Friday, 30 June 2017

Friday Memes and 'A World Gone Mad'

A World Gone Mad: The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren, 1939-45It's Friday and the sun is finally shining again in Shanghai! My sister came to visit me for 10 days and then my housemate moved out, so I have been a little bit preoccupied, but I'm ready to get back in the blogging groove now with some blog hopping fun. I haven't done a post like this in a while, which is really a shame because it's loads of fun.
Book Beginnings and Friday 56 are hosted by Gilion over at Rose City Reader and Freda over at Freda's Voice. Please do drop by their blogs to join in the fun!

Today I'm sharing a non-fiction read, one which I'm very excited about and can't wait to really get into. It's A World Gone Mad: The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren, 1393-45. I love Astrid Lindgren's writing, it was a major part of my childhood, so when I saw her diaries were being published, I knew I wanted to get this inside look into her mind. 
As one of the world's most famous children's writers, Astrid Lindgren championed the qualities of courage, hope, love and resistance; and her preoccupation with these qualities was already in evidence in the diaries she kept during the Second World War, long before she achieved her fame. Her diary, published now for the first time in English, provides a fascinating insight into a Europe poisoned by fascism, racism and violence, from the point of view of not only an employee of the Swedish Mail Censorship Office, but also of a wife, mother and budding writer living in a formally neutral country.
In them, she asks questions which are as keenly and distressingly important today as they were in 1939-45: What is Good, what is Evil? What do we do, when jingoism and racism determine the thoughts and actions of humans? How can we, as individuals, take a stand against such malevolent forces?
Alongside the day's political events, Lindgren's intelligent and perceptive diaries include charming and moving descriptions of her domestic life, as well as of her first writing attempts: it was during this terrible period that she composed Pippi Longstocking, one of the most famous, enduring and widely translated children's books of the twentieth century


'1 September 1939
Oh! War broke out today. Nobody could believe it.
Yesterday afternoon, Elsa Gullander and I were in Vasa Park with the children running and playing around us and we sat there giving Hitler a nice, cosy telling off and agreed that there definitely was not going to be a war - and now today! The Germans bombarded several Polish cities early this morning and are gorging their way into Poland from all directions. I've managed to restrain myself from any hoarding until now, but today I laid in a little cocoa, a little tea, a small amount of soap and a few other things.' 1%
I love seeing contemporary accounts of major world events, such as the start of WWII. Lindgren managed to perfectly encapsulate how life was normal and how suddenly it changed. There are key details here, like how they initially felt comfortable enough to trashtalk Hitler, but are now hoarding food out of fear he'll come.

'9th of May
I suppose the most disquieting thing of all was that the damned Germans laid a minefield in Swedish waters. It was probably that minefield which decided the Ulven's fate. Because the other they they found the Ulven, for which they'd hunted so intently and desperately. And it was lying more or less in the middle fo that mine belt at a depth of 52 metres.' 56%

The fascinating thing about reading diaries and accounts of the past is that it often provides you with a completely different view of world history. I honestly don't know very much about Sweden's plight during WWII, so that is something I look forward to learning about during A World Gone Mad.

Do you enjoy reading diaries? I loved Sylvia Plath's diaries, they were lyrical and beautiful and she described the growth from girl to woman so well, I thought. Somehow it also feels a little bit like an intrusion, reading their inner thoughts, something they dedicated to paper in private. I think I feel that less while reading A World Gone Mad than with Plath, since Lindgren talks so much about world events.

What are you reading and sharing? Please do leave a link to your Friday post in the comments  so I can drop by!

Friday, 23 June 2017

Review: 'The Shadow Hour' by Kate Riordan

'All governesses have a tale of woe. What's yours?'
Governesses, you say? Mysterious houses and sullen employers? Where do I sign up?! That was basically my thought process when I saw The Shadow Hour. Ever since reading Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey, I have a Bronte-inspired love for novels about governesses. They are the perfect vehicles for authors to explore family relations, class difference and bring in some supernatural or mysterious tones. However, not every novel strikes that perfect balance. So while I happily delved into The Shadow Hour, I finished it slightly confused. Thanks to Penguin - Michael Joseph and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 25/02/2016
Publisher: Penguin UK - Michael Joseph

Nineteen twenty-two. Grace has been sent to the stately and crumbling Fenix House to follow in her grandmother's footsteps as a governess. But when she meets the house's inhabitants, people who she had only previously heard of in stories, the cracks in her grandmother's tale begin to show. Secrets appear to live in the house's very walls and everybody is resolutely protecting their own.
Why has she been sent here? Why did her grandmother leave after just one summer? And as the past collides with the present, can Grace unravel these secrets and discover who her grandmother, and who she, really is?
The Shadow Hour is told through two different timelines. On the one hand there is Grace, a young woman living in 1922, who is sent to Fenix House as a governess by the gentle order of her grandmother, Harriet, who was once a governess there herself. Harriet's tale, set 50 years prior, forms the second timeline. Grace was raised on stories of Fenix house, making her new residence and employers strangely familiar and yet uncanny as well. As the novel moves between Grace and Harriet's timelines, more and more is revealed about Fenix House, its inhabitants and how Grace and Harriet belong there. Riordan manages to make Harriet and Grace feel quite different, despite being in almost exactly the same situation. Although Harriet's tale is, for a long time, the more interesting one, it is Grace's desire to finally found out what happened at Fenix House that the reader most identifies with. At times Riordan purposefully leaves the reader in the dark, while at other times filling the reader in while leaving Grace in the dark. It creates a nice balance that keeps the novel engaging.

The Shadow Hour only slightly touches upon the England outside of Fenix House. This actively makes the reader feel the isolation of the characters in Fenix House, but sometimes also threatens to make the novel feel a little bit like  a rehash. The First World War is only a vague shadow in the background, addressed here and there but not crucial to the plot. Rather, it is another example of how England has changed between the time of Grace's stay at Fenix House and her grandmother's stay. The same goes for mentions of the colonies, especially India. There, but also not. (Although I did immensely enjoy and appreciate the presence of the Suffragettes in the novel.) Something that receives a lot more attention is the idea of class. Both Grace and her grandmother Harriet walk a fine line as a governess. While their station is clearly above that of maids and cooks, they are also not the family's equals. Both struggle to find their place and both deal with this in different ways.

Sometimes a book manages to leave you both content and conflicted. The Shadow Hour is one of those books for me. It took me a while to really get into it, to enjoy the switching between the different timelines and get invested in either of the stories. Once it got me though, I was very intrigued and desperately wanted to know how the stories would meet, eventually. And then in the end, although almost all the t's were crossed and almost all the i's were dotted, I was left wondering. Had all the questions been answered? Was the plot wrapped up too quickly? And how did I feel about the characters now? Did I have any inclination of what would happen after the end? Sometimes it's nice to be left wondering, to have a novel leave you with questions you can mull over and which make you want to reread the novel almost immediately. But they have to be the right kind of questions, the ones that are slightly existential in nature. Sadly, these aren't the kind of questions that The Shadow Hour leaves open.

