Thursday, 23 October 2014

Review: 'A Storm of Witchcraft' by Emerson W. Baker



I really enjoy reading non-fictional historical books. I think one of the main "tasks" of books and literature is to educate and therefore there is nothing more important than well-written books on history and culture. Witchcraft is also a major interest of mine because I think it is absolutely fascinating, especially how it interacts with history.
Beginning in January 1692, Salem Village in colonial Massachusetts witnessed the largest and most lethal outbreak of witchcraft in early America. Villagers--mainly young women--suffered from unseen torments that caused them to writhe, shriek, and contort their bodies, complaining of pins stuck into their flesh and of being haunted by specters. Believing that they suffered from assaults by an invisible spirit, the community began a hunt to track down those responsible for the demonic work. The resulting Salem Witch Trials, culminating in the execution of 19 villagers, persists as one of the most mysterious and fascinating events in American history. 
Historians have speculated on a web of possible causes for the witchcraft that stated in Salem and spread across the region-religious crisis, ergot poisoning, an encephalitis outbreak, frontier war hysteria--but most agree that there was no single factor. Rather, as Emerson Baker illustrates in this seminal new work, Salem was "a perfect storm": a unique convergence of conditions and events that produced something extraordinary throughout New England in 1692 and the following years, and which has haunted us ever since.
Baker shows how a range of factors in the Bay colony in the 1690s, including a new charter and government, a lethal frontier war, and religious and political conflicts, set the stage for the dramatic events in Salem. Engaging a range of perspectives, he looks at the key players in the outbreak--the accused witches and the people they allegedly bewitched, as well as the judges and government officials who prosecuted them--and wrestles with questions about why the Salem tragedy unfolded as it did, and why it has become an enduring legacy.
Salem in 1692 was a critical moment for the fading Puritan government of Massachusetts Bay, whose attempts to suppress the story of the trials and erase them from memory only fueled the popular imagination. Baker argues that the trials marked a turning point in colonial history from Puritan communalism to Yankee independence, from faith in collective conscience to skepticism toward moral governance. A brilliantly told tale, A Storm of Witchcraft also puts Salem's storm into its broader context as a part of the ongoing narrative of American history and the history of the Atlantic World.
Salem and its witch trials are a major part of not only our entertainment but also of our history without us really being aware of it. As a European, Salem isn't part of "my history" perse and it has never really been taught in my schools. The closest I have come to learning about it was when I read The Crucible. However, witch trials and the persecution of witches was a major issue in Europe during the Middle Ages and it has always fascinated me how something as "unreal" as witchcraft could be a palpable threat to enlightened people. Baker really astutely remarks that for 17th century people witches were as real as bakers or butchers. Although we might take this with a grain of salt, it is still important to realize the differences in thinking that exist between their and our time. A Storm of Witchcraft is full of these little gems of sudden insight which Baker carefully works towards. It makes it a very interesting and engaging read.

Unfortunately Baker sometimes seems to lose himself in the details. There is so much information that he has collected that at times chapters get clogged up and lose their thread. Although he always manages to pick it back up, some chapters can be a hard read. Especially when it comes to the people involved, the endless names become quite confusing. Although Baker does well in showing the scope of those afflicted by the witch trials, it can be very hard to follow and at some points you just give up on trying to remember exactly who is being discussed. But as I said, Baker usually picks the thread back up after the information dump and brings the chapter to a clear resolution. What the multitude of "characters" are good for is precisely for showing how widely these witch trials impacted not just Massachusetts but all of America.

As the synopsis says, Baker argues for the coming together of a whole range of events that led to the eventual witch trials. As such, it is one of the most convincing and interesting theories I have read so far. I am in agreement with Baker than big historical events are always a product of their time and therefore of the surrounding factors all coming together at once. The history of the town of Salem itself was also something completely new to me. Baker's insights into Puritanism, the conflict between the Native Americans and the Americans and the tense relationship with England were all really interesting and formed the highlights of the book for me. A Storm of Witchcraft is definitely a fascinating insight into the complexity of something now usually referred to simply as temporary madness. I also really enjoyed his analysis of how the legacy of Salem changed throughout the years and how, in some ways, Salem came to stand for exactly that which the Puritans most feared into 1692.

