Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Review: 'Genius and Discovery: Five Historical Miniatures' by Stefan Zweig, trans. by Anthea Bell

I love history and I love fictionalised accounts of history, when an author takes a moment crucial, in their mind, to human history and imagines what must have gone through people's minds. Stefan Zweig promised to do exactly that Genius and Discovery so I faithfully followed him into its pages. And I wasn't disappointed. Thanks to Pushkin Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 14/11/2017
Publisher: Pushkin Press
One of two beautifully designed hardback gift editions of Stefan Zweig's breathlessly dramatic historical sketches, out in time for the holidays.
Millions of people in a nation are necessary for a single genius to arise, millions of tedious hours must pass before a truly historic shooting star of humanity appears in the sky.
Five vivid dramatizations of some of the most pivotal episodes in human history, from the Discovery of the Pacific to the composition of the Marseillaise, bringing the past to life in brilliant technicolor.
Included in this collection:"Flight into Immortality": Vasco Núñez de Balboa's quest to be the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. "The Resurrection of George Frederic Handel": Handel falls into depression until a poet sends him an inspirational work."The Genius of a Night": Captain Rouget writes La Marseillaise, the song which is to become the French national anthem."The Discovery of El Dorado": John Sutter founds New Helvetia in western America and attempts to keep it."The First Word to Cross the Ocean": Cyrus W. Field resolves to lay the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable.
When I told my mother I would be reading Stefan Zweig in English she was affronted. Surely I should be reading such a great German author in German? I guess I should be, and after reading Genius and Discovery I also will. But that is the beauty of publishers like Pushkin Press, who allow you discover literature from all over the world in English. This small anecdote also allows me to talk about the idea and theme behind Genius and Discovery. In the five stories contained in this book Zweig celebrates the human spirit. The blind determination and mindless passion that marks some of the key moments in human history has something magical, and Zweig captures that beautifully. Some of the moments he describes have been taken for granted or never even considered to be as crucial as they were to shaping a nation, shaping a century.

There is something magical about these stories. Zweig chose five moments in history that meant something to him, during which something changed forever, in which we progressed. As the reader, not all stories will strike equally close to the heart. Some, like the first story 'Flight into Immortality' following Vasco Núñez de Balboa's journey to the Pacific combine a respect for de Balboa's dedication, as well as a blunt honesty about the costs of his dedication to the indigenous populations. I adored 'The Resurrection of George Frederic Handel', something akin to a love letter to Handel and his Messiah. It is beautifully written and made me desperate to listen to the piece again. 'The Genius of a Night' is a beautiful look at the creation of La Marseillaise, while 'The Discovery of El Dorado' and 'The First Word to Cross the Ocean' are elegies to those giants of spirit who threw their whole being into getting something done, advancing themselves or humanity. I came out of Genius and Discovery with warm feeling, a new love for how foolhardy we are as a species, and with an increased admiration for all that we have accomplished.

Zweig's writing is beautiful.Whether it is describing the beauty of South American countries, the power of Handel's Messiah, the hope gained from singing La Marseillaise, the madness behind the gold rush in California, or the seemingly insurmountable task of connecting the continents, Zweig brings a beauty and a power to it all. He clearly cares deeply about these moments and as a consequence he makes his readers care as well. No matter that these moments are decennia ago and take place in a world fundamentally different form ours, Zweig makes his reader engage with these moments and become invested in them. Anthea Bell's translation of Zweig's prose is stunning. I only have read Zweig in English, through her, but I can see why he is considered such a giant of German literature. Thanks to her, I will definitely be looking for more Zweig to read, both in German and translation.

I give this collection...

4 Universes!

I adored the stories in Genius and Discovery! There is something incredibly uplifting about these stories of human spirit, of, indeed, genius and discovery. They would indeed make for an excellent Christmas gift. I'd recommend this to anyone interested in short stories, as well as literary fiction.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Review: 'Reading Jane Austen' by Jenny Davidson

I love Jane Austen, I adore her. She was my introduction into English Literature, in many ways thereby setting me on the path I am on now. So I have a lot of emotions and experiences tied to Jane Austen and her books. When I started studying English Literature I found myself almost subconsciously avoiding writing about her though, partially because my academic interests lay elsewhere, but also because I was a little bit scared. Reading Jane Austen has helped me understand why, in part. Thanks to Cambridge University Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 06/11/2017
Publisher: Cambridge University Press

    Whether you’re new to Austen’s work or know it backwards and forwards already, this book provides a clear, full and highly engaging account of how Austen’s fiction works and why it matters. Exploring new pathways into the study of Jane Austen’s writing, novelist and academic Jenny Davidson looks at Austen’s work through a writer’s lens, addressing formal questions about narration, novel writing, and fictional composition as well as themes including social and women’s history, morals and manners. Introducing new readers to the breadth and depth of Jane Austen’s writing, and offering new insights to those more familiar with Austen’s work, Jenny Davidson celebrates the art and skill of one of the most popular and influential writers in the history of English literature.
Jane Austen was the literary light of my life for many years. Her books are still ones I seek one when I need comfort or if I want to laugh, even if I feel like I need to relearn their lessons. But, as said above, I avoided her at university. Reading Davidson's preface I finally figured out why I did so. It's difficult to discuss, criticise, and analyse something you love. I managed to do so with Tolkien's work during my MA but there I also felt the pangs of anger whenever anyone made a, usually valid, criticism of or remark on his work. I knew myself well enough to know I would not be able to dig as deep with a book I loved, take it apart and consider it objectively, as I would with other books. Davidson considers the same issue, commenting that the students who love Jane Austen often have less to put forward in a discussion and take criticism personally. Reading Davidson's Reading Jane Austen showed me that that is most likely true, as I still got defensive at times, especially on Elizabeth's part. But Davidson loves Austen as much as her readers do, and this love and respect also shines through her analysis.

As an avid Janeite, there were a lot of things which Davidson discussed that I had thought of or considered before, but she casts them in a new light and unites them into a number of solid themes that allow you to see these books in a new light. Davidson shows connections between the different texts, ways in which Austen's style developed and improved, even how her personal life and letters illuminate the importance of certain aspects in her novels. The book is split into seven different chapters, each of which has its own theme which is discussed across Austen's work. Whether it's the importance of letter writing in Chapter 1, the importance to Austen of manners and morals in Chapters 3 and 4, or the way she highlighted the role of women in society in Chapter 7, Reading Jane Austen ranges widely, but always does so relevantly. Davidson illuminated some aspects of the book for me and, perhaps most crucially of all, she made me want to reread Jane Austen's books with a new eye.

