Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Review: 'Reckless I: The Petrified Flesh' by Cornelia Funke, Lionel Wigram, trans. by Oliver Latsch.

Cornelia Funke has owned my heart ever since my father read me Inkheart for the first time. Naturally he read it to me in German and I loved how she literally brought her characters to live from the pages. There is a magic in words and like other authors, Neil Gaiman comes to mind, Funke knows, appreciates and uses this. So of course I wanted to check out her newest and latest! Thanks to Pushkin Children's and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 29/12/2016
Publisher: Pushkin Children's
Ever since Jacob Reckless was a child, he has been escaping to a hidden world through a portal in his father's abandoned study. Over the years, he has made a name for himself as a finder of enchanted items and buried secrets. He's also made many enemies and allies--most important, Fox, a beautiful shape-shifting vixen whom Jacob cares for more than he lets on.
But life in this other world is about to change. Tragedy strikes when Jacob's younger brother, Will, follows him through the portal. Brutally attacked, Will is infected with a curse that is quickly transforming him into a Goyl--a ruthless killing machine, with skin made of stone.
Jacob is prepared to fight to save his brother, but in a land built on trickery and lies, Jacob will need all the wit, courage, and reckless spirit he can summon to reverse the dark spell--before it's too late. 
The best thing about The Petrified Flesh, the first book in Funke's new trilogy Reckless, is that the fantasy world she creates is fascinating. A beautiful conglomeration of everything to be found in the Grimms' Fairytales, the world behind the mirror is full of magic, witches, fairies, elves, and whatever else you can think of. One of the big joys reading this book is stumbling upon another little Grimms' gem you had forgotten about until it reappeared in Funke's pages. With two of the main characters named after and modelled upon Jacob and Wilhelm Grimms, it should come as no surprise then that the novel consistently moves only within the Grimms' tales. No sad mermaids, no sadder matchstick girls and definitely no pine trees with high Christmas aspirations. However, Funke manages to weave all the different rather well. Although it can become a bit confusing at times, this is rather due to the wrongly paced plot, rather than the world itself. Which leads me to one of my main points of criticism for this novel.

Usually Funke's strength is her story-telling, the weaving together of different fascinating characters and storylines through beautiful prose. Although the beautiful prose still survives into the translation, there are parts of the novel that feel ill-timed. The beginning is too sudden, too quick, introducing a whole range of characters and creatures but not giving the reader enough time to get acquainted with either, let alone start caring for any of them. Although this does improve, it can make the first 70 or so pages of the book a bit of a test. What kept me going was an interest in the world, not any of the human main characters. Conversely, it was the Goyl who I found most interesting and I loved the chapters dedicated to them. What makes the odd pacing especially confusing is that The Petrified Flesh definitely seems to be meant for younger readers, between middle-grade and YA. The chapters are short and sweet, clearly plot-driven and there is little exposition. Each chapter is introduced by a pretty illustration but there is no sense of large world-building as in novels like The Lord of the Rings or even the Narnia chronicles, which, in my opinion, falls within the same reader group. Perhaps for younger readers the pace and motions of the plot will be just fine, but for me they felt off and I found it hard to connect with the novel initially.

No matter the criticism above, Funke completely rewarded my faith in her in this novel. The opening line of the book made me breathe a happy sigh:
'The night was breathing in the apartment like a dark animal.'
The prose in The Petrified Flesh is beautiful. Funke excels at descriptions and there are plenty of those in the novel. She worked on the novel together with Lionel Wigram, the film producer/genius who bought the rights to the Harry Potter books for Warner Bros.. Knowing this, there is definitely a sense in which The Petrified Flesh moves like a film rather than a book. Character development comes from spare moments, quick actions rather than any extended time spent with a character. A reader who approaches this book wanting to sink away into rich prose, world-building, character development and lore might therefore be disappointed. Not that these things don't appear in the novel, but they are there sparsely, woven together by a fragile plot. For younger readers, however, this is a great introduction to both fairy tales and fantasy fiction. Props should also go to translator Oliver Latsch. Although some of the phrasing is occasionally awkward, Funke's writing still comes through very well into English.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

Perhaps I was too old for this novel, since the pacing and depth of Reckless: The Petrified Flesh didn't work for me. However, I really appreciated the beauty of Funke's prose and the pleasurable dip back into Grimms' fairy tales. The one think Funke and Wigram have definitely achieved is making me desperate to reread them classics. I'd recommend this to fans of Middle Grade and YA Fantasy.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Review: 'A Wrinkle in Time' by Madeleine l'Engle

A Wrinkle in Time (A Wrinkle in Time Quintet, #1)I have finally done it! I've read one of the books from my 'Everyone seems to know these ones, why haven't I read them'-list! A Wrinkle in Time is the kind of book I have heard people wax nostalgic over, brought back straight to their childhood memories of reading late at night. What finally drew me to the novel was the curious mix between a female protagonist, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Children's Literature. For a novel that is over fourty years old that feels like quite an achievement. So I set to it, to sort of mixed results.