Riordan's writing is at times beautifully visual. She brings Fenix House and its inhabitants to life with stunning descriptions of the house, its gardens, the costumes and the atmosphere. Luscious in Harriet's time, the decay of the house in Grace's time feels much more real. Rioridan manages to infuse her governess tale with a lot of different elements, bringing in some mysterious and some supernatural tones. This consistently, and thankfully, shakes up the narrative. As history repeats itself in Grace's story, Riordan mostly manages to make the same events still feel interesting. With how the story is set up, however, it is almost inevitable that at times it feels a bit repetitive. Although these are all minor gripes, it means that the end of the novel felt a little bit unsatisfactory. While Riordan ties all the different stories together into a nice bow, it seems too easy of an ending. I'd have likes for her to have spent a little bit more time describing how the characters go on.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

Once I got into The Shadow Hour I very much enjoyed it. Governesses will always hold a special place in my heart and I'll remember The Shadow Hour fondly. It touches upon some of the best staples of the genre, even if it doesn't always hit all the notes. I'd recommend this to fans Gothic literature and Women's Fiction.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Review: 'A Whole New World' by Liz Braswell

Who doesn't love Disney movies? I mean, sure, sometimes they're so sugary sweet you want to gag, but they are also intrinsically linked to many of our childhoods in a way that is only rivalled by the Harry Potter books. It is us 20-something year old millennials who are queuing up for Finding Dory and hosting Disney movie nights. And Disney is stepping up its game in bringing out better and better movies (yes, I'm talking about Moana, it's awesome!). So, being as tied to Disney as I am, of course I had to read A Whole New World, an adaptation of the classic Aladdin. And boy was I positively surprised! Thanks to Disney Book Group and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 01/09/2015
Publisher: Disney Book Group
Welcome to a new YA series that reimagines classic Disney stories in surprising new ways. Each book asks the question: What if one key moment from a familiar Disney film was changed? This dark and daring version of Aladdin twists the original story with the question: What if Jafar was the first one to summon the Genie? When Jafar steals the Genie's lamp, he uses his first two wishes to become sultan and the most powerful sorcerer in the world. Agrabah lives in fear, waiting for his third and final wish.To stop the power-mad ruler, Aladdin and the deposed Princess Jasmine must unite the people of Agrabah in rebellion. But soon their fight for freedom threatens to tear the kingdom apart in a costly civil war.  
What happens next? A Street Rat becomes a leader. A princess becomes a revolutionary. And readers will never look at the story of Aladdin in the same way again.
Adaptations aren't easy, especially when the source material is as beloved as the 1992 Aladdin that gave us Robin Williams as the Genie. Him, more than anything, made this movie a favourite for many children, his sheer enthusiasm and spirit making the Genie an unforgettable character. How do you go about adapting a fairy tale so classic, or any Disney-adapted fairy tale really? Liz Braswell set out to adapt a number of fairytales but with a crucial twist. She calls this series Twisted Tales and has adapted Aladdin, Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. This may genuinely be one of the cleverest ways to adapt age old tales; change an aspect and change the whole story. Explore what the characters would do in vastly different situations that are still set in a familiar world.

When A Whole New World started I was a little bit skeptical. It seemed to be following the film way too closely for my liking, even down to dialogue it seemed. Sure, we got some more insight into especially Aladdin's personality, but would that be enough to carry a whole novel? Would the change mentioned in the blurb be enough to actually make this book stand alone? Thankfully, from the moment Aladdin enters the cave, A Whole New World really takes off. Each of the characters now develops along a completely different path and the novel is a lot more complex because of it. Braswell manages to address a whole range of utterly important topics in a book meant for the years 12 and up. Braswell uses Aladdin's position as a street rat to show the face of poverty, the lack of options and choices, the stark divide between the rich and poor within a single city. How should a good sultana look after her people, what should a good government do? How does power corrupt, and is anyone incorruptible? I was consistently and positively surprised every time that Braswell managed to introduce one of these topics and let it resonate within her story. It is social commentary done right for a younger audience, not too obvious or didactic but clear enough that young minds can walk away inspired.

I need to dedicate a few words to how much I loved Jasmine in A Whole New World. While she is an interesting character in Aladdin, she is also a lone female figure in a male world and therefore can't be as active as she would wish. Braswell gives her a lot more agency in a way that never feels disingenuous. As an only daughter without a mother, Jasmine is headstrong and has made sure to educate herself as far as possible. Braswell allows for her to be smart and strong, outspoken and decisive without ever letting male characters "allow" this. As the blurb says, 'a princess becomes a revolutionary' and I loved every second of it. Also, unlike Aladdin, Jasmine isn't the only female character in A Whole New World. There are some people moments with other female characters in this book which made me want to cheer! I would quote some of them but that would be spoiling the fun.

Braswell's writing is perfect for the age she is aiming for, without limiting herself to a children's audience. In this way she definitely does follow in Walt Disney's footsteps, whose movies somehow only get better with age. She describes the fictional Agrabah beautifully, has some great twists and turns and builds up anticipation very well throughout the novel. Although Jafar occasionally feels a little bit like a cliche villain, even he gets a hint at a more extensive backstory. Braswell isn't afraid to go dark, to add real danger to her story and, for once, this danger doesn't feel fake. You're genuinely not entirely sure all her characters will survive until the end. There are real moments of deep emotion, as well as light moments of humour and fun, balancing each other out very well. Here I also must admit to getting a bit emotional while reading about the Genie. I still miss Robin Williams and I adored the way Braswell paid homage to his amazing incarnation of the Genie, as far as she could within her own take on the taleI can't wait to dig into the rest of her Twisted Tales series, if this is what I can expect from Braswell.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I really loved A Whole New World! It was a great take on a beloved classic which added a lot to Disney's tale. I adore how she changed the tale and how she trusted her readers to be able to grapple with some rather serious issues. More authors should trust their readers that way, no matter their age. I'd recommend this to fans of Disney's Aladdin, fairy tale adaptations and YA fiction.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Review: 'Alice in Brexitland' by Lucien Young

Brexit is one of the most defining political events in, at least, European history since the creation of the European Union. Whereas the latter ushered in a time of ever closer bonds and peace, the former has set off a period of unrest, disenchantment and anger. All throughout the Western world discontent is spreading and the popular vote seems to swing to the right side of the spectrum, although there seems to be a recent return to sanity. Swiftly followed by the election of Donald Tr*mp in America, Brexit is casting long shadows over Britain. So how do you deal with a situation like that? Well, if you're British, it includes a lot of humour and satire.

Pub. Date: 01/06/2017
Publisher: Ebury Press

Lying on a riverbank on a lazy summer’s afternoon – 23rd June 2016, to be precise – Alice spots a flustered-looking white rabbit called Dave calling for a referendum. Following him down a rabbit-hole, she emerges into a strange new land, where up is down, black is white, experts are fools and fools are experts... 
She meets such characters as the Corbynpillar, who sits on a toadstool smoking his hookah and being no help to anyone; Humpty Trumpty, perched on a wall he wants the Mexicans to pay for; the Cheshire Twat, who likes to disappear leaving only his grin, a pint, and the smell of scotch eggs remaining; and the terrifying Queen of Heartlessness, who’ll take off your head if you dare question her plan for Brexit. Will Alice ever be able to find anyone who speaks sense?
So how do you move on when you feel like the country you love is sinking further and further down the Brexit-hole? You find the similarities to one of England's most beloved Classics and write a hilarious book. Or at least, that's the way Young found. It is a typically British book, in many ways. The dark humour, the exasperation, the throwaway nods, the biting social commentary, Alice in Brexitland couldn't be more British. From dedicating it to David Cameron to Alice's immediate disgust to Tr*mp, Young never ones loses his sharpness and humour. This novella is also beautifully illustrated by Ollie Man, his drawings being hilarious, fitting and perfectly in sink with the illustrations we know and love from Alice in Wonderland.

