Thursday, 31 March 2016

War and Peace #2: I.i.21 - I.ii.13

Sorry that this post is up a little bit late but I was struggling through trying to figure out who was fighting who where in Austria when. Yup, we've moved from a dance party straight into warfare. We've met another number of characters which I have a feeling will be important, but there are also a huge variety of characters, including the Emperor of Austria, which I'm assuming won't feature very much. So, dig in with me and experience your own 'Baptism of Fire'!

Summary of Chapters:
Now that Tolstoy has introduced us to the whole variety of main characters, it's time to split them all up and set off on a number of different storylines. In the first few chapters we stick with Pierre and Anna Mikhaylovna who were visiting the Rostovs last week. We now find out that Count Bezukhov is indeed dying and Pierre, his illegitimate son, is rushed to his side by the ever resourceful Anna. Once there it is clear that both Prince Vasili and the Old Count's daughters don't want Pierre anywhere near what they see as their inheritance. Unfortunately for them, the Old Count's final will inherits everything to the newly legitimized Pierre and makes him the new Count Bezukhov. We also witness Prince Andrew dropping his wife off at his father's estate where his sister, Princess Mary Bolkonski also lives. She's rather devout but seems like a lovely person. Prince Andrew then leaves for the front in Austria.

And now we start on Book Two which introduces us to Tolstoy writing warfare. Let's say that it's both fascinating and confusing. The situation in Austria is dire, with the Russian and Austrian armies trying to hold of Napoleon's march through Europe. We meet a number of characters here, such as Nicholas Rostov and Prince Andrew who are both seemingly in this war to make their careers and to make a good impression. One of the most fascinating passages is Nicholas' "baptism of fire" when he encounters his first battle. Tolstoy doesn't hold back when it comes to warfare and politics. When Prince Andrew is sent to the Austrian court, which has decamped to Brunn after Vienna was overrun by Napoleon. There is also suspected treachery by the Austrians as they might be making deals with Napoleon behind the Russians' backs. This week's section ends with Prince Andrew rushing back to the Russian Army with dreams of saving them but realising that there might be no way to save them from disaster.

Feel of the Chapters:
There is definitely more of a sense of urgency to these chapters than there was in last week's section. Tolstoy has moved on from introductions and now all the new characters that we of course meet aren't as crucial anymore, I think. The atmosphere around the Old Count's death is quite gloomy and dark, especially since it manages to bring out the worst in all the characters around the Count. Similarly, many of the people at the front seem the be equally dubious in character. Whether it's stealing, gambling or drinking, all of this happens unabashedly and those who don't engage like Prince Andrew look a bit snobbish. A downside to the military situation is that, for a reader, it can be a rather complicated situation to wrap your mind around. I feel like I need to crack open a history book!

General Points:

  • I think I'm coming to the conclusion that none of Tolstoy's characters are truly "good" in the sense that you couldn't criticise them. Even if they are innocent like Natasha or pious like Mary, you'd still like to tell them to shape up.
  • Tolstoy is definitely enjoying writing dialogue. I'm not entirely sure why but description isn't rife in War and Peace the way it was in Les Mis for example. Characters express their emotions either through actions or very short bursts of description. 
  • When Tolstoy does take the time, though, some of his descriptions are absolutely stunning. Whether it's Nicholas discovering how paralyzing warfare is or Tolstoy's description of Mary's effect on others, Tolstoy definitely drags you right in.

Something Interesting:
Today I'm looking at one of the most frequent characters in War and Peace so far: Mikhail Kutuzov. Although he is a historical character, he features a lot and interacts with a lot of Tolstoy's fictional characters like Prince Andrew. Kutuzov was born in 1745 and served under three different Tzars: Catherine II, Paul I and Alexander I, the latter of which is Tsar in Wa and Peace! As I mentioned last week when covering France's Invasion of Russia, Kutuzov is very much appreciated for his leadership during that time in Russia's history. And, fun fact, he was a Freemason!

In an even more fun fact, there is also a Kutuzov Cake which looks amazing! It has nothing to do with Mikhail Kutuzov as far as I can tell and is known by plenty of other names, but it looks to yummy not to share.

'While in the Rostovs' ballroom the sixth anglaise was being danced, to a tune in which the weary musicians blundered, and while tired footmen and cooks were getting the supper, Count Bezukhov had a sixth stroke.' p.54
I love the slight irony and sarcasm that Tolstoy infuses into his narrator's voice. Of course this isn't technically funny because someone is dying, but Tolstoy is definitely aware of how the sixth dance and the sixth stroke echo each other.
'On such matters I am only severe with myself. I understand such feelings in others, and if never having felt them I cannot approve of them, neither do I condemn them.' p.71
This was Princess Mary expressing how she looks at love and how people act when they're in love. I sort of love Mary, I think, but I can't see her being very happy in the rest of the novel because she seems so happy to accept suffering.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Teasers and 'Dark Places' by Gillian Flynn

Dark PlacesI read Sharp Objects last year and I'm not going to lie, it changed me a little bit. Since then I've kept my eyes open and I found a copy of Dark Places which I'm going to start soon. So I thought I'd share some teasers with you in order to tease myself into starting it soon as well!

Libby Day was just seven years old when her evidence put her fifteen-year-old brother behind bars.
Since then, she has been drifting. But when she is contacted by a group who are convinced of Ben's innocence, Libby starts to ask questions she never dared to before. Was the voice she heard her borther's? Ben was a misfit in their small town, but was he capable of murder? Are there secrets to uncover at the family farm or is Libby deluding herself because she wants her brother back?
She begins to realise that everyone in her family had something to hide that day... especially Ben. Now, twenty-four years later, the truth is going to be even harder to find.
Who did massacre the Day family?
Sound good, no? Tuesday Intros and Teaser Tuesdays are hosted by Diane over at Bibliophile by the Sea and Jenn over at Books and A Beat.

'Libby Day 
I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It's the Day blood. Something's wrong with it. I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders. Little Orphan Libby grew up sullen and boneless, shuffled around a group of lesser relatives - second cousins and great-aunts and friends of friends - stuck in a series of mobile homes or rotting ranch houses all across Kansas.' p.1
I like this beginning because I immediately recognize it as Flynn's writing style. I always loved how dark her writing is and it feels so honest.
'They sat on the porch swing as always, despite the chill, their heads rigidly straight, lest I muddy their view. I stood with my hands on my hips, on top of my hill, and waited until one finally caved.' p.135
I wonder what's happening right now in the story but I like that she's power-stancing. Whenever you have to stare down someone it's the best method to getting everything done.

Does Dark Places sound like something you'd like to read?