Original Pub. Date:1973
Publisher: Yearling Books
It was a dark and stormy night; Meg Murry, her small brother Charles Wallace, and her mother had come down to the kitchen for a midnight snack when they were upset by the arrival of a most disturbing stranger. 
"Wild nights are my glory," the unearthly stranger told them. "I just got caught in a downdraft and blown off course. Let me be on my way. Speaking of way, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract".
Meg's father had been experimenting with this fifth dimension of time travel when he mysteriously disappeared. Now the time has come for Meg, her friend Calvin, and Charles Wallace to rescue him. But can they outwit the forces of evil they will encounter on their heart-stopping journey through space?
Perhaps Meg Murry was the girl who started of the Awkward Teenage Girl trend in YA fiction, but if that is true than no author has ever rivalled L'Engle in actually describing what the mind of a teenager is like. From the beginning of the book Meg is struggling with wanting to fit in, but also wanting to be herself; comparing herself to others and always finding herself lacking; and having no one in the world who really seems to understand her, except her little brother. Meg's quick moves between anger and sadness and happiness are rather recognisable for anyone who remembers their teenage years, but L'Engle also gives them a context within which they make sense. There is no irrationality in how Meg is characterised, which is one of the joys of A Wrinkle in Time. She is a great heroine, one who is afraid, stubborn, angry, dedicated, loyal and above all, determined. She makes me wish I'd read this book when I was younger, so I could have appreciated her more.

At the heart of A Wrinkle in Time is the struggle between Good and Evil, which comes as no surprise when one finds out about L'Engle's Christianity. However, this conflict never feels like an excuse for L'Engle to become preachy but rather like simply an opportunity to discuss some crucial themes such as conformity and what we call 'the status-quo'. The Evil in L'Engle's galaxy takes the form of a darkness that dominates planets into absolute conformity. There is no room for individuality, creativity, spontaneity or difference, and wherever those things do appear they are punished. If one looks at the state of our own world now, how harsh some of our differences are punished and how much conformity is welcomed, A Wrinkle in Time still proves a timely read. Despite all its innocence, L'Engle's novel doesn't pull punches and especially for children it is an important message. The combination of the wild Meg, the insightful Charles Wallace and their trusty friend Calvin, through which we encounter all these themes makes them both delightful and interesting at the same time.

Madeleine L'Engle reminds me, in many ways, of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Their Christianity and their time informed their fantasy worlds, the morals and virtues that exist within, yet it never becomes entirely explicit. Lewis, out of these three, is the most opaque when it comes to his religion, his story lines clearly inspired, if not taken, from Christian lore. For L'Engle it is mainly the division between good and evil, light and darkness, and the idea of love as a guiding force which inspires her narrative. I do believe I am almost too old to have read this novel now. Although I can see its charm and the excitement of it, especially the Science Fiction elements of the novel, I have become used to more intricate plots, more detailed explanations and descriptions. However, the message at the heart of the novel still shines through the pages and captured my imagination. L'Engle creates some absolutely beautiful images which have made me want to keep reading the next novels in the Time Quintet series, of which this one is the first.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I can understand the fascination with A Wrinkle in Time now! Meg is a delight and L'Engle is a great writer. Both the Science Fiction and YA elements of the novel work well and, surprisingly, they work beautifully together. I'd recommend this to both SciFi and YA fans.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Review: 'Swing Time' by Zadie Smith

Swing TimeZadie Smith is an author who I've always wanted to read something by. Although On Beauty was been on my to read-list I have somehow never gotten to it. When I saw Swing Time on Netgalley, however, something about the cover and the blurb drew me in immediately. I loved the theme of dance running through the novel and it fits it beautifully! The novel is highly crafted and labour intense, yet seemingly effortless and mesmerising. Thanks to Netgalley and Penguin Books for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 15/11/2016
Publisher: Penguin Books; Hamish Hamilton

Two brown girls dream of being dancers--but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, about what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It's a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.
Dazzlingly energetic and deeply human, Swing Time is a story about friendship and music and stubborn roots, about how we are shaped by these things and how we can survive them. Moving from northwest London to West Africa, it is an exuberant dance to the music of time.
Swing Time is so much more than a story of two friends growing apart. In less than 500 pages Smith combines a whole variety of themes, narratives and voices which makes reading Swing Time an incredibly rich experience. Smith tells her story across time, the unnamed female narrator moving between her childhood, her teen years, her current life and the more recent past haphazardly. In any other writer's hand this may have been extremely confusing yet in Smith's hands this looseness with time elevates the story. Our narrator finds connection points, almost accidentally, all through her life between her past, present and future, which transform her life and the novel into a living, breathing creature. There are no clear cut 'and then's, no strict division of where one story starts and the other ends. Smith's characters live, continuously present but not always at the surface. As Smith brings different themes to the forefront, so some characters make a reappearance front centre stage in the narrator's life. With dance at the heart of Swing Time, it should come as no surprise that the novel moves fluidly and fascinatingly, a show perfectly timed and yet coming across beautifully spontaneous.

At the heart of this novel are two brown girls, half white and half black, and their struggle with their place in the world, their heritage, their history, their immediate surroundings and whatever life throws at them in fascinating. I myself am from two countries, yet Germany and the Netherlands share a lot of culture and history so there never was a sense in which I felt there were two separate parts of me. For the narrator, however, there is a sense in which she feels constantly "in between". Smith brings this conflict to the forefront in a number of great scenes in which the reader is led to question their own thoughts regarding race and heritage. The novel's story leads the narrator to West Africa where she has to confront a lot of her own thoughts. Smith doesn't force this issue down either the reader's or her narrator's throat, but rather lets both strive towards finding their own answers to the questions she presents. Aside from race, Smith also highlights the issues of class which affect a life just as much. Where you're born, into which city, neighbourhood, street, compound, what your parents do, what your grandparents did, if they're educated or working class, all of this has an effect on your own life and I have never seen this written about quite as well as Smith does in Swing Time. As the novel moves to West Africa religion also enters the novel and, without spoiling anything, it adds a whole other level to novel.