Jenny Davidson's writing is what makes Reading Jane Austen fun. I know from experience that academic texts, or any non-fiction book that digs into a topic, are often very interesting, but not always fun. And sometimes they're not even interesting, which makes for the worst reading experience ever. Reading Jane Austen, in comparison, is a delight. Davidson writes with an easy and a friendliness that, to me, felt like I was sitting in a seminar at university, having a conversation with her. She quotes Austen at length, allowing her prose to illuminate Davidson's arguments. Some of the chapters, especially those looking at narration for example, can be heavy on academic lingo which might be off putting to those not used to it. However, she doesn't overuse it and explains it well when she does. The Further Reading section at the back is also fascinating for anyone interested in Jane Austen and I will be browsing through it soon for future reading.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

I enjoyed Reading Jane Austen a lot more than I expected, considering it's non-fiction. However, Davidson takes her reader on a lovely stroll through some of the most important themes in Jane Austen's fiction, all the while providing them with new tools to analyse and appreciate Austen's books. I'd recommend this to anyone interested in learning more about Austen's fiction.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Review: 'Fresh Complaint' by Jeffrey Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides has always been one of those authors I have been meaning to read. The Virgin Suicides, in large part due to Sofia Coppola's film, became one of those books I felt I would like, if only I actually sat down for it. Middlesex was a book I feel I should read, which would actually have something to teach me, if only I actually sat down for it. And so I circled around Eugenides' books for years but never taking the first step. So when I saw Fresh Complaint I figured it was about time I grabbed the proverbial bull by the horns and sat down for it. Thanks to Harper Collins and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 03/10/2017
Publisher: Harper Collins; Fourth Estate
‘What was it about complaining that felt so good? You and your fellow sufferer emerging from a thorough session as if from a spa bath, refreshed and tingling?’ 
The first-ever collection of short stories from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jeffrey Eugenides presents characters in the midst of personal and national emergencies. 
We meet Kendall, a failed poet who, envious of other people’s wealth during the real estate bubble, becomes an embezzler; and Mitchell, a lovelorn liberal arts graduate on a search for enlightenment; and Prakrti, a high school student whose wish to escape the strictures of her family leads to a drastic decision that upends the life of a middle-aged academic. 
Jeffrey Eugenides’s bestselling novels Middlesex, The Virgin Suicides and The Marriage Plot have shown him to be an astute observer of the crises of adolescence, self-discovery and family love. These stories, from one of our greatest authors, explore equally rich and intriguing territory. 
Narratively compelling and beautifully written, Fresh Complaint shows all of Eugenides’s trademark humour, compassion and complex understanding of what it is to be human.
Fresh Complaint is a collection of beautiful short stories on that grandest of topics: the human condition. What is this human condition I speak of? It's "the characteristics, key events, and situations which compose the essentials of human existence, such as birth, growth, emotionality, aspiration, conflict, and mortality". It is no wonder almost every book finds itself questioning, describing, analysing and despairing over the human condition, since it provides so much material. In Fresh Complaint, then, Eugenides looks at all these events, characteristics and situations that create the human existence. Friendship, love, heartbreak, disappointment, anger, betrayal, it all features in the stories written by Eugenides. The stories sharply, yet also tenderly, analyse how we live, what decisions we make, how sometimes we can't help ourselves, how realisations come too late.

In Fresh Complaint, Eugenides brings together short stories written over the last twenty years. It's a nice touch to see which year each of his stories were written, as it for example explains the anger at the Bush administration in one of the stories. However, since the stories were written over such a long time, there is no single unifying theme to the collection, no clear thread that bind them all together. Occasionally links pop up between the stories, as if Eugenides almost unwittingly returned to a character or place and reused them. This lack of clear and obvious unity, however, allows Eugenides to highlight something else, namely how deeply human all his characters are, no matter their differences. Whether it's 'Baster's narrator, who bitterly watches a former love in her 40s chase after a pregnancy, 'Find the Bad Guy's husband who refuses to believe how his marriage fell apart or the title story's young woman desperately trying to escape her family's traditions, each of Eugenides' stories give us characters struggling for life, struggling through life. The stories are both sad and inspiring, beautiful and tragic. It's a perfect blend to sum up humanity.

It's always a little bit daunting, finally reading an author after years of anticipating and reading praise. But with Eugenides I found my hopes topped and fears quelled. Each story shines with a sympathy and humour that betrays a love for humanity but also an awareness for its flaws. Most of the stories will capture you straight away, as Eugenides sinks his claws into you and refuses to let you go till the last word. Dead-tired, I still tried to keep reading until my hand dropped my Kindle on my head as a clear sign that it was time to sleep. Not all the stories hit their mark, occasionally I found myself wondering what exactly Eugenides was trying to say, and yet the stories still have their own charm. The stories draw you into their own world and for the span of their pages you're deeply connected to and concerned about their characters. Eugenides manages to make his characters almost immediately recognisable, as the reader you get to know them so easily that you feel as if you've known them all along. And you care about them, as if they were your friends and neighbours. Fresh Complaint pretty much made me fall in love with Eugenides' writing and now I will finally just have to sit down for it and read his other books.

I give this collection...

5 Universes!

Fresh Complaint is a beautiful collection of human stories, of ups and downs, of difficulties and ridiculous situations, both intensely recognisable and strangely odd at the same time. Eugenides crafts his characters and stories carefully and there is something here for everyone. I'd recommend this to anyone interested in Short Stories and Literary Fiction.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Something Old, Something New #1: 'Impressions of Theophrastus Such' by George Eliot

I thought it was about time I started a new series of posts and the perfect opportunity came last evening when I dragged my mother into an antique bookstore to finally indulge once again in my favourite hobby: browsing for antique books! And so came about the birth of Something Old, Something New: Adventures on my Antique Bookshelf! I have a whole collection of antique books at home, widely ranging in topic, language and age and I love researching their provenance and their peculiarities. Now, I will be sharing what I find out with you in these posts! If you yourself would like to share something about one of your books, please share a link to your post in the comments and feel free to use the banner, as long as you don't remove my name from it.

The book I found yesterday was one I had never heard of before. I have only read one book by George Eliot, which was Middlemarch, her enormous psychological novel detailing the lives, hopes and disappointments of the villagers of Middlemarch. I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected and I developed an appreciation for Eliot, yet it didn't equal the fervour I feel for authors like Emily Brontë or Jane Austen. Yet when I spotted this small book with its bright red cover and George Eliot's name on its spine I was still intrigued. Even more so when I realised it wasn't one of her more famous other works like Daniel Deronda or Adam Bede, but rather the obscure Impressions of Theocrastus Such. And so I bought it. Now what is this book about? Let's find out!

Title: Impressions of Theophrastus Such
Author: George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans)
Original Pub. Date: 1879
Original Publisher:

Price: €1
Edition: Collections of British Authors, Tauchnitz Edition, Vol. 1828 (1879)
Bought at: Fächerstadt-Antiquariat, Karlsruhe, Germany

My first action was to Google it and to find out that Wikipedia has exactly two sentences dedicated to this novel. Apparently it was her last work, published in 1879, a year before her death, as well as her most experimental work. The novel consists of 18 essays by an imaginary scholar, whose "eccentric character is revealed through his work" (Wiki). So I broadened my search and stumbled upon a great blog post on this strange novel. In it, Eliot struggles with her own philosophy, her ideas about the world, which she initially present through a character study of her main character, Theophrastus. (For a more detailed analysis of the book's content, please do read this brilliant post by The Lectern.) Theophrastus was a Greek philosopher who became a follower of Aristotle. A book called Characters is attributed to him, in which he wrote the first ever character sketches, outlining thirty moral types. Eliot was clearly inspired by him while writing Impressions, as the title makes beyond obvious.

