Thursday, 31 October 2019

Review: 'Imaginary Friend' by Stephen Chbosky

I have never read The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I watched the movie, but only distractedly. I could see, however, why for many it could have been a defining teenage read. Chbosky seemed to get to the nitty gritty of being a teenager, addressing some difficult topics while also occasionally romanticizing things. I was hoping for something along those lines in Imaginary Friend, but I'm not entirely sure what I ended up with. Thanks to Grand Central Publishing and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 1/10/2019
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
A young boy is haunted by a voice in his head in this acclaimed epic of literary horror from the author of The Perks of Being a Wallflower.Christopher is seven years old.Christopher is the new kid in town.Christopher has an imaginary friend. 
We can swallow our fear or let our fear swallow us.Single mother Kate Reese is on the run. Determined to improve life for her and her son, Christopher, she flees an abusive relationship in the middle of the night with her child. Together, they find themselves drawn to the tight-knit community of Mill Grove, Pennsylvania. It's as far off the beaten track as they can get. Just one highway in, one highway out.At first, it seems like the perfect place to finally settle down. Then Christopher vanishes. for six long days, no one can find him. Until Christopher emerges from the woods at the edge of town, unharmed but not unchanged. He returns with a voice in his head only he can hear, with a mission only he can complete: Build a treehouse in the woods by Christmas, or his mother and everyone in the town will never be the same again.Twenty years ago, Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower made readers everywhere feel infinite. Now, Chbosky has returned with an epic work of literary horror, years in the making, whose grand scale and rich emotion redefine the genre. Read it with the lights on.
Since writing The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Chbosky has focused on screenwriting, making Imaginary Friend his first novel since 1999. It forms a major departure in both genre and style. Horror is a hard genre to nail. Although we all share certain deep fears in our Unconscious, we still all have different fright levels. Over the decades of his career, Stephen King has risen to the very top of the genre due to his ability to find those deep fears and play with them masterfully. He nails the slow build up of dread, the horror of a wise-before-their-age child, the monsters that hide in the dark, and above all, the cruelty of a grown up world. Each of these are frequently mimicked, but hardly ever truly surpassed. Imaginary Friend plays with many of the same themes: lost children, dark woods, cruel adults, the question of what is good and what is evil. Chbosky's novel left me truly torn, as I did enjoy it, but only finished it through sheer stubbornness and perseverance.

The set-up for Imaginary Friend is brilliant. A young boy and his mother arrive in a quiet, solitary town and shortly after, he disappears into the woods for days. When he returns he has changed and slowly the town around him begins to boil over. This roughly describes the first 2/3rds of the Imaginery Friend, at which point the novel seems to lose focus and becomes messier.  An ending is difficult, especially if you're trying to imbue your scary story with the larger imagery of religion, conflict, Good vs. Evil, the Final Stand, etc. What this results in is that Imaginary Friend drags on. You can't help but lose interest after the second 'Do or Die' moment, which just ends in setting up the next 'Do or Die' moment. The twists and turns also keep coming, asking more and more suspension of disbelief from the reader. The stakes simply aren't high enough anymore at that point because you can only take your reader to the breaking point so often before it stops being dramatic or, well, good. I also had an issue with how cliche some of the imagery and character development is. My issue isn't that the tropes or characteristics are recognizable, it's that they're passe and never mined for anything deeper than their surface. The women in this novel are subjected to some truly horrible experiences, suffering both physically and mentally in a way the male characters don't. It is undeniable that unfortunately violence is a part of many women's lives, but Chbosky does nothing with these topics in his novel, which means that it comes across slightly antiquated and, again, cliche. The same is true for the religious imagery and themes in the book. You can see them coming from a mile off, but in the end they fell flat for me.

The novel's main problem is that it's way too long. Stephen King is the master of the genre because of how convincingly chilling he can be in few words. Imaginary Friend doesn't seem to stop. It gets more and more elaborate in its hundreds of pages which only weighs the progress of the narrative down. The cause for this is that Chbosky seems too enamored with his own mythology to cut out what was unnecessary. There are frequent repetitions of images and even language that become eye-roll inducing rather than scary. Many of the ideas and themes in Imaginary Friend are truly scary and could have a lot of impact, but being repeated so frequently they lose all their power. This means that, unfortunately, the payoff at the end is not really worth the journey. This also plays into the novels other problem: the many points of view. Much of it is told from Christopher's perspective, which means we're viewing Chbosky's world through the eyes of a 7-year old.. Christopher is a well-written character and the reader does start to genuinely care about him. However, too much is placed on his shoulders, both within the story and as a narrative device for the story itself, which means he becomes rather unbelievable towards the end. Aside from him, there is a whole array of characters, each of which has their narrative described in detail, which slows the whole novel down.