Smith's writing in Swing Time works perfectly for the novel's story. As said above, the non-chronological story-telling really uplifts the novel and I really enjoyed it. Smith is able to tell the story of a full woman's life, the different influences that play a role in our decisions, the memories and events that have an impact throughout our lives. With the cast she creates Smith really is able to tell multiple women's stories, without judgement, mostly, and with a lot of understanding. Another aspect of this book is the first person narration, which can be hit and miss. Too many authors rely on it to make their characters sympathetic, as if being stuck in their head automatically makes a reader like them. Some authors, however, manage to use first person narration to create a "real" character, showing all the good and all the bad, the conflicts and the victories. By the end of Swing Time I felt like I knew Smith's main character, in a way I haven't with a lot of other books.

I give this book...

5 Universes!

I absolutely loved Swing Time. A dance really is the best metaphor for it, since you're watching the show from your own comfy seat but can't help become fascinated by the movements, the story and the drama. Smith brings a lot to this novel and asks a lot of very interesting questions. I'd recommend this novel to fans of Literary Fiction and Women's Writing.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Friday Fun: Honesty and Swinging

Another Friday in China! Time goes so fast these days, but there are loads of plans to get massages, watch Fantastic Beasts and go to Hangzhou and Disney World Shanghai! Yup, I've got plans!! I'll be sharing loads of pictures on Instagram! Now, let's get on to Friday memes! Follow Friday is hosted by Alison Can Read and Parajunkee and today's prompt is:

What protagonist is most like you?

Oh God this is a difficult question!It's requiring me to be very honest about myself, isn't it? I want to be very flattering to myself but I'll try to avoid that by first saying which character I'd like to be like: Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen!
The House Between Tides'There is a stubbornness about me that never can be to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always roses at every attempt to intimidate me.'
I love this quote and it's the kind of attitude I try to have. If life throws an obstacle in my way I try to rise to the challenge. But I'm not always this brave unfortunately. However, I think one of the characters I'm sort of like is Hetty Deveraux from The House Between Tides by Sarah Maine. Although she can be a little bit uncertain at times and maybe too easily swayed by those she trusts she does have passion and a good heart! When she's determined to do something it is almost impossible to stop her, to everyone else's frustration. Now there's something I can see in myself!

Swing TimeBook Beginnings and Friday 56 are hosted by Gillion over at Rose City Reader and Freda over at Freda's Voice!Today I'm sharing quotes from a book I have just started: Swing Time by Zadie Smith!

Two brown girls dream of being dancers - but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It's a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either...
Dazzlingly energetic and deeply human, Swing Time is a story about friendship and music and stubborn roots, about how we are shaped by these things and how we can survive them. Moving from North-West London to West Africa, it is an exuberant dance to the music of time.

'It was the first day of my humiliation. Put on a plane, sent back home, to England, set up with a temporary rental in St. John's Wood.' 1%
I really like this opening because it puts you right into the narrator's mind. And for everyone who has ever started on an adventure, it can turn into a disaster very quickly as well! Although I'm not quite sure what's happening, I did want to share a bit more, but that would be spoiling you ;)

'What I couldn't work out among all this frenetic rumour and counter-rumour was whether a visit from the President was longed for or dreaded. It's the same when you hear of a storm that's coming to town, explained Fern, as we drove the tin legs of the folding chairs into the sand. Even if you fear it you're curious to see it!' 56%
I am not entirely sure what's happening since I'm not up to here yet in the novel, but I love Smith's comparison to the storm! It's such a nice description and that last line is so true!

So, what are you reading today? And what character do you think you're most like?

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Review: 'The Witches of New York' by Ami McKay

Yes, I keep reading books about witches and yes, I will never stop!! Especially if they keep being this good?! I picked up The Witches of New York largely because of the title and the extremely pretty cover, but had I known how great a writer Ami McKay is I would've picked up one of her books ages ago. As you can probably guess, I loved this book so let's get down to the review so I can explain why. Thanks to Orion Publishing Group and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 27/10/2016
Publisher: Orion Publishing Group

The beloved, bestselling author of The Birth House and The Virgin Cure is back with her most beguiling novel yet, luring us deep inside the lives of a trio of remarkable young women navigating the glitz and grotesqueries of Gilded-Age New York by any means possible, including witchcraft . . . 
The year is 1880. Two hundred years after the trials in Salem, Adelaide Thom (Moth from The Virgin Cure) has left her life in the sideshow to open a tea shop with another young woman who feels it's finally safe enough to describe herself as a witch: a former medical student and gardien de sorts(keeper of spells), Eleanor St. Clair. Together they cater to Manhattan's high society ladies, specializing in cures, palmistry and potions--and in guarding the secrets of their clients. All is well until one bright September afternoon, when an enchanting young woman named Beatrice Dunn arrives at their door seeking employment. 
Beatrice soon becomes indispensable as Eleanor's apprentice, but her new life with the witches is marred by strange occurrences. She sees things no one else can see. She hears voices no one else can hear. Objects appear out of thin air, as if gifts from the dead. Has she been touched by magic or is she simply losing her mind? Eleanor wants to tread lightly and respect the magic manifest in the girl, but Adelaide sees a business opportunity. Working with Dr. Quinn Brody, a talented alienist, she submits Beatrice to a series of tests to see if she truly can talk to spirits. Amidst the witches' tug-of-war over what's best for her, Beatrice disappears, leaving them to wonder whether it was by choice or by force. 
As Adelaide and Eleanor begin the desperate search for Beatrice, they're confronted by accusations and spectres from their own pasts. In a time when women were corseted, confined and committed for merely speaking their minds, were any of them safe?
Witches have become an increasingly poplar topic once again (yaay for witchcraft lovers like me!) and there is a very good reason for it. Women in power/with power have always fascinated authors and those in power, especially when authors, and those in power, were almost all male. Recent explorations of historical witch hunts (such as Stacy Schiff's interesting The Witches: Salem, 1692) have revealed how much of these hunts were motivated by patriarchal fears of female power and how the idea of the witch has continued to haunt women throughout the centuries. Lately popular culture has reclaimed the witch as a feminist symbol, the girl or woman who finds an inner, natural power which makes her strong, stronger than she could imagine. Naturally this comes with its pitfalls, which is why very often "simply" bringing witchcraft into a narrative doesn't work. I'm glad to say that Ami McKay is aware of what witchcraft means and uses its history to the best of her abilities in The Witches of New York.(The clever people over at Flavorwire write a fascinating article about all of this called 'Feminism, Radicalization, and Injustice: The Enduring Power of the Witch Narrative'.)