So what about this specific edition, then? It was published by Tauchnitz, which was a German family of publishers who published English language literature (rather than translation) in mainland Europe. The Bernhard Tauchnitz business was founded on the first of February, 1837, in Leipzig, Germany. The Collection of British and American Authors, of which I believe my book to be part, was begun in 1841 and was something of a precursor to the paperback with its inexpensive reprints of classics. Despite there not being copyright protection for English and American authors in Germany at the time, Tauchnitz paid the authors royalties nonetheless. Once such protections were in place though, Tauchnitz' editions became 'Copyright Editions', and my book is one of those as the title page below states.

An incomplete list of Tauchnitz' English collection's contents exists and it's something of a Who's Who of important English authors. They published the Brontës under their male pseudonyms, Dickens was their first English publication. Thackeray is there, Sheridan, as well as Charlotte M. Yong. The list, created by Amherst College, lists the countless titles published, as well as new editions published of the same books, by year. It is absolutely fascinating to look through, especially just to get a sense of which English books were released to the German audiences through Tauchnitz and how early on. Eventually I found my edition on the list:

As you can see from the photo of the cover I shared above, the description in the list matches my copy exactly. It was quite thrilling to find the exact match and to realise that this book is then, by all accounts, from 1879. That makes this tiny book 138 years old. And all that for only €1. (Find out more about Tauchnitz here.)

So, I had figured out what the book is about and which edition it is I have. But the beautiful thing about antique books is that they come with history. There are little notes scribbled away sometimes, or perhaps your book was once a library book and it has a stamp or sticker from that library. Perhaps there is even a little note or a bookmark tucked away in the pages, forgotten about when it was sold or given away. There is only one immediately noticeable mark of history in my book, and that is a note on the front page.

It is an example of something many of us do, or at least used to. On buying or receiving a new book, you'd write the date and your name in it as a memory. My Impressions has a relatively straightforward note, seemingly. A year and a date. The year is easy to identify as 1901, and the first name is most definitely Therese. I think there are two or three options for the last name. Either it is Rout/Rous or Ront/Rons. The cursive used here could very well be Kurrent, an old form of German handwriting. Although quite recognisable, some letters do have slightly different shapes. The 'n' and 'u' for example, are practically identical except for a small wave-like symbol written above the letter for 'u'. (See the Kurrent alphabet below.) If we accept it's Kurrent, however, then her 'e's are also technically wrong. Then again, we all know what it's like to write cursive, you don't always do it perfectly. Ease of writing is as important as style, after all.

Naturally, I couldn't find anything about a 'Therese Rout' or any other form online. Most likely, she was as normal as I was, and as eager to read this book. But I like knowing someone else once held this book, that a love for reading and an interest in what a book has to offer connects me and someone from over a 100 years ago.

File:Deutsche Kurrentschrift.svg

There are also some small scribbles on the opposite page, numbers they seem to be. I think it most likely that this book was part of a personal collection or home library and that the then-owner marked it as such. The last, blank, page of the book also now has a vague pencil scribble, pricing it at €1. That is now also part of this book's provenance. I'm always tempted to write my own name into a book, perhaps below Therese's. Maybe one day this book will be found by someone else in a different bookstore, and they will trace it back all the way to 1879, but also back to 2017.

That's a nice thought to finish on, no?

Review: 'A Separation' by Katie Kitamura

A Separation fascinated me from the moment I saw it. Relationships are incredibly so interesting, the way people change during the course of them, how we lie and misunderstand. We all strive after relationships, after being close with other people, finding someone who we belong to and who belongs to us. So when the chance to read A Separation materialised, I jumped at it. Thanks to Clerkenwell Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 23/03/2017
Publisher: Clerkenwell Press

A young woman has agreed with her faithless husband: it's time for them to separate. For the moment it's a private matter, a secret between the two of them. As she begins her new life, alone, she gets word that her ex-husband has gone missing in a remote region in the rugged southern Peloponnese. Reluctantly she agrees to go and search for him, still keeping their split to herself. In her heart, she's not even sure if she wants to find him. Adrift in the wild and barren landscape, she traces the failure of their relationship, and finds that she understands less than she thought about the man she used to love. A story of intimacy, infidelity and compassion, A Separation is about the gulf that divides us from the lives of others and the narratives we create to mask our true emotions. As the narrator reflects upon her love for a man who may never have been what he appeared, Kitamura propels us into the experience of a woman on the brink of catastrophe. A Separation is a riveting masterpiece of absence and presence that will leave the reader astonished, and transfixed.
We meet our unnamed narrator at the end of her relationship. They have decided to separate and are now floating in that space between on and off, married and divorced, together and apart. For a while now they haven't seen each other and our narrator has, in a sense moved on with her life. And yet this separation isn't final, no one has spoken yet of divorce although she is pretty sure she wants it. They haven't even told anyone yet that they are separated, it is a secret, shamefully kept private. In that situation a call arrives from her (still) mother-in-law who demands she flies to Greece to find her (still) husband. And she says yes. Because how can she not when no one knows, when she is technically still a wife and when she needs to talk to him anyway. And from there a constant conflict begins within her between duty and freedom. A Separation is about how things end, how we let go and how maybe sometimes we can't.

It's strangely difficult to put A Separation down. Kitamura crafts a narrative that intrigues and makes the reader desperate to know more. What happens to people when they separate, what happens when people lose each other? Because Kitamura's narrator is unnamed, while everyone else is named, you feel the erasure of self that exists in her, and many other relationships. She exists in relation to others. We get to know her based on how she interacted with her husband, her parents-in-law, friends, but we also see her struggling with defining herself as an individual. We are in her head but we are also outside of it. The lack of clarity, the confusion of emotions, it is very recognisable for anyone who has been in a relationship or has had a relationship end. Although marketed as a mystery, I wouldn't really classify A Separation as such. It is a psychological book, a book about humans and emotions. There will be moments of realisation similar to a mystery novel, but they won't be about the plot, but rather about what the events of the plot reveal to you about yourself, about humans. It's also a sad book, tragic, but also beautiful in its own way. You're in a character's head and like you're own head, you can never be quite sure where it's going. But the journey is always interesting.