Monday, 28 March 2016

Review: 'A House Full of Daughters: A Memoir of Seven Generations' by Juliet Nicolson

The title was the first thing that intrigued me about A House Full of Daughters as did the idea of bringing together seven generations, spanning decades upon decades of family history. So I was very excited when I got the chance to read it and am very glad I did. Thanks to Random House and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 24/03/2016
Publisher: Random House UK Vintage

All families have their myths and legends. For many years Juliet Nicolson accepted hers – the dangerous beauty of her flamenco dancing great-great-grandmother Pepita, the flirty manipulation of her great-grandmother Victoria, the infamous eccentricity of her grandmother Vita, her mother’s Tory-conventional background. 
But then Juliet, a renowned historian, started to question. As she did so, she sifted fact from fiction, uncovering details and secrets long held just out of sight. 
A House Full of Daughters takes us through seven generations of women. In the nineteenth-century slums of Malaga, the salons of fin-de-siècleWashington DC, an English boarding school during the Second World War, Chelsea in the 1960s, the knife-edge that was New York City in the 1980s, these women emerge for Juliet as people in their own right, but also as part of who she is and where she has come from. 
A House Full of Daughters is one woman’s investigation into the nature of family, memory, the past – and, above all, love. It brings with it messages of truth and hope for us all.
Family history is absolutely fascinating, especially when it is conducted by a family member themselves. I myself have been fascinated by the history of my family, the way in which the different generations interacted with each other and where potential roots can be found. And since Nicolson comes from a fascinating family, one which started in Spain, stopped over in Washington before becoming nobility in England , A House Full of Daughters is quite an intriguing read. What immediately endeared Nicolson and her book to me, however, was that she purposefully looked at the women in her family and their roles and relationships with each other. History is largely man-made and hence full of men doing interesting things that we're all taught about, with women too often sidelined and invisible. What Nicolson shows in A House Full of Daughters is that women have always led equally fascinating lives, even if they haven't been as reported about, as men and that these deserve as much attention. The emphasis upon daughterhood as well, a singular concept which shows how women never truly lose their ties to family, provided Nicolson with an interesting perspective to approach her family history.

Nicolson brings a charming mix between historicity and personal observations to A House Full of Daughters. As a respected and well-known historian, Nicolson clearly knows what she's doing as she is researching the different generations, but she brings her own, emotional flavour to it. Whether it is references to her family's tradition of recording their own history or her own personal memory of her parents and grandparents, Nicolson always reminds the reader that she is writing about her own history. As such A House Full of Daughters is also a testament of Nicolson exploring herself and where she comes from, showing how the past affects the future. What was interesting was her attention for the daughter-mother and daughter-father relationship and especially how it changes throughout a woman's life. I love reading about history in a different way, approaching what we think we know in such a way that it reveals something new and unexpected.

Nicolson's writing style is very straight-forward and simple, in the best way. She is continuously evoking images for the reader, whether it is describing the staunch propriety of Arcochon or Vita Sackville-West's quest for freedom. Rather than steep her stories in loads of dates and casual name drops Nicolson wants her readers to get a real idea of how her ancestors lived. Nicolson also doesn't let the fact it is her own family cloud her vision. Pettiness and jealousy, abandonment and betrayal, she covers it all without making excuses, truly unveiling a family past. Personally, being literary-minded, I found her discussion of Vita the most interesting, simply because finding out more behind Virginia Woolf's inspiration for Orlando is a treat.

I give this book...

3 Universes!

I thoroughly enjoyed A House Full of Daughters but I don't think it's necessarily for everyone to read about the ups and downs of a single family, even if it is an interesting one. I'd recommend this both to fans of Historical Fiction and Biographies.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Review: 'Jane Steele' by Lyndsay Faye

Adaptations of classics can go one of two ways. Either they become a weak copy of the original which leaves the reader slightly bereft, or it manages to take the spirit of the original and dress it up anew. When an adaptation succeeds it doesn't detract from the original but rather add to it, like a kind of cheeky homage. I have always been hesitant about adaptations of my favourite classics because I simply love them too much but I have been opening myself up to them. And I'm extremely glad to have given Jane Steele a chance. Thanks to Headline Review and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 22/03/2016
Publisher: Headline Review

Into the world of Charlotte Bronte steps a young woman with a highly unusual set of skills. 
Reader, I murdered him.
A darkly brilliant Gothic retelling of Jane Eyre from the Edgar-nominated author of the Timothy Wilde series, described as 'amazing' by Gillian Flynn and 'solid-gold entertainment' by Lee Child.
Like the heroine of the novel she adores, Jane Steele suffers cruelly at the hands of her aunt and schoolmaster. And like Jane Eyre, they call her wicked - but in her case, she fears the accusation is true. When she flees, she leaves behind the corpses of her tormentors.
A fugitive navigating London's underbelly, Jane rights wrongs on behalf of the have-nots whilst avoiding the noose. Until an advertisement catches her eye. Her aunt has died and the new master at Highgate House, Mr Thornfield, seeks a governess. Anxious to know if she is Highgate's true heir, Jane takes the position and is soon caught up in the household's strange spell. When she falls in love with the mysterious Charles Thornfield, she faces a terrible dilemma: can she possess him - body, soul and secrets - and what if he discovers her murderous past?
There's something delightful about taking a proper and good governess and giving her a knife. As a literature student you learn to treat Classics with a capital C with a certain kind of distant respect, as if it should never be touched, which means that when you see someone taking it for a stroll and changing it it can trigger something of a knee-jerk reaction. But when it is done as deliciously as Faye does in Jane Steele there is no way someone who loves Jane Eyre couldn't at least appreciate her novel. Her plot is incredibly interesting, with little and big twists and an absolutely fascinating insight into the Anglo-Sikh wars, fought in the Punjab in the 1840s. Faye rightly recognised the presence of the neo-colonial in Mr. Rochester's past and translated it into Mr. Thornfield's past and presence. Faye's Sikh characters are some of the most interesting characters in Jane Steele and I left the book wanting to learn more about them.

Jane Steele has a very interesting structure. Just like Jane Eyre it is written in retrospect, which unfortunately removes some of the tension of Faye's action-packed plot. However, Faye's writing makes up for that completely. Faye also starts each chapter with a quote from Jane Eyre which, for everyone who knows the book well, gives little clues as to what might happen next. The two Janes are irrevocably tied up by Faye, with her own heroine actively engaging with Bronte's literary one at every step. Faye's Jane Steele set out to write her story after reading Jane Eyre and the similarities and differences between the two continuously high-lighted. Since Jane Steele's voice is so strong, poor Jane Eyre sometimes almost comes away the lesser. However what does become clear is that Bronte's novel was written for quite a different purpose than Faye's. Charlotte Bronte was trying to explore the female psyche and its vastly unexplored depths. Faye doesn't necessarily have the same lofty ambitions and yet her Jane Steele is almost more fun.

As mentioned above, Faye's writing is absolutely what makes this novel. Jane Steele's voice is sarcastic, biting and emotional, all at the same time. She is definitely the best thing about the novel, intriguing and easy to empathise with. The highest praise also needs to go to Faye for how she deals with certain aspects of Jane Steele's childhood concerning her cousin, something that shows her as very aware of the impression certain things might make on her readers. Faye describes Jane Steele's descent into murder very nicely, balancing between being explicit and describing Jane's emotional state. The combination between the two is what makes for some very gripping passages. There is also a naturalness to the way in which Faye's characters speak, both to each other and, in Jane's case, to the reader. Too often dialogue feels to forced because the author wants to reveal too much through speech, but in Jane Steele this is not the case.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

Overall I loved reading Jane Steele, it got me straight back to loving Jane Eyre and cheering for Jane and Mr. Thornfield. Jane Steele has a delightful cast of characters, each of which will endear itself to the reader within pages. I'd recommend it, of course, to fans of Jene Eyre but also in general to fans of crime fiction and even historical fiction.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