At the centre of The Witches of New York are three different women, Eleanor, Adelaide and Beatrice, each touched by magic in their own way but representative of different placed in life as well. Eleanor was born into witchcraft, trained carefully and lovingly and therefore strong and confident in her abilities. Adelaide came to magic through trouble and hardship, still distrustful of the power inside her. Beatrice is young and finds her way to magic partly by pure will and by sheer talent. These different narratives come together to form a book that shows the stories of different women and different lives. Their interactions, the way they learn from each other and how they lean on each other really does form the heart of the novel and gives it much of its power. McKay takes her time with her story, not rushing her characters mindlessly from one corner of New York to the other when there is no point for it. The Witches of New York develops its story slowly, which means it is not necessarily a very high-paced novel, excelling at building up atmosphere and letting the reader soak in it.

McKay's writing throughout the novel is stunning. Whether it's descriptions or dialogue, McKay excels at getting her point across as well as producing beautiful prose. It flows very well, is incredibly readable and always adds to the narrative. Besides that, its use of witchcraft "trivia" is very well researched. Each chapter is preceded by a quote, both from historical works such as Cotton Mather's work or her own creations, such as Eleanor's grimoire (witches' handbook). This not only sets up different narrative strands, it also aids McKay in setting her novel within a historical narrative. As said above, witchcraft comes with a big symbolic burden and not all novels carry this weight as well. McKay did her research and it shows. Whether it's the Suffragettes or the slow rise to prominence of science, McKay's 1880s New York feels alive. Similarly, McKay has a keen attention for the fate of women, both the restrictions of the women in the upper classes and the sheer suffering of the women in the working class.It adds a gravitas to the novel and its story which makes it an interesting and gripping read.

I give this book...

5 Universes!

I loved The Witches of New York. It's both a fun and interesting read, using its history well but not letting it overshadow the original story. I adored the different characters and it was a treat to read about so many interesting women in one book. Personally I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a sequel! I'd recommend this to fans of Historical Fiction, Fantasy and Women's Writing.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Review: 'Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel' by James Luceno

Displaying Star Wars Catalyst by James Luceno.jpgI am a Star Wars fan, which should come as no surprise to anyone right now. Now that December is officially about to start, my life will once again become devoured by anything and everything Star Wars and Rogue One, which includes everything from trolling the Internet for news to reading every single thing put out by Lucasfilm. And that everything naturally includes Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel! Thank you to Random House and Century for providing me with a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 17/11/2016
Publisher: Century

War is tearing the galaxy apart. For years the Republic and the Separatists have battled across the stars, each building more and more deadly technology in an attempt to win the war. As a member of Chancellor Palpatine’s top secret Death Star project, Orson Krennic is determined to develop a superweapon before their enemies can. And an old friend of Krennic’s, the brilliant scientist Galen Erso, could be the key.
With any Star Wars novel it is sort of necessary to set a context. When is it set, who is in it, why does this story matter, and finally, do I have to read it if I want to watch the films? Well, let's get to answering those questions! Catalyst is set roughly between the last Prequel, Revenge of the Sith, and the first Original, A New Hope. The first half of the novel covers the last third of RotS but from a completely different perspective, which enriches the viewing of the film. At the heart of the novel is the story of Galen Erso, a scientist caught in the middle of a war and unwilling to pick a side. Catalyst is a prequel, of sorts, to the upcoming Rogue One, whose main character is Jyn Erso, daughter to Galen. As such, the novel prepares the reader for the film, setting the scene and introducing some of the key new characters. Is it necessary to read Catalyst? If you just want to enjoy the film and get swept up by a good rebel story, no. If you're interested in the Star Wars universe, in the discussions that the Lucasfilm Story Group is trying to start in all of its output etc. then I would recommend it.

Catalyst is a very timely novel, with at its heart the question whether it is necessary to make a choice in a conflict. Galen Erso is a scientist who just wants to work and to remain neutral. However, conflicts such as the Clone Wars and the eventual rise of the Empire forces the necessity of making a choice onto everyone. In a time such as our own, with dozens of conflicts around the world and a growing distrust in politics, it is very interesting to read a novel that deals exactly with such topics. One doesn't have the luxury of ignoring what happens at the top, of deciding it doesn't matter what others decide as long as you can keep doing what you're doing. Catalyst addresses a lot of different topics such as environmentalism, warfare and science. Alongside Galen we also get to see his wife's struggle to make a choice and to survive. She is exactly how I like my women, spunky, opinionated and dedicated to her cause, whether that cause is peace, her daughter, her work or her husband.