Young tackles almost all the major characters in the Brexit drama and finds their perfect equivalent in Carroll's Wonderland. Jeremy Corbyn is the slightly aloof and puzzling Caterpillar, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are Tweedledee and Tweedledum, Donald Tr*mp is Humpty Dumpty, etc. It makes so much sense in how overdrawn it is that it's a miracle no one thought about it before. It is cathartic to read such an over-the-top story about the mess that is Brexit, even when some of Young's points strike a little bit too close to home. What is the meaning of truth post the Brexit debate and the Tr*mp election? Did the Leave campaign have any plans for after the referendum or is their best bet really to hurl us all to the sun and go down in a blaze of glory? For as long as this novella lasts, Alice in Brexitland can make you slightly forget just how much is up in the air right now, replacing worries with laughs. But in a surprisingly heartfelt finale, Young's Alice does pull at the heartstrings with her pleas for sanity.

Young's writing is a great combination between a tribute to Lewis Carroll and a satire on contemporary political discourse. On the one hand there is the beautiful, nonsensical prose of Alice in Wonderland with its strange words and phrases, while on the other hand there is the disconcerting, frightening prose of Tr*mp, Farage and co. with their strange words and phrases.The fact that Carroll can make sense in his writing, reveal truth by seemingly obscuring it, while many politicians nowaday make no sense in their attempts to obscure the whole concept of truth, is incredibly saddening. Young combines Carroll's sense of humour and fun, with the reality of Brexit and creates a hilarious mishmash of seriously worrying statements by the Cheshire Twat (Farage), over-the-top yet accurate caricatures of the Tea Party, and a befuddled Alice who just wants a straight answer for once. There are many laugh out loud moments in Alice in Brexitland, not least of all whenever a poem or song rears its head. Released at the beginning of this month, I'm almost saddened by the fact Young couldn't factor in the recent General Election, bringing along the downfall of his Heartless Queen and the rise of the Corbynpillar. But perhaps this means there is now room for a sequel? Alice Through the Brexit-Glass?

I give this novella...

4 Universes!

Although rather short, Alice in Brexitland is a delight! Excellently thought through, Young writes the perfect satire for Brexit England, never letting up on his scrutiny of our politicians. However, this book will make you crave for an escape from the Brexithole. I'd recommend this to those interested in contemporary English politics and in an escape from those very same politics.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Review: 'These Mortals' by Margaret Irwin

I felt in the need for something different, something magical and something old. And Margaret Irwin delivered all of this with These Mortals. First published in 1925, These Mortals tells a magical story, all while commenting on humanity with a sharp insight. Also, this novel reminded me once again why parables are actually fascinating reads, when well done. I almost wish I had read this as a child, but adult me is also very pleased to have discovered it now. Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 27/03/2014
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

A powerful Enchanter, Aldebaran, discoverer of the precious Elixir of Eternal Youth, is tired of playing with the lives of men and retires to his beautiful kingdom located on the path between the earth and the moon. There, he passes his time educating his beautiful daughter, Melusine, in the intricate profession of sorcery; his only worry is that she should never experience the misery of the mortal world.
Melusine, like most children, is deaf to her father’s cautionary words and longs to see life on the mysterious planet at the end of the moon path. One day she disobeys Alderbaran and uses her magic powers to descend to Earth, landing in the peculiar kingdom ruled by the Emperor Eminondas. Melusine’s uncommon beauty causes stir among the royals and courtiers, and she soon finds herself entangled in complicated triangles and love intrigues. Unaccustomed to the etiquette and politics of the court, Melusine uses her magic powers to aid her pilgrimage among humans, but what worked well in the kingdom of her father results in some unexpected complications in the earthly empire.
These Mortals, first published in 1925, tells an enchanting tale of Melusine’s strange incursion into the world of humans where she experiences, for the first time, feelings of love, jealousy and loneliness. These Mortals, written with charm and humour, is a truly enjoyable parable which explores, through fantasy and gentle mockery, some of the ever-puzzling paradoxes of human behaviour.
I always love discovering books from the past. It is something I discovered in my first year at University, that some of the most popular authors of previous decades, even centuries, are virtually unknown to readers now. They could have outsold Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo, but time has not been kind to them. Of course the reason many of these are forgotten is because they are the 18th century equivalent of 50 Shades of Grey, shocking and interesting at the moment but hardly a literary masterpiece that gets to the core of what it is to be human. At University I encountered a number of these "forgotten" best-sellers and it was fascinating to dip into them. Not all of them were as enjoyable as These Mortals, however. Now, Margaret Irwin isn't entirely forgotten, and she definitely hasn't cast aside because her writing wasn't any good. Rather, she is buried under decades of new releases and changing reader preferences. Adult fairy-tales, what These Mortals is categorised as, were not really "in" for very long time, they are definitely making a return and Irwin's beautiful novel should be at the very front of the queue.

Irwin's These Mortals is a parable, a didactic story which illustrates certain principles or lessons. Think of most Bible tales, such as 'The Return of the Prodigal Son', or famous tales like 'The Boy Who Cried Wolf'. They are relatively straight to the point and at the end you've been taught a lesson. Although perhaps nothing could sound drearier, parables make for some of the most fascinating and long lasting stories. They can be absolutely beautiful and iconic and authors have created true masterpieces. Andersen's 'The Emperor's New Clothes' comes to mind here. Irwin's These Mortals is much more similar to Andersen's tale than to Bible tales. She writes a lyrically beautiful story about a half-fairy, half-mortal maiden who encounters the human world and all it brings with it for the first time. Melusine, naive in a way that is charming rather than annoying, encounters deceit, love, heartbreak, fashion and betrayal for the first time and Irwin takes each of these and uses them to comment on the nature of humans. Many of the characters around Melusine are quite despicable at times, and yet their behaviour is also so recognisable to us mere mortals that we can't help but understand them. There is an incredible skill behind writing about humans like this, and Irwin makes it seem easy. She also makes it seem beautiful. These Mortals is steeped in beautiful images, with fairies that are half snake, shells that get turned into ships, and maidens who dance on moonbeams. I'm still thinking about these moments.

I absolutely adored Margaret Irwin's writing. There is something beautifully enchanting about how she weaves her words together. The pace of the novel is very calm, taking its time with Melusine's experiences in the human world, stepping aside for the experiences of the other characters, and never rushing ahead to a big twist or turn. To be cliche, These Mortals runs like a smooth river, delightfully refreshing and invigorating. Irwin also delights in commenting upon her characters in a way that reminded me almost of Jane Austen. Many first time Austen readers mistake her for being sugary sweet and quaint, missing the almost biting observations she makes between the lines. Please read the opening line of Pride & Prejudice with a sarcasm-heavy voice and tell me again it is not meant to be sarcastic. Similarly, Irwin is constantly commenting on her characters, bringing to light the things they would probably prefer to leave in the shadows, thereby actually managing to discuss those 'ever-puzzling paradoxes of human behaviour' while also being a funny read. I will definitely be reading more of Margaret Irwin's work.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I adored Irwin's These Mortals. It is beautiful and other-worldly, digging into humanity with charm and humour. Irwin creates enchanting images and never questions both the cruelness and the magic of the human world. I'd recommend this to fans of fairy tales and fantasy, as well as those interested in exploring parables.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Review: 'Dare You To' by Katie McGarry

