Monday, 21 May 2018

Review: 'Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places' by Rebecca Rego Barry

My love for books is both my family's pride and the bane of their existence. As a young child my parents would be thrilled to see me reading and infuriated to find my still reading at midnight. No matter where we are, no bookstore can be passed without a visit. And too often I turn pleading eyes onto my family members and beg for 'just 10 more minutes'. I can spend hours in bookstores, especially when they're the kind of bookstores you can get lost in, where the shelves reach to the ceiling, where old meets new, literary fiction meets art history and music theory settles in next to science fiction. So how could I resist Rare Books Uncovered? Thanks to Quatro, Voyageur Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 27/02/2018
Publisher: Quatro, Voyageur Press

Feed your inner bibliophile with this volume on unearthed rare and antiquarian books. 
Few collectors are as passionate or as dogged in the pursuit of their quarry as collectors of rare books. In Rare Books Uncovered, expert on rare and antiquarian books Rebecca Rego Barry recounts the stories of remarkable discoveries from the world of book collecting. 
Read about the family whose discovery in their attic of a copy of Action Comics No. 1--the first appearance of Superman-saved their home from foreclosure. Or the Salt Lake City bookseller who volunteered for a local fundraiser--and came across a 500-year-old copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle. Or the collector who, while browsing his local thrift shop, found a collectible copy of Calvary in China--inscribed by the author to the collector's grandfather. These tales and many others will entertain and inspire casual collectors and hardcore bibliomaniacs alike.
My obsession with antique books is really my family's fault. I think it started when my granddad one day decided that since I liked history I could help him riffle through a chest (I'm not kidding!) of old papers, photos and books that had been there for who knows how long. Not only did we discover we're related to George Friedrich Handel (again, I'M NOT KIDDING! It was an exciting day!), but we also unearthed a centuries old Latin copy of Julius Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico. We went to the local library the next day to have it assessed and almost 8 years later my grandfather gifted it to me. That day spent with him lit a fire in me for antique books because I began to appreciate how wonderful those old books are, how they have passed through countless hands and how imbued with history they are. So from then on my trips to bookstores included hunting down books that struck me with that sense of history, books whose plain covers hid fascinating content. It started a passion that hasn't abated and probably never will. I own 7 different editions of Wuthering Heights and have stacks of books waiting at my father's house for me to get my own apartment with actual bookshelves. I may have a problem...

Rare Books Uncovered is the perfect book for bibliophiles and collectors like myself. Barry fills the book with short chapters dedicated to extraordinary finds, whether it's superhero comics or Dali's Alice. For someone who delights in boxes of books and dusty bookstores, these chapters are a delight. I found myself excited by these finds, laughing at the sheer serendipity of most of them, and inspired by the collectors' clear passion for books of whatever kind. Not each find pulls at me equally. I'm much less interested in driving manuals than in Frankenstein, and yet each chapter held something of interest for me. The chapter that struck me most was 'Scarce Scottish Imprint Hiding in the Stacks' in which Barry describes a surprising find in the St. Andrews Rare Books library. The library began a program called 'Lighting the Past' in which they started working their way through their backlog. While doing my Master's Degree in Medieval English at St. Andrews I actually spent time myself helping dig through the Rare Books and cataloguing them, comparing them to other copies in WorldCat and other collections. The work done on 'Lighting the Past' happened in the room next door. I loved the mornings I spent there, surrounded by books, and I felt a surge of pride reading about it in Rare Books Uncovered.

Rare Books Uncovered could easily be a dry and boring book. After all, it is simply a collection of book titles, dates, names and prices. But Rebecca Rego Barry brings these stories to life. Each chapter feels like a mini mystery, and the interviews she has done with the collectors and discoverers brings a personal touch to their stories. There is a love for books in Rare Books Uncovered and it is a love that is shared by Barry, the people she interviews and us, the readers. One thing I especially adored were the little asides in the book that explained certain lingo like 'provenance', 'ephemera' or 'marginalia'. It makes the world of book collectors a little bit more accessible and, in my case, gives me the vocabulary to describe some of the things I have found in my years of book collecting. Rare Books Uncovered is probably not for every reader. If you love reading but don't feel the need to collect them then this book will perhaps not fill you with the same sense of recognition as it did for me. Some of the stories will be interesting and you'll enjoy leafing through it. But if you're like me then this book is close to inspirational. I will have to hunt down a physical copy of Rare Books Uncovered because reading it filled me with joy.

I give this book...

5 Universes!

God I adored this book! Barry has written a book for book collectors, full of anecdotes, surprises and passion. Although book collecting has changed a lot in the last few decades, the spirit remains the same. It's about the joy of knowing anything could be anywhere and that maybe you'll find it. I'd recommend this to anyone who knows how addicting book collecting can be.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Review: 'Skin' by Ilka Tampke

I adore British history. There are so many different time periods, cultures and languages that came together to create the Britain we know now. One of the most mysterious cultures to have populated England were the Celts. An intensely secretive group, all their secrets and mysteries were passed along orally, yet authors and directors have never let that stand in their way of trying to reinvent the Celts. Ilka Tampke's Skin might be my favourite attempt every. Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 06/08/2015
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Imagine a world where everyone is born with a 'skin' name. Without skin you cannot learn, you are not permitted to marry, and you grow up an outsider amongst your own people. 
This is no future dystopia. This is Celtic Britain. 
It is AD 43. For the Caer Cad, 'skin' name determines lineage and identity. Ailia does not have skin; despite this, she is a remarkable young woman, intelligent, curious and brave. As a dark threat grows on the horizon - the aggressive expansion of the Roman Empire - Ailia must embark on an unsanctioned journey to attain the knowledge that will protect her people, and their pagan way of life, from the most terrifying invaders they have ever faced... and it is this unskinned girl who will come to hold the fate of her people in her hands. 
SKIN is a standout, full-blooded debut which invokes the mesmerizing, genre-transcending magic of novels such as Jean M. Auel's Clan of the Cavebear; it combines epic storytelling with a strikingly unique plot set during a fascinating period of Britain's history.
As I said above, many authors have tried to capture what they think the Celts were like. We see shades of them in old, wise, bearded men travelling the country side, for example. They are often tied to the Arthurian myths through Merlin, as well. Tampke does away with a lot of what has been done before and lets what we know of the Celts work for her concept of 'skin'. And perhaps that is why it works. Tampke gives the Celts a defined religion, a shared culture, and thereby makes them less vague. And before I go into reviewing the rest of the novel I want to spend some time discussing the idea of 'skin' in her novel. It is a mystical, mythical thing, and yet it is deeply tied to every single moment of her character's day. It's how you greet people, it is how you declare love, it is how you know you belong. It is deeply religious but it is also social. It divides people, and the exclusion of those without has almost racial undertones. Tampke lets Roman and Celtic culture clash in Skin, but she doesn't shy away from showing some of the progress of the Romans and the darker sides of the Celtic culture. All in all, Tampke creates a fascinating portrait of a long-lost culture which feels tangible and real.

