Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Review: 'The Secret History' by Donna Tartt

The Secret HistoryThe Secret History is the kind of book you hear about, repeatedly. Somehow it seems to be part of popular culture in a way that makes it both a necessary read and yet one of those books you never read. Tartt's book first came out in 1992 and became an immediate bestseller. For many of my university friends it was also the kind of book that made them wish for a more Classical education, full of cigarettes, alcohol and mysterious friends. So when one of my best friends finally read it and raved to me about it I knew I had to get on it.

Publication date: 1992
Publisher: Vintage, Penguin
Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last - inexorably - into evil.

The fascinating thing, for me, about The Secret History was that it isn't a whodunnit-story, but a whydunnit, a kind of reversed crime story. Tartt reveals in the prologue who has died and who was there when it happened. In a lot of novels this would lead to boredom or a stagnant plot, but Tartt creates such fascinating characters that it never does. At the heart of The Secret History are six students who are, when you get down to it, quite despicable. They are pretentious, elitist, completely unaware and uninterested in the world around them, and, above all, mainly interested in themselves. And yet Tartt makes you care about these characters, gives them enough vulnerability that they still remain human. The main character, Richard Pappen, is to the other five characters what Nick Carraway is to Jay Gatsby, and yet also what Jay Gatsby is to the rest of the world. On the one hand this outsider of the elite is a necessary part of the group, completing it, and yet the way he presents himself is faked. He builds up a character for himself which he comes to inhabit completely, and Richard draws attention to this as well, how he has become what he tried to be. As the novel rolls on Tartt reveals how, actually, not only Richard is acting but how each of the characters has something about them which is put on, a darker side which is usually hidden but revealed when one comes to close.

The Secret History is one of those novels which focuses on a group of students inspired by a teacher, who selects them as his, or her, special elite. This is a trope which appears quite frequently in both literature and film and which I'm personally intrigued by. Another example of this is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, in which Miss Brodie selects a group of six students (like Prof. Julian Morrows does in The Secret History) to mentor in a more classical way, elevating them above the rest of the school, thereby isolating them. Another example is the novel Cracks by Sheila Kohler, which has a brilliant film adaptation, in which we again find a female teacher selecting a group of students. The desire of these kind of teachers always seems to be to enlighten their students, to broaden their horizons, give them a Classical training which will make them better people. And yet each of these teachers ends up corrupting his or her students, letting their desire to mould young people after their own image take over. Each of these novels and films ends in tragedy. Even a "good" example of this, The Dead Poet's Society has its fair share of tragedy and technically ends sadly. What makes The Secret History so interesting is that the tragedy is already revealed and Tartt can focus her whole energy on why and how, and if we, the reader, maybe could do the same.

What makes The Secret History one of the best novels I've read in a while is absolutely Tartt's writing style. Her sentences feel perfectly structured and complete. They might stretch on for lines and lines and yet you never get tired of reading and you never loose your way. Her character building is brilliant because Tartt knows how to create a character through more than just descriptions. Every word or action somehow reflects who her characters are and tells us much more than she could if she had to spell their feelings out. Her descriptions of places are also stunning. They often visit one of the student's estates and Tartt manages to make it sound like a veritable Eden on earth. Similarly, her whole novel is infused with this sense of nonchalance that comes from wealth, a similar atmosphere you can find in books describing the '20s. Everyone is drinking, smoking, popping pills and having deep conversations about Classical Greek in the middle of the night. The Secret History really describe a different kind of world, one which perhaps didn't seem too far away in the 1999s, but feels like a distant dream now. And this is where the seductive quality of the book lies as well. The life led by the six protagonists is almost enviable, they are almost likeable, they are almost good people and their actions are almost justified. And as a reader it is so easy to imagine you'd do better in that situation, that really they aren't so wrong because their mistakes were only small, all things considered.

Walking away from The Secret History after the last page, then, is almost impossible. Because Tartt tells us the answer to the puzzle at the beginning, we become invested in the book not for the final reveal, but for the feel of it. As such, the ending feels like an anti-climax because life simply continues. Part of the beauty of The Secret History is that while its plot may feel unrealistic, it is written and presented so normally that it never feels outlandish. And even though despicable, or at least questionable, things happen throughout the novel, the characters and the world just keep going. However, I've always found a slightly frustrating ending which leaves you with morality questions to be a trademark of great books. And it's also a sign why Tartt deserves to be recognized as a contemporary master of literary fiction.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

I absolutely loved The Secret History and it's one of the rare cases where I think the book actually lives up to the hype and even exceeds it. Nothing could've prepared me for the fluidity and beauty of Tartt's style and she has totally won me over. I'd recommend this to fans of Literary Fiction and Detective Fiction.

Teasers and 'Dinner with Edward' by Isabel Vincent

You know that feeling when you see a book and think, 'Hey, I'd like to read that', and then you search through your Kindle and you realize YOU'VE HAD IT ALL ALONG! Anyway, that happened to me with today's book so I decided it would be great to share it with you. Also, please assure me I'm not the only one who suffers from literary dementia! Anyways, the book I'm talking about is Dinner with Edward by Isabel Vincent.