Sometimes a girl needs to disappear into a beautiful YA novel for a day or so, just to forget about everything else that is happening. And if that YA novel happens to be written by Katie McGarry, then a girl is bound to be in for a good time. I loved dipping back into her writing and falling in love with her characters again. Don't ask me why it took so many years for me to get onto reading this book, just be as grateful as I am that I finally did. Thanks to Harlequin and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 07/06/2013
Publisher: Harlequin
Beth’s the bad girl that no-one wanted, not even parents.Ryan’s the high school hero that everyone wants a piece of – even if no-one knows the real him. 
Their paths should never have crossed – now they’re each other’s only life line.
If anyone knew the truth about Beth Risk’s mum they’d send her mother to jail. So seventeen year old Beth protects her mum at all costs. Until the day she can’t. Suddenly sent to live with her uncle in a small town Beth’s now stuck with an aunt who doesn’t want her, and at a school that doesn’t get her. At all. Except for the one guy who shouldn’t go anywhere near a girl like Beth. . . .
Ryan Stone is gorgeous, a popular jock and the town golden boy—with secrets he can’t tell anyone. Even his friends. As Ryan and Beth dare to let each other in, they’re treading on dangerous ground – and the consequences could change their worlds forever.
Dare You To is the second novel in the Pushing the Limits series, which started with the eponymous novel. I adored Pushing the Limits and although Isaiah and Beth remained side-characters for me, I definitely was curious to read the second novel. Exactly why it took me almost five years is something of a mystery, although I did sidetrack into Walk the Edge a year ago. However, I am almost glad that I waited so long. In my late teens I went through a major love affair with YA fiction. After spending years claiming I was more of a "serious literature" fan, I fell in love hard with the genre thanks to a few specific and amazing reads. One of these was McGarry's Pushing the Limits, but there was also Beautiful Disaster and Unspoken. What I didn't expect from these books but got a truckload of was feelings, of giddiness, of heart ache, of joy, and of despair. I loved getting dragged along in these stories of people my age, of their adventures or lack thereof. Perhaps I also loved it so much because I had denied myself these types of books for so long. Now, a few years later, I have read a lot more books, a lot more YA as well, and my literary taste has developed a lot. I still read YA and now I often do so to go back to the simple yet complicated feelings of being a teenager. And nowhere do I find those feelings more than with Katie McGarry.

What I really enjoyed about Dare You To is how McGarry took certain stereotypes and worked with them. The goth chick is caring and vulnerable, the jock is conscientious and honest, the bad parents may occasionally appreciate their children. On the one hand Dare You To is filled with YA Romance cliches and a lot of the twists and turns can be seen from a mile away. Perhaps had I read this in 2013, the plot might have surprised me more, but the predictability of the plot is, with these kinds of novels, part of the charm. It's like sinking into a Hallmark movie, which perhaps won't surprise you with its story, but will with its emotions. Because Dare You To is full of emotions: anger, fear, love, lust, hate, and everything in between. You get strangely attached to McGarry's characters because she allows you directly into their heart. Although not everything is revealed at the beginning, you get a very strong sense of who these people are, what they might think in any given situation. And she excels at writing friendships and relationships, the kind that are so sweet and aspirational it is almost sickening, but just rough enough to leave you wanting more.

I still adore McGarry's writing. Her characters are often deeply conflicted, with serious trauma in their past and present. It's not easy to write such characters convincingly and gently, yet McGarry manages this fine balance. She allows her characters to be foolishly stubborn, incredibly rude and achingly vulnerable; her characters actually read like teenagers. In her novels, McGarry consistently tackles incredibly difficult themes and this is part of the reason why I enjoy her writing. Fiction is meant to give not only an outlet, it is also supposed to be a mirror. I have always thought YA the perfect genre for exploring the difficult questions of life because teenagers and young adults need to read about, think about and talk about them. McGarry treats topics like self-harming, drug abuse, emotional abuse, domestic violence etc. with the seriousness that they deserve, although she also makes them serve her plot. They are not casually thrown into the novel, but rather have a genuine impact on her characters. I enjoy reading novels such as Dare You To because I think they can be great conversation starters for younger readers. For that, I will always appreciate Katie McGarry.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

I really enjoyed Dare You To and raced through it. Although I read McGarry differently now than I did before, I loved returning to her writing and the characters she creates. Actually, I might go and  revisit Pushing the Limits now... I'd recommend this to fans of YA Romance and New Adult fiction.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Review: 'Lady Macbeth: On the Couch' by Dr. Alma Bond

My passion for Shakespeare's plays, especially his history plays, is well-documented. Not only did I dedicate semesters upon semesters to him at university, I still like to reread them as well as reading adaptations for them, such as the recent, and brilliant, Miranda and Caliban. I especially love reads that attempt to dig more into the plays, explore a new angle to it or try and contextualise it to our modern world. After last August turned into a Freud-fuelled nightmare (my dissertation almost pushed me to the brink of what he would have considered normal), I wanted to leave psychoanalysis far behind me, but when I saw Lady Macbeth: On the Couch by Dr. Alma Bond I knew I wanted to give it a try. Unfortunately I ended up rather underwhelmed.

Pub. Date: 15/01/2014
Publisher: Bancroft Press
An Ancient Mystery Solved 
Scholars, professors, and historians have wondered for centuries how and why Lady Macbeth, the beautiful, beloved wife of a nobleman, had to encourage―nay, push―her husband, Prince Macbeth, to commit the ghastly crime of killing the king. 
The great Sigmund Freud himself said that nobody knows why the Lady did so. Dr. Alma Bond spent many years searching for the reason. 
Read Lady Macbeth: On the Couch to learn the answer to this ancient mystery, and to get a fascinating, first-hand look at life more than a millennium ago.

Lady Macbeth is a fascinating character, in my mind perhaps one of the most fascinating and enduringly thrilling that Shakespeare has ever written. Her interior life remains largely a mystery to the audience, while many of her lines have become iconic. Her descent into madness, her sharp words and her secrecy make her the most intriguing character in the play, perhaps aside from the three weird sisters. There is still intense debate about her request to be 'unsexed', to what extent she wants to deny her own femininity or whether there is more to it. She has been blamed wholesale for the murders in the Scottish play, while also having been excused. The one thing that has to be said for her, no matter on which side of the debate you stand, is that she is vital to the play's power. Throughout the centuries, her femininity has been sharply contrasted against her actions, casting her as an anti-mother, a witch, or simple a bitch. As such, she has attracted a lot of writing and a lot of discussion, and she is frequently reimagined on stage as well as on the screen. So of course I was hoping that Bond would add something to this debate or would make me reconsider some of the things I had previously read.

Dr. Alma Bond was a psychoanalyst before becoming an author full-time and has written a lot of books looking at historical figures from a psychoanalytical angle. These other works also include another On the Couch book, this one focusing on Jackie O. Considering this background, I was hoping, perhaps foolishly, for a decisive, in depth look at the play, perhaps even at her legacy in popular culture. However, this is very much simply an adaptation of the play, casting Lady Macbeth as the main character. Although undoubtedly well researched when it comes to Scottish traditions etc., Lady Macbeth: On the Couch doesn't really add anything new, but almost detracts from her power in the play. The novel starts of very promising, focusing on her childhood and on the dangers facing a young princess. Lady Macbeth is a headstrong child, wondering why she doesn't have as much right to an education and to fighting as the men around her. However, as we get closer to the events of the play, the novel definitely loses steam. I found Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth a lot more fascinating, perhaps because there is more mystery to her, but also because she seems more steadfast as a character. It's a shame because I really wanted to enjoy this book.