Luceno is one of Lucasfilm's most frequent authors, especially in recent times. He has penned novels on some key canon characters, such as Tarkin, as well as Legends characters. As such, he is incredibly familiar with the context within which his novel is set, with everything from spaceships to aliens and outlandish planets. Since so much of the novel is dedicated to science it can feel a bit long and dry here and there. No matter how hard Luceno tries, it's not necessarily for everyone to read about the intricacies of energy research in a fictional universe. However, the novel is rife with fun asides, great descriptions and interesting dialogue. The only major criticism that can be given is that there is no immediate tension to the story arc of Catalyst. As a prequel novel, it is almost too aware of its role as a starter, doing a brilliant job at introducing characters and plot lines, but not necessarily being able to do much with those characters or plot lines. It is a quick and enjoyable read, but definitely one for dedicated Star Wars fans.

If you'd like to read more of my thoughts on this novel, hop over to my other site, Clone Corridor, for which I wrote 'Catalyst, Oppenheimer and the Necessity for Choice'.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

I really enjoyed reading Catalyst but also know this is down to my undying love for Star Wars. Luceno does his best with a tricky job, creating interesting characters but unable to take them very far. If you're a Star Wars fan, I'd definitely recommend reading this because it poses a lot of very interesting questions that can keep you busy while you wait for Rogue One.

Monday, 28 November 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

badgeSince I started working with EF I have been working 6-7 hours during the weekend, which means that "a normal week" has sort of lost its definition. Saturday and Sunday are not relaxed anymore and Monday is actually the end of my week rather than the beginning. You heard that right, I now welcome Mondays because they're my Fridays! What have I come to... But anyway, that is no reason not to join a blog hop and find out what you're all reading! Hence I'm joining in with some of my favourite Monday memes again! It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted over at The Book Date now by Kathryn!

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is a place to meet up and share what you have been, are and about to be reading over the week.  It's a great post to organise yourself. It's an opportunity to visit and comment, and er... add to that ever growing TBR pile! 
So, let's get this party started!

I've had quite an eventful and fun week! I finally got my wifi sorted out, hence why I'm back to blogging again! I've also been anxiously awaiting my copy of Catalyst by James Luceno, a sort of prequel-novel to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story which is coming out next month! Since we have some American teachers at my school we all celebrated Thanksgiving together with a potluck. I had never celebrated Thanksgiving before so the sheer size of the turkey was sort of intimidating, but it was loads of fun and the food was delicious. We continued in the name of work team spirit last night with a night out to Big E, which is a place that combines laser tag, archery, karaoke and a bar, with a pool table and loads of other arcade-like games around. I was absolutely terrible at both archery and laser tag but it was loads of fun!

What I Read Last Week:
Atlas ShruggedI finally finished Atlas Shrugged last week which led to some heartbreak. Whenever I start a big book, say 800+ pages, I get really invested just by the sheer amount of time spent reading it. And when it's over there is that genuine '... now what?' moment! I know a lot of people have their prejudices against Ayn Rand and it's something I try to address in all of my review on her book, but I can't help but love aspects of her work.

This is the story of a man who said that he would stop the motor of the world and did. Was he a destroyer or the greatest of liberators?
Why did he have to fight his battle, not against his enemies, but against those who needed him most, and his hardest battle against the woman he loved? What is the world’s motor — and the motive power of every man? You will know the answer to these questions when you discover the reason behind the baffling events that play havoc with the lives of the characters in this story. 
Tremendous in its scope, this novel presents an astounding panorama of human life — from the productive genius who becomes a worthless playboy — to the great steel industrialist who does not know that he is working for his own destruction — to the philosopher who becomes a pirate — to the composer who gives up his career on the night of his triumph — to the woman who runs a transcontinental railroad — to the lowest track worker in her Terminal tunnels. 
You must be prepared, when you read this novel, to check every premise at the root of your convictions.
This is a mystery story, not about the murder — and rebirth — of man’s spirit. It is a philosophical revolution, told in the form of an action thriller of violent events, a ruthlessly brilliant plot structure and an irresistible suspense. Do you say this is impossible? Well, that is the first of your premises to check.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Review: 'We Have Always Lived in the Castle' by Shirley Jackson

WeHaveAlwaysLivedInTheCastle.JPGI only discovered Shirley Jackson a year or so ago, despite having read her famous short story 'The Lottery' years ago in high school. Quite how she remained undetected by my radar, finely attuned to awesome female writers of whatever century, but now that I've found her I have dedicated myself to reading all her work. First was a collection of her essays and short stories, Let Me Tell You, and next came We Have Always Lived in the Castle. God did I love this book!

Original Pub. Date: 1962
Publisher: Viking Press

Merricat Blackwood lives on the family estate with her sister Constance and her Uncle Julian. Not long ago there were seven Blackwoods—until a fatal dose of arsenic found its way into the sugar bowl one terrible night. Acquitted of the murders, Constance has returned home, where Merricat protects her from the curiosity and hostility of the villagers. Their days pass in happy isolation until cousin Charles appears. Only Merricat can see the danger, and she must act swiftly to keep Constance from his grasp.

