke almost from the start was Vyleta's willingness to use his novel to comment upon our contemporary society and politics. The divide between the classes, the moral judgement that empowers this divide and allows a certain group of people the shamelessly take advantage, the backroom deals , the relative ineffectiveness of government,it all finds a place in this novel. But perhaps nothing comes out of this novel as clearly as England's danger to close itself against the world, especially after the results of the 23rd of June. In Vyleta's Smoke England practically finds itself in a Golden Isolationism, the fear of visible sin closing borders, hearts and minds, and stifling a country in its development. One of literature's tasks, of all art, in my opinion, is to comment upon the society within which it is created but too many contemporary novels seem to take place in a social vacuum, a time period that is almost impossible to identify because it discusses and deals with none of our current social anxieties and troubles. I do hope to see more novels like Smoke in the next years, which, perhaps unconsciously, pick up up social trends and translate them into their stories.

Vyleta's writing is stunning. It is difficult to write about emotions in a way that doesn't come across as incredibly over the top or too restrained. Vyleta finds a good balance where he takes his characters' emotions seriously but doesn't let them overwhelm the narrative. Where Vyleta does use tropes he does so interestingly, which is a major boon to people like me who get annoyed at reading the same thing over and over again. The descriptions, aside from the emotions, are great. Whether it is describing the almost stifling atmosphere of the boys' boarding school or the sheer presence of London, full of sin, full of people, Vyleta creates the environment vividly for the reader. The first half of the novel does a lot of world-building, setting up characters and introducing storylines and, as such passes quite quickly. It has a good pace and sucks the reader in immediately. The second half of Smoke is where most of the struggle takes part, where the characters do most of their growing, and as such the pace is a bit slower. For me the two parts complemented each other very well, to the point where it feels like the novel is growing with you. Vyleta also switches between his narrators frequently which gives the reader a lot of different angles to approach the narrative from. Personally I enjoy this, especially if the author successfully manages to differentiate between the different characters in his writing.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

I absolutely loved Smoke. From the initial premise to Vyleta's writing, this novel is a joy to read. It's exciting and conscious, interestingly told and engaging. I will not only be frequently rereading this novel, I will also be telling a lot of people about it. I'd recommend this to fans of Literary Fiction and Sci-Fi/Fantasy, as well as Historical Fiction fans.