I give this book...

3 Universes.

I would definitely recommend this book to those of you who are interested in knowing more about Salem and the witch trials. If you are just interested in something a bit sensational and a bit educational at the same time, Baker's book isn't for you. It asks for a lot of attention and patience, but those virtues are rewarded by very rewarding insights. Overall, this book kept me interested throughout and I am very glad with my extra knowledge.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Review: 'Property Of' by Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman is perhaps best known for her novel Practical Magic, which was turned into an highly entertaining movie. This year also saw her publishing The Museum of Extraordinary Things which I myself immensely enjoyed. However, Hoffman has been writing for years and it is her first novel that is up for discussion now. And what a way to make an entrance into the literary world!

The mesmerizing debut of a major American writer
On the Night of the Wolf, the Orphans drive south on the Avenue, hunting their rival gang, the Pack. In the lead is McKay, their brooding, courageous President. Left waiting at the clubhouse is the Property of the Orphans, tough girls in mascara and leather who have declared their allegiance to the crew. Tonight, a new girl has joined their ranks. She waits only for McKay.
Drag races, dope, knife fights in the street. To the seventeen-year-old heroine of Alice Hoffman’s stunning first novel, the gritty world of the Avenue is beautiful and enthralling. But her love for McKay is an addiction—one that is never satisfied and is impossible to kick. Deeper and deeper she falls, until the winter’s day when she decides to break the spell once and for all.
A strikingly original story about the razor-thin line between love and loss, Property Of showcases the vivid imagery, lyricism, and emotional complexity that are the hallmarks of Alice Hoffman’s extraordinary career.
This would be one hell of an introduction to Hoffman. Having seen or read Practical Magic, you might think you know what she is all about, but Property Of is unlike any book I have read and I have to be quite honest and say that I am slightly in love with it the way out protagonist is in love with McKay. It wasn't enough and yet it was just right. 'Mesmerizing', 'original' and 'vivid' are all words that fit this novel to the tee. When I read the synopsis I was intrigued and then worried. Was I going to be reading another 'I can fix him with my love'-story? Would it be as cliche as I know a lot of novels to be? And yet from the very first page Hoffman cast all of my doubts aside and had me following her trail. In Property Of she manages to show things that would otherwise have enraged me. Women aren't property and shouldn't ever be thought of as such, and yet Hoffman nails it when she describes the feeling of longing to belong, may it be to a group or to one other person. Humans are pack-animals and we crave to be close to others. We also crave excitement, danger, honour and other things that aren't good for us. Hoffman describes many of these things without judgement, without a morality-lesson and thereby allows her reader an insight into a life most of us won't know. It makes excellent food for thought, something every book should strive to be.

Hoffman has an incredible authorial presence that is never too intrusive. She herself doesn't "enter" the narrative but the protagonist often takes a moment out to address the reader. Although this usually breaks up the narrative for me, leading to frustration, here it really helps. Not once do you find out what her name is or where she actually comes from but because the book is so closely entwined with the main character those details would feel unnecessary. You will know her better than you know yourself at the end of the book. I found myself in love when she was, disgusted, terrified when she was and sometimes even angry at her, without ever thinking of putting the book down. Through her use of language, which makes the base and banal lyrical, the novel lures you into this world of gangs and violence, where the concept of honour among thieves still seem to exist and yet reality never fails to intervene, and makes you want to be a part of it. Will I be joining a gang tomorrow? No, Property Of has definitely convinced me it's not my kind of place, but that doesn't mean that the images drawn by Hoffman aren't enticing and spectacular. In many ways, Hoffman has done exactly what I wish all books did. She has taken me on a journey, shown me places I would otherwise never have seen, all from my own room.

This novel is one that exists almost solely for itself. It sounds very abstract or pretentious maybe, but Property Of feels like a book that wasn't written to top the best-seller lists and bring in money, but to allow the author to stretch her abilities to the brink and over it. Originally published in 1977, it is was released as e-book in September of this year and although this may be me growing sentimental over a time in which I never lived, Property Of smacks of a time when "literature" was a lot freer, less constrained by the need to make profit or to fit in with a trend. Being a debut novel, it is naturally also meant to showcase Hoffman's abilities at their best but nothing in this book feels manufactured or fake. She writes matter-of-factly about violence, love, drugs and many more things

I give this novel...
5 Universes.