Ailia is what centres this novel. Although Skin could spin out of control with its combination between historical fiction and fantasy, Tampke puts Ailia solidly in the middle, holding both the "real" and the "other" world together. She is a young girl, aware of her skin-less state yet burning for more. She is dedicated to her adoptive mother and sisters but she is also still looking for a home that is truly hers. What I found most recognisable about Ailia was her desire for more and her willingness to bend the rules for it, yet also her crushing fear that society is right and that she is nothing. Told her whole live she has no right to anything and she should be happy with what she has been given, her drive and desire are at the heart of this novel. She is surrounded for this by a plethora of fascinating characters, many of which are interesting female characters with their own motivations, fears and desires. As Ailia plunges further and further into the mysteries of the Mothers and discovers her power, the novel's quick but solid pace drives the reader forward, desperate to find out what will happen with Ailia and those she loves. Her mystical experiences were my favourite parts of the novel, elevating it above historical fiction into something mythical.

Tampke's writing style is almost dreamlike and yet she manages to capture everyday life in the Iron age in great detail. Tampke did a great amount of research into Iron Age Britain and it really shows, whether it's in the descriptions of the clothes, the houses or the stark contrast with the Roman Empire, it all strikes true. And on top of that she adds the fantasy element of her novel, the skins, the Mothers, the Journeymen who can travel between our world and the other. That fantasy is as rooted in detail as the "historical fiction" part of the novel, yet these details feel oddly familiar, as if you've read them before in a myth or legend. The winding rivers that lead girls astray in the woods, the handsome strangers who seem only half of this world, and the rituals of fire and stars. Tampke doesn't fall into the trap of trying to mimic old time-y English, but her modern English serves her plot well, still creating that magical feel Skin thrives off. One thing Tampke deserves major props for is her ending. I don't want to spoil anything but it is a brave ending that both closes of Skin and sets up a number of potential stories for the second novel Songwoman. I personally cannot wait!

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I utterly adored Skin! I read it voraciously and thought about it when I couldn't read, wondering where Ailia would go next, what she would do. Tampke creates a magical world in her novel, bringing to live Iron Age Britain in an engrossing way. I'd recommend this to fans of Historical Fiction and Fantasy.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Review: ‘The Lost Word of Byzantium’ by Jonathan Harris

I spent much of my childhood watching television programs about ancient cities, fallen empires and imposing emperors. It instilled me with a lifelong love for and fascination with history and everything it encompasses. One empire that has always mystified me a little was the Byzantine Empire. Although I had learned about the Roman Empire in school, its Eastern part, which became Byzantium, was never truly covered. And yet, bridging East and West, it must have been a fascinating place. Thankfully Jonathan Harris’ The Lost World of Byzantium gave me a brilliant overview. Thanks to Yale University Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 15/08/2015
Publisher: Yale University Press
For more than a millennium, the Byzantine Empire presided over the juncture between East and West, as well as the transition from the classical to the modern world. Jonathan Harris, a leading scholar of Byzantium, eschews the usual run-through of emperors and battles and instead recounts the empire's extraordinary history by focusing each chronological chapter on an archetypal figure, family, place, or event. Harris's action-packed introduction presents a civilization rich in contrasts, combining orthodox Christianity with paganism, and classical Greek learning with Roman power. Frequently assailed by numerous armies-including those of Islam-Byzantium nonetheless survived and even flourished by dint of its somewhat unorthodox foreign policy and its sumptuous art and architecture, which helped to embed a deep sense of Byzantine identity in its people. Enormously engaging and utilizing a wealth of sources to cover all major aspects of the empire's social, political, military, religious, cultural, and artistic history, Harris's study illuminates the very heart of Byzantine civilization and explores its remarkable and lasting influence on its neighbors and on the modern world.
In The Lost Word of Byzantium Jonathan Harris has quite a challenge in front of him, trying to pack hundreds of years into not quite 300 pages. As such, Harris’ book isn’t a comprehensive, everything included, kind of history. As he described it, it is more of a ‘personal journey through the long history of Byzantium’. While some may prefer more factual ad “historical” history books, and I often do, I actually loved Harris’ take on writing Byzantium’s history. The Lost World of Byzantium is written with a lot of insight, Harris often interjecting the historical account to bring in his own thoughts or to consider how history has judged the person he is describing. In a sense, The Lost World of Byzantium feels quite intimate, despite describing over a 1000 years of history and countless emperors, empresses, heroes and saints.

The most important thing  a history book needs to do is give the reader a basic grounding in the history it’s describing, whether that is a single event or, as is the case with The Lost World of Byzantium, countless of events over hundreds of years. There has to be a sense of connection, allowing the reader to trace trends, philosophies and families across the pages and generations. On the one had The Lost World of Byzantium does provide the full picture, describing ruler after ruler, war following war, and victory following defeat. On the other hand, however, it might be beneficial to already have a basic understanding of Byzantine history before beginning The Lost World of Byzantium. Harris fills his book with a great amount of detail, occasionally jumping backwards or forwards to explain a certain event or decision. In a sense Harris is telling a story, which the title of his book kind of suggests. In a sense the whole of the book attempts to answer the question of why Byzantium managed to last so long and why, then, it did eventually, fall. Harris provides many suggestions throughout the book but a definite answer will, most likely, never be found.

History books can be hard to read. They are often dry and boring, or so highly academic that it’s a miracle even the author knew what he was talking about. The Lost World of Byzantium is neither of these. It is the perfect history book in that Harris’ writing makes the pages fly by. You get invested in the Byzantium he describes and his passion for the Byzantine Empire becomes infectious. Although he stays objective for most of the book, as he should as an academic, he can’t help but let a fondness for certain characters shine through. In The Lost World of Byzantium Harris is giving us both historical fact as well as one hell of a story. Despite Harris’ engrossing writing, however, it might still be best to take it easy with The Lost World of Byzantium. There are a lot of dates, a lot of stories, a lot of battles happening in the same place at different times; it is a lot and it can get confusing. History can be repetitive and as names and treaties and cities repeat themselves, it is best to occasionally take a break from The Lost World of Byzantium. The great thing is, you’ll definitely come back because Harris as you invested after the first chapter.

I give this book…
4 Universes!