Most of you will, like me, have read 'The Lottery' in high school as one of the finest examples of short story writing and will know how good Jackson is at building atmosphere. There is an incredible humanity in her writing, highlighting her ability to see people, not just what they do and pretend to do, but their motivations, dreams, fears and secrets. She can take something so innocent and reveal it to be potentially morbid and dangerous.This is what makes We Have Always Lived in the Castle an incredibly suspenseful read. Whether it's her characters or her settings, there is always something a little bit off, something that gives pause. In this novel it is the narrator, Merricat Blackwood, through whose calm yet tense first-person narration we come to know her, her older sister Constance, her crippled uncle Julian, their silent manor house and its sleepy neighbouring village. Her narration screams what it leaves unsaid, never lying outright yet seemingly never telling the whole truth. What does speak strongly from her narrative, however, is the feeling of being persecuted, evaded and spurned for being different. The shunning of the Blackwoods by the village, however, is contrasted by the deep love, affection and loyalty between the three remaining Blackwoods.

The introduction to my edition of We Have Always Lived in the Castle discussed how, 'typically for Jackson, sexuality is barely present in the book, and needless to say, sexuality is therefore everywhere in its absence'. The two key characters of the novel are both women, one closer to adolescence, the other more mature, yet their lives are what could be described as sexless. No notion of sex or romantic attraction rears its head in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which adds to the women's strangeness. Yet Merricat and Constance are complete characters. The absence of sexuality does not make them unreal or empty, rather it makes them elusive. Their uncanniness means they cannot be pinned down or defined. They do not need the outside world to sustain them, they can happily exist in their own world with just each other's company. They are complete, and that is another aspect that makes them so different. The outside cannot reach or affect them, to the point that Merricat's narration almost creates a separate reality for her and Constance. As a reader, you are constantly torn between the idyll created by Merricat and what we assume reality must be. It makes for a compelling read.

Shirley Jackson's power lies in the simplicity of her writing. Whereas in her other famous novel, The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson employs all of her thriller tricks to their fullest and magnificent extent, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is deceptively calm. There are no ghosts, no well-timed thunderstorms or creaking doors. Rather there are just humans, and that is what makes this story almost more terrifying. The capacity of humans to exclude, lie, cheat, manipulate and deceive, that is what is truly horrifying and Jackson shows this not through cheap tricks but honesty. We Have Always Lived in the Castle will not let you go. When you put the book down, when you go about your day, you will still be wondering about Merricat and Constance, about what really happened, who can be trusted, and who definitely cannot. The novel is spell-binding, despite its brevity. Short stories as well as novellas depend upon being well-measured, to both give the reader enough but not too much. In 800+ pages it is easy to drive a point home, but when the words are limited every single one matters. And Jackson doesn't waste a single one. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is horror, psychological thriller, magical realism, Gothic and Mystical all mixed together and this masterful combination makes it a strong potion.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

I absolutely loved We Have Always Lived in the Castle! It is a rollercoaster ride and yet also reads like a stroll in the park. You will race through this novel and yet be always one step behind Jackson and Merricat. And you'll love it. I recommend this novel to fans of mystery, horror and psychological thrillers.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Friday Fun: Thanks, Witches and Toothless

After 2 months of living in China I have FINALLY sorted the wifi out for my apartment so hopefully I will be able to get back to normal posting now. I do apologise for the absolute lack of anything in the last few weeks, but I've had to adjust to working full time (I know, woe is me!), teaching, and living in China. I have, however, read some absolutely amazing books in these weeks without the Internet at my disposal for procrastination, so you've got those reviews to look forward to. I've already posted reviews for 2 of them, The Power by Naomi Alderman and the Russian classic Yevgeny Onegin by Alexander Pushkin, translated by A.D.P Briggs.

Also, just like me, Feature & Follow Friday was on a bit of a hiatus the last 2 months but returned last week. So it's only right that I join back in on the FF fun! FF is hosted by Alison Can Read and Parajunkee! This week's prompt is:

What are you most thankful for (in the blogging world)?

This is solely based on my own experience blogging the last few years but I am so grateful for the general respect book bloggers have for each other's opinions. I know (mainly from Twitter rants) that there have been controversies and problems etc. but I have never felt like I had to change my opinion on a book or an author just to not get shouted at. If a reviewer doesn't like a book they are able to say so and, usually, it all remains very respectful. A second thing which I am, of course, grateful for, is the love for books that you find here. No matter what you read, we all love books and we all love reading. And dear God, all of your recommendations are BRILLIANT!

Now, for more memes! Book Beginnings and Friday 56 are hosted by Gilion over at Rose City Reader and Freda at Freda's Voice! Hop over to their blogs to join in on the fun! Today I'm featuring one of my current reads, The Witches of New York by Ami McKay.