“Over mouthwatering dinners, an odd couple--a nonagenarian and a recently divorced reporter--engage in a series of discussions, from the importance of beauty, to living after loss, to the power of love to redeem and renew, to how to make a succulent duck breast. I loved every moment of this book . . . Everyone deserves her own Edward--and everyone deserves to read this book.” —Susannah Cahalan, bestselling author of Brain on Fire
When Isabel meets Edward, both are at a crossroads: he wants to follow his late wife to the grave, and she is ready to give up on love. Thinking she is merely helping Edward's daughter--who lives far away and asked her to check in on her nonagenarian dad in New York--Isabel has no idea that the man in the kitchen baking the sublime roast chicken and light-as-air apricot soufflé will end up changing her life.
As Edward and Isabel meet weekly for the glorious dinners that Edward prepares, he shares so much more than his recipes for apple galette or the perfect martini, or even his tips for deboning poultry. Edward is teaching Isabel the luxury of slowing down and taking the time to think through everything she does, to deconstruct her own life, cutting it back to the bone and examining the guts, no matter how messy that proves to be.
Dinner with Edward is a book about sorrow and joy, love and nourishment, and about how dinner with a friend can, in the words of M. F. K. Fisher, “sustain us against the hungers of the world.”
“A dinner with Edward is nothing to demur. Although the food (I am partial to the roast chicken, lovingly described) is excellent, it is the charming, sweet, and effortlessly wise company that makes this sweet read a charming way to pass a day.” —George Hodgman, New York Times bestselling author of Bettyville: A Memoir
Tuesday Intros and Teaser Tuesday are hosted by Diane over at Bibliophile by the Sea and Jenn over at Books and a Beat. Hop over there to join in on the meme-fun!

'Christmas Eve Dinner 
I heard about the promise Edward made to his dying wife long before I met him.
Valerie, Edward's daughter and one of my oldest friends, related the story when I saw her shortly after her mother's death. Paula, who was just shy of her ninety-fifth birthday and had been bedridden and drifting in and out of consciousness for days, sat up in bed specifically to address her beloved husband.' 1%
I like this introduction because Edward immediately comes across as a good person. There's also something about promises to dying partners which really get to me. I also noticed I really like Vincent's writing style. It flows very well and I can just keep reading without getting tired.


'"How about a bourbon?" 
He needn't have asked. I inhaled the soothing liquid heat and soon after that everything came pouring out of me.' 36%
Aah, this is my kind of read I think. It's a scene I can really easily imagine because I've been in it. Certain situations require a little bit of liquid inducement and a lot of things can be solved over a drink.

So, what do you think of Dinner with Edward? Does it sounds like something you'd pick up?

Monday, 30 May 2016

'Carmilla' and the History of the (Female) Vampire

I chose to add Carmilla to my list of 100 Classics because I had been told it was one of the most important pieces of vampire fiction and that it also had a female protagonist. So of course I was going to go with it. Carmilla is a fascinating novella by the Irish writer J. Sheridan Le Fanu from 1871, and is one of the earliest works of vampire fiction. You thought Bram Stoker was the first one who came up with the vampire? The history of vampire fiction is long and fascinating, and Sheridan le Fanu and Carmilla play an interesting role in it. The Vampire has been a part of the culture and mythology of many countries for centuries, appearing in folk tales and myths in different shapes and forms. In England they frequently appeared in 18th-century poetry but it wasn't until the early 1800s that the Vampire became part of England's literary landscape as well. This post contains spoilers for Carmilla, The Vampyre and Dracula.

One of the first stories in which the Vampire appears is in John William Polidori's The Vampyre in 1819. In his book Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula, Christopher Frayling describes Polidori's short story as 'the first story successfully to fuse the disparate elements of vampirism into a coherent literary genre' (p.108). The story has a lot of elements we now consider as tropes of the Gothic genre. There are aristocrats, there is travelling, young women who seem to know an awful lot about vampirism and, of course, death by exsanguination. A story is connected to this novella, which says that it and its vampire were inspired by Lord Byron. This is only indirectly true and, for once, the actual story is much more interesting. Many know about that mythical summer in which Lord Byron invited some of his close friends to his villa by Lake Geneva. Among those friends were Mary Shelley and Percy Bysse Shelley, but also his young physician, John Polidori. When, one day, the youngsters found themselves bored they decided to give each other three days to come up with ghost stories. This is when Shelley came up with the initial draft for the masterful Frankenstein, and it is also where Polidori came up with The Vampyre.

Polidori's novel was the start, in many ways, of a genre, of which Bram Stoker's Dracula was a high point. Stoker's novel continues many of the trends which The Vampyre sets out, while developing them. There is the combination of those well-off and those who are poorer, there is the idea of the vampire as a foreign threat, there are young women at the heart of the plot's development, and there is a lot of attention on how a vampire goes about his business. Stoker's Dracula also adds the wise old mentor to the vampire tale in the famous figure of Van Helsing. What always fascinated me the most in Dracula, however, were Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra. Whereas the former is a school teacher the latter is an aristocrat, and together they present a perfect example of the so-called Madonna-whore dichotomy. Just looking at the screenshot from Dracula below it should be clear what is meant by this.

A term originally coined by Sigmund Freud, who else, the Madonna-whore dichotomy originally refers to the problem of the man who desires a debased woman but can't desire the respected and saintly partner. In popular culture, and much feminist criticism, the Madonna-whore dichotomy refers to how female characters have to deal with the worst side of both characterizations, constantly walking the line between sexually available and respectful. Often, this finds its expression in splitting the stereotypes between two characters. In the case of Dracula we have the respectful Mina, who dutifully helps her fiancee, and the lascivious Lucy, who is turned into a seductive vampiress. There is a clear divide between these two and although Dracula hopes to turn Mina as well, he can't quite do so. The female vampire, then, is at once a creation of the male vampire while also a threat to the male protagonists. She can beguile them, play on their nurturing instincts and on their physical desire for her. So how does this dichotomy work in a story with a female vampire at the core of it?

Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla is a true story, according to its framework. The Introduction aspires to an academic tone, suggesting that the story the reader is about to encounter came to him in a document and that the reader should form his or her own judgement. Laura, the protagonist, narrates her story from childhood and she comes across as a lovely and well-adjusted young lady, despite a horrible nightmare early on in life. But the Gothic edge to the novel means you can never quite trust anything or anyone. When Laura and her father witness a carriage crashing on their estate they kindly take in the daughter as the mother continues on a mission of great importance. Carmilla seems a lovely girl and she and Laura immediately become friends. However, despite Sheridan Le Fanu doing his best to hide it, the affection between Carmilla and Laura quickly becomes romantic and passionate. Carmilla is almost too affectionate and, of course, towards the end of the novel it is revealed that she is a vampire who became obsessed with Laura, slowly draining her. They are like lovers and yet they're not.

Vampirism in literature (and cinema) is something I find fascinating. On the one hand it has been analysed as a very masculine and sexual act. The victim is penetrated by sharp teeth which has an almost orgasmic effect on the victim. Similarly, the vampire is a very erect and thereby a phallic figure. And yet, by the very simple fact that a vampire can "create" other vampires there is something feminine about him, in the most theoretical of ways. As Creed notes in her book The Monstrous-Feminine, the way vampires are represented in film has something effeminate. They are well-dressed, foreign, can dance, are seductive and emotional, etc. When the vampire then becomes female, it seems that she becomes extra dangerous. Carmilla can move, within seconds, between sweet and subdued to furious and powerful. She lifts a man in the air with a single hand and yet also sighs melodramatically at the smallest thing. She is two-faced and manipulative, almost animalistic in how she is out for her own survival, and yet there is still something seductive about her. Reading Carmilla, she is the one you want to know more about despite Laura narrating. Even Laura herself still seems fascinated with Carmilla, and the way in which vampire fiction and film has grown, it's not difficult to see this fascination has continued.

The female vampire continues to hold sway in popular culture. One of the most anticipated films of 2014 was the Iranian film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night which reinvigorated the slightly comatose genre that is the vampire film. Similarly, the Swedish film Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in) from 2008 focused on a little girl who happens to be a vampire. Similarly, shows like The Vampire Diaries have female as well as male vampires who also walk the fine line between seductive and dangerous. The female vampire has been a part of the vampire fiction genre since its genesis and she continues to hold a special kind of sway. Her ability to be seductive is dangerous to both men and women, making her much more of a threat than the male vampire, who seems to only be attractive to women. It's interesting to see how this genre has developed from its very beginnings and how it's still retained some of its most fundamental tropes.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Review: 'Girls on Fire' by Robin Wasserman

I knew I wanted to read this novel the moment I saw it. Something about it really drew my attention and I was hoping it would fall into the category of books which I have been discovering ever since Gone Girl and Gillian Flynn walked into my life. I'm not quite sure what it is about books with 'Girl' in the title, but they always seem more willing to go the extra mile. Thanks to Little, Brown and Netgalley for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub Date: 05/05/2016
Publisher: Little, Brown
This is not a cautionary tale about too much - or the wrong kind - of fucking. This is not a story of bad things happening to bad girls. I say this because I know you, Dex, and I know how you think. 
I'm going to tell you a story, and this time, it will be the truth. 
Hannah Dexter is a nobody, ridiculed at school by golden girl Nikki Drummond and bored at home. But in their junior year of high school, Nikki's boyfriend walks into the woods and shoots himself. In the wake of the suicide, Hannah finds herself befriending new girl Lacey and soon the pair are inseparable, bonded by their shared hatred of Nikki. 
Lacey transforms good girl Hannah into Dex, a Doc Marten and Kurt Cobain fan, who is up for any challenge Lacey throws at her. The two girls bring their combined wills to bear on the community in which they live; unconcerned by the mounting discomfort that their lust for chaos and rebellion causes the inhabitants of their parochial small town, they think they are invulnerable. 
But Lacey has a secret, about life before her better half, and it's a secret that will change everything . . .
Starting - and ending - with tragedy, Girls on Fire stands alongside The Virgin Suicides in its brilliant portrayal of female adolescence, but with a power and assurance all its own.
In Girls on Fire Wasserman tells us the story of Hannah/Dex and Lacey, two high school girls who find each other as their town does its best to ignore its dark side. Wasserman cleverly splits the story between Dex and Lacey, letting each girl tell their side of the story as they see it now. Occasionally Wasserman also allows another narrator in, whether it's an omniscient one or a brief glimpse into the mind of one of the parents. By expertly flitting between these different narrators Wasserman is able to build an interesting story and tease the reader with character development and plot twists. You can't help but want to know more about Dex and Lacey, their friendship, their town. However, these books do come with the risk that if you're not interested in reading about the internal emotional life of teenage girls then these sort of books won't be enjoyable to you.

The beauty of these types of books, for me at least, is that they don't glorify the stereotypical female roles that we keep seeing in Young Adult fiction. A lot of times, books have to engage in tropes etc. in order to fit within their genre or to tell their story. There is nothing wrong with that by default, but what is wrong is that a lot of times the roles of girls and women are suck within the 'girls are always good, they are by nature sweet and kind' structure. As a young woman it's sort of thrilling to read about girls who aren't good, aren't nice, who make mistakes, etc. because those are the kinds of girls we know. Although it doesn't sound like it, there is quite some freedom in accepting that you're not naturally good because it lets you accept the bad sides of life and of yourself. Girls can be as desperate, nasty and mean as boys can and they can both tear each other down and build each other up. I find it fascinating to read about, but it is a personal thing.

What I find interesting is the growth of this selection of books which focuses almost completely on girls and their struggles with being girls. There are boys and men in Girls on Fire and similar books but they are never the focus. It is strangely gratifying to be able to pick up books which will indulge their female readers in reliving or bringing light to the conflicting feelings that growing up as a female cause. Books such as these verbalize the strangeness that is being a teenage girl. Girls on Fire is a great addition to this selection of books, of which Megan Abbot is another great writer, even if, at times, the story is a little bit repetitive. Dex and Lacey are tightly wound up with each other, which means that their stories are as well. There is also a certain 'darkness' and shock value in Girls on Fire which, if not to your taste, might become off-putting. One has to take a leap of faith, letting the way the characters speak, for example, or the way they seem to feel everything so keenly, not turn one off the book. It may be a little bit over the top but it's part of the experience that eighteen-year olds speak like Romantic poets.