I don't hand out 5 Universes quickly because I keep them for books that really resonate with me or touch something that other books don't. Property Of is that kind of book. Hoffman creates a story that is addictive, that you don't want to let go. The thought of picking up another book straight after this one was out of the question. I recommend this not only to Hoffman fans but also to readers looking for a book that will suck you in and not let go.

Tuesday Intros & Teaser Tuesdays - 'Property Of' by Alice Hoffman

I'm really excited about the book I'm sharing with you guys today! I read it over the weekend and it simply won't let me go. The book I'm talking about is Property Of by Alice Hoffman. It was her debut novel and it has completely blown me away! I just posted my review as well, so if you want to read my thoughts on it hop over there! Tuesday Intros is hosted by Diane over at Bibliophile by the Sea and Teaser Tuesday is hosted over at Should Be Reading!
The mesmerizing debut of a major American writer
On the Night of the Wolf, the Orphans drive south on the Avenue, hunting their rival gang, the Pack. In the lead is McKay, their brooding, courageous President. Left waiting at the clubhouse is the Property of the Orphans, tough girls in mascara and leather who have declared their allegiance to the crew. Tonight, a new girl has joined their ranks. She waits only for McKay.
Drag races, dope, knife fights in the street. To the seventeen-year-old heroine of Alice Hoffman’s stunning first novel, the gritty world of the Avenue is beautiful and enthralling. But her love for McKay is an addiction—one that is never satisfied and is impossible to kick. Deeper and deeper she falls, until the winter’s day when she decides to break the spell once and for all.
A strikingly original story about the razor-thin line between love and loss, Property Of showcases the vivid imagery, lyricism, and emotional complexity that are the hallmarks of Alice Hoffman’s extraordinary career.
Property Of is simply absolutely fascinating and Hoffman sucks you into this gang-world and leaves you both craving more and glad you're not living it. Anyway, let's get on to the memes!

Intro:
'"Look," I said, "I'm going with you."Snow was falling and the moon was howling light onto the Avenue. It was a night for skidding tires and Orphans on the street. I waited for his answer."Get lost," said Danny the Sweet."Danny," I said, "what kind of an answer is that? That's an answer I won't accept." p.1
One of the main things I liked about this book was how the main character acted. She is never named, since it's told from her perspective, but she never not does what she wants to do. She doesn't follow commands and she is never called out on that. Despite the book being called Property Of, she mainly owns herself.
TeaserTuesdays2014e
Teaser:
'My enemy had tricked me from the very start. What I thought was alive was long dead, and there is no victory when the enemy was a corpse long long before the battle had ever begun. Even if that enemy was a word.' p.100
I chose this teaser because it's quite a good example, I think, of how Hoffman works with language and manages to make quite complicated ideas very logical. Also, in this case her "enemy" really is a word, or rather what that word stands for.

So, which book are you teasing? Is it a current read or one you just finished?

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Review: 'The Ship' by Antonia Honeywell


I wasn't sure what I would think of this novel when I started it. The Dystopian genre is one that is very hit and miss for me. Either there is not enough exposition and everything comes off as unrealistic or the author loses themselves in describing a post-apocalyptic world and abandons his plot. Thankfully, The Ship completely blew me away. 
CHILDREN OF MEN meets THE HANDMAIDEN'S TALE: a dystopian epic about love, friendship and what it means to be free. 
WELCOME TO LONDONBUT NOT AS YOU KNOW IT
Oxford Street burned for three weeksThe British Museum is squatted by ragtag survivorsThe Regent's Park camps have been bombed
THE NAZARETH ACT HAS COME INTO FORCEIF YOU CAN'T PRODUCE YOUR IDENTITY CARD, YOU'RE GOING TO BE SHOT
Lalla, 16, has grown up sheltered from the new reality by her visionary father, Michael Paul. But now the chaos has reached their doorstep. Michael has promised Lalla and her mother that they will escape. Escape is a ship big enough to save 500 people.
BUT ONLY THE WORTHY WILL BE CHOSEN 
Once on board, as day follows identical day, Lalla's unease grows. Where are they going? What does her father really want?
The books that I most enjoy are books that ask questions and don't serve you a picture-perfect answer on a silver platter. Honeywell's The Ship does exactly what I wish from a book, The synopsis may make it sounds sensational and unrealistic, but Honeywell has done her research. Her London, her world, is one of the most recognizable dystopian settings I have read. Many of the "problems" her characters encounter could be potential consequences of many of the things happening around the world as we speak. Of course she draws an extremely bleak future in which a lot of things go wrong which don't have to go wrong, but it is a human future, one in which we could end up. The idea of the Ship is, I think, derived from the Utopia-tradition, the concept that there is such a thing as a perfect society. Although I myself am a skeptic, I really enjoyed the way Honeywell created the Ship and managed to show its different sides. I don't want to give away too much, but the idea that a society that is only perfect within itself is not human is one that definitely pops up in The Ship.