Katie Kitamura strikes a very impressive balance in A Separation, writing an engrossing novel in a very passive voice. We don't really know her main character, she responds rather than acts, and dialogue isn't set apart with quotation marks. As such, reading A Separation isn't always as easy as reading other books is. You have to work on it, you have to dig into the narrator and see who she is, what she wants. In a way Kitamura here echoes the process of forging a relationship. It is difficult to know who people are, what they hide away, what they're not telling you. So you have to go into it with trust and goodwill, mining every small detail for meaning. She is investigating herself and her emotions, and so are we. I loved this about A Separation because the reader is as much a passive observer of the narrator's relationship as she is in that moment. We are both trying to understand what happened, and how it happened. And there is no perfect, happy end to that query.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

I adored A Separation and couldn't put it down. I was drawn into Kitamura's narrator's mind and  found myself caring. I also realised I was investigating myself as her narrator investigated herself. A Separation is a special book, but also one that is probably not for everyone. I'd recommend it to readers interested in Literary Fiction.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Review: 'Demi-Gods' by Eliza Robertson

I was excited about reading this novel from the moment I saw it. The blurb really grabbed me and I couldn't wait to see how Robertson would bring all these different ideas and themes together. Young Adult and teenage years are rife with potential complications, issues and questions, and I don't think I'm ever going to get tired of reading about it. Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 02/11/2017
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

A bold debut novel reminiscent of Emma Cline's The Girls; a story of love, lust and the spaces in between, from a 'captivating' (New York Times) new voice in fiction 
It is 1950, and Willa’s mother has a new beau. The arrival of his blue-eyed, sun-kissed sons at Willa’s summer home signals the end of her safe childhood. As her entrancing older sister Joan pairs off with Kenneth, nine-year-old Willa is drawn to his strange and solitary younger brother, Patrick.  
Left to their own devices, Willa is swept up in Patrick’s wicked games. As they grow up, their encounters become increasingly charged with sexuality and degradation. But when Willa finally tries to reverse the trajectory of their relationship, an act of desperation has devastating results. 
Unfolding between the wild freedoms of British Columbia and the glittering beaches of California, Demi-Gods explores a girl’s attempt to forge a path of her own choosing in a world where female independence is suspect. Sensitive, playful and entirely original, Eliza Robertson is one of the most exciting new voices in contemporary literature.
There is something about Demi-Gods that made in "unputdownable" for me. (I know that isn't a word, but let's just roll with it for now!) I was intrigued by the story, by where Robertson would lead us next, what we would discover about the characters as well as ourselves. So I was in deep, in a way. However, there was also something about Demi-Gods that let me sort of drift at the surface. As the reader, you're very much observing these characters. You aren't as immersed in them as in other novels, yet still very engaged with them. The novel is very descriptive and Robertson dedicates a lot of time to observations. You see Willa, Joan, Kenneth and Patrick go through life, make their choices, make their mistakes, and there is something that feels inevitable about it all. Although Demi-Gods is a short read, it doesn't feel like it. It is also quite a weird and upsetting novel, but this shouldn't stop anyone from reading it. Rather, it is something that should recommend it to you.

A big part of the novel is dedicated to the continuous meeting of Willa and Patrick and how their relationship develops over the course of these meetings. As the blurb describes it, their meetings are 'increasingly charged with sexuality and degradation'. Set in the '50s, Robertson shows how aware she is of the strict gender rules that existed and shows her various female characters struggling with these. Willa's encounters with Patrick are a rush, both for her and the reader, a situation in which neither knows exactly what is happening. Yet once they are over, and the reality of what has happened sinks in, there is always the sense of unease, of something not quite right. Analysing the power balance, or rather imbalance, between them is fascinating and it makes Demi-Gods a topical and interesting read. In that sense it is definitely reminiscent of Emma Cline's The Girls, in that both novels look at what happens to girls left alone, girls struggling for some kind of power.

This is Eliza Robertson's debut novel and I'm always wowed by the skill and deftness with which many new authors craft their novels. Demi-Gods sometimes reads like a confessional, as if Willa is unburdening herself to the reader, trying to finally come to term with everything that happened. Robertson weaves the narrative very carefully, using both "real time" and frequent and chronological flashbacks to show what happened. If not welded together properly, this shifting back and forth can be off-putting and confusing. Thankfully it worked really well in Demi-Gods. The writing style might take some time to get used to, as dialogue isn't clearly marked separately from descriptions, but it works very well. The novel very much attempts to capture a feeling or a sense of something, rather than tell a complex story. Demi-Gods has a relatively straightforward plot, yet Robertson explores the slightly uncomfortable yet fascinating time of teen life with aplomb.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I really enjoyed reading Demi-Gods. Eliza Robertson dives head first into what it's like to be a teenager, but also deftly analyses gender and power. I definitely can't wait for Eliza Robertson's future novels! I'd recommend this to anyone who enjoys Young Adult novels..

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Review: ‘Debriefing: Collected Stories’ by Susan Sontag, ed. by Benjamin Taylor

Susan Sontag is one of those writers I have been intending to read. It is her essays that were mostly on my mind, her writings on war, illness, culture and art. But for me, essays are something I have to actively be in the mood for. Unlike short stories or novels, it is not as easy to sink away into an essay. There are arguments to be followed, facts to take in, statements to agree or disagree with. So when I saw that there was a collection of short stories by Sontag coming out I figured it would be as good a, if not a better, introduction to this fascinating woman as her essays. And they certainly worked for me. Thanks to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 14/11/2017
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Debriefing collects all of Susan Sontag’s shorter fiction, a form she turned to intermittently throughout her writing life. The book ranges from allegory to parable to autobiography and shows her wrestling with problems not assimilable to the essay, her more customary mode. Here she catches fragments of life on the fly, dramatizes her private griefs and fears, lets characters take her where they will. The result is a collection of remarkable brilliance, versatility, and charm. Sontag’s work has typically required time for people to catch up to it. These challenging works of literary art—made more urgent by the passage of years—await a new generation of readers. This is an invaluable record of the creative output of one of the most inquisitive and analytical thinkers of the twentieth century at the height of her power.
 For me, one of the clearest descriptions of, and keys to, this collection comes from the blurb:
"The book ranges from allegory to parable to autobiography and shows her wrestling with problems not assimilable to the essay, her more customary mode."
In the stories collected in Debriefing you can feel the wrestling that Sontag is doing. An essay requires a driving thrust, a clear argument towards a resolution or at the very least a suggestion. The issues addressed in these stories can’t be resolved that way, so Sontag battles with them in short stories. Each story is full of questions, partially rhetorical and meant to go unanswered, but partially also desperately waiting for someone to provide an answer. The stories in and of themselves will not necessarily give you any answers or solutions, rather, they will drop you into a situation and make you consider it, join Sontag in approaching it from different angles, and recognize your own questions in hers. There is no clear link, per se, that ties these different stories together, except for the fact that they all deal, in a way, with the human condition. Adolescent desire for adulthood, parenthood, wanderlust, love, companionship, illness, it all features in Debriefing in one way or another.

Perhaps my favourite stories in Debriefing are the ones in which Sontag gives us her take on a book or an author. The first story in the collection, ‘Pilgrimage’, deals with a young girl and her friend meeting a literary idol. The way in which Sontag captures the adolescent fervor with which her protagonist immerses herself in books, as well as her teenage awkwardness at meeting a hero, rings incredibly true and will make it a very recognizable story for any bibliophile. ‘The Letter Scene’ is another stunning story in which Sontag takes on love, Onegin and letter writing, all while digging deeper into how we communicate and why. ‘Doktor Jekyll’ is a fascinating take on the famous Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, while ‘The Dummy’ is both chilling and hilarious at the same time. ‘Baby’ strikes a similar tone, making the reader both deeply uncomfortable while making them laugh. The stories come from many different places, either clearly inspired by other books or drawn from personal experiences. On the one hand the stories probably reveal a lot about Sontag, about the things she struggled with, was interested in or hopelessly lost about. On the other hand, there is enough remove for someone who doesn’t know much about Sontag to be able to sink into each story as they go.