I greatly enjoyed The Lost World of Byzantium. It’s the kind of history book that fills your head with images rather than dates, without losing its base in history and fact. Jonathan Harris is a great writer and I’m definitely keen to read more of his books on the Byzantine Empire.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Short Review: 'The Atrocities' by Jeremy C. Shipp

Nightmare maze? Parents not accepting their child's death? A governess with something to hide? Sign me up!! The Atrocities has an amazing premise and despite its brevity I was entirely ready to be amazed and scared by Jeremy C. Shipp. And to a certain extent he did dazzle me, while also leaving me wanting towards the end. Thanks to Macmillan-Tor/Forge and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 17/4/2018
Publisher: Macmillan-Tor/Forge

Jeremy Shipp brings you THE ATROCITIES, a haunting gothic fantasy of a young ghost's education 
When Isabella died, her parents were determined to ensure her education wouldn't suffer. 
But Isabella's parents had not informed her new governess of Isabella's... condition, and when Ms Valdez arrives at the estate, having forced herself through a surreal nightmare maze of twisted human-like statues, she discovers that there is no girl to tutor. 
Or is there...?
Coming in at a little more than 100 pages, Shipp manages to pack quite a punch into The Atrocities. From the very beginning I loved his imagery and the spookyway in which he described it. Just look at the opening lines:
Turn left at the screaming woman with a collapsing face. Turn right at the kneeling man with bleeding sore the size of teacups.
Those lines betray a knack for the spooky as well as a sense of humour. There were many scenes in this novella where I could see what he was describing. As the new governess, Ms Valdez, arrives at the mansion she encounters a hellscape of odd statues and a disturbed family. Nothing is quite as it seems here, and neither is everything right with Ms Valdez either. Shipp gives us something of an insight into her character and history, but sadly this didn't entirely fit into the Gotthic vibe of the rest of the novella but felt more like a 21st century horror movie.

Shipp creates a stunning atmosphere in the first half of The Atrocities.There is such a foreboding feel to everything,  so many questions are raised and in such an interesting way that I was incredibly gripped by this novella. There are a lot of things which aren't resolved towards the end of the novella. Although I enjoy an author that trusts their reader to do some sleuthing of their own to figure out the details The Atrocities left too much in the dark meaning that a lot of details seemed more like random embellishments rather than part of the plot. At a certain point in the novella Shipp lost me for a moment. It was almost like I missed a page or two and now wasn't entirely sure of how the characters had gotten to where they were, why they were doing what they were doing. In the end the finale of The Atrocities fell a little bit flat for me and I would've loved to see this worked out into something more substantial. Add another hundred pages and you'd have yourself a stunning Gothic thriller that satisfies completely.

I give this novella...

3 Universes!

I really enjoyed the first half or so of The Atrocities and completely sank into the esoteric and dark world Shipp creates. However, when it came to tying up all the loose ends and delivering as brilliant an ending as his opening, Shipp left me hanging a bit. I will definitely keep an eye out for his next book however. I'd recommend this to fans of Gothic and Thriller novels.

Review; 'A Winter's Love' by Madeleine L'Engle

It is always interesting to read different types of books from the same author. I first encountered Madeleine l'Engle in, of course, A Wrinkle in Time, a book that grapples with adult themes but is aimed towards children. So how does she do in a book with adult themes for adults? I never should have wondered, of course L'Engle would deliver  a stunning novel. Thanks to Netgalley and Open Road Integrated Media for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 2/05/2017
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media
A lonely woman is torn between the bonds of family and the potential of new love in this moving novel from the author of A Wrinkle in Time.
Caught somewhere between love, hate, and indifference, Emily Bowen’s marriage is hanging on by a thread. After being let go from his job, her husband pulled away from her, and the distance continues to grow during their family’s sabbatical in Switzerland. With their relationship as cold as the wind baying outside, Emily finds unexpected warmth in a man from her past. As she contemplates seizing the connection she’s been craving, Emily must decide if she’s willing to sacrifice the life she’s built for an unseen future. Poignant and powerful, this is a timeless tale of the turmoil that comes with falling in—and out—of love, and “a convincing story of mixed loyalties and divided affections” (Kirkus Reviews).
Ah, family, the source of so much happiness and so much despair. Many novels focus on the family, almost all novels I'd say. LEngle's novel, however, isn't a flippant take on family life but rather a study on marriage, parenthood and teenhood. A Winter's Love is full of love and anger, sadness and joy, all surrounded by the stunning Swiss landscape. Initially I was worried this would be one of those soppy novels, in which there are grand speeches, tragic inner monologues, moonlit nights full of forbidden passion, etc. All those things are in A Winter's Love and yet it never once feels melodramatic or over the top. L'Engle's moonlit night is one we have all experienced once upon a time, the depth of her characters' emotions are recognisable in their almost sad ordinariness. There is a sense of reality to A Winter's Love I hadn't expected but that was much appreciated.

In many ways the plot of A Winter's Love is very straightforward and quite simple. A family in something of a crisis reunites for winter in the Swiss mountains, only for all the crises that had been brewing under the surface to erupt. The magic of A Winter's Love, in my opinion, is how gently and softly L'Engle explores these crises. The pace and tone of the novel are quite restrained, but purposefully so. The plot moves slowly, almost as if every second, every decision no matter how small, counts. It is this tension that also gives the novel its beauty since despite the relative normality of the plot I still found myself holding my breath at the turn of a page. What will Emily Bowen do about the distance between her and her husband, and what about her sudden feelings for this other man? Will Courtney Bowen overcome the crippling issues holding him back from embracing his current life? Will Virginia, the Bowen's oldest daughter, cope with the sudden changes in herself and her life as she enters her teenage years?And what about the host of side-characters, each with their own internal life just begging to be explored?

Madeline L'Engle is a master at crafting characters and that is exactly what she does in A Winter's Love. It is not the plot that keeps you hooked to the pages, but rather it is the way in which L'Engle brings all her characters to such immediate life. L'Engle shows that there is something happening behind each closed door, on every face turned away at the end of a sentence, inside every head. There is some tension within the book as L'Engle seems conflicted between making Emily's love affair passionate while also not too much of a temptation. After all, it was written in the 50s. But on the other hand, the ordinariness of it all works in its own way, since the grand passion we sometimes read of in novels is often overly dramatic. The emotions of the novel are also balanced out by L'Engle placing her story in a distinct time period, just after the Second World War. There are other tensions at play in this small Swiss village, remnants of anti-Semitism and Nazi collaboration. In the shadow of the mountains and the Second World War, L'Engle's characters battle with their inner demons and their desire for love and happiness. Although not a happy book, it does feel like a true one.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

A Winter's Love was a novel I took my time with. I loved lingering on it, languidly reading on as L'Engle's characters plod through the snow and through their lives. L'Engle writes beautifully, elevating what could otherwise be quite a dull book. I'd definitely recommend this to those interested in Family Dramas and fans of L'Engle.