The year is 1880. Two hundred years after the trials in Salem, Adelaide Thom (Moth from The Virgin Cure) has left her life in the sideshow to open a tea shop with another young woman who feels it's finally safe enough to describe herself as a witch: a former medical student and gardien de sorts(keeper of spells), Eleanor St. Clair. Together they cater to Manhattan's high society ladies, specializing in cures, palmistry and potions--and in guarding the secrets of their clients. All is well until one bright September afternoon, when an enchanting young woman named Beatrice Dunn arrives at their door seeking employment. 
Beatrice soon becomes indispensable as Eleanor's apprentice, but her new life with the witches is marred by strange occurrences. She sees things no one else can see. She hears voices no one else can hear. Objects appear out of thin air, as if gifts from the dead. Has she been touched by magic or is she simply losing her mind? Eleanor wants to tread lightly and respect the magic manifest in the girl, but Adelaide sees a business opportunity. Working with Dr. Quinn Brody, a talented alienist, she submits Beatrice to a series of tests to see if she truly can talk to spirits. Amidst the witches' tug-of-war over what's best for her, Beatrice disappears, leaving them to wonder whether it was by choice or by force. 
As Adelaide and Eleanor begin the desperate search for Beatrice, they're confronted by accusations and spectres from their own pasts. In a time when women were corseted, confined and committed for merely speaking their minds, were any of them safe?
Book Beginnings:
'In the dusky haze of evening a ruddy-cheeked newsboy strode along Fifth Avenue proclaiming the future. "The great Egyptian obelisk is about to land on our shores! The Brooklyn Bridge set to become the Eight Wonder of the World! Broadway soon to glow with electric light!" In his wake, a crippled man shuffled, spouting prophecies of his own. "God's judgement is upon us! The end of the world is nigh!"
New York became a city of astonishments. Wonders and marvels came so frequent and fast, a day without spectacle was cause for concern.' 1%
I simple had to include that second line, it's too brilliant not to. I really like how McKay creates atmosphere throughout The Witches of New York, especially in her descriptions of New York. Also, her witches are great!

Friday 56:
'"The grimoire doesn't lie," Eleanor replied. "Its wisdom takes many forms within its pages - recipes, spells, sagas... and yes, even fairy tales. Every word within it holds truth.' 56%
I wanted to share more but I fear it would have been a little bit spoiler-y, so I restrained myself and stuck with these 2 sentences. I absolutely love Eleanor's character so far, she is exactly the kind of witch I would like to be. I like how she describes her grimoire and, in essence, the magic of words. Words have power

Also, I just really need to share this picture of my kitten, Toothless, because she's too pretty not to be seen by everyone!

She is gorgeous and I love her! I hope you all have a brilliant Friday and an even better weekend! I'm still getting used to working 7 hours a day on Saturday and Sunday...

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

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

My first encounter with Onegin was in the form of Tchaikovsky’s famous opera at the Royal Opera House in London, years ago. It was one of my first ever operas and I was enraptured, both by the singers’ abilities and by the story which moved from comedy to tragedy and everything in between. What remained in my memory of the story, however, was the immensity of the story, its epic feel despite its straightforward story. So of course I wanted to jump into Pushkin’s beautiful novel-in-verse the first chance I got! Thanks to Pushkin Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 12/07/2016
Publisher: Pushkin Press
 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.

Written in the early 1800s, (1823-32 to be precise), Yevgeny Onegin is often considered Alexander Pushkin’s finest work. He himself is considered by many to be one of the most important authors and figures in Russian cultural history. As Briggs puts it in his Introduction: ‘He is to Russia what Dante is to Italy, Shakespeare to England and Cervantes to Spain’. Onegin is a masterpiece of intricate complexity. Rhymes seem to come naturally, flowing as simply and melodically as can be, yet a closer look reveals the skill hidden artfully behind the words. Everyone who has read a beautiful poem has felt inspired to pick up poetry themselves, and has subsequently discovered the difficulty of producing such beauty themselves. Reading Pushkin’s Onegin is a beautiful spectacle, which only Pushkin himself could have orchestrated.

Since I read a translation I cannot comment on how the novel reads in Russian, yet Pushking shows an incredible awareness of language. His novel is full of little asides, author’s comments and general observations on the beauty of women, the boredom of youth, the tragedy of friendship, etc. This makes Pushkin himself a key character in his novel, which starts with his addressing the reader and finishes with a simple farewell to the same reader. Yevgeny Onegin is a meta-narrative of the highest order. It is incredibly difficult to discuss the nature of story-telling within a story, without destroying the flow of the story. It takes skill to make a reader think and read at the same time, but Pushkin does so very well. His characters are both characters within the story and noticeable trope characters: the roguish, Byronic and almost inexcusable Onegin, the romantic and tragic poet Vladimir Lensky, and the quiet country girl Tatyana Larina. They work in his story but at the same time his novel is also an assessment of these types of characters. The critical response to Onegin himself is an example of how well Pushkin did his work: critics can't help but want to forgive Onegin, paint his as wounded and flawed but essentially good, yet the text does not necessarily give any indication to this. 

The story of Yevgeny Onegin is both frivolous and tragic, sad and uplifting, revelatory and mysterious. Pushkin combines the qualities of both genres he engages in: prose and verse. Onegin is a novel in its structure and content, a story of passion and death, but flows as beautifully and musically as a poem. As such it shouldn't come as a surprise that Onegin has proven a challenge to translate. English has an advantage, when it comes to translating Onegin, since it is written in the sonnet form which works so well in English. But it has to be said that this novel in verse is uplifted by its translation. A.D.P. Briggs, one of the mot noted Pushkin scholars, not only writes a fascinating introduction to his work, his translation is beautiful. At times I forgot that I was reading Onegin in translation, so clearly did I feel and understand Pushkin's intentions and humour. I was so impressed by his translation I am currently actively searching for his other translations of Russian works.

I give this novel-in-prose...
5 Universes!