Sontag’s writing is potentially not for everyone. It is very “wordy”, to put it one way. Where other authors might use two words, Sontag uses two sentences to get to a point. Her language meanders, expands, evades and uncovers. For me, her writing style felt very much like the way thoughts work, without becoming an internal monologue. A story is clearly being told, but chronology or argument doesn’t really hold sway. The story will go where it goes, if it is inspired to move one way now and the other later, then that is what it will do. This can definitely be confusing but it also keeps the story fresh and engaging. Sontag uses different forms throughout the stories collected in Debriefing. Some stories are made up of bullet points, in others we only get one side of a dialogue. Then there are those which feel mystical and those who deal honestly with real life diseases. Sontag’s writing shines through all of these stories for me, always turning a phrase or sentence into something more. Her writing is very descriptive but never sinks into melodrama for me. And some of these stories will stay with me for a long time.

I give this collection…
4 Universes!

I really enjoyed reading Debriefing! Sontag’s stories have something absurd yet highly recognizable about them, as if someone has taking an everyday problem and makes you look at it through a prism. You know what you’re seeing and yet you’re not quite sure how it all comes together, or even if it can come together. Although Debriefing may not be for everyone, I would definitely recommend it to those interested in challenging short stories.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Review: ‘Stay With Me’ by Ayòbàmi Adébáyò

Stay with MeBeautiful books are often painful. They are the kind of books that reach inside of you and touch that sore spot that makes you want to weep. These aren’t the kinds of books that lay it on thick, where the plot is dramatized just to make you cry. Rather, they are honest books, in which despite all good intentions things go wrong, where people get hurt and nothing could have prevented it. They are the kinds of books that celebrate human life in all its painful glory. Stay With Me was one of those books for me and it will stay with me for a long time. Thanks to Canongate Books and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 02/03/2017
Publisher: Canongate Books
'There are things even love can't do . . . If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But even when it's in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn't mean it's no longer love . . .' 
Yejide is hoping for a miracle, for a child. It is all her husband wants, all her mother in-law wants, and she has tried everything - arduous pilgrimages, medical consultations, dances with prophets, appeals to God. But when her in-laws insist upon a new wife, it is too much for Yejide to bear. It will lead to jealousy, betrayal and despair. 
Unravelling against the social and political turbulence of 80s Nigeria, Stay With Me sings with the voices, colours, joys and fears of its surroundings. Ayobami Adebayo weaves a devastating story of the fragility of married love, the undoing of family, the wretchedness of grief, and the all-consuming bonds of motherhood. It is a tale about our desperate attempts to save ourselves and those we love from heartbreak.
It shouldn’t be hard to guess from my introduction that I loved this book. Part of why I started a book blog was in order to read more books from across the world because I fervently believe that reading a culture’s literature is one of the key ways of understanding it. There is always an initial hurdle to overcome when reading a book from outside your own culture, whether it is new and strange expressions, traditions and habits you don’t recognize, or settings and names that are foreign to you. However, these end up enriching your reading experience as the book truly allows you to settle into a different place. This was the case with Stay With Me. Adébáyò does not compromise herself for non-Nigerian readers. The book is filled with Nigerian phrases, folklore and traditions, as well as capturing the turbulent years around the military coup. Adébáyò describes her country both honestly and lovingly, and by the end of the book I was desperate to know more about Nigeria.

Parenthood, and especially, motherhood is central to Adébáyò’s Stay With Me. Ayide and Akin want children, desperately, both of their own accord as well as to meet external expectations of a large family. As grandmothers, neighbours and siblings make their wishes known, Ayide and Akin struggle for ways to cope with the pressure in their own ways. Adébáyò captures beautifully how deeply tied maternity is to femininity. To be a mother is to truly become a woman, according to many, and Ayide’s lack of children is taken as a sign of defectiveness. As she resorts to folklore for help, so Akin is pressured to find himself another wife. Without meaning to give anything away, I was very impressed with how Stay With Me showed the blame being placed on Ayide and the pressure being placed on Akin, while their own realities and truths tell them something else. In this quagmire of expectations and wishes, Ayide and Akin find themselves making choice after choice, each understandable and yet damning in its turn. Adébáyò tells their story with a gentleness that is almost painful, while never leaving anything out. By the end of the novel, the reader has been through the wringer with her characters and although they may have wished things had been different, the reader also knows why these things had to happen. Can you tell how carefully I am trying to phrase this so as not to ruin any of it for you?

Stay With Me is beautifully heartbreaking. With an honest tenderness, Adébáyò guides us through the lives of her characters and shows us how the wheel of fortune keeps on rolling. Sometimes you're on top, but before you know it you find yourself at the bottom again. Stay With Me is divided into chapters from Ayide and Akin's point of view, as well as moving back between the present and the past, in order to paint as complete a picture of their lives. By moving in time, Adébáyò is able to show us consequences before the actions, the pain before the happiness, and vice versa. It's hard to describe just how Adébáyò manages to describe her characters' emotions so honestly yet beautifully, to the point where there were moments where reading Stay With Me physically hurt. But in a good way. In the end, Stay With Me is achingly human, full of happiness, sadness, and you should definitely read it. Like now. Go.

I give this novel…

5 Universes!

I adored Stay With Me. It wasn't until the book was over that I truly realised just how much it had truly touched me. Now, days after reading it, Stay With Me is still on my mind and I can't wait to reread it. I'd definitely recommend this to anyone interested in Literary Fiction and African Literature.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Review: 'House of Names' by Colm Tóibín

I love Greek myths and legends so much. They were some of the first stories that ignited my passion for reading and literature and mythology, and they have been a constant companion. I know them in a way you know your childhood home. You can’t necessarily always picture it clearly, but if you close your eyes you always find your way around, remember which step creaks and where the cookies are hidden. As such, adaptations of them strike a double chord with me. They both excite me and worry me, because what are they going to do with my stories? I have had both good and bad experiences with these adaptations, and somehow House of Names falls in between. Thanks to Viking and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 18/05/2017
Publisher: Viking; Penguin Books
'They cut her hair before they dragged her to the place of sacrifice. Her mouth was gagged to stop her cursing her father, her cowardly, two-tongued father. Nonetheless, they heard her muffled screams.' 
On the day of his daughter's wedding, Agamemnon orders her sacrifice.

His daughter is led to her death, and Agamemnon leads his army into battle, where he is rewarded with glorious victory.