There were parts of this novel that I did really enjoy. Bond creates some beautiful images throughout the novel, and it is always interesting to read an old, familiar tale through a different viewpoint. However, and this is what saddens me the most, this novel could have done with some serious editing. There are moments where Bond repeats herself word for word, almost a paragraph at a time. Also, Lady Macbeth's emotions change very rapidly, she can be furiously angry one moment and then all is forgiven and forgotten a moment later for no apparent reason. Plot lines are started but then left hanging, and there is a sense that the Lady Macbeth Bond creates at the beginning is vastly different from the one we get at the end. And, last but not least, Lady Macbeth: On the Couch doesn't really deliver on its promise to give us a new or even a satisfyingly different answer to the question of what motivated Lady Macbeth. Perhaps to those who are novices to the debate around Lady Macbeth, this novel will hold new ideas, but for anyone who has been interested in her before, there is not much new ground covered. In fact, I even felt myself slightly insulted on Lady Macbeth's part in how Bond, occasionally, made her seem so weak and inconsistent.

I give this novel...

2 Universes!

Lady Macbeth: On the Couch started off great. I really enjoyed digging into Lady Macbeth more and Bond seemed to promise a very interesting take on her. However, eventually the book becomes very repetitive and the chance in Lady Macbeth's mind and feelings happen so swiftly the reader never really gets truly invested in them.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Review: 'The Snow Queen: A Tale in Seven Stories' by Hans Christian Andersen, trans. by Jean Hersholt

Fairy tales were an immense part of my childhood. Growing up German, and especially growing up near the Black Forest, my first memories of being read to are also my first memories of the Grimms' fairy tales. However, despite my love for and appreciation of the hard work of the Grimms in collection all these fairy tales, I have always had a special connection to Hans Christian Andersen and his stunning creations. Unlike the Grimms, he wrote new fairy tales and they are all stunning marvels. The Little Mermaid? He wrote that. The Little Match Girl? Andersen's as well. The Princess and the Pea? I think you know where I'm heading with this! He had a knack for creating fascinating new stories which were often intensely sad but also beautiful. So when I saw that a new edition of The Snow Queen was available, I knew I had to get my hands on it. Thanks to Ten Speed Press and Netgalley for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 04/10/2016
Publisher: Ten Speed Press
Gorgeously packaged with intricate illustrations from Finnish illustrator, Sanna Annukka, this new edition of Hans Christian Andersen's well-loved fairy tale, The Snow Queen, is the perfect holiday gift for adults and children alike.
Hans Christian Andersen's magical tale of friendship and adventure is retold through the beautiful and intricate illustrations of Finnish illustrator Sanna Annukka. Cloth-bound in deep blue, with silver foil embellishments, The Snow Queen is elevated from a children's book to a unique work of art. It is an ideal gift for people of all ages.
The Snow Queen starts with the following:
"Now then! We will begin. When the story is done you shall know a great deal more than you do now."
Nothing, perhaps, conveys the mood of Andersen and of The Snow Queen better. It feels as if Andersen himself is telling you the tale, sitting you down in front of a warm fire like a kindly grandfather. There is humour in the writing, and there is also a sense that Andersen himself enjoys his creations. The plot of The Snow Queen is relatively straightforward for a fairytale: a boy finds himself taken in by a beautiful enchantress and now his childhood friend, a brave and sweet girl, must come save him. However, Andersen doesn't necessarily stick to this straightforward story.
As the subtitle suggests, The Snow Queen is split up into seven smaller stories, each working towards completing the plot, yet with their own new characters. and even with their own morals. There is a witch who isn't evil, really, but desperately wants a child. There is a little robber girl, who is both cruel and kind at the same time. There are singing flowers telling the strangest tales from all across the world. This split into seven tales allows Andersen to spread his story out a little bit, expand it beyond the relatively straightforward plot and let his talents as a writer shine.

In his fairy tales, Andersen always manages to intertwine Christianity and folk elements. On the one hand there is a strong Christian tone to The Snow Queen, the first tale is dedicated to a goblin who is also the devil. Yet Andersen never becomes pedantic or too moralistic, bringing in influences from his own, Scandinavian culture, to intermingle and give some colour to what otherwise could have been a rather boring tale. Yes, the eventual moral of the tale is linked to being good and kind and pious, but the characters get there through talking animals, witches and Snow Queens. Also, this tale is doubtlessly and obviously an inspiration source for C.S> Lewis in his creation of Narnia's very own Snow Queen. A small hurrah for intertextuality.

Andersen's writing is both lyrical and simple. He knows his audience is perhaps largely children, so he keeps his writing relatively calm. However, at times he takes a dive into language and composes some beautiful passages which are bound to inspire a love for language in children. Jean Hersholt does a brilliant job at translating this work. I enjoyed the slightly archaic tone of the translation, perhaps because it echoes back to the old age of the stories themselves, but this may not be a bonus for all readers. This edition of the tale is illustrated by Sanna Annukka, a Finnish illustrator, and her illustrations could not be more stunning or apt. Her illustrations truly give this tale something old and legendary, as if you were leaving through an old book rather than a new release. Also, the way Ten Speed Press is publishing this novel, as 'cloth-bound in deep blue, with silver foil embellishments', they clearly intend for this to be both readable and displayable. It is meant to be the kind of fairy tale book a small child is fascinated by and demands to have read. Even I myself would adore to have this on my bookshelf.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I had read The Snow Queen years ago, but loved rediscovering it through this edition. A stunning translation with brilliant illustrations, this will make a perfect present to any child interested in stories. It might also just distract them from Frozen for a while!

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Review: 'When the Moon Was Ours' by Anne.Marie McLemore

When the Moon Was OursBooks are a beautiful thing, aren't they? There is nothing quite like turning to the first page and sinking away into a completely different world, letting time pass you by and growing as a person word by word. There is a magic in books that is incredibly rare, I think, and sometimes it happens that you find a book that truly taps into this magic and stuns you. I recently re-affirmed my passion for Magical Realism on this blog, and When the Moon Was Ours is a beautiful example of this beautiful genre. Thanks to St. Martin's Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 04/10/2016
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
To everyone who knows them, best friends Miel and Sam are as strange as they are inseparable. Roses grow out of Miel’s wrist, and rumors say that she spilled out of a water tower when she was five. Sam is known for the moons he paints and hangs in the trees, and for how little anyone knows about his life before he and his mother moved to town. But as odd as everyone considers Miel and Sam, even they stay away from the Bonner girls, four beautiful sisters rumored to be witches. Now they want the roses that grow from Miel’s skin, convinced that their scent can make anyone fall in love. And they’re willing to use every secret Miel has fought to protect to make sure she gives them up.
Magical Realism is the best genre. Authors take our everyday reality and infuse it with even more magic than it already contains. It can be the smallest thing, a ray of sunlight or a falling leaf, or the biggest, a love declaration or a death, and authors elevate it beyond our wildest imagination. For me, MR novels are usually the ones that are the most painful, the most true to human nature. We grasp onto the small moments in life that both elucidate and mystify us, that provide answers to questions we hadn't asked ourselves yet. When the Moon Was Ours opens up how you can see the world, allows you to add a bit more magic to the every day.