Honeywell really manages to capture some of the darker and lighter aspects of humanity. On the one hand there is love and friendship and trust, but humans are also selfish and desperate for survival. Lalage, or Lalla, was a great main character. There is a real development in her and from the very first page to the last one she is constantly changing and growing up. Initially I found some of her actions a bit childish, but her sheltered childhood kept her away from a lot of things, so that was to be expected. Honeywell then does really well in showing how reality seeps in and how that understanding changes a person. Some of the surrounding characters felt a bit flat, in the sense that some of their actions weren't quite as human as you would expect. However, the novel is told from Lalla's perspective, who is clearly an unreliable narrator, so the extra characters' "flaws" could be down to that. Aside from telling a good story, The Ship also uses Honeywell's thoughts about the world we live in to make some genuinely interesting points. At which point does the survival of a few outweigh the lives of most? Is culture something we need to preserve or reinvent? Do you have to give up on answers if giving in is easier?

There are a lot of twists and turns in this novel which constantly kept me on the edge of my seat. Because you experience and find out things alongside Lalla you start off very unknowing. It's a real pleasure to not be able to anticipate the plot twists because too often dystopian novels are very predictable. Honeywell's writing style is also really evocative, managing to both describe quite brutal scenes and also portray a budding romance in a way I found both endearing and fascinating. The writing evolves alongside the characters and manages to really build up to the climax of the novel, at which point all you want is to know. As I said at the beginning of this review, I enjoy novels that make me think and I had to think throughout this novel.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

I read this book within a day and that is not something I do often. Although I had plenty of other things to do I kept reading because I had to finish it. Honeywell keeps you engaged throughout and you really come to care about the characters. Apart from that, The Ship is also incredibly clever and interesting. You will definitely be thinking about this one for a while after finishing and I recommend it to everyone.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Review: 'Gracefully Grayson' by Ami Polonsky

Gracefully GraysonI try to read a varied amount of books about a whole range of topics because I think it is through reading or experiencing someone else's life that we really learn. When I saw the synopsis for this book I knew that it was one I simply had to pick up and read, not only because it is an important issue, but also because it sounded heart-breaking.

Alone at home, twelve-year-old Grayson Sender glows, immersed in beautiful thoughts and dreams. But at school, Grayson grasps at shadows, determined to fly under the radar. Because Grayson has been holding onto a secret for what seems like forever: “he” is a girl on the inside, stuck in the wrong gender’s body.
The weight of this secret is crushing, but leaving it behind would mean facing ridicule, scorn, and rejection. Despite these dangers, Grayson’s true self itches to break free. Strengthened by an unexpected friendship and a caring teacher who gives her a chance to step into the spotlight, Grayson might finally have the tools to let her inner light shine.
Debut author Ami Polonsky’s moving, beautifully-written novel shines with the strength of a young person’s spirit and the enduring power of acceptance
Polonsky deals her subject matter and her characters with unending tenderness. She doesn't give complicated terms for things that are so simple to a twelve-year old. What I appreciated was her refusal to clearly and directly make some people antagonistic. For adults with a child's best interest at heart it can be hard to figure out what to do and how to respond. This doesn't make them evil but simply realistic. Polonsky creates a broad spectrum of characters, all of which are given the time and space to respond to Grayson in their own way and although the reader might agree with one rather than the other, no one is vilified.