I give this novel...

2 Universes.

Imaginary Friend is both an homage to Stephen King, as well as an attempt to dethrone him, it seems. Chbosky goes to great lengths to create a mythology of his own and thereby loses the plot and the reader. At over 700 pages, Imaginary Friend asks too much of its reader without offering enough in return.

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Review: 'Into Captivity They Will Go' by Noah Milligan

I have been on a major true crime kick lately, largely inspired by my devotion to the My Favourite Murder podcast. I share a fascination of cults with one of the hosts, which means that when I saw the blurb for Into Captivity They Will Go I was gripped immediately. Combining two highly controversial topics, family and faith, I had very high expectations going into Milligan's novel. I'm glad to say he lived up to all of them. Thanks to Central Avenue Publishing and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 10/1/2019
Publisher: Central Avenue Publishing

Set in rural Oklahoma, Into Captivity They Will Go tells the story of Caleb Gunter, a boy whose mother has convinced him he is the second coming of Jesus Christ and that together they are destined to lead the chosen into the Kingdom of Heaven. Believing the Seven Seals detailed in Revelation have been opened, he and his mother flee their home to join a tongue-speaking evangelical church and to prepare for the end of the world. But after tragedy ensues, Caleb must rebuild his life without the only support he has ever known—his mother and the church. An exploration of familial bonds and extremist faith, this is a whirlwind bildungsroman that reveals the fragility of a child’s identity. It is at once a study of guilt and redemption and a book of how shattered trust can lay the foundation for an entire life.
As I wrote in my review for Sonja Livingston's The Virgin on Prince Street, religion and faith are difficult topics to write about. Whereas Livingston took a very personal and autobiographic approach, Milligan's approach is personal in a very different way. His bio reveals he grew up in the Bible Belt and his theological knowledge does shine through in the novel. In Into Captivity They Will Go he chooses a fictional approach to the the dissection of faith. Many aspects of the novel's plot will remind the reader of sensationalist news pieces and the less savory aspects of devout religion. The novel's title itself is taken from the Book of Revelation (13:10), which is hardly standard fare for many Christians. What Into Captivity They Will Go really shows is faith can become extreme and dangerous, and how far people are willing to go for what and who they believe in. Religion isn't the only focus, or even the main focus, of Milligan's novel though. Family and childhood are just as crucial. The vulnerability of children to their parents, the endless burden of shame and guilt, and the difficulty of overcoming abuse. These are heavy topics, but Milligan handles them carefully and directly, resulting in a compelling read.

Into Captivity They Will Go is split into three "acts": The Book of Genesis, The Book of Judges, and The Book of Revelations. Without giving too much away, the first act shows us Caleb Gunter's start in life as an ordinary boy, with an admittedly quite religious background. In the second act we, and Caleb, are confronted with tragedy. The final act, 'The Book of Revelations', finds his adjusting and coping to a world suddenly strange to him. As the name of each act suggests, Caleb goes through major emotional and psychological upheaval during these times. Milligan masterfully crafts Caleb's character throughout these three acts. On the one hand he sounds like a normal boy who wants to play with his friends, who loves his mother, and who cares deeply for those around him even if he can't quite verbalize that. On the other hand Milligan always makes the reader aware of this shadow that clings to him, that heavy weight of "something" that he can't quite shake. It's a difficult balance to strike but Milligan does so brilliantly. It's not just Caleb that is written with insight, though. Milligan's own childhood growing up in America's Bible Belt shows in his portrayal of the cast of characters around Caleb. The way religion inspires people, supports them in their day to day life, but can also lead them astray, is shown with a sharp kindness in Into Captivity They Will Go.

I hadn't read any of Noah Milligan's writing before, but I had heard of him. As such, I had high expectations of Into Captivity They Will Go. As I wrote above, I was amazed by his portrayal of Caleb. he captures the awkwardness, determination and confusion of growing up. In the middle section of the novel, many pages are dedicated to the theological underpinnings of the Book of Revelation, and therefore the Church of Seven Seals Caleb now belongs to. I found this fascinating myself, although it may not be the same for every reader. Milligan also excels at describing Caleb's surroundings, which means that the more action-packed scenes are riveting. There is a slow ratcheting up of tension during the second act which, upon its conclusion, leaves Caleb and the reader floundering in the final act. The question of 'Now what?' hangs over him and as he slowly comes to grips with what happened the reader find themselves once again engrossed by his story.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

Into Captivity They Will Go is a fascinating read that engrossed me. It is a highly compelling and immersive read that tackles some very challenging topics without ever loosing its way.