When the Moon Was Ours is almost a meta-narrative, the first chapter imagining how the story of the novel is passed down, how it changes over time and what is added and what is forgotten. It immediately sinks the reader into the world of the fantastic and magical. Most cities, towns and villages have tales from long ago, about its citizens and their troubles. McLermore sets her story up as one of these, but then goes into telling the "real story". Miel and Sam are fascinating characters. Miel has roses growing out of her wrist and her appearance in the village is still a source of rumours. Sam paints moons and is as much of a mystery to the village as Miel. McLemore's characters are deeply human and she finds the magic in that. She treats them with care, always allowing for their feelings and thoughts to take centre stage. Even when writing a sex scene, she never takes advantage of them. It was heart-warming to read a novel this gentle. It is one of the few novels I've read that truly fits the Madeleine L'Engle quote in my header.

Every once in a while I find myself really wanting to write about a theme or topic in a novel, but I feel it might be considered a spoiler. Often I can find my way around it, but in this case I don't think I can find that way. Hence, here is your SPOILER WARNING, please skip this paragraph if you want to go into this novel as beautifully unaware as I did. Ready? Here we go. There has been a strong call for fiction to be more representative, to spend as much time on PoC as on white characters. When the Moon Was Ours is a great example of how this can be achieved. Miel is Latina and Sam is Pakistani-Italian, making them both outsiders in their quiet American village. While the colour of their skin is not the only thing they are defined by, McLemore does make it clear how their origins affect their day to day life. McLemore shows a respect for the cultures and cultural traditions she employs in her book, never exploiting them or putting them down. And on top of this, Sam is a trans boy. He started dressing as a boy to become a 'bacha posh', to look after his mother, but finds himself dreading the expected return to being a woman, since it's simply not what he is. (For more on this, I'd recommend the fascinating The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg.) McLemore treats these themes incredibly carefully and with a lot of understanding, partially coming from her own life. When the Moon Was Ours is an amazing example of how YA literature, or literature overall, can and should be more inclusive, because ranging outside of the expected and stereotypical Western story lines allows for novels to be both informing, beautiful and sensitive.

McLemore is an amazing author. Her writing flows almost effortlessly, belying the enormous effort that goes into this type of writing.  It is opulent and luscious, beautifully descriptive and intensely emotional, yet it never feels over done. McLemore treats her characters so gently and emphatically that it almost hurts. At times the plot of the novel can be a little bit hard to follow, but that is largely because the novel is not driven by its plot. Instead, it is the characters and their growth and development which takes centre stage. It's never entirely clear what is real and what is an illusion, what "really" happened and what felt like it happened. For readers wanting a straightforward narrative this will probably not work, but for those ready to sink into magical language and letting the story flow over them, When the Moon Was Ours is the perfect read. A lot of Fantasy or Magical Realism novels force the magical and the fantastical into their novels, making it almost unbelievable in how intensely the novels want us to believe it. McLemore almost leaves it up completely to the reader to accept it all. Do you want to read Miel's roses as a metaphor then you can do that without losing the magic of the novel. By giving her readers this choice, she allows them to follow her everywhere she offers to take them. I personally cannot wait to reread this novel because I can feel in my bones it will have more to offer upon every reread.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

When the Moon Was Ours is a magical and beautiful novel. Anne-Marie McLemore has won a new fan in me with her stunning take on YA fiction and I will be throwing this book at one as evidence that diversity in fiction elevates the whole medium. I'd recommend this to fans of Magical Realism, LGBT fiction and anyone who loves beautiful writing.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Review & Giveaway: 'Secrets of Southern Girls' by Haley Harrigan

Adolescence is a fascinating time for young people. Emotions are intensified, logic only occasionally applies to life and everything feels both crucial and pointless at the same time. In the last few years there has been an enormous increase in novels about teenagers, or more specifically, about teenage girls. I have loved many of those whole also despairing at  a fair few. So when I saw Secrets of Southern Girls I knew I had to give it a try. And boy did I have a great time with this novel! Thanks to SOURCEBOOKS Landmark and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book.

Pub. Date: 06/06/2017
Publisher: SOURCEBOOKS Landmark
In Secrets of Southern Girls, the powerful, affecting debut from Haley Harrigan, a young woman uncovers devastating secrets about the friend she thinks she killed… 
Ten years ago, Julie Portland accidentally killed her best friend, Reba. What’s worse is she got away with it. Consumed by guilt, she left the small town of Lawrence Mill, Mississippi, and swore nothing would ever drag her back. 
Now, raising her daughter and struggling to make ends meet in Manhattan, Julie still can’t forget the ghost of a girl with golden hair and a dangerous secret. 
When August, Reba’s first love, begs Julie to come home to find the diary that Reba kept all those years ago, Julie’s past comes creeping back to haunt her. That diary could expose the shameful memories Julie has been running from, but it could also unearth the hidden truths that Reba left buried…and reveal that Julie isn’t the only one who feels responsible for Reba’s death. 
In fact, she may not be responsible at all.
I both adore and suspect novels that have the word ‘girl’ in their title. On the one hand they thrill me, as they explore the underbelly of female friendships, dig into the budding sexuality of teenage girls and cast a light on the pressures of growing up female. On the other hand, I fear how they play into damaging stereotypes. Most female friendships aren’t toxic or abusive, high school isn’t always hell and parents aren’t always out of touch. Perhaps I also dislike the use of ‘girl’ because the girls described in the novels often aren’t allowed to be young or innocent for very long. (Also, actress Mayim Balik excellently summed up what else is wrong with the consistent use of ‘girl’ for grown women.) Yet this latter is again also a reason for why I love ‘girl’ novels. Because teenage girls are hardly ever children for very long and these novels shine a light on the many external pressures that harden and form these “girls”. With all these conflicting feelings coming together, starting a novel such as Girls on Fire, The Girls or Secrets of Southern Girls is always a little bit nerve-wracking. Thankfully, in the case of each of these three books, my bravery was rewarded.

Secrets of Southern Girls might sound like a rather straightforward novel but it isn’t. Harrigan combines the narration of several different characters in two different time lines. Julie lives in New York, often on edge and craving intimacy that she cannot allow herself to deserve. When she is found by someone from her past, she is presented with the chance to return to the town where she grew up and confront the events that have haunted her for years. By combining the story of the teenage girl and the grown woman, Harrigan is able to both allow for the perhaps over-the-top intensity of teenage emotions, while also relativizing it through the gaze of the adult. Julie’s story is informed by the diary of Reba, which tells a story perhaps no one wants to hear. The interplay between their two stories, how they reveal almost more by what they don’t say, makes for a thrilling read where each chapter reveals something new.

What is fascinating about Secrets of Southern Girls is its attention to the lies we tell to ourselves and to others. Both Julie and Reba, as well as many of the side characters, often don’t even realize how much they perform their own identify until they are truly all alone with themselves. It is what makes novels about ‘girls’ so interesting, that they explore the inadvertent duplicity at the heart of teenagers, the accidental performance that is their behaviour. This counts for both girls and boys and, despite the title, the latter definitionly have a role to play in Secrets of Southern Girls. Each character in Harrigan’s novel has something to hide, some things more scandalous than others, and these secrets leave their lifelong marks almost casually. I know woefully little about the American South, and I must admit that it’s an area I feel occasionally suspicious about. It makes a perfect backdrop for Harrigan’s girls, however. She brings in a whole variety of external pressures; class, race, religion, and gender all pop up and help form these girls and boys. The smallest thing becomes something worth treasuring and hiding, being infinitally more valuable by being secret.