I think that gender dysphoria and transgender identity are topics which should be much more openly discussed because if there isn't an open and safe space for these topics then people such as Grayson will have to struggle much more to express themselves. Literature is a great place to start and especially a book such as Gracefully Grayson which is accessible to people from a very early age on. Polonsky's writing is simple, direct and without unnecessary frills. That doesn't mean that the book isn't beautiful. Polonsky pays a lot of attention to what she says and how and it really shows in how loved the book feels. Especially the choice of the play performed was very interesting and also shows Polonsky stretching her writing-skills, successfully I'd like to add.

The high-school environment as described by Polonsky is one of the most realistic I have ever read. Authors too easily slip into writing intrigues and relationships that, in my experience, are way too complicated and grown-up for high-school. Rather than dramatize, Polonsky sticks to Grayson and how he feels. There is a distinct difference between something being a certain way or someone thinking about  something a certain way. This may seem obvious but I've read a lot of books in which this difference wasn't appreciated. Who is friendly, who is antagonistic, who is plotting, who is simply chatting, we'll never know because we can only hear our own thoughts and Gracefully Grayson goes out of its way to stay with Grayson and not get carried away by the dramatic potential of the setting.

What may come as a surprise is that this book isn't all about a boy who is transgender. Yes, Grayson knows he's a girl, not a boy. But that's not all there is to his life. There is friendship, family, school and the process of growing-up. By incorporating Grayson's identity as a transgender along with the rest of his life Polonsky subtly tells the message that it isn't something life-halting or shocking but just one part of a person. It also means that the book is enjoyable, despite its heavy topic. There are funny moments, sad moments and even inspiring ones.

I give this novel...

4 Universes.

I really recommend this book to, well, everyone. Polonsky deals with the issue very kindly and makes it accessible to readers from all ages. Although I think there is a "deeper" way of dealing with the topic and exploring it more, this is a great starting point, especially for teenagers. Polonsky's writing is great and the book flies by while giving the reader a taste of a whole range of emotions.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Tuesday Intros & Teaser Tuesdays

It's Tuesday, it's raining, it's gloomy...I need a pick-me-up! And there's nothing better than seeing what everyone's reading and becoming insanely jealous at all of your amazing books! Tuesday Intros is hosted by Diane over at Bibliophile by the Sea. Teaser Tuesday is hosted over at Should Be Reading!
TeaserTuesdays2014e

This week I'm using two different books: Mr. Bones: Twenty Stories by Paul Theroux for Tuesday Intros.
A dark and bitingly humorous collection of short stories from the “brilliantly evocative” (Time) Paul Theroux A family watches in horror as their patriarch transforms into the singing, wise-cracking lead of an old-timey minstrel show. A renowned art collector relishes publicly destroying his most valuable pieces. Two boys stand by helplessly as their father stages an all-consuming war on the raccoons living in the woods around their house. A young artist devotes himself to a wealthy, malicious gossip, knowing that it’s just a matter of time before she turns on him. 
In this new collection of short stories, acclaimed author Paul Theroux explores the tenuous leadership of the elite and the surprising revenge of the overlooked. He shows us humanity possessed, consumed by its own desire and compulsion, always with his carefully honed eye for detail and the subtle idiosyncrasies that bring his characters to life. Searing, dark, and sure to unsettle, Mr. Bones is a stunning new display of Paul Theroux’s “fluent, faintly sinister powers of vision and imagination” (John Updike, The New Yorker).
Intro from Mr. Bones:
'Minor Watt, the real estate developer and art collector, was seated at the Jacobean dining table with the fat baluster legs that serves as his desk, waiting for his wife - soon to be ex-wife - to arrive. He had been thinking of himself, but the graceful Chinese vase with a tall flared neck, resting on the antique table, made him reflect that, as with so many things he owned - perhaps all of them - we was able to discern its inner meaning in its subtle underglaze, the circumstances of his acquiring it, its price of course, its provenance, all the hands that had touched it and yet left it undamaged, its relation ot his own life, its secret history, its human dimension, almost as though his pale porcelain with the tracery of red peony scroll was human flesh. And then after this flicker of distraction he thought of himself again.' p.9
 I love the apparent nonchalance of Theroux's writing style. He manages to go from simple to incredibly detailed with ease and then slips back without a problem. So far what I've read has been great!
I'm using Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky for Teaser Tuesday.