Review: 'Everything Is Lies' by Helen Callaghan

Aaah give me all the family drama thrillers! I heard a lot about Everything is Lies and Helen Callaghan before I even started reading this novel, and usually that makes me quite nervous. There is something about major anticipation that alters a reading experience. The expectations are set high, sometimes so high it is almost impossible for an author to meet them. I'm glad to say Callaghan, however, didn't let me down. Thanks to Penguin UK, Micheal Joseph and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 22/02/2018
Publisher: Penguin UK, Michael Joseph
No-one is who you think they are 
Sophia's parents lead quiet, unremarkable lives. At least that is what she's always believed. 
Everyone has secrets 
Until the day she arrives at her childhood home to find a house ringing with silence. Her mother is hanging from a tree. Her father is lying in a pool of his own blood, near to death. 
Especially those closest to you 
The police are convinced it is an attempted murder-suicide. But Sophia is sure that the woman who brought her up isn't a killer. As her father is too ill to talk it is up to Sophia to clear her mother's name. 
And to do this she needs to delve deep into her family's past - a past full of dark secrets she never suspected were there . . . 
What if your parents had been lying to you since the day you were born?
Aren't we all afraid to find out that everything we believe to be true actually isn't? It's always there, that fear, when someone tells us something that we can't quite believe, when a certain look steals into people's eyes, when a movement in the corner of our eye makes us twitch. It is this slight discomfort that some thriller novels pick up on excellently. Everything is Lies is one of those novels that explores our fears that we never really knew the truth, that the people we love aren't what they seem. Family is both a source of comfort and fear since it is what shapes us and yet we also end up moving away from it as we grow older. And this leads us to one of the key questions of Everything is Lies: who are you and how much control do you have over yourself, over your own life? I think this is what most fears come down to, the fear someone will be able to manipulate us to do whatever they want and we'll do so gratefully, not even realizing what is happening or worse, allowing it happily. Without giving too much away, Everything is Lies really digs into this question in an interesting way that has made me curious to read much more.

At the heart of Everything is Lies is Sophia's discovery that everything she thought she knew is perhaps not what it seemed. At the very beginning of the novel she finds herself in a sticky situation with a senior colleague, which sets her on a path of nervous anticipation of disaster. When she discovers her parents, one dead and the other dying, she refuses to believe the police's story that it was her mother. Sophia sets out to prove her mother's innocence and so discovers secrets buried under years of guilt and denial. The pace of Everything is Lies is at times slow but this allows Callaghan to truly set a scene and let her characters get used to the spaces they find themselves in. Throughout the novel Callaghan manages to address a number of themes but the one that stood out to me most was the theme of power (im)balance, especially how easy it is for men in power to take advantage of or threaten young women. It is a very timely theme and it was fascinating to see Callaghan address this in different time periods, both Sophia's present and her mother's past.

Helen Callaghan takes her readers on a journey through Sophia's mind as she begins to unravel her own life and that of her parents. Everything is Lies is split between Sophia's narrative and that of her mother, Nina, as the former starts digging and the latter offers up spare glimpses and explanations. Callaghan strikes a masterful balance between the two, allowing her readers to identify and sympathise with both characters while keeping them on Sophia's side by only giving them the same bare insights as her. There are a number of high intensity scenes in the novel in which Callaghan very successfully keeps the reader on edge, even after the scene has ended. Just like Sophia, the reader finds themselves constantly questioning what people are saying, wondering if they are who they are or if, indeed, everything is lies. In the end I saw some of the plot twists coming, with just enough hints having been dropped that I had terrible realizations before Callaghan revealed them to be truth. But this is part of the fun, figuring things out as or before they happen, and Everything is Lies provides the reader with plenty of twists and turns to make it a real page turner.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I really enjoyed Everything is Lies. It is quite a quick read, a novel that will make you turn the pages without you even being aware of it. Each chapter brings something new to the table and the interplay between mother and daughter, past and present, is very well done. I'd definitely recommend this to those interested in Psychological Thrillers and Family Dramas.

Review: 'The Beauties: Essential Stories' by Anton Chekhov, trans. Nicholas Pasternak Slater

Over the years I have developed a bit of a soft spot for Russian Literature. It started with seeing the opera Onegin, then reading Pushkin's Onegin, before moving on to Bulgakov's The Master & Margarita, which immediately became one of my favourite books. I battled by way through War & Piece for Tolstoy's sake and have now finally found my way to Anton Chekhov. It took longer than it should have, but it was definitely worth the wait. Thanks to Pushkin Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 20/02/2018
Publisher: Pushkin Press
Without doubt one of the greatest observers of human nature in all its messy complexity, Chekhov's short stories are exquisite masterpieces in miniature. His work ranged from the light-hearted comic tales of his early years to some of the most achingly profound stories ever composed, and this variety of tone and temper is collected in this essential new collection.  

Chekhov wrote stories throughout his writing career, and this selection has been chosen from amongst his life's work, including many of his greatest works, alongside unfamiliar discoveries, all newly translated. From the masterpiece of minimalism 'The Beauties', to the beloved classic 'The Lady with the Little Dog', and from 'Rothschild's Fiddle' to bitterly funny 'A Living Chronicle', the stories collected here are the essential collection of Chekhov's greatest tales.
I had never read Chekhov before but he is one of those giants you can't help but know off if you have any interest in literature or drama. I actually mainly knew Chekhov for the latter, his plays which I also hadn't read and his influence on the plays that came after. The principle of 'Chekhov's gun' was, in fact, the only real thing I knew about his writing style and it was that very thing that made me curious to read his fiction, rather than his plays, first. In a play, where you have less time and space, less means to bring meaning across, it is important to make sure every thing that happens or exists on stage matters. To paraphrase the man himself, if you put a loaded rifle on stage, make sure it goes off at some point in the play. But is the same true for fiction? How do you translate that principle to prose? I guess short stories suit themselves well to this principle since you only have limited space, but before going into The Beauties I was still worried that what I would find would be sparse and to the point. Shame on me for not trusting more in the author who has been dubbed the greatest short story writer of all times.

 I have loved short stories for a long time, because I feel that in a way they show more personality than many books do. A short story only has so many pages, which means the author only has so many words at their disposal to entertain you. Maybe they take an absurd concept and elevate it to something magical. Maybe they bowl you over with how beautifully written they are. I didn't know what to expect from Chekhov, whether it would be the absurd or the beautiful. What amazed me about all the stories in The Beauties was how varied they were, yet how real each of them felt. For example, 'A Day in the Country' in which two homeless orphans and a drunk cobbler wander around the countryside, seeing and noticing. The language in this story is beautiful and the final sentence almost had me in tears. Meanwhile 'A Blunder' is genuinely hilarious and made me laugh out loud in a Shanghai Starbucks. 'The Man in a Box' had me feeling slightly odd, while 'Grief' and 'The Kiss' are very different but equally upsetting explorations of love, hope, and desperation. The Beauties holds so many different stories and yet they all come together to paint a portrait of 1800s Russia where beauty exists but also heartbreak, where love exists but hardly ever lasts, where people do the best with what they have.

Anton Chekhov's writing needs no praise from me, but I will give it anyway. In The Beauties the stories range from the most basic tales to the most absurd premises, and yet Chekhov makes each of them work. Take the eponymous 'The Beauties' which is utterly minimalist and has no actual plot that one would recognize. Nothing happens, twice, and yet the story leaves behind a sense of mystery, makes one think on the joy and sadness of beauty. Chekhov managed to get to the very essence of humanity with just a few words, highlighting exactly the moments in life that make us feel something without adorning them unnecessarily. But this doesn't mean Chekhov doesn't play with language. Below is perhaps my favourite quote from the collection, it's taken from 'The Bet':
He read like a man afloat on the sea, surrounded by the wreckage of his ship, trying to save his life by desperately clutching first to one fragment and then another.'
Throughout his stories, whether they require quiet observation, a sense of humour, a touch of tragedy or a breath of the uncanny, Chekhov seems to know exactly what is needed. Nicholas Pasternak Slater does a beautiful job at translating these short stories, retaining both their freshness and their gravitas, elevating the ridiculous as well as the tragic.