Harrigan’s writing is very engaging, both direct and lyrical at the same time. She nails both the teenage and the adult voices of her characters, which is no easy task. At times Secrets of Southern Girls does slip into certain YA clichés, but often Harrigan finds an interesting way out of them. Although it took me a chapter or two to truly catch onto the feel of the novel, I was completely engaged once I did. Harrigan makes you care for her characters and you want to see them happy and whole, even while you fear there is no such thing for most people. The whodunit aspect of the plot is interesting, but since, at least for me, it is not what lies at the heart of the novel, it is not as intriguing as it could be. As said above, the reveals about the characters’ perceptions of themselves and others are much more interesting and are the “true secrets” of Harrigan’s Southern girls.

I give this novel…
4 Universes!

Once Secrets of Southern Girls caught me it didn’t let me go. I had to keep going back to it until I was finished, and then I was left with questions. But it also left me with an appreciation for how we change, as people, how we both learn from our past and don’t unless we actively address it. I’d recommend this novel to fans of YA and suspense novels. I’d also recommend you scroll further down and join the giveaway to win your very own copy of Secrets of Southern Girls. Trust me, it will make the perfect summer read!

And the giveaway is up! Please click this link to a Rafflecopter giveaway to win your very own copy of the amazing Secrets of Southern Girls by Haley Harrigan.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Review: 'The Descent of Man' by Grayson Perry

Throughout my years at university I increasingly focused on the female characters in novels, and then in medieval English literature. I was fascinated, and still am, by how female characters are represented in fiction, how these representations reflect the lives of women in the real world, and what this tells us about femininity. My focus on gender naturally also meant I occasionally talked about male characters and masculinity, but never with the kind of detail I dedicated to women. And when I saw The Descent of Man I noticed this gap in my knowledge and decided there were decidedly worse places to start than with Grayson Perry's witty and insightful road map for a future masculinity. Thanks to Penguin Books, Allen Lane and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 27/10/2016
Publisher: Penguin Books; Allen Lane
Grayson Perry has been thinking about masculinity - what it is, how it operates, why little boys are thought to be made of slugs and snails - since he was a boy. Now, in this funny and necessary book, he turns round to look at men with a clear eye and ask, what would happen if we rethought what makes a man? Apart from giving up the coronary-inducing stress of always being 'right' and the vast new wardrobe options, a newly fitted masculinity could allow men to have better relationships - and that's happiness, right? Grayson's thoughts on everything from physical appearance to a brand new Manifesto for Men are shot through with the belief that, for everyone to benefit, upgrading masculinity has to be something men decide to do themselves. They have nothing to lose but their hang-ups.
I wish I could say I knew more about Grayson Perry than I did, before I started reading The Descent of Man. I was vaguely aware of him and his work through some of my friends who studied art, but I hadn't encountered any of it myself. As such, I picked up The Descent of Man without any preconceived notions as to who Perry himself was or what he might have to say. When it comes to writing about gender, and writing about gender roles, so much is subjective that an author's own life is often crucial to understanding their arguments. Grayson Perry, then, is a fascinating man. As a transvestite and an artist, many might put him firmly outside the box labelled 'traditional man'. Yet he also comes from a difficult family past and feels the competitive joy of sports and motorcycles, edging him potentially back into that box. He walks the fine line between 'in' and 'out' and it gives him the chance to cast a fascinating light on the inner world of 'being a man'. As

I was particularly struck by a comment of Perry's in an interview with Penguin Books, in which he formulated a thought that had occurred to me while reading The Descent of Man:
'Women look forward. Men always look back'
With the increasing presence of feminism and women's right at the forefront of contemporary concerns, many young women and girls are growing up with a stronger sense of their opportunities, possibilities and even struggles. There is a sense in which we (women) are all looking forward to a future in which equality will have been reached for all and gender norms no longer constrain us. Of course this is a gross generalisation, but there is undeniably a shift in how women see themselves and their futures. The male conception of self has not developed alongside that of women, and the different types of Man Perry identifies within The Descent of Man all seem stuck in the past. There seems to be a nostalgia among young men for a time they never lived in and probably wouldn't much appreciated if they did. It's a direct cause for Trump's 'Make America Great Again' slogan, a desire for a time in which everything was simpler.

The Descent of Man shows clearly that trying to define what a man in the 21st century can be is not an easy process. Neither is trying to define what a woman is, what her role may be or, heaven forbid, should be, but women are successfully bringing this conversation into the spotlight. Perhaps what men need is to care more about themselves and other men, to look for a better future together, rather than a just ok-ish present for some of them. While feminists still have to work on making their movement more intersectional and multi-issue, it is going in the right direction. A lot of this work depends on emotions, something that is also central to The Descent of Man in many ways. It is about connecting, about sharing, and about revealing, before it is about building, progressing and succeeding. The Descent of Man ends with Perry's suggestions of the tenets of feminism for men, goals that, if adopted, could lead to a world with happier men, loving men and successful men.

Perry's writing style is both insightful and witty. He writes with an easy that makes the book feel conversational, as if you've sat down for a good chat with a stranger during a flight overlay and walk away with a different outlook on things. Perry's assessment of men, and the societies they live in, can be very sharp and to the point, but there is always an awareness there. Unlike other books on gender, such as the very academic but fascinating A History of Virility, Perry's The Descent of Man openly shares the pressures he himself feels to "be a man", "behave like a man" and what he does when those pressures close in. He understands, in other words, rather than condemning at first sight behaviour that might seem outlandish. There are lough-out-loud moments in The Descent of Man, but also moments of quiet reflection which hit close to home. As a woman, I feel I did walk away from this book with a better awareness, if not, perhaps, understanding, for the struggles that are particularly male.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

The Descent of Man gave an amazing insight not only into Grayson Perry as a person and a writer, but also into the mind of a man looking at men. Written with humour and sharp perceptiveness, Perry takes the reader on a journey (partially of self-discovery) through what being a man can mean. I'd mainly recommend this book to those interested in gender and masculinity, but also to those looking for an eye-opener in general. It's funny, the things that can come to the forefront when you least expect it.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Review: 'The Bear and the Nightingale' by Katherine Arden

GIVE ME ALL THE RUSSIAN FAIRYTALE ADAPTATIONS RIGHT NOW! OK, I'm sorry, was that a bit much? I just really love Russian folk tales and I also really love fairy tale adaptations, so The Bear and the Nightingale is like the perfect mix. It also came at just the right time for me, as I was hitting another, rather deep, reading slump and had no idea what was going to drag me out of it this time. Turns out it was Katherine Arden's beautifully atmospheric novel. And of course it was a novel I had accidentally ignored as it slowly gathered dust on my digital bookshelf. Shame on me, I know. But I got there in the end and it was glorious. Thanks to Ebury Publishing, Del Rey and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 12/01/2017
Publisher: Ebury Publishing, Del Rey
A young woman's family is threatened by forces both real and fantastical in this debut novel inspired by Russian fairy tales. 
In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, a stranger with piercing blue eyes presents a new father with a gift - a precious jewel on a delicate chain,intended for his young daughter. Uncertain of its meaning, the father hides the gift away and his daughter, Vasya, grows up a wild, willfull girl, to the chagrin of her family. But when mysterious forces threaten the happiness of their village, Vasya discovers that, armed only with the necklace, she may be the only one who can keep the darkness at bay. 
Atmospheric and enchanting, with an engrossing adventure at its core, The Bear and the Nightingale is perfect for readers of Naomi Novik's Uprooted, Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, and Neil Gaiman.
Fairy tales are a magical thing because they make no sense and yet they make the most sense. This may seem like a contradiction, but fairy tales thrive off those. You can only see what something is if you believe in it, and yet it can be whatever you believe it. Fairy tales can combine the familiar and the uncanny, and switch it around. Whether it is Christianity which becomes abstract and absurd, while the pagan gods feel comfortable and familiar, or the suffocating love of parents that eventually aids salvation. This may all sound very abstract, but, in my opinion, it is the best novels that make you revel in these kinds of thoughts. Many Western European fairy tales have been retold many times, most of its themes explored almost exhaustively to the point where it's a rare adaptation that manages to add something new or interesting to the story. To me, Eastern European and Middle Eastern tales are much more unknown, and therefore make for very exciting and new reading. The Bear and the Nightingale therefore held the same kind of fascination as A Thousand Nights for me. Discovering something new, new in the sense of generations old, discovering old traditions, old tales, old myths, is wonderful because it enriches the way you read any new book and look at your own traditions.