Wasserman's writing style is one of the best things about the book. It is quick and exciting, keeping the reader engaged throughout the book. Wasserman doesn't linger on unnecessary things or try to explain too much either, but rather lets the story continue quite organically. What I also really appreciated about Wasserman's writing in this novel was that she doesn't let form stop her. Too often authors are afraid to switch their writing up, especially when they're writing for the YA or NA market. But Wasserman occasionally breaks with her form, experimenting with repetition or punctuation etc. and these moments were highlights for me.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I really loved Girls on Fire. There is something visceral in reading about angry girls and Wasserman writes about it very well. It won't be to everyone's taste but if this is your genre you'll love it. I'd recommend it to fans of Megan Abbott and YA fiction.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Guest post: 'World's Most Famous Literary "Rejects"' by Lisa Fray

I'm incredibly happy to welcome Lisa Fray back for another fun guest post. As some of you may remember, she has submitted two prior guest posts to A Universe in Words, which looked at whether books make us better people and intrusive authors and authenticity. I really like today's topic as well and I hope you do to!

World’s Most Famous Literary ‘Rejects’

If you are a writer who is fast becoming anxious about sending your first manuscript to a publisher, fearing they may not be interested, take heart; the best of the best have all suffered rejection from publishers, making evident what we know to be true: the appreciation of all art is subjective… and even the very best publisher, can have an uninspired day. A writer’s vision, too, can be difficult to appreciate, especially when it is revolutionary. Some editors are just not ready for truly ground breaking work, so it is important to keep trying until you find someone who finds magic, inspiration, and art, in your words.

One of the world’s most famous rejected writers, is none other than J.K. Rowling. Millions of readers would stop at nothing short of stating that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is the best book they have read. The entire series holds a unique appeal to children and adults alike and touches on all major themes – power, corruption, class structures, etc. Because young Harry is such an ‘underdog’, the book has also served as inspiration for youths who are struggling against powerful issues such as addiction, depression and eating disorders. Interestingly, Harry Potter actor, Evanna Lynch, credited JK Rowling with helping her overcome a powerful eating disorder, thanks to her inspiring work and her letters of encouragement. Rowling, she says, explained that self-destructive behaviour is the antithesis of creativity, and the brave thing is not to succumb. Later, Rowling would delve further into self destruction in The Casual Vacancy, the harrowing story about a single mom who is also a prostitute and heroin addict. The author would never have been able to broach such serious issues or make such a difference to the lives of her readers, if she had paid heed to the eight publishers who originally rejected Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Interestingly, this book was only published because the eight-year-old daughter of a Bloomsbury editor chanced upon the manuscript and asked to read the rest of it. The editor agreed to publish it but warned Rowling “not to quit her day job,” since she had no hope of making a decent living by writing children’s books.

Agatha Christie was another female author who had to brave rejections for five years before her famous mystery stories were published. Her books have garnered her in excess of $2 billion dollars and her most famous character, Hercule Poirot, plays an important role in our literary and film memory bank. Christie’s first ever published book was The Mysterious Affair at Styles; it introduced us to Detective Poirot, who made an appearance in 33 novels and 54 short stories. Frontier story writer, Lous L’Amour was just as persistent as Christie; he received a whopping 200 rejections before Bantam decided to publish his book – a move that paid off, since the company made $330 million in sales!

Some literary rejections have been very scathing indeed; take the letter written by a publisher to Zane Grey: the so-called ‘father of the Western novel’; “You have no business being a writer and should give up,” stated the not-so-subtle letter, sparking Grey to publish his own manuscript. Total sales for works by Grey amount to over €250 million, and over 100 films have been based on his books. It is a great pity that Herman Melville did not enjoy the same success; Moby Dick, described as “very long and old-fashioned” by a publisher, was eventually printed, yet only 27 copies on average were sold every year. Melville made a little more than €1,260 for his most famed novel!

One of the most inspiring stories is that of James Joyce, whose Dubliners was rejected by publishers 18 times. One publisher agreed to print the novel, on the proviso that certain lines were removed. Joyce reluctantly agreed, but the publisher, Grant Richards, reneged on the agreement, leaving Joyce desperate to find another publisher. Another company initially accepted Joyce’s terms, then refused to go through with the deal and threatened to sue the writer for costs incurred. Joyce begged to have the manuscript back, only to find that the vengeful printers had burned it. He managed to find one last copy by luck, and in 1914 Grant Richards once again agreed to publish the book, today considered one of Joyce’s very best.

The list of famous authors whose works were simply not appreciated is vast and includes Robert M. Pirsig (Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), Jack London (The Call of the Wind) and H.G. Wells (The War of the Worlds). Sometimes, perseverance is all it takes… and undying belief in the value of one’s words.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Review: 'Falling in Love with Hominids' by Nalo Hopkinson