I give this collection...

5 Universes!

The Beauties is the perfect proof as to why Chekhov is called the greatest short story writer ever. His stories are so well-balanced, saying exactly what it is they want to say, surprising the reader but also enchanting them. I'd recommend this to anyone with an interest in either Russian Literature or short stories.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Review: 'A State of Freedom' by Neel Mukherjee

I read Neel Mukherjee's The Lives of Others back in 2014, and when I saw his name pop up on Netgalley I remembered how much I had enjoyed his writing style as well as his sharp observations of human behavior. But still I wasn't prepared for the beauty and heartbreak that awaited me in A State of Freedom. Thanks to Chatto & Windus and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 06/06/2017
Publisher: Random House UK, Vintage; Chatto & Windus

What happens when we attempt to exchange the life we are given for something better? Can we transform the possibilities we are born into? 
A State of Freedom prises open the central, defining events of our century – displacement and migration – but not as you imagine them. Five characters, in very different circumstances, from a domestic cook in Mumbai, to a vagrant and his dancing bear, and a girl who escapes terror in her home village for a new life in the city, find out the meanings of dislocation, and the desire for more. 
Set in contemporary India and moving between the reality of this world and the shadow of another, this novel of multiple narratives – formally daring, fierce but full of pity – delivers a devastating and haunting exploration of the unquenchable human urge to strive for a different life.
At first glance the five stories in A State of Freedom seem to have been put together at random, sharing nothing except all being placed in India. However, as one works his way through each story, comes to care for or puzzle at each character, one starts to see how all of their stories are interlinked, how  one's actions affect the other, how each character's struggle is in a way representative of the other's struggle as well. The novel is prefaced by a quote from a Syrian refugee at the border of Austria, August 2015:
'Migrants? We are not migrants! We are ghosts, what's what we are, ghosts.'
Throughout the stories in A State of Freedom Mukherjee explores the stories of people who seem like ghosts, who live on the periphery, who can look in but not partake, or who are desperately struggling for a freedom they can't quite explain. If you could ask these characters what it is they want, I dont know if they'd be able to tell you. But they burn with a desire to live fully, to be completely, to take up space and be recognised. Not all characters in A State of Freedom are pleasant, but in each you can't help but recognise that spark of desire for freedom. And it is what makes these characters so recognisable and heartbreaking in the end.

Mukherjee tells five different stories in A State of Freedom, each strangely linked to the others and yet wholly independent. In the first story a father takes his son on a trip back to India from America, only to feel continuously haunted by his own weakening connection to his homeland and his son's seeming non-interest. In the second story a young man visits his parents in India while working on a cook book and gets to know the family's cook, a woman who works quietly and hard, with a whole story just waiting to be told. Class, pride, generational differences, it all comes to the surface in this story. The third story is perhaps the most difficult in A State of Freedom, in that its protagonist is not exactly likeable and yet you can't despise him. He finds a bear cub and hopes that by viciously training it he will be able to win both an emotional as well as financial freedom. In the fourth story we follow a woman from childhood to adulthood as she is moved around to work as a maid here or there, stripped of independence until she manages to claw as much of it back as she can. Interspersed with her story is that of her childhood friend who joined a Communist militant group in the hopes to change something, do something. The fifth and last story is perhaps the most heartbreaking, told without punctuation in a rambling stream of consciousness style. In this final story the follow a man who moved to the city to earn money for his family as his mind wanders, lost. This story is close to painful to read in its hopelessness and tragedy.

I have tried to describe the stories in A State of Freedom above as clearly yet non-spoilery as is possible, yet I don't know if I'll be able to find the words to explain just how heartbreaking some of them are. Mukherjee doesn't spare his readers and forces them to look upon his characters, his country, as clearly as he does. With unflinching but beautiful prose, Mukherjee describes the wonder of India's nature, the sumptuousness of its food, the harshness of its poverty, the brutality of its division between rich and poor, the pride and resilience of its people. In a way A State of Freedom is an ode to freedom, an encouraging cry to all of us who struggle day by day to reach some kind of state of freedom. And yet it is also a harsh reminder of just how far many of us are removed from finding that freedom, from being free in any sense of the word, from worry, financial burden, shame, oppression. A State of Freedom isn't a fun read, but it is one that will leave a beautiful ache once it's finished.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

There were times this collection made me want to cry, but there were also times when it filled me with hope. Mukherjee's five stories are horribly beautiful and stunningly sad, and I wholeheartedly recommend you read them. A State of Freedom will stick with me for a very long time.

Review: 'The Immortalists' by Chloe Benjamin

I think I recently came to accept that, one way or another, all books are about humanity's struggle with  both life and death. How do we live happily? How do we die peacefully? Why do we live? Why do we die? I appreciate that this is hardly groundbreaking, but I'm still fascinated by the many different stories we are capable of writing as a species in the search for answers, or at least a path that might lead to an answer. The search spreads across genres, centuries and cultures, and I love it. The Immortalists was the latest read I picked up that was searching, and I adored it. Thanks to Headline and  Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 08/03/2018
Publisher: Headline; Tinder Press

It's 1969, and holed up in a grimy tenement building in New York's Lower East Side is a travelling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the date they will die. The four Gold children, too young for what they're about to hear, sneak out to learn their fortunes. 
Such prophecies could be dismissed as trickery and nonsense, yet the Golds bury theirs deep. Over the years that follow they attempt to ignore, embrace, cheat and defy the 'knowledge' given to them that day - but it will shape the course of their lives forever.

What would you do if you knew the exact day you were going to die? This question has been asked by many a teenager during a half casual. half philosophical conversation with friends, and is usually followed by the equally deep 'If you had to choose between fighting a horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses, what would it be?'. But just because it's something everyone has thought about at least once doesn't mean that it isn't worth revisiting. The question of death is also, in many ways, a question about life. If you knew you had 20 years left, how would you spend them? Suddenly you're thinking about family, love, work, happiness, loss, everything that makes a life feel lived. There is no one template for a happy and fulfilled life, but the same is true for an unhappy life. Many novels have explored both the happy and unhappy among us, judged characters for their sins and praised them for their virtues, cried over their misfortunes and rejoiced with them in their victories. Since neither novelists or readers can stop pondering over what makes life and what makes death, we continue to receive novel upon novel exploring, or trying to, the full human experience. The reason I love reading these kinds of books is because in every character I read about I find something reflected that I recognise, about myself, about a friend, a family member. These kinds of novels, at least for me, enrich me experience of life.