War and Peace #1: I.i.1 - I.i.20

And welcome to the first post of my War & Peace read along. I really enjoyed reading Les Miserables over the course of the last five months and there's something to be said for taking your time with classics, especially once they start spanning hundreds and hundreds of pages. My copy of War & Peace just about doesn't span a thousand, so in that sense it feels shorter than my copy of Les Mis, but since the latter was on my Kindle and the former is a paperback, War & Peace feels like an insurmountable mountain at the moment. A few notes to start, I'm using the same system I did for Les Mis in the sense that both of these books are split up into books and volumes. Hence in referencing the chapters read volumes are signified by capitalised Roman numerals, books by small Roman numerals and the various chapters by regular numbers. So, let's get cracking with the first twenty chapters.
Summary of Chapters:
In the first chapter we meet a variety of characters, all of which are interesting, most of which are relevant to the plot and some of which I spontaneously forgot about. But to recap, Anna Pavlovna Scherer throws a soiree in Saint Petersberg to which Prince Vasily Kuragin, his daughter Helene, Pierre Bezukhov, and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and his pregnant wife Lise. There are also a variety of other characters but so far they haven't been important yet. This soiree is Tolstoy's first occasion to show the reader how performative everyone's behaviour is. None of the adults seem to be genuine in how they act to each other and the whole evening is filled with polite chitterchatter until Pierre starts praising Napoleon and showing off "terrible" manners. He is the one at the party who doesn't know the social rules and makes a fool of himself. As the reader you feel for him a bit since you're also not quite sure what the rules are and slightly dislike everyone who is sticking to them. Pierre returns with Andrei and Lise, the former spontaneously reveals how dissatisfied he is with his married life and how it's holding him back. Pierre departs and joins Anatole Kuragin for a party which involves a bear.

The scene shifts after 10 chapters to the home of the Rostov family where the matriarch and Natasha Rostova are celebrating their name-day. We find out that Pierre got sent out of St. Petersburg for tying a policeman to a bear (what a party!) and is now in Moskow. The Rostov's have four children, Vera, who seems a bit spoilt and cold; Nicholas, 20, who is abandoning his studies to join the army and has declared his love to his second-cousin Sonya; Natasha, 13, who believes herself in love with Boris Dubretskoy, Nicholas' friend; and adorable 9-year old Petya. There are a lot of petty squabbles between all the "children", with Sonya upset at Nicholas for flirting with someone else and Boris promising Natasha he'll marry her in four years, while Vera looks on slightly disgusted. We witness Boris being dragged off my his mother to visit the dying Count Bezukhov, who his mother hopes will give him some money for his military career. Pierre is the Count's illegitimate son and also stands to potentially inherit, while Prince Vasily Kuragin is also there hoping for money. It's all rather tense and they quickly depart after an awkward conversation between Pierre and Boris. We return to the Rostov home where a dinner party is thrown and we meet a badass old lady named Marya Dmitrievna.

I appreciate all these names are rather confusing and they probably will get more and more confusing as we go on. Safe to say, pretty much everyone is a count, a princess or a soldier. Check out the Wikipedia page for the novel (I have no shame) if you get confused, they have handy family trees as well although they might spoil upcoming marriages!

Feel of the Chapters:
It's fair to say that Tolstoy does not play around. He gets right into the action and with Les Mis still so fresh in my mind it was very interesting to see these two different authors approaching immense casts differently. It is truly a bit confusing to deal with all these different names and I'm wondering when I'll have to stop checking the character list to know what's happening. Anyways, there is a distinct sense that everyone is acting and as such you're never quite sure which character to trust. There is a lot of polite conversation and switching between topics as Tolstoy rushes to introduce everyone. You get the feeling that he sides with Pierre most times, with the more socialist ideals he has and his innocence towards the social corruption of the other characters. Overall, the soiree feels a bit gloomy and constricted, and so does Prince Andrei's revelation of how frustrated he is.

In comparison, once we move on to the Rostovs everything feels brighter. Natasha is potentially the only character that acts intuitively and naturally, but even she seems to be a part of the game. There is a cheerfulness to the Rostovs though which really cheers the narrative up after the relative stagnancy of the soiree. There is also a distinct sense that Tolstoy is mocking the social niceties everyone feels forced to share, which means there is also an occasional chuckle in these chapters. Going into War & Peace, then, I get the feeling that Tolstoy does the same as Victor Hugo: moving back and forth between serious and fun, dark and light, intense and simple.

General Points:

  • The social elite in Saint Petersburg is incredibly well-spoken, in the sense that Tolstoy is constantly telling us about the different languages spoken by his characters. There is a lot of French, for which I had to dig into the notes at the back of the book, some Italian, and even an English phrase. I love this international edge to the elite.
  • There is quite a lot of attention for the need of money that some characters feel, especially Anna Drubetskaya, Boris' mother, who we see asking both Prince Vasily for help and trying to ask Count Bezukhov for money. When she eventually gets it from an unexpected source (see Quotes below) it leads to quite a bittersweet moment.
  • It was definitely a bit strange to read about these teens planning marriage and cousins being attracted to each other, but that is definitely an effect of Tolstoy showing his time period off as well as reading about the upper classes. In any society they tend to, well, inbreed. 
  • Somehow War & Peace feels a little bit like it could turn into a TV-show. Every week I'll tune in to see what these characters are up to, who's getting married, if anyone's dying, etc. I do expect Tolstoy will hit me with some intense philosophy at some point, but so far it's been very pleasant reading.

Napoleon doesn't look like he enjoys the cold!
Something Interesting:
Napoleon is absolutely crucial to War & Peace. When I bought my copy four years ago I was surprised he was on the cover and I now understand why. War & Peace is set around the beginning of the 1800s when Russia was engaging intensely with Napoleon's quest to become Emperor of all of Europe. So today I'm looking at a event which influenced Russia's interest in Napoleon: the 1812 French Invasion of Russia, or, as it is known in Russia, The Patriotic War of 1812. Napoleon invaded in order to convince Russia to stop trading with Britain although the official reason was to liberate Poland. The Russian army employed the scorched-earth tactic which freaked the French out a little bit. Tsar Alexander I appointed Mikhail Kutuzov as commander and Tolstoy has Prince Andrei working for him.

On the 7th of September the Battle of Borodino happened, where 70,000 soldiers died. Yet neither this nor Napoleon taking Moscow convinced Alexander I to submit. Eventually they started to retreat but the famous Russian winter hit them. Hundreds of thousands of French soldiers had died and the campaign was a turning point in the Napoleonic Wars as Napoleon's reputation was weakened.

'"What is important are the rights of man, emancipation from prejudices, and equality of citizenship, and all these ideas Napoleon has retained in full force."' p.15
This is Pierre defending Napoleon and voicing Tolstoy's own opinion, apparently. Somehow I've managed to pick another politically motivated and socialist book. Who knows if this will actually last though or if Pierre will have his mind changed by life.
'They wept because they were friends, and because they were kind-hearted, and because they - friends from childhood - had to think about such a base thing as money, and because their youth was over ... But those tears were pleasant to them both.' p.44
So, Anna Drubetskaya gets the money for Boris from Countess Rostova who is her childhood friend and it leads to the above moment. Both women seem absolutely worn out by their struggles. The Countess has birthed twelve children and worries for her family's spending while Anna is poor and has been reduced to begging. I liked how Tolstoy shows their relative hardship.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Review: 'Ivanhoe' by Walter Scott

IvanhoeSometimes the Universe comes together and lets you read a book you've been trying to find the time for for a University module. The Universe came together for me and I got to read Ivanhoe a few weeks ago. As a Medievalist it's almost my duty to read this novel and pass judgement on its use of the Middle Ages, so here I am.