As frequent readers will now, I love myself a good short story collection. Short stories are an art form of their own and annoyingly difficult to get right, so when a collection comes along which strikes my fancy I tend to try and get my hands on it as quickly as possible. With Falling in Love with Hominids I was immediately intrigued by Hopkinson’s tone and topics and I’m certainly glad I got a change to read her stories. Thanks to Netgalley and Tachyon Publications for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 11/08/2015
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Hailed by the Los Angeles Times as having “an imagination that most of us would kill for,” World Fantasy Award-winning author Nalo Hopkinson (Brown Girl in the Ring) is a critically-acclaimed storyteller. Her distinctive Afro-Carribean, Canadian, and American influences are revealed in stories that are filled with striking imagery, beauty, and strangeness. 
Falling in Love with Hominids presents over a dozen years of Hopkinson’s new, uncollected fiction, including one original piece. Whether she is retelling The Tempest as a Caribbean myth, filling a shopping mall with unfulfilled ghosts, or releasing chickens that unpredictably breathe fire, Hopkinson is an author of myriad gifts and much to offer.
Falling in Love with Hominids is truly a magical collection of short stories which brings the reader completely different and new worlds to explore. What I found delightful about Falling in Love with Hominids as a whole was the way in which Hopkinson works with Fantasy and Science Fiction. She discusses it in her Introduction as well, that Science Fiction and Fantasy are exactly the types of genres which can be used to explore the everyday through the extraordinary or out of the ordinary. Quite often Sci-Fi authors are surprisingly lazy in how adventurous they try to be, not just with their stories but with their writing styles as well. Personally I a, a fan of authors who take a risk, who demand something of their reader as well. Whether it is having different narrators, switching between Creole and Standard English or unreliable narrators, each story in Falling in Love with Hominids is always refreshing. At the heart of Hopkinson's collection lie the hominids of her title, the Great Apes, the humans. Each story has a character at the core which Hopkinson explores with delicacy, which means that no matter how fantastical the story gets, it remains true. 

Part of what makes Falling in Love with Hominids such an interesting collection is Hopkinson’s wide variety of protagonists. They’re male, female, young, old, orphaned, disabled, hetero-sexual, gay, etc. and each is written as well as the other. Switching between different voices and characters can be quite a challenge for authors but Hopkinson seems to nail all her characters perfectly, allowing the reader to empathise and identify with each one. Personally I found some of her stories focusing on young girls and women fascinating because her approach to fantasy and sci-fi allows Hopkinson a lot of room to describe humanity and its fault and virtues. On the other hand, some of her stories are also delightfully absurd, such as ‘Emily Breakfast’, which are a joy to read. Hopkinson's writing style doesn't really change between stories and yet each story feels different. They are infused with independent spirit and energy, while still being recognizable as Hopkinson's stories.

As a white, European woman I also really enjoyed the way in which Hopkinson brought in so much of her own background. Originally from Jamaica, Hopkinson doesn't shy back from having her characters speak Creole or to explicitly introduce black characters into stories where readers might not expect them due to strange genre expectations. It was incredibly refreshing and made every story interesting.  Most of the fiction market is saturated with white, young, skinny female heroines falling in love with white, young, masculine male heroes in the same way, over and over again. Falling in Love with Hominids has characters from all over the world and all stories are prefaced by a short paragraph detailing Hopkinson’s inspiration behind it, whether it was a chat on an online forum or the history of escaped slaves in Africa. In one of the stories where it worked best was Hopkinson's adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest which is perhaps my favourite ever take on a Shakespeare-story. Highlighting the post-colonial undertones in the 

I give this collection...
5 Universes!

I absolutely loved Falling in Love with Hominids. Almost every single story was a hit with me and I have become a definite fan of Hopkinson's writing. Each story was original and held something that fascinated me. I'd recommend this to fans of Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Women's Fiction.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Review: 'A Fierce and Subtle Poison' by Samantha Mabry

I must admit that it was the novel’s cover which first drew me to A Fierce and Subtle Poison. Something about the way in which the colours popped and how spiked and edged it all was really interested me. You’ll be glad to know, then, that the cover very much represents the novel, in many ways. Thanks to Netgalley and Algonquin Young Readers for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 12/04/2016
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
In this stunning debut, legends collide with reality when a boy is swept into the magical, dangerous world of a girl filled with poison. Everyone knows the legends about the cursed girl--Isabel, the one the senoras whisper about. They say she has green skin and grass for hair, and she feeds on the poisonous plants that fill her family's Caribbean island garden. Some say she can grant wishes; some say her touch can kill.
Seventeen-year-old Lucas lives on the mainland most of the year but spends summers with his hotel-developer father in Puerto Rico. He's grown up hearing stories about the cursed girl, and he wants to believe in Isabel and her magic. When letters from Isabel begin mysteriously appearing in his room the same day his new girlfriend disappears, Lucas turns to Isabel for answers--and finds himself lured into her strange and enchanted world. But time is running out for the girl filled with poison, and the more entangled Lucas becomes with Isabel, the less certain he is of escaping with his own life.
A Fierce and Subtle Poison beautifully blends magical realism with a page-turning mystery and a dark,  starcrossed romance--all delivered in lush, urgent prose.
A Fierce and Subtle Poison walks the fine line between a number of different genres. On the one hand it feels like a coming of age-novel, with plenty of YA themes running through it. But there is also the Magical Realist edge to it with a plot that veers quite strongly into Thriller or Mystery territory. This mix of genres can either be the strength or the downfall of a novel, but, thankfully, in the case of A Fierce and Subtle Poison it works out for the best. By fluidly moving between genres Mabry keeps her readers on their toes because they can never be entirely sure which way the plot will work out. However, what truly makes the novel is Mabry’s refusal to just use Costa Rica as an exotic setting. Too often authors use non-Western settings to provide some excitement or to make their books feel more inclusive, while absolutely failing to actually include their setting in their book. Mabry’s A Fierce and Subtle Poison is suffused with Spanish phrases, with descriptions of Costa Rican life and with folk tales. And it is in her weaving together of her own stories and those folk tales that the magic of A Fierce and Subtle Poison happens. One couldn’t imagine this novel being set anywhere else, which matters.