In The Immortalists Chloe Benjamin takes an interesting approach to telling the stories of the four Gold children. Initially, in the beginning of the book during their childhood, the novel switches between their narratives, but once adulthood, or rather teenagehood for some, kicks in, Benjamin neatly divides her book into four sections, all narrated by a different sibling, one story following the other. At first I wanted more back and forth, see how the different sibling were coping at the same time with the same events, but there is something ingenious about this split because it echoes the separation of the Gold siblings as they grow up. Not only are most of them physically removed from each other, there is also a mental block between them that means each of them lives their life at a slight remove from the others. It's heartbreaking, but it also allows the reader to really focus on one sibling at a time. The Gold siblings go down very different routes in their lives and so every narrative is filled with both joy and crushing sadness. Benjamin addresses animal testing, HIV, alcoholism, mental health and so much more in The Immortalists but it never feels exploitative. Rather these are things her characters have to deal with, have to confront in one way or another. Throughout the novel there is one thing that stays standing, for better or for worse, a constant presence in all her characters' lives and that is family.

It took me a while to get into The Immortalists. I didn't know what to expect. Would this book gives us something supernatural, would Benjamin infuse the lives of the Golds with Magical Realism? The answer to both of those questions is no. And yet I found myself consistently fascinated by the different roads Benjamin travelled in her novel.Throughout The Immortalists Benjamin sticks largely to the real, the tangible, the felt realities of life. Yet especially in the chapters dedicated to Klara, she allows the magic of faith and belief to shine through. There are some stunning moments in this novel of pure sadness and love that feel magical in their own way. The Immortalists isn't a happy book per se, but each of her characters' lives is described with such gentle honesty by Benjamin that you can't help but get sucked in. Benjamin doesn't shy away from revealing the darker side of her characters, and this can definitely take some readers by surprise, but by following them down the rabbit hole she can also show us the moments of joy and beauty that occur in every life. Despite all its tragedy, The Immortalists is also a love letter for its own kind to the beauty of a human life.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I took my time with The Immortalists but every time I put it down I found myself thinking about it, curious where it would go, what would happen if I kept reading. And so I kept returning to Benjamin's characters. It's a thoughtful book, one that will make you both sad and quietly joyous at the same time. I'd definitely recommend this to fans of Literary and even Philosophical Fiction.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Short Review: 'Herding Cats' by Sarah Andersen

Sarah Andersen was one of the first artists I discovered online and then followed into print. Now that I have a black cat myself as well her art continues to be both uproariously funny as well as surprisingly relevant. I am now used to realising that I am describing one of her comics to a friend, desperately trying to explain why the picture of her in the fur coat throwing money around in a bookstore is, like, me. So of course I had to pick up Andersen's newest book as well! I need new material, my friends are getting bored! Thanks to Andrew McMeel's Publishing and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 27/03/2018
Publisher: Andrew McMeel's Publishing
Sarah's Scribbles,  Goodreads Choice Award for 2016:  Best Graphic Novels & Comics
". . . author Sarah Andersen uses hilarious (and adorable) comics to illustrate the very specific growing pains that occur on your way to becoming a mature, put-together grownup. Andersen’s spot-on illustrations also show how to navigate this newfound adulthood once you arrive, since maturity is equally as hard to maintain as it is to find … "--The Huffington Post 
Sarah valiantly struggles with waking up in the morning, being productive, and dealing with social situations. Sarah's Scribbles is the comic strip that follows her life, finding humor in living as an adulting introvert that is at times weird, awkward, and embarrassing. 
I rewrote this initial paragraph about 5 times just to stop myself from doing what I threatened above: describing funny comics and thereby stopping them from being funny. So rather I'd just like to summarise all the different things Andersen still manages to encapsulate in her art:

  • Milenial existential dread
  • The importance of love and support between friends
  • Cat shapes
  • The pleasure of being comfortable with yourself
  • That sad music is the best music
  • The horror that are periods
I literally love Sarah Andersen's art, there is not a single comic in this book I somehow couldn't relate to or didn't find funny.

Something I really enjoyed about Herding Cats were the last 30 or so pages on Andersen's creative process, called 'Making Stuff in the Modern Era: A Guide for the Young Creative and 'Part Two: Artist Survival''. In it Andersen talks about the double-edged sword that is the Internet for an artist, but also for everyone else if we're being honest. Anyone who puts their own content online has to prepare themselves for being shut down at best and straight up harrassed at worst. One of the reasons why I love the book blogging community so much is because I feel like we're all quite chill and supportive, but it's rough out there on the Internet sometimes. So how do you cope with that as a budding artist? Andersen talks about how to deal with art blocks, criticism, and the importance of taking a break and then getting right back to work.

I give this book..

5 Universes!

What can I say, I love myself some good art. Just like the previous instalments of Sarah's Scribbles, Herding Cats is full of great comics and good advice to any aspiring artists. Now all I need is a house with a coffee table so I can proudly display Herding Cats there.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Review: 'Children of Blood and Bone' by Tomi Adeyemi

I adore Fantasy books. I love sinking away into different, magical worlds full of surrprises and marvels. My specialisation at University in Medieval Literature was in large part due to just how many of my favourite novels were based on medieval texts and events. But I found myself getting just a little bored, if you can believe such a thing! While medieval Europe has a wealth of stories to tell, I was desperately looking for a Fantasy book that used something else as its inspiration, that would surprise me and teach me. Children of Blood and Bone was that book for me. Thanks to Macmillan Children's Books and Nethalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange

Pub. Date: 08/03/2018
Publisher: Pan Macmillan; Macmillan Children's Books

They killed my mother. They took our magic. They tried to bury us. NOW WE RISE. 
Zélie remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. When different clans ruled - Burners igniting flames, Tiders beckoning waves, and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoning forth souls. But everything changed the night magic disappeared. 
Under the orders of a ruthless king, anyone with powers was targeted and killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope. Only a few people remain with the power to use magic, and they must remain hidden. Zélie is one such person. Now she has a chance to bring back magic to her people and strike against the monarchy. 
With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must learn to harness her powers and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good. Danger lurks in Orïsha, where strange creatures prowl, and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to come to terms with the strength of her magic - and her growing feelings for an enemy.
As I said above, no matter how much you love a genre, you still want it to surprise you. Part of why I get so tired of some Fantasy  novels is because they do exactly what has been done before. They see Tolkien and think 'I should also write novels set in a mythological Europe and draw my inspiration from Anglo-Saxon/Norse sources and it will be great', only they forget it isn't as easy as TOlkien made it seem. So when I saw Children of Bloog and Bone I got very excited because here was a Fantasy novel that went down a different path, that would introduce me to a different kind of world, a different kind of language and culture. In and of itself, that makes Adeyemi's novel incredibly brave and fascinating.