At the heart of The Bear and the Nightingale is Vasya, a girl born from her mother's determination and death. Growing up with a wildness and freedom in her, she sees what others only believe in, communicates with what many fear. There is not necessarily a major reveal in which Vasya's powers erupt for the first time, as many other YA novels do feature. Rather, the magic around her has always been a part of Vasya and the reader can feel this from the very beginning. When the more supernatural elements of the novel come into play and horrify some of the more Christian characters, it forms a nice contrast to Vasya's acceptance. Her headstrong and independent ways never feel forced, Arden never pushes her to be more rebellious or adventurous than feels natural. Partially this lies in the fact that we spend enough time with Vasya from young child to maturing girl, without having annoying romances or twists forced upon her. Her narrative is occasionally interrupted with chapters or aside dedicated to other characters, informing the reader as to what's happening around her. This way the reader occasionally knows more than Vasya, endearing her even more. And as the plot of the novel speeds up, growing more intense by the chapter, Arden doesn't neglect her characterisation. The work she puts in in the first chapters really pays off here, allowing her to increase the more fantastical elements of the novel without losing its grip on reality.

There was a strange sense of nostalgia and sadness to The Bear and the Nightingale. This didn't make it a sad reading experience, but rather made me all the more fonder of the novel. It's almost as if all the characters know they are living in a time that is passing, that their traditions will, if not fade, recede to the shadows and become stories fondly remembered rather than strongly believed in. It makes finishing the novel a shame, because now the reader themselves will also have to leave this world behind. We can revisit it, but it won't be a whole new world to discover, rather, it will be a fond retreading of remembered paths. (Although thankfully the beginning of a trilogy, so hopefully Arden continues along this path and brings us more new old legends to revisit.) This is part of the beauty of The Bear and the Nightingale and other brilliant fairy tale adaptations, that they tap into the timelessness, that is yet dated, of old folk tales. They remain true, while becoming fantastical.

Katherine Arden's writing style is beautiful. Her characters and settings are both fantastical and incredibly grounded. She describes the Russian landscape in such a way that you can feel the cold and see the trees. She describes the house spirits in the same way, their appearances seeming as natural as the feelings of a young girl growing up. Her characters become dear to the reader, as do the settings, and the time flies by while you're reading The Bear and the Nightingale. I also really enjoyed the way she kept some Russian words in her writing, which settled her narrative even more in Russian folklore. Her writing flows so easily that the pages fly by and you reach the end of the novel long before you're ready for it. No matter what mood she tries to create, she nails it: suspense, the fantastical, mystery, coming of age, it all works. The fact that this is a debut novel still blows me away and I can't wait to read what else she comes out with. (It's coming soon, right?)

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

I absolutely adored The Bear and the Nightingale and will most definitely be rereading it. Thankfully the second novel in the trilogy, The Girl in the Tower, is coming out next December so that gives me plenty of time for a reread or two. I'd recommend this to fans of folklore, fantasy and fairy tales (the best F-words in the world).

Thursday, 1 June 2017

The Handmaid's Tale's 'A Woman's Place' and its Message For Women

Image result for the handmaid's tale hulu posterIf you're not watching The Handmaid's Tale yet you'd better start. Not only is Hulu's TV series a stunning adaptation of a brilliant book, it is also eerily timely and frighteningly astute. The show makers consistently show how aware they are of the political climate in which they have released their show, while also revealing an almost prescient knowledge of where America, and the world, may be heading. With news coming in daily about the curtailing of women's (reproductive) rights and religious extremism, The Handmaid's Tale gives us a glimpse at what the consequences may be. Although the show is undoubtedly feminist, no matter what cast and crew may have said, it was one of the most recent episodes, 'A Woman's Place' (directed by Floria Sigismondi), which truly struck a cord with me regarding modern day feminism. Do join me below as I attempt to walk you through my thoughts on what message, and warning, this episode has for women. This post will contain spoilers for Hulu's (and Atwood's) The Handmaid's Tale so read at your own digression.

The Handmaid's Tale's sixth episode, 'A Woman's Place', digs into the past of Serena Joy, the Commander's wife, as well as introducing us to Mrs. Castillo, the ambassador from Mexico. It is another example of the show going beyond the novel and giving its viewers a sense of the world within which Gilead exists. Not every show successfully expands upon its source material, yet so far it has consistently worked for The Handmaid's Tale. Despite how narrow its focus is, the threat feels omnipresent and palpable. So far this threat has seemingly only extended to the Handmaids, whose whole life has been curtailed to their functional wombs, while the other classes of people seem to enjoy relative freedom and privilege. That was until 'A Woman's Place', in which Serena Joy largely takes centre stage. Margaret Atwood's novel gives us only the slightest hint as to Serena Joy's past or feelings. The quote below is one of these small hints:
"Her speeches were about the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay home. Serena Joy didn’t do this herself, she made speeches instead, but she presented this failure of hers as a sacrifice she was making for the good of all.
Serena Joy once gave public speeches about what the role of women should be while not ascribing to those roles herself, arguing she only did so because someone had to, not because she had a voice she wanted to use. While the show's past for Serena Joy sticks largely to this narrative, it uses its medium to give the viewer much more, while driving home the message that women can be their own, and each others, enemies.

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So far in the show, Serena Joy has been a very conflicting character. She is needlessly cruel to Offred and yet also clearly as helpless and closed in. She is consistently reacting, rather than acting, and desperate to have her baby, no matter how humiliating and violating  the Ceremony is to Offred and herself. There is a kindness in her, which hardly ever shines through, as well as a steely pride which allows her to be blind to her own misery. The Handmaid's Tale frequently uses flashbacks to Offred's life pre-Gilead to build her character as well as to emphasise the strong contrast between Gilead and our world now. 'A Woman's Place' uses the same technique to contextualise Serena Joy and presents her to us as a once strong-willed and capable woman. When the Commander's hope in establishing Gilead flounders, Serena Joy restores him and doesn't take no for an answer when she decides on a night out. She contemplates a second book, after a successful first one on a woman's place in societ, shows of her legs and is in lust with her husband. She is alive, she has a purpose and a dream. Whenever the episode cuts back to Serena Joy now, the starkness of her dresses and her posture has become emphasised. Her stillness and erectness now show itself as an endless amount of controlled emotion, and her face now reveals traces of deep hurt and sadness. She is a caged woman. The episode's name is also the name of the book Serena Joy wrote, the same book she is now forbidden to read, and this emphasises the prison she has helped create for women. This 'place' she advocated and defended is one that now limits her.