Yevgeny Onegin has become one of my favourite foreign works. Russian literature has been shaped by Pushkin and his Onegin and after reading it for myself I can see how far their influence has reached. To fans of both prose and of Russian literature I can only say: get yourself a copy, as soon as possible.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Review: ‘The Power’ by Naomi Alderman

For me reading has always been more than just entertainment, although the countless hours I have spent behind the pages of books have been amongst the most fun and exciting in my life. However, reading has also opened up my world in ways I never could have imagined. Part of the joy of reading is finding a book that teaches you something new, makes you see something in a completely new light. Although every book adds something to your life, every once in a while you find a book that truly makes a change in your life. The Power is such a book. Thanks to Little, Brown and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 27/10/2016
Publisher: Little, Brown; Viking
'She throws her head back and pushes her chest forward and lets go a huge blast right into the centre of his body. The rivulets and streams of red scarring run across his chest and up around his throat. She'd put her hand on his heart and stopped him dead.'  
Suddenly - tomorrow or the day after - girls find that with a flick of their fingers, they can inflict agonizing pain and even death. With this single twist, the four lives at the heart of Naomi Alderman's extraordinary, visceral novel are utterly transformed, and we look at the world in an entirely new light. What if the power to hurt were in women's hands?
There is no better moment than now to talk about power and gender.The USA is in the midst of electing its new president and has the chance to elect Hillary Clinton, one of the most qualified people to ever run for office. And yet the predicted winner is a man who used his position, gender, wealth and class to gain power throughout his life. For most of the world’s history, power has lain with men, white men to be specific, leading to the establishing of the patriarchy which has continued this inequality. This may all seem like a thing of the past since “Feminism happened”, yet the 2016 election once again showed how strong the difference is in how men and women are seen and treated. No matter how competent, seemingly the power will always remain with men. It also takes a novel such as The Power, however, to wake its readers up to their own attitudes regarding power. In Alderman’s world Power, the ability to generate electricity from their palms, awakens globally in young girls and the whole power dynamic shifts. Watching this election I can feel an anger in me which resonates strongly with the anger felt by some of the women in Alderman's The Power, which shows the strength of her writing as well as the continuing anger that the power imbalance between men and women continues to generate.

The Power follows a range of characters, each of which grows to become a crucial player in the novel’s world. We start with Roxy, a feisty girl who discovers incredible power inside of her. Next is Tunde, a boy from Nigeria who witnesses the Power and begins to document it. Eve, a mysterious girl with Power and a plan. And finally, Margot, a Mayor who is on the front lines of coping with the Power. This range of characters allows Alderman the freedom to show what the arrival of the Power does to the world. Not only does she show the changing relationships between men and women, but also the impacts across cultures and societies. What does an Eastern European girl who has been sold into sex slavery do when she suddenly becomes more powerful than her captors? What does an Indian girl do who has been told her whole life she is weak and pathetic when she realizes she is not? Alderman tries to tell a global story, which is one of the things I appreciated most while reading The Power. There are a variety of stories running through the novel, covering different lives and different experiences, and it all comes together to form a rich and realistic worldview, something which can, sadly, be rare in fiction. Alderman's novel isn't here to press a message onto its readers that "women are better" or "women are more powerful", rather The Power presents you a shifted world, allowing you to see the danger of power imbalance from a new angle.

Speculative fiction is one of my favourite genres because it is the genre which teaches me the most about myself. One of the first speculative books I read was The Handmaid’s Tale, at an age when I wasn’t entirely ready for it. It felt over the top, perhaps even dramatic, to exaggerate gender relations in the way that Atwood had. I reread the book a few years later, older not only in age but also in world experience, and immensely appreciated what Atwood had done. Speculative fiction has the ability to highlight an issue in such a way you see it in a completely new and different light. For me, reading The Power not only taught me something about power relations but also about myself. Throughout the first half of The Power I found myself loving the new power women had, how they could now impress, scare, control and rule in the way that men can. However, as the novel continued I became more and more aware of how desire for power is a desire for power over others. When one group becomes all powerful some will eventually become corrupted and cruel and women are no exception to that rule. Seeing characters corrupted by power and knowing how they became so, sympathising with their choices and yet being disgusted by them, trying not to understand them but doing so anyway: this is what The Power did to me and it opened my eyes. The Power will open your eyes as to how you see gender and power and the relationship between the two. I often hear people joke that the world would be a better place if only women ran it. After reading The Power that is not only not a joke, it is also a sad sign of how binary our thinking is.

Alderman’s writing is visceral and cutting, not sparing the reader and thereby gifting them something special. The set-up of The Power gives Alderman a lot of freedom to experiment and explore her narrative, but this freedom comes with a responsibility. The novel starts with a meta-framework, producing the email dialogue between the author of the novel and the “author”, Alderman herself, who are living in a post-The Power world. This is only an example of how Alderman intersperses her narrative with different media throughout the novel, ranging from illustrations (expertly drawn by ) to Internet fora. This gives The Power a depth which allows it to discuss power relations in a much more insightful and broad way than many other novels manage. It shows how pervasive power relations are, how much of our culture and society is dominated by who is considered alpha, and how easily our minds accept narratives of power.

I give this novel…
5 Universes!

The Power is the best book I have read so far in 2016 and it will remain one of my favourites for a long time. Alderman’s novel is intelligent and fascinating, telling a good story while also doing some fascinating work. I personally cannot wait for Alderman’s next book.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

I give this book…
3 Universes!

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

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Review: 'The Ice Queen' by Alice Hoffman

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

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

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

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

I give this novel...
5 Universes!

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

Monday, 5 September 2016

Review: 'The Penelopiad' by Margaret Atwood

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

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

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

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

I give this novella...

4 Universes!

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

Friday, 2 September 2016

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

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

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

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

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

General Points:

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

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

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