Inspired by West-Africa. stories and history, takes some of Fantasy and YA's most used tropes and does something new and interesting with them. We have Zélie, a girl with the power of magic in her blood, just waiting to be awakened. She is stubborn and passionate, but also deeply marked by her day to day experience. And this is why I continue to think of Children of Blood and Bone as brave. Because Adeyemi doesn't shy away from the dark side of her world, of our world. Children of Blood and Bone is full of racially-charged violence, both physical and emotional. Zélie is not just an outsider, she is looked down upon, a second class citizen, marked and shamed, constantly afraid and full of anger. She is one hell of a character to write and, especially considering this novel is meant for younger readers, Adeyemi does a brilliant job at showing to constant battle within Zélie. She is surrounded by other fascinating characters that follow the genre's conventions while not doing so at all. Amari is a princess, but also a rebel. She is a scared sister and a fierce friend. She goes through some of the most interesting development out of all the characters, in my opinion. There is also her brother Inan, who  is consistently torn between different sides. He is a truly tragic character and that is what I enjoyed about him.

Tomy Adeyemi's writing is beautifully descriptive and full of power. The way she describes different settings, whether its towns, temples or nature, is incredibly vivid and full of colour and life. I really loved the phrases of Yoruba she incorporated into her novel, as well as the fact she doesn't always translate them. If Tolkien could make up a language and not provide a translation, then Adeyemi can most definitely do the same with an existing language! Her prose is largely straightforward, which really serves to highlight the beauty of her descriptions and also works well for the plot, which moves at a nice pace. At times I felt the novel moved a little bit too quickly, or didn't linger where I expected it to, but then Adeyemi will give you everything you could want at other moments. The one thing she will also give you? One hell of a cliffhanger... I have no idea how I'll make it to the release of the second book in the Legacy of Orïsha series, which apparently isn't till 2019. Guess I'll gear up for a reread then!

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

Children of Blood and Bone is a breath of fresh air, full of beautiful imagery and hard-hitting representations of racism. The fact Adeyemi brings these two things together so seamlessly and doesn't let her plot break down under the weight of the latter is incredible. I'd recommend this to anyone interested in Fantasy and West African mythology.

Review: 'Starlings' by Jo Walton

It is no secret that I love short stories. They are so hard to write, but are beautiful to read. There is something brilliant about how authors manage to create a whole world, complete characters and stunning story in just a few pages. So when I saw Starlings I wanted to read it straight away. I had heart of Jo Walton before but actually hadn't read anything by her yet. Knowing she writes Science Fiction and then seeing the mention of legends in the below blurb, I had a feeling that I would love Starlings. And guess what, I did! Thanks to Tachyon Publications and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 23/02/2018
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
“Exquisitely written feats of imagination, each one leaving an impression long after it’s done.”Kelley Armstrong, author of Bitten and Rituals 
In her first collection, award-winning novelist Jo Walton (Among OthersThe King’s PeaceNecessity) delivers both subtle legends and reinvented realities. An ancient coin cyber-spies on lovers and thieves. The magic mirror sees all but can do nothing. A cloned savior solves a fanatically-inspired murder. Three Irish siblings thieve treasures with bad poetry and the aid of the Queen of Cats.
Starlings starts of with an eponymous poem, which immediately became one of my favourite things about this collection of work. Also at the beginning of Starlings is Walton's introduction in which she prepares the reader for what is to come. She explains how the stories that are about to come are partially experimentation, efforts on her side to try something new, to understand how short stories work, or how to write a play. For some perhaps this might lessen their enthusiasm but it actually heightened mine. I love seeing the process, the work, that authors put into creating their work. It's part of why I love Tolkien so much, because you can trace all the work he did over the years to build his work. And in the same vein Jo Walton now shows us her work. Here is a short story that was really a poem. Here is a joke that became a short story. Each story is followed by a few lines from Walton explaining how it came into being, how it started, what happened to it, how she feels about it. In a way reading Starlings made me feel very close to Walton and I admire her bravery in revealing her process to us, showing us the different puzzle pieces and how they came together.

There are too many stories and poems in Starlings to go through all of them so I'm just going to tell you about some of my favourite ones. 'A Burden Shared' is a brilliant look at a future in which you can share your physical pain with others. The story is scary, sad and sweet all at once. 'On the Wall' was a great take on the Magic Mirror in Snow White, 'Three Twilight Tales' a beautiful triple story that constantly surprised me. 'Jane Austen to Cassandra' was not at all what I expected but I loved it. 'Out of It' was another story that took a classic as a jump off point and then ran with it. I really loved those stories in Starlings. Perhaps my utter favourite in Starlings was actually a short play, 'Three Shouts on a Hill', a loving and satirical take on Irish legends, poetry, and mythology itself. I loved how it went a little meta towards the end and I also thought it was just really funny. I would pay to see this, actually... When it comes to the poems my favourite was definitely 'Hades and Persephone' because that's just the kind of person I am. It was also a great poem.

Walton is an award-winning novelist, so she really doesn't need me commenting on her writing style. But I'm going to anyway. I really enjoyed how surprising each story was. By being open in the introduction about the fact she was experimenting with these stories, I went into Starlings not knowing what to expect and being excited about that. Almost every story felt like a thought exercise, especially when you could see Walton had been inspired by something and had decided to take it one step further, to see how far she could push a certain thought or idea. I enjoyed all the different directions that Starlings went to, whether it was into space, into the mind of a computer, heaven, or the future. Also, if something perhaps didn't entirely work, then Jo Walton is the first to admit it and suggest why. For an established author to take risks like these is really interesting and as an aspiring author myself I actually found it really inspiring. I will definitely be rereading Starlings in the future, even if only for the sheer fun of some of her stories.

I give this collection...

4 Universes!

I adored Starlings and pretty much raced through the different stories! Jo Walton takes risks with her stories and imagery and it really pays off. I loved being surprised by every story, wondering what was going to happen next etc. Whether you've already read her novels or are new to Walton like me, definitely check out Starlings!

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Short Review: 'Scarlet A: The Ethics, Law & Politics of Ordinary Abortion ' by Katie Watson

Abortion is a difficult topic to tackle. Everyone has an opinion, and almost everyone also feels very strongly about those opinions. I myself have always been a big proponent of women being allowed to make the choice that is right for them, which means that the government needs to make sure that healthy and safe options are available. But even though I have read other books about abortion before, Scarlet A offered a lot of new insights and was very well written. Thanks to Oxford University Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 01/02/2018
Publisher: Oxford University Press