Original Pub. Date: 1820
"Fight on, brave knights! Man dies, but glory lives!" 
Banished from England for seeking to marry against his father's wishes, Ivanhoe joins Richard the Lion Heart on a crusade in the Holy Land. On his return, his passionate desire is to be reunited with the beautiful but forbidden lady Rowena, but he soon finds himself playing a more dangerous game as he is drawn into a bitter power struggle between the noble King Richard and his evil and scheming brother John. The first of Scott's novels to address a purely English subject, Ivanhoe is set in a highly romanticized medieval world of tournaments and sieges, chivalry and adventure where dispossessed Saxons are pitted against their Norman overlords, and where the historical and fictional seamlessly merge.
For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators. 
Scott is credited with making the Middle Ages popular again, with saving it from being seen as a terrible and dark time in human history that has nothing redeemable to it. Of course this is not down to just Scott, but his Waverley-novels and especially Ivanhoe were a major part of it. Setting his novel in the 12th century, Scott used his extensive historical and literary knowledge to fashion a credible medieval setting for his story. The Medievalist will easily pick out certain things that aren't originally 12th century but for any "casual" reader Scott's medieval England will feel true and interesting. However, it might also feel too intense because his descriptions can feel like museum info. Whether it's the detail of a belt buckle or an explanation of the architectural benefits of a certain type of tower, Scott will tell you almost everything. For some readers this'll be great because it adds to the story. For others it will become too much about four pages in. As far as historical fiction goes, it falls significantly onto the historical side in that sense.

Scott can also be credited not only with reviving interest in the Middle Ages but also in "creating" the Middle Ages. Bringing in certain stock characters from what children now know as 'medieval', Richard Lionheart, Prince John etc., reading Ivanhoe feels like a return to those childhood stories. What one needs to realise though is that the reason these stories are familiar is because Scott introduced many of their components into popular culture. I'm trying very hard not to spoil the plot of the novel here, but by reading Ivanhoe everyone will find themselves recognizing story elements and what some think of as the mythology of England.

Critics have, for a while, said this book was mainly intended to entertain boys and it's still a surprise to me that someone came to that conclusion because the women in Ivanhoe were incredibly interesting. Rowena feels like a typical "medieval" heroine, a template for future portrayals of Maid Marian. She is royal, she is commanding (usually) and, above all, she is waiting. She is the kind of seeming passive female character who could wheel a lot of influence in the narrative and yet doesn't. She has a number of moments where she feels powerful, but she is also absolutely overshadowed by Rebecca, one of the two Jewish characters in Ivanhoe. I'll discuss the racial aspect of the book later, but Rebecca is very strong within herself. She is a character who is self-contained, whose actions are motivated by her own desires and thoughts rather than compelled. She is potentially the only character who comes out of Ivanhoe looking like a good person. No matter how much garbage other characters throw at her she remains composed and independent and, by that, a real inspiration.

The main thing that can turn modern readers off Ivanhoe is the attitude his characters have towards the Jewish population of England. Although the anti-Semitism shown is historically accurate both for the time period about which he writes and even within which he writes, it is no longer something we accept. So this gives a reader two choices: either accept it as a fascinating insight into how common racist attitudes can become and how they show themselves, or reject the book. I'd advise the former, especially since, as mentioned above, Rebecca is the main treasure of this book. Her being Jewish continually comes back to harm her, whereas she never lets herself be defined by it. Scott clearly has sympathy for her and so did his initial audience which demanded a rewrite of the end of the book after its release to favour Rebecca. (See how hard it is not to spoil this?) So, we have a classic here in which a lot of characters are racist, to varying extents, and where the narrator isn't necessarily outright judging it. Personally it reminded me a lot of Heart of Darkness in that sense, which is often outrightly rejected by readers for its perceived intrinsic racism. But I think it's vital to read novels like this as a reminder how easy it is to fall into certain traps.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I really enjoyed reading Ivanhoe, a lot more than I was expecting even. It's not necessarily an easy read and its density can become a bit much at times. It's a rather rewarding read, however, and it will have you on the edge of your seat at many times. I'd recommend this to fans of historical fiction.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Weekly Overview

I spent most of this week in Edinburgh and then the rest of it absolutely exhausted and desperately catching up with reading. Hence why the Friday is so full of posts! But it was a great week and I'm really excited to start reading War & Peace this week and share the first 10 chapters with you guys next week. I think I've managed to drag some people into the Tolstoy-hell I'm about to descend into so yaay?

So, that was my week. Edinburgh was loads of fun, it was great to see my sister again and she brought me up the massive tome that is A History of Virlity so props to her.

This post is linked up with the Sunday Post over at Caffeinated Book Review.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Review: 'The Alchemist' by Paulo Coelho

The AlchemistTicking off another Classics read! I've been fascinated by The Alchemist ever since I heard about it in the late 2000s, even though it originally came out in the same year I was born. I have chased down this book for the last few years, wondering why I can't find it and if I even really want to read it. But then the local library here in St. Andrews actually had a copy and I raced through it in a day.

Pub. Date: 05/1993
Publisher: HarperCollins
Paulo Coelho's enchanting novel has inspired a devoted following around the world. This story, dazzling in its powerful simplicity and inspiring wisdom, is about an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago who travels from his homeland in Spain to the Egyptian desert in search of a treasure buried in the Pyramids. Along the way he meets a Gypsy woman, a man who calls himself king, and an alchemist, all of whom point Santiago in the direction of his quest. No one knows what the treasure is, or if Santiago will be able to surmount the obstacles along the way. But what starts out as a journey to find worldly goods turns into a discovery of the treasure found within. Lush, evocative, and deeply humane, the story of Santiago is an eternal testament to the transforming power of our dreams and the importance of listening to our hearts.
The Alchemist is an incredibly short and simple read. Stretching for roughly a 150 pages (depending on your edition). Having recently finished Les Miserables I have dealt with the big classic, the book that covers hundreds if not thousands of pages and feels completely and utterly non-accessible. So there's something charming about a novel where the most complicated word is alchemy. On the other hand The Alchemist deals with one of the most intense and complicated themes in literature: the pursuit of happiness.That combination between simple and complex is what made The Alchemist automatically interesting to me. As one of the characters in the book explains to Santiago, too often the reason that simple things are written down or said in difficult words is to make the one who says or write it feel smarter, not because the thing itself requires complexity. And when it comes to something as "simple" as listening to your heart, why make it hard for people to understand?

Coelho gets straight into Santiago's story, straight into his mind while staying slightly outside it as well. I've just praised Coelho's simplicity of writing but it would be best illustrated with a quote:
'He decided to return to his friend's stable by the longest route possible. As he walked past the city's castle, he interrupted his return, and climbed the stone ramp that led to the top of the wall.' p.27
This is very simple writing, one thing happens, it's followed by the next and all he's doing is describing a journey. But then all of The Alchemist is largely metaphorical. The climb up the ramp is also Santiago consciously getting on top of his own thoughts, struggling up hill, etc. Initially it took me some getting used to because I needed some time to see the subtext, to accept the metaphors. Because The Alchemist is also littered with one-liners that will hit you too quickly if you haven't kept up with Coelho's bare prose. Because the beauty is that you have to go through all the simple prose, take in all the little, seemingly insignificant moments, to understand the big message.
'Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure.' p.120

So, how do you read a book about happiness? And can the reader actually accept the answer the author suggests? Coelho seems to be intensely aware how personal the search for happiness and fulfilment is for everyone and it expresses itself even in how he himself willingly puts his work online for fans to read. He wants everyone to get a fair and equal shot at exploring his work and applying it to themselves. I do have to admit that, for me, his philosophy feels a little bit too sweet and soft. My inner cynic refuses to accept that you have to open yourself up to your own heart and that can be it. But due to Coelho's writing it feels utterly possible that finding happiness and truth one has to return to one's self and read the omens of nature. I think overall the thing that I took away from The Alchemist is that simplicity is beautiful and that just because something looks difficult doesn't mean that it is.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

I needed some time to get into The Alchemist but I was really intrigued once I got into it. Coelho has a lot to offer and the way in which he does it is really refreshing. It's one of the "youngest" classics on my list but it's definitely one I will have to reread. I'd recommend it to fans of philosophical reads.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Spotlight: 'The Hurricane' by R.J. Prescott

The Hurricane (The Hurricane, #1)Piatkus is organising a book tour for one of their new releases and I'm very happy to spotlight the book for you today! I'm talking about The Hurricane by R.J. Prescott, a page-turner about love, polar opposites and destiny.