A slight let down for me was the fact I couldn’t entirely empathise with Mabry’s main character, Lucas. Son of an American business man building resorts all over Costa Rica, Lucas walks the fine line between being an outsider while also being a native. Half-Dominican and half-American, he is both at an advantage and at a disadvantage. Not as much is made from this as I would’ve hoped, but partially this may be down to me not necessarily being the main target-audience for the novel. There is something about Lucas and his impetuousness which slightly put me off him and made me wish the novel could’ve been split into two narrative voices, one belonging to Lucas and one belonging to Isabel, because Isabel is the one with the fascinating story line. Although Lucas is a good guy throughout the book, there is not necessarily any excitement surrounding him. Isabel, on the other hand, is shrouded in mystery and the small glimpses you receive alongside Lucas only make you want to find out more. She is the one in whom the magic of the novel is most palpably felt and she’s got an interesting journey as well. It feels a bit like a missed opportunity, which is a shame.

Mabry’s writing in A Fierce and Subtle Poison moves between being both lyrical and to the point. She never forgets that her protagonist is a teenage boy who may have certain things on his mind or might respond to certain situations foolishly. On the one hand this means that most of the novel feels quite realistic, while on the other hand the more prosaic parts feel out of character. However, as mentioned above, Mabry treats the local culture with the respect it deserves, rarely slipping into stereotypes. I walked away from the novel with a list of different things I wanted to look into; myths, folk tales, etc. A small gripe is that the plot of the novel doesn’t seem to truly start till halfway through the novel. The build-up suggests a different type of story, whereas the eventual plot happens and ends almost too quickly. By the time the novel ends I was hoping for more. Not necessarily for more exposition or explanation, but for it all to have a little bit more weight. Although this perhaps sounds like I didn’t enjoy A Fierce and Subtle Poison that is not true. I raced through this novel, fascinated by the story Mabry was creating.

I give this novel…
3 Universes!

A Fierce and Subtle Poison is a beautiful mix of things which are all kept relatively in balance by Mabry. In the end I’d class it as YA fiction, largely due to the protagonist and the depth of it, but you’ll definitely walk away from this one with an appreciation for Mabry. I’d recommend this to fans of YA fiction and Magical Realism.

Friday, 13 May 2016

Friday Memes and 'Carmilla' by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

CarmillaI've decided that what everyone needs when travelling a lot is a good Classic which also features as a thriller. The more intense the more I'll forget I'm on an 8-hour coach journey from Berlin to Karlsruhe! So, with that in mind, I turned to my 100 Classics list and chose Carmilla, the vampire classic by J. Sheridan L. Fanu! With a classic like this, where the mystery is almost part of pop culture the mystery isn't quite as thrilling but it still kept my attention. Slight warning, the blurb could be considered to have spoilers.
Before Dracula, there was Carmilla—the first seductive vampire to haunt readers’ imaginations 
This classic of Gothic horror follows Laura, a woman haunted by a girlhood dream of a beautiful visitor to her bedroom. Now, a decade later, Laura finds Carmilla, who appears to be her own age, on the side of the road after a carriage accident. The two recognize each other from the same childhood dream and become fast friends. Soon after, Laura begins to experience mysterious feelings and is once again haunted by nightmares. She finds Carmilla strangely irresistible and longs to be with her.
But as the two friends grow closer, Laura’s health begins to fail. It becomes apparent that her enchanting companion is harboring a sinister secret. To free herself from Carmilla’s grasp, Laura and her family must fight for their lives.
I always like correcting people who think Dracula was the first vampire-story because it's such a fun story how everyone who wrote ghost stories etc. was inspired by each other back in the day. Anyways, that's talk for a different post! Book Beginnings is hosted by Gilion over at Rose City Reader and Friday 56 by Freda over at Freda's Voice.

Upon a paper attached to the Narrative which follows, Doctor Hesselius has written a rather elaborate note, which he accompanies with a reference to his Essay on the strange subject which the MS illuminates.' 1%
I seem to continuously pick up books which are framed within this kind of 'This is a true story'-type of structure. I sort of love how the author tries to convince the reader of the veracity of the story, because it does add some excitement to it.
'In Styria, we, though my no means magnificent people, inhabit a castle, or schloss. A small income, in that part of the world, goes a great way. Eight or nine hundred a year does wonders.' 1%
Styria is, apparently, a county in Austria, which is exactly where I'd expect to find plenty of old castles. Also, the narrator here is the female protagonist and I love her casualness about being able to afford a castle. If I had only 800 a year I couldn't afford even a toilet in London!

'No sylvan drive can be fancied prettier. The ground breaks into gentle hills and hollows, all clothed with beautiful wood, totally destitute of the comparative formality which artificial planting and early culture pruning impart.' 56%
Although not the most fascinating of teasers I sort of love it because why would you break your narrative about sinister secrets and young girls in castle for a little description of horticulture? It doesn't make any sense to me but I guess that's what Gothic books are all about: drama and landscape.

So, what do you think? Does Carmilla sound like it could intrigue you?

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Spotlight: 'Danger, Sweetheart' by MaryJanice Davidson

I'm very happy to spotlight one of Piatkus most recent releases today: Danger, Sweetheart by MaryJanice Davidson. Piatkus always has fun books coming out and I think today's spotlight is on a really fun summer book. After all, what else does one need but a quierky romance to read in the sunshine? Check out the Blog Tour poster to the left to see where else you can find out more about Danger, Sweetheart!

Pub. Date: 10/05/2016
Publisher: Piatkus
This city boy's about to get a taste of country life . . . 
Blake Tarbell has a town to save. Rich, carefree, and used to the Vegas party lifestyle, Blake is thrown for a curve when his former cocktail-waitress mother pleads he go back to her roots to save the town she grew up in. Blake's used to using money to solve his problems, but when he arrives in Sweetheart, North Dakota, this city boy has to trade in his high-priced shoes for a pair of cowboy boots - and he's about to get a little help from the loveliest lady in town . . . 