Three years later, he returns home and his murderous action has set the entire family - mother, brother, sister - on a path of intimate violence, as they enter a world of hushed commands and soundless journeys through the palace's dungeons and bedchambers. As his wife seeks his death, his daughter, Electra, is the silent observer to the family's game of innocence while his son, Orestes, is sent into bewildering, frightening exile where survival is far from certain. Out of their desolating loss, Electra and Orestes must find a way to right these wrongs of the past even if it means committing themselves to a terrible, barbarous act.
House of Names is a story of intense longing and shocking betrayal. It is a work of great beauty, and daring, from one of our finest living writers.
Greek mythology is a curious beast. On the one hand it pervades Western culture to the extent that everyone will know at least one tale. Our planets are named after the Greek Gods’ Latinized counterparts and Homer is a staple of any literature course. On the other hand, the finer intricacies of it, the way in which the mythology builds on each other, the way our view of it was shaped by those who came after, that makes Greek mythology a tricky thing to truly grasp. Adaptations, then, of these myths and legends find themselves in a precarious position. Some novels go completely the wrong way and try to make Greek mythology something it isn’t, while others try to dig deeper into what the extant tales try to tell us. The Greek myths are as tragic and dramatic as they come, full of careless gods and tortured humans, but they are also full of beautiful images and humanity.

Something about House of Names left me wanting. On the surface there truly is nothing to complain about when it comes to Tóibín’s novel. He treats his characters with respect, he paints beautiful images with his words and has a number of high-stakes moments in his plot. And yet I never truly got involved with it all. Perhaps my standards were too high. When I visited Greece as a child I lived and breathed these stories, knew them inside out and was completely enraptured by them. Their drama, their language, their scope and depth; in comparison to it House of Names fell flat for me. A novel that did incredibly well at capturing the essence of Greek mythology was The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, in which she made the character of Penelope her own while also sinking into the richness that the source material offered her. I liked the chapters around Clytemnestra and Electra, mainly because, like Penelope and Helen, they are sidelined in the originals, yet even those never go me truly got me excited. Also, strangely, in my edition of the book, their chapters are written from the first person, whereas Orestes’ chapters are third person, removing the reader even further from his character.

Tóibín writes very well. He sets scenes up perfectly, captures emotions and mindsets very well and at the end of the book you want more. I personally wanted more because I knew were the story was going and because I was curious how Tóibín would handle it. But I’ve also seen other reviewers saying they wanted more. And yet it is told in a way I can only call dispassionate. The House of Atreus is a doomed house, a cursed house, full of murder, betrayal and vengeance, yet Tóibín brings to it the same passion you would to a shopping list. My problem with House of Names, I think, lies with that he tries to justify or moralize why what happens had to happen. Agamemnon had to sacrifice Iphigenia because he was under pressure from his army. As an outraged mother and sidelined queen, revenge seems a natural option for Clytemnestra. As the only son, Orestes has to avenge his father, even if he is perhaps not quite convinced of it himself. The Greek stories allow for destiny, they deal in absolutes and don’t require moralizing because we recognize that push from destiny. Greek tragedy didn’t really deal with the psychology behind their characters, yet Aeschylus and the others filled their characters with life. By moralizing and attempting to explain, much of the magic is lost and in the end none of the characters are truly likeable. This was my first Tóibín read, and although House of Names convinced me he is a good writer, I don’t know if I’ll want to pick up another one of his books anytime soon.

I give this book…
3 Universes!

Although I enjoyed House of Names, it didn’t blow me away or engrossed me as much as I had hoped. The characterization was there, but left me wanting for something deeper, something more true to the source. House of Names would make for an easy introduction to adaptations of Greek mythology, without requiring a massive knowledge of said mythology.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Review: 'The World of Lore, V1: Monstrous Creatures' by Aaron Mahnke

I was raised on fairy tales and legends from across the world. I remember very clearly the exact shelf on which we had the books through which I would pour, looking for strange stories both from our world and not, full of strange creatures and strange happenings.This translated into an adult fascination with mythology and the persistent question of 'Why?'. So when I saw Magnke's The World of Lore, I could hardly contain my excitement. And it proved to be exactly what I hoped and wanted. Thanks to Headline and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 10/10/2017
Publisher: Headline; Wildfire
A fascinating, beautifully illustrated guide to the monsters that are part of our collective psyche, from the host of the hit podcast Lore 
They live in shadows - deep in the forest, late in the night, in the dark recesses of our mind. They're spoken of in stories and superstitions, relics of an unenlightened age, old wives' tales, passed down through generations. And yet, no matter how wary and jaded we have become, as individuals or as a society, a part of us remains vulnerable to them. Werewolves and wendigos, poltergeists and vampires, angry elves and vengeful spirits. 
In this beautifully illustrated volume, the host of the hit podcast Lore serves as a guide on a fascinating journey through the history of these terrifying creatures, and explores not only the legends but what they tell us about ourselves. Aaron Mahnke invites us to the desolate Pine Barrens of New Jersey, where the notorious winged, red-eyed Jersey Devil dwells. Mahnke delves into harrowing accounts of cannibalism-some officially documented, others the stuff of speculation . . . perhaps. He visits the dimly lit rooms where séances take place, the European villages where gremlins make mischief, and Key West, Florida, home of a haunted doll named Robert. 
The monsters of folklore have become not only a part of our language but a part of our collective psyche. Whether these beasts and bogeymen are real or just a reflection of our primal fears, we know, on some level, that not every mystery has been explained, and that the unknown still holds the power to strike fear deep in our hearts and souls. 
As Aaron Mahnke reminds us, sometimes the truth is even scarier than the lore...
I am dreadfully unaware of podcasts. It's the one thing I keep telling myself to get more invested in because I actually love listening to people tell me about things they are fascinated by and knowledgeable of. It's like being back at university, and I am one of those people who wishes they could just remain at university indefinitely. The World of Lore is another one of those pushes to finally get my act together and start listening, since this book is based on an incredibly popular podcast, 'Lore', by the author. I'm not surprised the podcast is that popular, since the topic is something that everyone at some point finds themselves fascinated with. As Mahnke argues himself in the book as well, humans yearn for stories that contextualise our existence in this world, that bring order and clarity, that explain what is happening and why, that shift some of the blame away from us and onto something we can't control. And the incredible similarity between all of these stories is what truly fascinates me as well. Whether it's South America, northern Europe or South-East Asia, every culture has tales of trickster spirits, dwarves or elves.

The World of Lore is very well-structured. This may sound like a silly thing to pay attention to, but it's actually very important. Each chapter is clearly defined and the creatures he discusses are well-organised. Rather than jumping from one to the other, Mahnke makes to transition from one to the other logical, showing why they are put together as they are. Each description is a great mixture between history, myth and fact, as Mahnke shares both "documented" cases of creatures appearing as well as the research that has been done to prove or disprove their existence. Can you truly believe hidden, invisible people populate Iceland? Perhaps no, but construction work ignoring "their" sites do run into an awful lot of trouble, don't they? It's this balance that makes The World of Lore so much fun to read, because you always walk away from it wondering if maybe it couldn't actually all be true.

Mahnke's writing is definitely what makes this book. Under anyone else it could have easily become a dry book, full of old facts with no life to them. As The World of Lore is now, I can easily see why the podcast is as popular as it is. Mahnke's writing is direct and to the point, almost as if you're actually sitting down with him and having a conversation. He addresses the reader straight on, shares his own scepticism and fascination, and brings a wealth of information to the table. The book makes you hungry to listen to the podcast, to learn more, and surely that is what every book should do? Mahnke's enthusiasm is infectious and it's scarily easy to just keep reading. I almost missed my metro stop more times than I'd like to admit. This book also has brilliant illustrations, which strike that perfect Tim Burton-balance between amusing and creepy.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

The World of Lore is a great read for anyone even slightly curious about the legends and stories surrounding us. Mahnke collects the best and leaves you wanting more. Never dull, The World of Lore makes you desperate to camp out at night in the hopes to catch something mysterious. I'd recommend this to anyone with even the slightest curiosity! Also, this is the perfect book to read in the run up to Halloween!