Pub. Date: 17/03/2016
Publisher: Piatkus
Emily McCarthy is living in fear of a dark and dangerous past. A gifted mathematician, she is little more than a hollow, broken shell, trying desperately to make ends meet long enough to finish her degree.
Through an unlikely friendship with the aging, cantankerous owner of an old boxing gym, Em is thrown into the path of the most dangerous man that she has ever met.
Cormac “the Hurricane” O’Connell is cut, tattooed and dangerous. He is a lethal weapon with no safety and everyone is waiting for the mis-fire. He’s never been knocked out before, but when he meet Em he falls, HARD. Unlike any other girl he’s ever met, she doesn’t want anything from him, but just being around her makes him want to be a better person.
They are polar opposites who were never meant to find each other, but some things are just worth the fight. 
Doesn't it sound amazing? People on Goodreads seem to love it so hop over to Amazon or Barnes & Nobles and get your copy if it's your kind of book!
R.J. Prescott
About R.J. Prescott:
I was born in Cardiff, South Wales although I left to study law at the University of Bristol, England. Four weeks before graduation I fell in love, and stayed. Ten years later I convinced my crazy, wonderful fire fighter husband to move back to Cardiff with me where we live with our two equally crazy sons. Juggling work, writing and family doesn’t leave a lot of time, but curling up on the sofa with a cup of tea and a bar of chocolate for family movie night is definitely the best part of my week. “The Hurricane” is my debut New Adult Novel.

Get in touch with R.J. on her website, Twitter or Facebook!

Review: 'Haiku Princess: Poems in Ascending Order of Profanity' by H.O. Tanager

The haiku is one of those forms of poetry which sometimes I love and sometimes simply don't get. So when I saw the chance to explore this form once again but now with a distinctly modern seeming edge to it, I decided the time was right. Thanks to HO. Tanager Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 05/09/2015
Publisher: H.O. Tanager Press
Traditional haiku - at least the most interesting of the genre - includes the "volta," or "turn," a rhetorical shift or dramatic change in thought or emotion. Pairing modern, slantwise thoughts with Victorian images, Haiku Princess expands on the idea of the "volta" of a poem to include a visual layer... because it just seemed right. 
Paired with Victorian illustrations, conveniently ordered from least-to-most profane (as interpreted by the author), and written by a Haiku Deathmatch Champion, these poems have been specially selected not to bore you, and perhaps make you wise.
I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed reading Tanager's haikus in Haiku Princess. The haiku form is one which has always felt abstract to me, in the sense I was never quite sure what the point of them was. Since I'm intensely familiar with the Shakespearean sonnet, for example, so reading and appreciating that comes a lot more natural. The haiku is fascinating, however, in how it's both a strict and a loose form. On the one hand it always has 17 on or syllables divided into three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables. On the other hand the haiku relies on juxtapositioning two unrelated images and having it make sense. In the case of Tanager's Haiku Princess the haikus always seem to go in a different direction than I was expecting while making perfecting sense within themselves. As such, I really enjoyed them because each three line-haiku was a unit of its own. However, Haiku Princess also works as a collection.

Split into five sections, 'Haiku of the Cradle', 'Haiku of the Maiden', 'Introducing the Lady Ku', ''Ku of the Crone' and 'Holy One'. it felt like Tanager had split Haiku Princess to purposefully follow the growth of girl to woman, the profanity and honesty growing alongside her. 'Haiku of the Cradle' feels relatively innocent whereas the first haiku of 'Haiku of the Maiden' immediately confronts the reader with an unabashed sexuality. And it works, the way one section moves into the next. The Victorian illustrations seem to go hand in hand with the haikus as well, even if they initially seem to not fit them at all. There's something sugary sweet about some of them which contrasts nicely with the more acerbic tone of the haikus. The design of the collection, then, the way the font, haiku and illustrations come together, really adds to the enjoyment of Haiku Princess.

There's something amazing about how profane and cheeky some of these haikus are. Tanager purposefully pushes the envelope on what is usually said and what is seen as appropriate. It's even more surprising to see how squeamish you can be when something is put bluntly on paper in just three lines that usually you hardly mention to friends. Haiku Princess, then, is definitely not for everyone. Not only will you have to be able to appreciate the haiku form, you'll also have to be open to being a little bit shocked and prodded by Tanager. If you read one haiku after the other you'll finish Haiku Princess in 10 minutes but the whole point of reading poetry is to let each sink in, to maybe reread them and let them work in. Don't ask too many questions of a haiku, is my tip. I really enjoyed the freedom of Haiku Princess and the fact that something like it can exist.

I give this collection...

3 Universes!

I greatly enjoyed reading Haiku Princess, even if I didn't always feel like "I got it". Tanager is beautifully cheeky in these haikus and you'll either enjoy it or not. Hence my rating since it's such a marmite-esque collection. You're gonna love it or hate it, but if you consider yourself an adventurous reader I'd definitely recommend Haiku Princess to you.

Friday Memes and 'The Alchemist' by Paul Coelho

The AlchemistToday I'm sharing one of my 100 Classics list reads because I've FINALLY tracked down a copy of it after years of wanting to read it. I guess I could've just bought one but I wasn't sure if I'd like it so I've been trawling through libraries. But I can finally share my quotes from The Alchemist with you, the book that was a massive hit and that I then heard nothing about ever again.
Paulo Coelho's enchanting novel has inspired a devoted following around the world. This story, dazzling in its powerful simplicity and inspiring wisdom, is about an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago who travels from his homeland in Spain to the Egyptian desert in search of a treasure buried in the Pyramids. Along the way he meets a Gypsy woman, a man who calls himself king, and an alchemist, all of whom point Santiago in the direction of his quest. No one knows what the treasure is, or if Santiago will be able to surmount the obstacles along the way. But what starts out as a journey to find worldly goods turns into a discovery of the treasure found within. Lush, evocative, and deeply humane, the story of Santiago is an eternal testament to the transforming power of our dreams and the importance of listening to our hearts. 
Book Beginnings and Friday 56 are hosted by Gilion over at Rose City Reader and Freda at Freda's Voice, respectively.

'The boy's name was Santiago. Dusk was falling as the boy arrived with his herd at an abandoned church. The roof had fallen in long ago, and an enormous sycamore had grown on the spot where the sacristy had once stood.' p.3 (first page)
I like the simplicity of Coelho's writing so far. A lot of it is very "easy", with the moral being spelled out without being annoying. Potentially, however, I might not love that style of writing for the rest of the book.