Natalie Lane's got no time for newbies. The prettiest gal to ever put on a pair of work gloves, there's nothing she can't do to keep a farm up and running. But when a handsome city-slicker rolls into town with nothing but bad farmer's instincts and good intentions, Natalie's heartstrings are pulled. She's about to teach him a thing or two about how to survive in Sweetheart. And he's about to teach her a thing or two about love.
I love books about people returning to their roots because it always seems to lead to such funny moments and quite often to happy characters as well. Also, when a city-boys and farming are brought together then you know something good is about to happen!
MaryJanice Davidson

About Davidson:

MaryJanice Davidson is a former model and medical test subject, as well as a New York Times best-selling author who has no idea why she is a success at what she does. ("No idea. At all.") Her books have been translated into several languages and are available in 15 countries ("No one is more surprised than I."). She frequently speaks to book clubs ("I don't know why my books sell."), writer's groups ("I don't know why I'm on best-seller lists."), and World War Two veterans ("Thanks for driving Hitler to suicide!"). She lives with husband, family, and dogs in St. Paul, MN, and loves ("No, really...I do!") hearing from readers. 

Find Davidson and Danger, Sweetheart on: Goodreads, Amazon, author's website and Facebook.

And now I've got a little sneak extract from Danger, Sweetheart for you!

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Review: 'The Wacky Man' by Lyn G. Farrell

I was curious as to what this novel would have to offer from the moment I saw the cover and read the blurb. Sometimes a blurb walks the fine balance between revealing what the novel is about and keeping the reader guessing as to actual plot. That was the case with The Wacky Man which means that from the first page Farrell surprised me. This review might hold some spoilers due to plot discussion. Thanks to Netgalley and Legend Press for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 02/05/2016
Publisher: Legend Press

"My new shrink asks me, ‘What things do you remember about being very young?’ It’s like looking into a murky river, I say. Memories flash near the surface like fish coming up for flies. The past peeps out, startles me, and then is gone…"
Amanda secludes herself in her bedroom, no longer willing to face the outside world. Gradually, she pieces together the story of her life: her brothers have had to abandon her, her mother scarcely talks to her, and the Wacky Man could return any day to burn the house down. Just like he promised.  
As her family disintegrates, Amanda hopes for a better future, a way out from the violence and fear that has consumed her childhood. But can she cling to her sanity, before insanity itself is her only means of escape?
The Wacky Man is in and of itself a fascinating book, split, apparently, in to two different narratives with two separate voices. I say apparently because really both voices tell us about Amanda. The novel starts off with a chapter in the really distinctive voice which Farrell creates for Amanda. It’s intensely personal, occasionally rude, and very direct. In some ways the sections of the novel which are told by Amanda are quite reminiscent, to me at least, of The Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield is a very reticent narrator, often asking the reader why they’re even around and wanting to know, while also a very urgent narrator, desperate to tell his story and get his feelings on paper. Amanda is similarly both withholding information while also flinging her emotions into the reader’s face, daring them to keep reading. It makes for fascinating reading. The “second” narrator takes a distant third-person approach to Amanda, still giving the reader an insight into her mins while also creating distance between the reader and the characters, thereby allowing the reader a respite from the emotional intensity of the plot.

The Wacky Man is not an easy read, and that is all down to how explicit and unflinching the plot and Farrell are. Dealing with domestic abuse, the tension between the English and Irish in the late ‘80s and ‘90s and mental health, it’s hard to say that The Wacky Man is enjoyable, according to the word’s standard definition. It can hit very close to home and for some people some parts of the book may even be triggering. However, I believe that the directness with which Farrell describes Amanda’s experiences and feelings is very valuable. Couching things such as domestic violence in metaphors and language that, quite literally, softens the blow can be damaging to the very purpose of writing about it. A narrative such as this has to be shocking, to a certain extent, because it is not a normal kind of story. By going back and forth between the distant third person and Amanda’s highly person but distorted narrative Farrell keeps the reader on the edge of fearing it will all go wrong. In many ways this is one of the novel’s most effective strategies of placing the reader into Amanda’s shoes.

Farrell has to be commended for her writing in this novel. There were times while reading The Wacky Man that I flinched, had to look away, compose myself or even stop reading for a bit. This novel is a perfect example of the kind of book which isn’t fun to read but which is very valuable. You can’t really help but walk away from reading The Wacky Man with a sense of uncomfortable knowing. Domestic violence is something I’ve never been exposed to, thankfully, but since it is, in many ways, still a taboo topic it can be quite hard to truly get a sense of it. These kind of narratives, which take the reader straight into a difficult situation like this, are a kind of learning experience which might give a hint as to the actual nature of such a trauma. Farrell explains the various and complex situations in which Amanda and her family find themselves very well, without necessarily falling into major clichés or stereotypes. There are beautiful passages in The Wacky Man and there is a sense of tragedy which suffuses the novel.

I give this novel…
5 Universes!

The Wacky Man is a very intense read which isn’t at home on a beach or in a comfy armchair. It might take some courage to get through but both from a literary and personal angle it is a very rewarding read. I recommend it whole-heartedly to anyone willing to expose themselves to the cruelty of life.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Friday Memes and 'The Wacky Man' by Lyn G. Farrell

Today is a ridiculously busy day. Within 6 hours I have one exam to pass, one train to catch and one flight to make! I'm sure I'll survive but cross your fingers for me anyway. But I've decided this is the perfect day to go back to being a part of the Book Blogger Hop, hosted by Billy over at Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. This week's question was submitted by Elizabeth over at Silver's Reviews:

Why did you start your blog?