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Review: 'The Cave and the Light: Plato versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization' by Arthur Herman

I love reading about philosophy. Growing up in quite an intellectual middle-class family in Europe, there was a lot of attention on developing opinions and understanding how European culture had developed. But still, there is a lot that I don't know and I have always looked for a book that would bring different strands of philosophy and history together in an understandable way. That book is The Cave and the Light and it's been an amazing read. Thanks to Random House and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 24/09/2013
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
A magisterial account of how the two greatest thinkers of the ancient world, Plato and Aristotle, laid the foundations of Western culture—and how their rivalry shaped the essential features of our culture down to the present day
Plato came from a wealthy, connected Athenian family and lived a comfortable upper-class lifestyle until he met an odd little man named Socrates, who showed him a new world of ideas and ideals. Socrates taught Plato that a man must use reason to attain wisdom, and that the life of a lover of wisdom, a philosopher, was the pinnacle of achievement. Plato dedicated himself to living that ideal and went on to create a school, his famed Academy, to teach others the path to enlightenment through contemplation.
However, the same Academy that spread Plato’s teachings also fostered his greatest rival. Born to a family of Greek physicians, Aristotle had learned early on the value of observation and hands-on experience. Rather than rely on pure contemplation, he insisted that the truest path to knowledge is through empirical discovery and exploration of the world around us. Aristotle, Plato’s most brilliant pupil, thus settled on a philosophy very different from his instructor’s and launched a rivalry with profound effects on Western culture.
The two men disagreed on the fundamental purpose of the philosophy. For Plato, the image of the cave summed up man’s destined path, emerging from the darkness of material existence to the light of a higher and more spiritual truth. Aristotle thought otherwise. Instead of rising above mundane reality, he insisted, the philosopher’s job is to explain how the real world works, and how we can find our place in it. Aristotle set up a school in Athens to rival Plato’s Academy: the Lyceum. The competition that ensued between the two schools, and between Plato and Aristotle, set the world on an intellectual adventure that lasted through the Middle Ages and Renaissance and that still continues today.
In The Cave and the Light, Herman lays out his argument for how Plato and Aristotle have influenced Western civilization, as well as the consistent debate about the human soul. What has always fascinated me is how philosophy is both very abstract and far away of daily life, yet also suffuses our daily life. One of my favourite Disney songs starts with a Nietzsche maxim, for example. Many of the thoughts which were so revolutionary and groundbreaking decades and centuries ago are now everyday common sense, and so it's almost shocking to find out just where these thoughts and assumptions originate. And sometimes finding out just where they come from can change how you feel about those thoughts as well. A philosopher who is both brilliant and deeply misogynistic, a philosophy that seemingly leads to freedom only to end up in tyranny. How do you reconcile yourself to a thought process that requires bloodshed? Reading philosophy, discussing it, broadens your mind in a way that is fascinating, and tracking the debate around the soul and purpose of humanity in The Cave and the Light is fascinating.

Herman seems to favour Aristotle's reason and liberty over Plato's mysticism, as do I, but he never lets his own preference override his narrative. From each corner we got both the most inspired of artists and the worst of crimes. Plato gave us the Romantics and their sublime poetry, but also Goebbels' 'big lie' and and Robespierre's terror. Aristotle inspired major advances in science from Archimedes' inventions to the industrial revolution, but also led us to the atomic bomb. Herman prevents his journey through Western civilization from becoming boring or tedious by infusing it with humour and fascinating insights. Socrates' death, Archimedes' inventions, von Humboldt's journeys through South-America, all of these are described beautifully, bringing these figures from the past to life. Despite being long, almost 700 pages, The Cave and the Light never feels like a chore. As such, it would make for a perfect addition to any philosophy syllabus.

In a final chapter, Herman takes a look at the West now, highlighting three key events that may shake Aristotle's hold over us. 9/11, the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 and the economic crash of 2008; each has left a fundamental mark on Western culture and has raised a whole new range of debates about where it is we are heading. Capitalism and consumerism is being criticised again, especially in relation to the younger (my) generation, while many young people feel a strong disconnect. The falling down or fading away of many "pillars" from our past, such as Christianity and many other traditions, has left a bit of a hole in our soul. Herman suggests a change back to Plato's mysticism, to a new connectedness with the spiritual and the natural, may be coming. As I said, this book is a great read, captivating and engaging, laying bare the connections between people and thoughts across centuries. Herman is the kind of academic writer who manages to infuse his own enthusiasm into his writing and thereby into his reader, inspiring them to go beyond his own writing and do their own research.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

Although philosophy isn't for everyone, The Cave and the Light is a key text to understanding how the Western world came to be shaped, why we think of things the way we do and where we might be heading. Herman takes the reader through our history in a way that never feels dull. For those interested in philosophy and Western culture, Herman's book is a must-read.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Review: 'The Incarnations' by Susan Barker

A little over a year ago I moved to Shanghai and had my first true encounter with Chinese history and culture. I have found it to be a fascinating country, whose roots go deep and whose memory goes back far. Living in Shanghai means I’m right in a bustling centre of modernity, of new China with its highrise buildings and chain stores. But here traces still remain of its history, scattered across the city like small reminders of a not too distant past. When I saw The Incarnations I immediately felt drawn to it and new I wanted to read it while in China. I absolutely sank away into this novel and I has added immensely to my fascination with this country. Thanks to  and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 03/07/2014
Publisher: Doubleday
A stunning tale of a Beijing taxi driver being pursued by his twin soul across a thousand years of Chinese history, for fans of David Mitchell. *I dream of us across the centuries… I dream we stagger through the Gobi, the Mongols driving us forth with whips.
I dream of sixteen concubines, plotting to murder the sadistic Emperor Jiajing.
I dream of the Sorceress Wu lowering the blade, her cheeks splattered with your blood. I dream of you as a teenage Red Guard, rampaging through the streets of Beijing.
I am your soulmate, Driver Wang and now I dream of you.
You don't know it yet, but soon I will make you dream of me ....
The Incarnations is a story that spans centuries, but always comes back to temporary human life. Each life, each story, explores different aspects of what it means to be human and to be connected. However, The Incarnations doesn’t aim to elevate humanity to some high, divine state. Rather, it seems determined to show its readers exactly how messy, dirty, disappointing and glorious life can be. None of Barker’s characters are exactly likeable. All make mistakes, some worse than others but all to some definite extent. No one is entirely innocent in Barker’s world, all have been guilty once upon a time, and as these mysterious letters track Wang’s various lives, so they track how we live. The letters sent to Wang chronicle horror, pain, love, torture, kindness and cruelty, and they are beautiful. Is that perhaps oxymoronic? Yes, but it is also true. I wish I could describe this book better, it's actually really frustrating to not be able to encapsulate the effect this book had, so you might just have to take it on good faith.