'"All who went there were happy at having done so. They placed the symbols of the pilgrimage on the doors of their houses. One of them, a cobbler who made his living mending boots, said that he had traveled for almost a year through the desert, but that he got more tired when he had to walk through the streets of Tangier buying his leather."' p.56
I loved this description of the pilgrimage to Mecca. It's such an important thing to Islam and I love finding out more about it. I like the mix of cultures Coelho has in this book, even if it's all about alchemy.

Have you read The Alchemist? Or have you heard about it?

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Review: 'Walk the Edge' by Katie McGarry

Katie McGarry's Pushing the Limits was one of the books that really changed my mind about Young Adult fiction. It could be exciting and fun and, above all, well-written! So when I saw Walk the Edge pop up I knew I wanted to read it. And I loved it. Thanks to Harlequin and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 10/03/2016
Pulisher: Harlequin

One moment of recklessness will change their worlds.
Smart. Responsible. That's seventeen-year-old Breanna's role in her large family, and heaven forbid she put a toe out of line. Until one night of shockingly un-Breanna-like behavior puts her into a vicious cyber-bully's line of fire—and brings fellow senior Thomas "Razor" Turner into her life.
Razor lives for the Reign of Terror motorcycle club, and good girls like Breanna just don't belong. But when he learns she's being blackmailed over a compromising picture of the two of them—a picture that turns one unexpected and beautiful moment into ugliness—he knows it's time to step outside the rules.
And so they make a pact: he'll help her track down her blackmailer, and in return she'll help him seek answers to the mystery that's haunted him—one that not even his club brothers have been willing to discuss. But the more time they spend together, the more their feelings grow. And suddenly they're both walking the edge of discovering who they really are, what they want, and where they're going from here. 
Katie McGarry's books are incredibly easy to love. Part of that is because of how beautifully her stories stick to expected YA patterns without becoming boring. Walk the Edge is the perfect example of this. Breanna and Razor are seemingly stereotypes: the quiet girl and the bad boy, the girl who does what she has to and the boy who always does the unexpected. But McGarry gives her characters more than just these stock character traits. Breanna is interesting, which shouldn't come as a surprise, but does. Ever since Stephanie Meyer gave us Bella Swan, YA heroines have been suffering from boring-itis but McGarry's never do. There are sides to Breanna which are unexpected, she never makes unjustifiably ridiculous decisions "because love" and is her own person. Ever since reading Alice Hoffman's Property Of I've also been slightly (read: extremely) intrigued by gangs or motorcycle clubs in fiction. There is something fascinating about these close-knit communities and how they interact with the outside world. Although I doubt YA fiction is the best place to learn about them, the way they are portrayed are always interesting.

What really intrigued me about this novel is the fact that it deals with a topic so intensely problematic yet frequent: compromising pictures of girls. McGarry doesn't shy away from the fact that this is a highly gendered crime and that responses to it are rife with prejudices and victim-blaming. Throughout the novel I kept worrying if the novel would turn against Breanna, as I have unfortunately read many YA novels which ruthlessly turn against their own female characters while trying to pretend they're not. But McGarry never let me down, reminding me why she is my favourite YA author. She also approaches her characters with such care, letting Breanna to stand up for herself and be vulnerable at the same time, making Razor both sensitive and determined. Masculinity seems to be such a difficult thing for authors to nail down at times, making their "bad boys" slightly emotionless and wooden whereas McGarry's boys feel and express. Yes, there are man tears in these books and they're not the sadly self-entitled man tears.

McGarry's writing is what lifts her books above those of most other YA writers. She doesn't go down the lazy road but tries to actually bring her characters and situations as close to the reader as possible. At times her writing might be too emotionally vague for some, by which I mean that McGarry explains some situations through her characters' emotions rather than explicitly. This is especially true for the more x-rated parts of the book but I actually prefer it over the more lifeless yet explicit descriptions of others. Walk the Edge also moved between the narration of both Breanna and Razor, which definitely gave it an extra edge. Seeing a situation from both sides always gives the reader more to work with. Although perhaps the difference in voice between the two isn't very clear you always know whose perspective you're reading. How realistic the story is is a question that hardly pops up throughout the book and that's part of the magic of it.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I loved reading Walk the Edge, as I was expecting to. Katie McGarry is one of my go-to YA authors and she has never let me down. Breanna and Razor are great new characters and the story will keep you interested throughout the novel. I'd recommend this to YA fans.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

'War and Peace' Read Along

The last two weeks I felt a bit of a gap in my life as I had no massive tome of a classic to read now that I've finished Les Miserables. So I decided that nothing would be better than picking a new one and why not, then, the second biggest one I own? I hope you'll join me as I move from French Classics to Russian Classics and try my hand at War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, of course in translation. Whereas my French was too poor to get me through Les Mis, my Russian is so non-existent I probably couldn't even pick War and Peace out in a Russian bookstore.

When I made my 100 Classics list I decided that this novel by Tolstoy simply had to be a part of it for the same reason that Les Mis had to be on there. It's a key novel in world literature and has influenced countless of authors since. Aside from that, the story also has a grip on popular culture, with endless adaptations gracing our TV screens. So, what is War and Peace actually about?
War and PeaceTolstoy's epic masterpiece intertwines the lives of private and public individuals during the time of the Napoleonic wars and the French invasion of Russia. The fortunes of the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys, of Pierre, Natasha, and Andrei, are intimately connected with the national history that is played out in parallel with their lives. Balls and soirees alternate with councils of war and the machinations of statesmen and generals, scenes of violent battles with everyday human passions in a work whose extraordinary imaginative power has never been surpassed. 
The prodigious cast of characters, seem to act and move as if connected by threads of destiny as the novel relentlessly questions ideas of free will, fate, and providence. Yet Tolstoy's portrayal of marital relations and scenes of domesticity is as truthful and poignant as the grand themes that underlie them.

So, I will be reading War and Peace from now on. I will start out trying to read 10 chapters a week and if, as was the case with Les Mis, I find that I can do more and that the reading is going a bit slow, I might switch it up to 20 chapters a week.

Would you like to join in? Or have you read War and Peace and have any advice for my journey into Russian literature?

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Weekly Overview

This has been something of a busy week as everything had to be done before Spring Break started tomorrow! I'm very excited because tomorrow my sister is finally coming up to Edinburgh to visit me and I can't wait to see her again, after about 6 months of being in different countries! So, how did I do this week?

I'm quite happy with three reviews, not entirely sure I can top that next week because I'll be away but I have a couple of amazing books which I want to review as soon as I have finished them!

Ever since my classes ended on Thursday I've been spending a lot of time on Netflix and indulged my passion for Bollywood films by watching Dhoom 2. I've come away with extra proof that my love for Aishwarya Rai Bachan is eternal and that Hrithik Roshan is extremely attractive. I wish more Hollywood films had dancing in it because men who can dance are incredibly attractive, especially if they in between songs continue to be some kind of badass thief. So come share in my misery and watch the song below!

This post is linked up with the Sunday Post over at Caffeinated Book Reviewer!

Friday, 11 March 2016

Friday Memes and 'Gretel and the Dark' by Eliza Granville

Gretel and the DarkToday I'm sharing the first book that I picked up at my local community library. I have been so focused on my University library, which is very focused on academic texts and hardly any new books, but decided it was time to branch out a little and signed up at the community library and immediately picked up Eliza Granville's Gretel and the Dark.