Gracefully GraysonAlone at home, twelve-year-old Grayson Sender glows, immersed in beautiful thoughts and dreams. But at school, Grayson grasps at shadows, determined to fly under the radar. Because Grayson has been holding onto a secret for what seems like forever: “he” is a girl on the inside, stuck in the wrong gender’s body.
The weight of this secret is crushing, but leaving it behind would mean facing ridicule, scorn, and rejection. Despite these dangers, Grayson’s true self itches to break free. Strengthened by an unexpected friendship and a caring teacher who gives her a chance to step into the spotlight, Grayson might finally have the tools to let her inner light shine.
Debut author Ami Polonsky’s moving, beautifully-written novel shines with the strength of a young person’s spirit and the enduring power of acceptance.
Teaser from Gracefully Grayson:
'We ride in silence, and I think about how loud the quiet is; I think about what it means. Finally, the bus slows to a stop on Randolph. I'm desperate to get off, but I can barely bring myself to move. My legs ache and I know everything is over.' 39%
This isn't too spoilerific, although you might feel like it is. Let's not forget that no matter what gender, Grayson is still a teenager. Polonsky writes this book with so much love and compassion that you can't help but become completely engrossed.

So, those two are my books this week! What are you reading?

Friday, 10 October 2014

Friday and 'Le Morte Darthur' by Malory

Alison Can Read Feature & FollowYes, it's happening! I'm finally, for my feeling, participating in the Friday memes again! Although they can be stressful in the sense of that I constantly forget to prepare this post and then have to rush to get it up, I enjoy it majorly, so now I'm back in the game! Let's start it off with Follow Friday, hosted by Alison Can Read and Parajunkee. This week's question was suggested by Becky's Barmy Book Blog and is:


Book Merchandise - show off some of you stuff - posters, t-shirts. Whatever you got!

I actually don't think I have that much book merchandise apart from my actual books. I don't think this actually counts, but I use some of the bookflaps as decoration for my massive (it's genuinely too big, I don't have enough clothes to fill it) wardrobe.
There's also some awkward family pictures so ignore those. And the Minion drawing was done by my sister, who is a genius at many things! I actually can't think of anything else now because I always want to buy merchandise and never do. I've got some Star Wars posters, which doesn't actually count considering it's not a book. There are some Hobbit posters but I haven't put them up, no space!

Book Blogger Hop is hosted by Billy over at Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. And it's the Halloween edition! This week's question is:
Book Blogger Hop
What is the scariest book title you have either read or heard about?

Although perhaps this book isn't the scariest around, it did give me one of my scariest book experiences! I finished reading The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and when I went to bed that night I had the creepiest dream about being in a cave with the bad guy from the book and there was a lot of other creepy things I don't want to say in case I spoil the book. And then I woke up and thought I was still in the dream! I wasn't wearing my glasses, obviously, and all I could feel was the cold wall and somehow, in my mind, this equated to me still being in the cave! I was so scared until I practically fell out of the bed and realized I was in the room. Yes, definitely scary!

Book Beginnings and Friday 56 are hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader and Freda over at Freda's Voice. This week I'm using a book I've been studying for the last two weeks: Le Morte Darthur by Sir Thomas Malory. I'm keeping the Middle English spelling, but it shouldn't be too much of  a challenge. Read it out loud if it is, that really helped me


BB:
'It befel in the dayes of Uther Pendragon, when he was Kynge of all Englond and so regnes, that there was a myghty duke in Cornewaill that helde warre ageynst hym long tyme, and the duke was called the Duke of Tyntagil.' p.1
So, here we have Uther, father of Arthur. In the first chapter Arthur is born and becomes King and it's all very quick yet interesting.

F56:
'So whan Balyn saw the spere, he gate hit in hys honde, and turned to Kynge Pellam and felde hym and smote hym passyngly sore with that spere, that Kynge Pellam felle downe in a sowghe.' p.56
Summary, Balyn just slew King Pellam and it's quite tragic but because Balyn is the protagonist of sorts in this particular tale, we feel more sorry for him. The action is quite detailed and repetitive in Morte Darthur and at times I just have to skip certain passages because I just can't.

So, what about you? Have any cool merchandise? And what's your scariest read ever?