As much as The Incarnations is about its two central characters, it is also very much about history and fate. History shapes countries, people and destinies, and China has a fascinating history. Barker reaches back centuries for her stories and thereby China itself becomes a character. Reading about these different ages of China, the reader truly grows an appreciation for this fascinating and varied country. The Incarnations moves across a whole range of civilisations, classes and gender roles, from pirates to courtesans, witches to Huns, Red Guards to taxi drivers, and each of these has a place in China. Wang and his mysterious twin spirit have been tied together for centuries, and now it is time Wang wakes up to their history. But would you want to know? Truly know your history, from every moment of bliss to every moment of darkness? As Wang learns more about his past, his present slowly starts to unravel as he begins to reassess and question things he once considered certain. In a way this is also how countries become aware of themselves, acknowledging their past and attempting to come to terms with it. Not every country can do this positively, and as Wang sinks into a strange kind of obsession and paranoia, so some countries do the same with their past.

Susan Barker’s writing is what makes this novel. The Incarnations has a very intricate structure, one which moves across time and also across perspectives. On the one hand we have Wang, the Beijing taxi driver whose life is being turned upside down by the arrival of strange letters. On the other hand there is the sender of said letters, describing not only their current state but also the lives that have come and gone, each iteration of them being both recognizable and utterly other. Barker beautifully combines all these different stories through her own style. The Incarnations is beautifully descriptive, evoking both the harshness of the Gobi Desert and the terror of the Red Guard, without ever sinking into the melodramatic. I found myself both fascinated by the letters and their history, as well as Wang's every day life, devouring it all. Towards the end the intensity of the novel is cranked up. I loved some of the twists at the end and I'm still thinking about them! The Incarnations is a magical reading experience.

I give this novel…
5 Universes!

I absolutely adored The Incarnations! Barker creates such magic in this novel that I simply didn't want it to end. I was enraptured by her visions from the past and have developed a completely new fascination with and appreciation for China. I'd definitely recommend this to anyone interested in Historical Fiction and Chinese history. 

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Review: 'Bad Girls from History: Wicked or Misunderstood?' by Dee Gordon

When I was still at university I quickly began specialising in women from history. I absolutely loved discovering fascinating upon fascinating women in my text books, seeing how women always rebelled, in one way or another, against the rules imposed upon them by the patriarchy. Those discoveries are one of the things I miss most. A book like Bad Girls from History is like a treasure trove to me. Are some of the women in this book despicable? Absolutely. But each mini biography in Gordon's book is an insight into a period in history, into a certain mindset, into a certain ideology. There is a lot to work with and to think about, and I love both of those things when it comes to historical women. Thanks to Pen & Sword and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 30/09/2017
Publisher: Pen & Sword
 You wont be familiar with every one of the huge array of women featured in these pages, but all, familiar or not, leave unanswered questions behind them. The range is extensive, as was the research, with its insight into the lives and minds of women in different centuries, different countries, with diverse cultures and backgrounds, from the poverty stricken to royalty. 
Mistresses, murderers, smugglers, pirates, prostitutes and fanatics with hearts and souls that feature every shade of black (and grey!). From Cleopatra to Ruth Ellis, from Boudicca to Bonnie Parker, from Lady Caroline Lamb to Moll Cutpurse, from Jezebel to Ava Gardner.
Less familiar names include Mary Jeffries, the Victorian brothel-keeper, Belle Starr, the American gambler and horse thief, La Voisin, the seventeenth-century Queen of all Witches in France but these are random names, to illustrate the variety of the content in store for all those interested in women who defy law and order, for whatever reason.
The risque, the adventurous and the outrageous, the downright nasty and the downright desperate all human (female!) life is here. From the lower stratas of society to the aristocracy, class is not a common denominator. Wicked? Misunderstood? Nave? Foolish? Predatory? Manipulative? Or just out of their time? Read and decide.

So yes, I love women who are considered bad. Jezebel? I wish the Bible had had more of her. Women ruling the Gangs of New York? I’m so here for it. Mata Hari being over the top till the very end? Tell me more! So Godon’s Bad Girls from History was always going to be something I enjoyed. I devoured the book in a day, pouring over the biographies of women forgotten by most. Gordon digs up women ranging from the widely known and infamous, to those reduced to a footnote in most books. What I enjoy most about these types of books is that it shows how women have always forged a path for themselves one way or the other. Did they do so for bad reasons, did they do so with murderous intent? Some definitely. But other women saw opportunities in the small niche allowed for them and exploited it for all they could. This is why I love history, because it shows you that while society may dictate one thing, in the end, most people do what they want anyone. And going down in history as a bad girl always brings with it some respect.

The book is split into six different sections. ‘Courtesans and Mistresses’ contains such illustrious characters as Cleopatra for her affairs with Caesar and Mark Anthony, as well as Kitty Fisher. ‘Madams, Prostitutes and Adulterers’ presents us with the likes of Anne Boleyn and Sidonie Colette. This is perhaps the chapter that had me most confused as some of these, like Boleyn, really didn’t seem to fit. ‘Serial Killers’ is a truly horrendous and fascinating chapter full of women like the Countess Bathory and Lizzie Borden. This was a runner up for my favourite chapter. ‘One Off Killers’ is easier on the mind than the previous chapter, but includes mostly women that haven’t gone down in infamy. ‘Gangsters, Thieves and Con-Artists’ is the chapter for anyone in love with Bonnie & Clyde. Here you will find even more women breaking the law left, right and centre. The book finishes with ‘The Rebel Collection – Pirates, Witches, Megalomaniacs, Exhibitionists’ and since I have a massive penchant for female pirates and witches, I adored some of the women appearing in here. There’s Anne Bonny, Boudicca, Empress Cixi and much more. What this overview hopefully shows is how diverse, in some ways, Bad Girls from History is. There are many women from different walks of life, all of which were considered bad once upon a time. Some of these women, like Bergen-Belsen guard Irma Grese deserve that judgement outright, while many other of the women in this book seem very much a victim of their time.

Gordon passes no judgement in this book, and often also doesn’t go very much deeper into her subjects than the bare boned facts, as far as those are available. As such, Bad Girls from History is more like a dictionary of women who, one way or another, drew attention to themselves. Maybe they wrote beautiful yet divisive poetry like Sappho, maybe they acted outside of normal gender patterns like Calamity Jane. Although I would have liked to see Gordon dig into these women, analyze what led them to their actions, how they were forced into certain situations by gender roles etc., Bad Girls from History is not that book and also never pretends to be. The fact I wanted more, however, shows that Gordon presented and interesting and well-written case. Her biographies are interspersed with humour, small comments upon the actions of this or that woman, and ruminations upon how their actions would be seen now. But mostly she lets these bad girls’ actions speak for them.

I give this book…
3 Universes!

 I really enjoyed Bad Girls from History and found myself racing through its pages. I wanted to know more about those women, more about what they did and why. As such, Gordon's book is a perfect starting point for any reader. The facts on many of these women are scarce, yet Gordon does the best with the material available to her. I'd recommend this to anyone interested in women throughout history.