A dark, distinctive and addictively compelling novel set in fin-de-siècle Vienna and Nazi Germany—with a dizzying final twist.
Vienna, 1899. Josef Breuer—celebrated psychoanalyst—is about to encounter his strangest case yet. Found by the lunatic asylum, thin, head shaved, she claims to have no name, no feelings—to be, in fact, not even human. Intrigued, Breuer determines to fathom the roots of her disturbance.
Years later, in Germany, we meet Krysta. Krysta’s Papa is busy working in the infirmary with the ‘animal people,’ so little Krysta plays alone, lost in the stories of Hansel and Gretel, the Pied Piper, and more. And when everything changes and the world around her becomes as frightening as any fairy tale, Krysta finds her imagination holds powers beyond what she could have ever guessed. . . .
Eliza Granville has had a life-long fascination with the enduring quality of fairytales and their symbolism, and the idea for Gretel and the Dark was sparked when she became interested in the emphasis placed on these stories during the Third Reich.

Book Beginnings and Friday 56 are hosted by Gilion over at Rose City Reader and Freda from Freda's Voice, respectively!


'It is many years before the Pied Piper comes back for the other children. Though his music has been silenced, still thousands are forces to follow him, young, olf, large, small, everyone... even the ogres wearing ten-league boots and cracking whips, even their nine-headed dogs. We are the rats in exodus now and the Earth shrinks from the touch of our feet. Spring leaves a bitter taste. All day, rain and people fall; all night, nixies wail from the lakes. The blood-coloured bear sniffs at our heels. I keep my eyes on the road, counting white pebbles, fearful of where this last gingerbread trail is leading us.' p.1
I absolutely love this opening! Me and fairy tales are tight, we're best friends, we get along is what I'm saying. And this opening just picks up so many different fairy tale themes that I know it's going to be good. I just know it.

'"Decent basic housing, that's what our illustrious Franz Joseph should force the city to spend its money on, not this Secession rubbish. Buildings with owls on... I ask you. And that Majolika Haus covered with flowers and twirly bits. Very nice, I dare say, but who among us can afford an apartment there? Meanwhile, homeless people will freeze to death on the streets this winter."' p.56
I like the fact that this book is paying attention to the political climate that it's set in and picking up on social issues. It's always good to also learn something from your fiction and in this way I might, although I'm pretty good with the WW2 Era.

So, that's me done for the day! What are you teasing?

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Review: 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' by Alan Dean Foster

Star Wars: The Force AwakensEveryone who knows me knows I am a massive Star Wars nerd and will evenually sink my nerd claws into anything Star Wars-related I can find. So of course the novelization from The Force Awakens was bound to end up on this blog eventually. I loved the movie but was wondering what it would be like to read the novelization of it. Thanks to Century and Random House for providing me wit a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 01/01/2016
Publisher: Century

Set years after Return of the Jedi, this stunning action-packed adventure rockets us back into the world of Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2,and Luke Skywalker, while introducing a host of exciting new characters. Darth Vader may have been redeemed and the Emperor vanquished, but peace can be fleeting, and evil does not easily relent. Yet the simple belief in good can still empower ordinary individuals to rise and meet the greatest challenges.
So return to that galaxy far, far away, and prepare yourself for what happens when the Force awakens. . .
Novelizations of films always have to work against the expectations of its readers. Either readers come in knowing only vague things about the film and hence have certain expectations or they have seen the film, love it and have extremely high expectations. The authors of novelizations also usually work from initial drafts of the script, rather than the shooting script, hence they often have additional scenes, different dialogue or even different characterization. As long as the reader is open to being surprised, novelizations can only add to a fan's enjoyment of a film. In the case of Alan Dean Foster's The Force Awakens I have definitely only gained from reading it.

The great thing about Foster's "take" on The Force Awakens is that it provides an insight into the minds of the characters which film, by the mere fact of its medium, can't provide. Unless you want to include endless and tiring voice-overs, that is. One of the things that immediately made me happy was that the novel started with Princess, now General, Leia and her state of mind. She is a little bit sidelined in the film and Foster gives her a much bigger role. She is clearly in charge, clearly leading the Resistance and a woman of her own. As such, reading the novel after seeing the film will give you loads of little and interesting glimpses into the life behind the film. Especially some of the moments with Rey, her discovering of the Force etc. were absolutely interesting to read. Foster's writing style is nicely to the point, not unnecessarily sience-y or flowery and his novel makes for a beautiful return to the planets and characters we discovered in December.

However, here and there I felt that the writing was a little bit too rushed. Partially this may have come from the fact that I've seen the film and hence already know the story. However, certain scenes were rushed through whereas I would have imagined they would have given Foster a lot of chances to explore the characters and discover a new side of Star Wars. As such this also comes back to a criticism I had of the film itself, namely the fact that it sometimes stayed happily superficial. Growing up with the Prequels Star Wars has always been something deep, mythological and complex to me. There are layers, there are secrets and the more you think the more you discover. Both the film and this novelization of The Force Awakens prefer to not go too deep. There are many hints though, hints to the possibility that those depths could be there. I guess in that sense Foster is very effective because it leaves the reader wanting even more.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

Foster adds a couple of interesting moments to the film we all know. The added scenes do really add and his writing fits into the Star Wars universe nicely. However, Foster doesn't fill up most of the gaps that the film leaves. There are some shifts here and there which still don't feel entirely comfortable but reading The Force Awakens was a lot of fun.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Review: 'The Painted Ocean' by Gabriel Packard

The Painted Ocean was a novel that intrigued me from the moment I read the blurb. It seemed to have a very strong voice and the different elements of the story seemed interesting. However, I was unsure of how it would all fit together so I was looking forward to reading it. Thanks to Corsair and to Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 03/03/2016
Publisher: Corsair; Little, Brown Book Group
When I was a little girl, my dad left me and my mum, and he never came back. And you're supposed to be gutted when that happens. But secretly I preferred it without him, cos it meant I had my mum completely to myself, without having to share her with anyone. And I sort of inherited all the affection she used to give to my dad - like he'd left it behind for me as a gift, to say sorry for deserting me.
So says eleven year old Shruti of her broken home in suburban middle England. But hopes of her mother's affection are in vain: speaking little English, and fluent in only Hindi and Punjabi, Shruti's mother is lost, and soon falls prey to family pressure to remarry. To find another husband means returning to India and leaving Shruti behind.
Meanwhile at school a new arrival, the indomitable Meena, dispenses with Shruti's bullying problems and transforms her day to day life. Desperate for companionship Shruti latches on to Meena to the point of obsession, following her through high school and on to university. But when Meena invites Shruti to join her on holiday in India, she has no idea how dangerous her obsession will turn out to be...
Gabriel Packard's THE PAINTED OCEAN has been described by Colum McCann 'as fearless tour de force. It is a rare achievement - an emotionally rich work of literature, delivered in the form of a gripping, page-turning story. The depiction of a British Indian childhood and adolescence is utterly compelling, as is the allegorical exploration of the human condition.'
The voice of The Painted Ocean is Shruti, a young Indian girl who lives in England with her mother who speaks no English. From the beginning of the novel we hear her and only her and she is brutally honest about everything. Initially one might suspect Packard is setting her up as an unreliable narrator, in the way that Martell has us questioning the narrator's grasp on reality in Life of Pi (this novel will come back in this review), but Shruti is honest with herself and with her readers. This starts from the very first page with Shruti revealing her relative happiness of her father's absence. As we follow Shruti as she grows up and becomes more and more alone the reader can't help but get attached to her, even if they're bound to get annoyed with her every once in a while. She is what guides the reader through the insanity of the plot and as her voice matures and changes so does the reader's perception of her.