There are actually two answers to this, which is probably cheating a little bit. The official, technical reason is, I guess, because my English teacher in high school told us so. She thought it would be a great idea for everyone to get some writing practice for the exams while also making us engage with our reading. But I sort of ignored that part once I discovered the book blogging community, which leads me to the second reason, which feels more important to me. I really wanted a place where I could talk about my books, be passionate about what I was reading and find other people who are equally passionate. And I found that, hence why I'm still hanging around ;)

The Wacky ManThis week I'm also sharing a read which I had actually planned to have reviewed already but essays and exams got in the way. I'm talking about The Wacky Man by Lyn G. Farrell!
Amanda secludes herself in her bedroom, no longer willing to face the outside world. Gradually, she pieces together the story of her life: her brothers have had to abandon her, her mother scarcely talks to her, and the Wacky Man could return any day to burn the house down. Just like he promised. As her family disintegrates, Amanda hopes for a better future, a way out from the violence and fear that has consumed her childhood. But can she cling to her sanity, before insanity itself is her only means of escape?
Book Beginnings and Friday 56 are hosted by Gillion over at Rose City Reader and Freda over at Freda's Voice, respectively.

"My new shrink asks me, 'What things do you remember - about being very young?'It's like looking into a murky river, I say. Memories flash near the surface like fish coming up for flies. The past peeps out, startles me, and then is gone." 1%
I really like this description of the past because it does seem to occasionally just pop up and affect you before disappearing behind the present again. I also wonder why our protagonist has a new shrink. Maybe he's worn out the last one?

"She watches her mum's slender hands working, cutting meat or raising a forkful of roast potato or a glass of water to her mouth and when Amanda smiles, her mum smiles back, and Amanda knows that her grandad would say that smiles are one thing never rationed.' 56%
I love the grandad's saying, it's beautiful. And I also really liked the description of this small childhood moment of Amanda's because it feels so recognizable. Watching my mother cook or bake and the happiness that often came with it is a really fond memory of mine.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Teasers and 'The Witches' by Stacy Schiff

The Witches: Salem, 1692I was absolutely intrigued when I saw The Witches and I was so happy when Orion Books sent me a copy of it! So, dig into it with me.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Cleopatra, the #1 national bestseller, unpacks the mystery of the Salem Witch Trials. 
It began in 1692, over an exceptionally raw Massachusetts winter, when a minister's daughter began to scream and convulse. It ended less than a year later, but not before 19 men and women had been hanged and an elderly man crushed to death. 
The panic spread quickly, involving the most educated men and prominent politicians in the colony. Neighbors accused neighbors, parents and children each other. Aside from suffrage, the Salem Witch Trials represent the only moment when women played the central role in American history. In curious ways, the trials would shape the future republic.
As psychologically thrilling as it is historically seminal, THE WITCHES is Stacy Schiff's account of this fantastical story-the first great American mystery unveiled fully for the first time by one of our most acclaimed historians. 
Tuesday Intros and Teaser Tuesdays are hosted by Diane over at Bibliophile by the Sea and Jenn over at Books and a Beat.

'In 1692 the Massachusetts Bay Colony executed fourteen women, five men, and two dogs for witchcraft. The sorcery materialized in January. The first hanging took place in June, the last in September; a stark stunned silence followed. What discomfited those who survived the ordeal was not the cunning practice of witchcraft but the clumsy administration of justice. Innocents indeed appeared to have hanged. But guilty parties had escaped. There was no vow never to forget consigning nine months to oblivion seemed a more appropriate response. It worked, for a generation. We have been conjuring with Salem - America's national nightmare, the undercooked, overripe tabloid episode, the dystopian chapter in our past - ever since. It crackles, flickers, and jolts its way through American history and literature.' p.3
Why did they execute 2 dogs? I love how Schiff says that 'the sorcery materialized' however. So far The Witches has been both historically interesting and very well-written. I'm fascinated with how much Salem has become a symbol for America's fear and paranoia.

'No one in Salem village lived alone. But suddenly - after Deodat Lawson's alarm and Parris's inflammatory sermon - they seemed less alone than ever. A riot of shadowy sightings followed.' p.106
When I saw this I knew I wanted to share it with you guys! It's such a good example of Schiff's writing style, all mystical and beautifully fictional without losing any of her historic value.

So, what do you think? Like the sound of The Witches?

Monday, 2 May 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

badgeI haven't done this meme in genuinely forever! I used to love doing it because it was one of the best ways to find loads of new fun reads to lust after and to keep in touch with other bloggers. And then university hit me hard and Monday became the day where I had to do all the work I forgot during the weekend and basically I stopped doing these Monday posts. But now my degree is slowing down a little bit because it's research and dissertation time so I've decided to jump back into this meme! I'm slightly sad to see that Book Journey isn't hosting anymore, but am extremely happy to see that it's still being continued over on The Book Date!
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 see if I've still got the It's Monday mojo. Also, I've decided to try and make some fun book posters for this with Canva. If you have any very strong opinions about it (both positive and negative) please do let me know because I enjoy doing them but don't want to put them on here if no one likes it. I'm still fine-tuning my skills and I just notices some of the covers look a bit pixelated, so I'll work on that!

What I read/reviewed last week:

I didn't have a very successful week reading wise because I had an essay due last Friday, but I did manage to get 2 reviews out. I did enjoy Murder, She Wrote: Design for Murder but it was a bit too slow for me. I like my crime novels high-intensity. The Course of Love, however, was fascinating!

What I am reading at the present:

This week will, hopefully, be a week of catching up on books I really wanted to read in early April and which somehow got swept aside by life.

So, what do you think of my reads? And what are you reading on this fine Monday?

Leave a link to your post in the comments and I'll drop by!