Although Roe v. Wade identified abortion as a constitutional right 45 years ago, it still bears stigma--a proverbial scarlet A. Millions of Americans have participated in or benefited from an abortion, but few want to reveal that they have done so. Approximately one in five pregnancies in the US ends in abortion. Why is something so common, which has been legal so long, still a source of shame and secrecy? Why is it so regularly debated by politicians, and so seldom divulged from friend to friend? This book explores the personal stigma that prevents many from sharing their abortion experiences with friends and family in private conversation, and the structural stigma that keeps it that way. 
In public discussion, both proponents and opponents of abortion's legality tend to focus on extraordinary cases. This tendency keeps the national debate polarized and contentious, and keeps our focus on the cases that occur the least. Professor Katie Watson focuses instead on the cases that happen the most, which she calls "ordinary abortion." Scarlet A gives the reflective reader a more accurate impression of what the majority of American abortion practice really looks like. It explains how our silence around private experience has distorted public opinion, and how including both ordinary abortion and abortion ethics could make our public exchanges more fruitful.
In Scarlet A, Watson wisely and respectfully navigates one of the most divisive topics in contemporary life. This book explains the law of abortion, challenges the toxic politics that make it a public football and private secret, offers tools for more productive private exchanges, and leads the way to a more robust public discussion of abortion ethics. Scarlet A combines storytelling and statistics to bring the story of ordinary abortion out of the shadows, painting a rich, rarely seen picture of how patients and doctors currently think and act, and ultimately inviting readers to tell their own stories and draw their own conclusions.
Key to Scarlet A is what Katie Watson refers to as 'ordinary abortion'. Initially I was confused as to what she was referring to, but once I got it I understood just how important it is to discuss. Watson is right when she says that most conversations around abortion are about those extraordinary cases such as rape, incest, or immediate danger to the well being of the mother and/or child. I myself have never had an abortion, but know friends who have, and not for the reasons mentioned just now. These are the ordinary abortions that Watson discusses in Scarlet A, the abortions that are done because the women aren't ready to be parents, or because they know they don't have the money for a child, or because they simply don't want children and made a mistake. These types of abortions make up the majority of abortion cases, yet they are also the ones that aren't discussed openly and that come with a lot of shame. It is incredibly important that books like Scarlet A address the experiences of these women, especially when they do it as well as Watson does.

Watson accomplishes something almost miraculous with Scarlet A, which is making the abortion debate accessible and, as far as possible, understandable. As an academic, she makes sure to either explain her jargon or to avoid it as much as possible. She shares her own interest and thoughts throughout the book, without influencing her readers, which makes Scarlet A feel more personable than many other books out there. She includes to stories of many different women, and men, about their experiences with abortion, the shame they felt, or that they didn't feel, the anger they faced, the support they received, how their thoughts have evolved since the abortion. Scarlet A also looks into the different Supreme Court cases since Roe vs. Wade that addressed abortion, discusses the terms used in the abortion debate, and much more. I walked away from Scarlet A with a lot more information than I had before, but also with a new perspective on a number of related issues.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

Katie Watson manages to make Scarlet A an incredibly accessible book, opening up a debate that is famously tricky and full of loopholes. I'd recommend that everyone interested in knowing more about abortions, about the stories of people who have gone through one, about the politics and the ethics around the debate, read Scarlet A.

Review: 'The Lonely Hearts Hotel' by Heather O'Neill

Every once in a while you read a book that surprises you at every corner. I wanted to read The Lonely Hearts Hotel from the moment I read the blurb with its promises of fairytales, a circus, love, loss and the Depression, all mixed together. I wondered how Heather O'Neill would bring it all together into one coherent novel, if that was even possible, but I can tell you now that she succeeded! Thanks to Quercus Books and Netgalley for providing a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 23/02/2018
Publisher: Quercus Books
'A fairytale laced with gunpowder' Kelly Link  
The Lonely Hearts Hotel is a love story with a difference. Set throughout the roaring twenties, it is a wicked fairytale of circus tricks and child prodigies, radical chorus girls, drug-addicted musicians and brooding clowns, set in an underworld whose economy hinges on the price of a kiss.  
It is the tale of two dreamers, abandoned in an orphanage where they were fated to meet. Here, in the face of cold, hunger and unpredictable beatings, Rose and Pierrot create a world of their own, shielding the spark of their curiosity from those whose jealousy will eventually tear them apart.  
When they meet again, each will have changed, having struggled through the Depression, through what they have done to fill the absence of the other. But their childhood vision remains - a dream to storm the world, a spectacle, an extravaganza that will lift them out of the gutter and onto a glittering stage.  
Heather O'Neill's pyrotechnical imagination and language are like no other. In this she has crafted a dazzling circus of a novel that takes us from the underbellies of war-time Montreal and Prohibition New York, to a theatre of magic where anything is possible - where an orphan girl can rule the world, and a ruined innocence can be redeemed.

Aaah Magical Realism. Nothing is more fantastical and true than Magical Realism in my mind. Real life is full of of little, magical moments that seem to come straight from a novel. And the beauty of Magical Realism is that the genre's novels celebrate those small moments, it allows the outrageous to be normal and the normal to be magical. Think of  a movie like Pan's Labyrinth, which doesn't hide the horror of this world, but also doesn't let its darkness overshadow the beauty and innocence of childhood and the world. In The Lonely Hearts Hotel O'Neill lets that beauty shine, while also writing about the Depression, depression itself, heartache, abuse, drugs and violence. Although all these things are addressed, The Lonely Hearts Hotel never feels entirely sad or hopeless. Rather O'Neill manages to celebrate the perseverance and beauty of humanity exactly by showing us its lows as well as its highs. Above all, however, the novel is an ode to the imagination and to love.

At the heart of The Lonely Hearts Hotel are Rose and Pierrot. two orphans who meet at an orphanage and brighten their fellow orphans' days with their tricks. Both seemed touched by a fantastical innocence that allows them to wholeheartedly believe in their dreams and hopes, no matter how cold and harsh the world outside themselves really is. Throughout their story there is a sense of fate and doom, as the two are constantly torn apart and almost brought back together as they try to survive in Depression-era Montreal. The novel moves effortlessly between their two narratives, showing us how both mature in the lifepaths set out for them. Whereas Pierrot moves violently from dazzling heights to harrowing lows, Rose lives with a steady, determined belief in her dream of a circus, of freedom, of love. At times O'Neill is very explicit, whether it's about her characters' sexual exploits or their descents into drug use. For some readers this might be a little off-putting, but I loved how honestly O'Neill describes her characters. She doesn't sugarcoat their actions, doesn't hide their madness or the depths to which they sink. But by showing us the lows, the highs are all the more spectacular.

Heather O'Neill's writing is brilliant. I hadn't read her previous books or heard of her, but the magic promised by The Lonely Hearts Hotel captivated me immediately. From the first page, O'Neill delivered on the promise made by the blurb. Not only were the characters she created incredibly interesting, but the way she described them was both loving and honest, which means the reader couldn't help but love them in return. One of the main things I adored about The Lonely Hearts Hotel was how O'Neill set her scenes. Whether it's the orphanage, a hotel, Montreal in winter, New York, a circus act, a casino. O'Neill describes it all in beautiful detail, to the point where I could close my eye at any point during the novel and picture exactly what was going on. The Lonely Hearts Hotel feels like a film noir, one of those classic movies that takes you away for a while, let's you escape and indulge yourself in beautiful language and outrageous characters. I can't wait to dig into Heather O'Neill's other books to get another dose of her writing!

I give this novel...
4 Universes!

The Lonely Hearts Hotel is an outrageously, dangerously beautiful book! Stunningly written by Heather O'Neill, this novel will take you to the most unexpected places and the most dizzying heights. At times the novel's themes are very dark and that may not be for everyone, yet I would encourage all readers to give The Lonely Hearts Hotel a try. You won't regret it!