The plot of this novel is truly a miracle in the sense that if I tried to describe it to someone who hadn't read the book there is no way I could show how all the different storylines are linked and how it all makes sense. Starting off as seemingly a coming-of-age novel The Painted Ocean focuses on Shruti's worries about her mother and their life. The racial elements in the book which focus on Shruti's origin and her peers' response add a new level to the book, whereas her friendship with Meena turns our ideas about racial identity around and makes us reconsider the role of friendship in a teenage girl's life. Throughout the novel there are moments where time passes quickly, months, sometimes even years flying past in a few lines. And it works for The Painted Ocean although it's a risky technique. Packard's writing is a big reason as to why all the potentially bad moves work. He captures characters well, he describes settings and action well and brings it all together into a narrative that is somehow coherent. In that sense the novel reminds me of Life of Pi, where the story feels so absurd and yet makes perfect sense in and of itself.

Now, I've mentioned Shruti's voice a few times already and I think it needs some explaining. Packard writes The Painted Ocean in what feels like a first person stream-of-consciousness. When we first meet Shruti and she's a child turning teenager the novel is littered with 'like' and 'cos' and 'whatever' and I can see how that could work on a reader's nerve, especially considering the author is a University-educated white male writing a young, Indian teenage girl. I had my hesitations about it initially but everyone who has talked to young teenagers trying to be cool and fit in recognizes this kind of speaking. Fascinating was the way in which Packard aged Shruti and the way her situation and the people around her affected how she spoke. And surprisingly, towards the end, The Painted Ocean makes a number of fascinating comments about the nature of storytelling. Throughout the whole narrative we have followed Shruti on what feels like "in the moment" narration where the end brings some doubts into it. She doesn't become unreliable but we as readers do. It is a beautiful switch, which I won't discuss too much to leave some twists and turns, and I love books that make the reader consider their own position and how they "create" a book in their own mind due to what they think is right or isn't.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

Reading The Painted Ocean was a great experience although I can see how it might not be for everyone. It is the kind of book that requires some dedication but that is very rewarding in the end. I'd recommend it to fans of novels like Life of Pi which stretches the imagination a little bit.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Review: 'Les Misérables' by Victor Hugo

Les MisérablesAs you may know, I've been reading Les Misérables for the last few months. Since September to be exact. I quite enjoyed reading it at a "slow" pace, slow even though I was reading a good 20 chapters for each post, because it really allowed me to savour the story a lot more. In the end it took me 21 posts to finish it all. So now join me one last time as I get into what I think of Les Misérables.

Pub. Date: 1862

Introducing one of the most famous characters in literature, Jean Valjean - the noble peasant imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread. In Les Misérables Victor Hugo takes readers deep into the Parisian underworld, immerses them in a battle between good and evil, and carries them onto the barricades during the uprising of 1832.
Within his dramatic story are themes that capture the intellect and the emotions: crime and punishment, the relentless persecution of Valjean by Inspector Javert, the desperation of the prostitute Fantine, the amorality of the rogue Thénardier and the universal desire to escape the prisons of our own minds. Les Misérables gave Victor Hugo a canvas upon which he portrayed his criticism of the French political and judicial systems, but the portrait which resulted is larger than life, epic in scope - an extravagant spectacle that dazzles the senses even as it touches the heart. 
I went into Les Misérables with a lot of prejudice. It's something that every classic novel has to learn how to cope with as the years, decades and centuries that follow the original publication adapt a book to fit their own purposes. There are musicals, films, TV shows and manga adaptations of this story, each finding a new audience for Hugo's classic tale. It was the musical I first encountered, but through the most recent film adaptation and it didn't sit well with me. It all felt overly dramatic but I kept asking myself, to quote Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers, 'Where is the gravitas?'. So I decided that it was time for me to tackle this giant of a literary classic and build my own opinion of it. So I went in disliking Valjean, already slightly annoyed at Cosette and too interested in the revolution to care about much else. But after the first few weeks of reading Hugo had completely changed my interest in the novel.

So how do I feel about the novel and its characters now? I have completely and utterly accepted its position as one of the literary masterpieces of European literature. The variety of characters and issues discussed go very deep and Hugo's attitude to them is, at times, incredibly modern and socialist. His attitude to women was one I found very interesting. On the one hand he is aware of how different the position of women in society is from men, and that poverty can force a woman's hand. Fantine is a tragic case of a good person corrupted by cruel fate without it being their own fault. And the narrator never lets the reader blame her either. However, Cosette is in the strange position of being everything that's good and being, seemingly, a bit pointless in the narrative except for being everything that's good. And my personal interpretation of that is that Cosette is not a character in the way that the others are. Throughout the narrative Cosette is a little saviour and sufferer, she represents redemption and goodness through hardship, and thereby lacks a bit of the realism that the other characters have. She is the good thing for which Fantine suffers, she is the good thing that endures the Thenardiers' cruelty, she is the good thing which redeems Valjean and she is the good thing that gives Marius something to live for. She is the character for whom everything is sacrificed and for whom many of the characters live. As such, the typical 'marriage plot'-ending of the novel is actually something more. The miserable is married to hope, the dark is married to the good, and Hugo rewards the hard work of his characters by ending with this union and the hope for offspring and the continuation of hope.

Hugo is a singular author. He is constantly present throughout the novel as the Narrator, interjecting with personal memories or comments, both guiding the reader and letting them find their own way. One can't help but feel you slightly know Hugo after having read this novel. His narrative is, when stripped down to the bones, a relatively simple story which moves, as Hugo put it himself, from 'bad to good'. Mostly everyone who starts miserably is redeemed and happy in their end. However, Hugo moves beyond his own story frequently with enormous digressions which can go on for chapters. These can take whatever subject, whether it's detailed description of the Battle of Waterloo or of the sewers in Paris, and somehow Hugo manages to make each and every digression a part of the story he is telling. His language is incredibly poetic and at times soars a little bit too close to the sun, where seemingly he loses himself a little bit in the details of his own mind. On the one hand these digressions are what makes the story so rich, but for some readers it could also simply be distracting.

So what is Les Misérables and for whom is it? Hugo sums it up himself in a letter to his Italian translator:
'You are right, sir, when you tell me that Les Miserables is written for all nations. ... This is, moreover, the tendency of our age, and the law of radiance of the French Revolution; books must cease tobe exclusively French, Italian, German, Spanish, or English, and become European, I saw more, human, if they are to correspond to the enlargement of civilization.'
Les Misérables is not a novel about love or "just" about a few characters. Rather it is a novel meant to bring attention to social misery and injustice, to the inequalities that exist in our world and to the constant internal struggle most of us face. Interestingly, if not surprisingly, many established writers and politicians weren't a big fan of the novel initially but it was immensely popular with readers to such an extent that some of the social issues it highlighted were discussed by the National Assembly of France. As such, Les Misérables is a brilliant example of how literature can affect not just its readers but also a country. When an author takes on the state of society it becomes a part of the way that society sees itself. When your literature reflects the abysmal state in which some of your people live, society has to respond. Other novels who have achieved that kind of status are, in my eyes, rare, although To Kill a Mockingbird might qualify due to the awareness it triggers in readers.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

I really enjoyed reading Les Misérables and it kept my attention throughout its many, many pages. On the one hand it's a fascinating read that I'd recommend to everyone but its sheer size and density forms a serious obstacle to some readers, hence why I've given it 4 rather than 5 Universes. Were it more accessible, it would be 5.  I would recommend it, but I'd also recommend to reading it the way I did, slowly but surely over an extended period of times.