Tuesday, 27 December 2016

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

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

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

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

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

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

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

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

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

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

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

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

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

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

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

Monday, 19 December 2016

Review: 'Swing Time' by Zadie Smith

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

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

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

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

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

I give this book...

5 Universes!

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

Friday, 16 December 2016

Friday Fun: Honesty and Swinging

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

What protagonist is most like you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 10 December 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

I give this book...

5 Universes!

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