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Review: 'Through the Water Curtain', edited by Cornelia Funke

Aaah fairy tales! I think I have spoken about my love of fairy tales countless of times on this blog, but it remains true. I adore them and they were the first step in my lifelong journey through literature. They are the first step for many children and in that way they are something we all share. Through the Water Curtain sees Cornelia Funke bring together a range of different fairy tales. Thanks to Pushkin Press and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 10/9/2019
Publisher: Pushkin Press

A delightful, diverse selection of fairy tales from around the world by one of our most beloved children's writers.
International bestselling children's author Cornelia Funke has long been inspired and fascinated by fairy tales. This wonderful anthology is Funke's personal selection of fairy tales from all around the world - not just from her native Germany but from Russia, Japan and the Native American tradition. It's the perfect Christmas gift for any young reader wishing to discover the wider world of fairy tales.
This wonderful selection of 13 tales includes:
  •  The Tale of the Firebird (Russia)  •  The Boy Who Drew Cats (Japan)  •  The Frog Princess (Ukraine)  •  The Six Swans (Germany)  •  The Girl Who Gave a Knight a Kiss out of Necessity (Sweden)  •  Kotura, Lord of the Winds (Siberia)
In the introduction to this collection, Cornelia Funke describes how her love affair with fairy tales has always been a double-edged sword. On the one hand they are not very deep tales. The characters are often very flat and many of the tales reinforce stereotypes we now consider, at the very least, not great. On the other hand, they are incredibly imaginative and have some stunning imagery. I myself read the unedited tales Grimms' tales, full of murder, death, incest and violence, as well as the deeply sad but beautiful tales by H.C. Andersen. There are some truths children learn through fairy tales, that they later as adults forget, or smooth away. There are dragons, but dragons can be defeated. You may be abandoned in a wood, but if you're smart you'll find a way out. There can be a high price to pay for even the smallest transgression. In Through the Water Curtain, Funke collects 13 tales she thinks veer away ever so slightly from the usual, slightly sanctimonious tone of many fairy tales, showing just why so many of us, herself included, have been inspired by them.

Many of the tales in this collection were new to me. 'The Boy Who Drew Cats' is a wonderful little tale that shows that survival doesn't just depend on strength, but also on passion and art and, just sometimes, listening to the advice of others. 'The Girl Who Gave a Knight a Kiss out of Necessity' is hilarious, and a great tale to put some in their place. 'Through the Water Curtain', the tale after which the collection is named, is also fascinating, as it really plays with the readers' expectations. 'The Areca Tree' is a heart-breaking story about brotherly and matrimonial love, whose power lasts lifetimes. One of my favourites was 'The Maid of the Copper Mountains' from the mine workers in Russia's Ural mountains. It was very different from what I am used to in fairy tales and had some great images. It is also a tale that is very clearly shaped by its surroundings and those who shared it. 
'The Six Swans' is one of Funke's favourite fairy tales and I completely agree with her. Although the iteration in this collection differs slightly from the one I knew, it is still full of stunning imagery, set pieces and characters. A story of sisterly love, it shows the power of perseverance and belief. Some stories didn't quite hit the spot the way the ones above did. For example, 'The Story of the One Who Set Out to Study Fear' felt like the odd one out and the tone seemed somehow off. 

Each tale is followed by a short paragraph from Funke, explaining why she chose this tale and how it has inspired her. I really enjoyed seeing her takes on the stories, but wasn't a major fan of how she continually tied it back to her own, current series of books. Perhaps it's because I didn't majorly enjoy its first installment myself, but I could have done without those references. I couldn't entirely tell from the introduction whether Funke herself had re-written these tales or whether they were taken word for word from other sources. However, they're clearly aimed at children, which means that readers with a more advanced taste might be turned off by that. Overall, however, this is a stunning addition to any fairy tale shelf!

I give this collection...

3 Universes!

Through the Water Curtain is a lovely collection of fairy tales that are slightly unusual and feature unusual heroes and heroines. It's a great introduction to the wonders of fairy tales for younger readers.

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Review: 'The Virgin on Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion' by Sonja Livingston

Faith is a tricky thing. And it's a tricky thing to write about as well. People can get very defensive about their own faith because it is a deeply personal topic. I was first turned on to The Virgin of Prince Street by an excerpt from the book on LitHub. I was struck by Livingston's tone and writing style so requested the whole book. And I was very pleasantly surprised. Thanks to the University of Nebraska Press and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 9/1/2019
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
With organized religion becoming increasingly divisive and politicized and Americans abandoning their pews in droves, it’s easy to question aspects of traditional spirituality and devotion. In response to this shifting landscape, Sonja Livingston undertakes a variety of expeditions—from a mobile confessional in Cajun Country to a Eucharistic procession in Galway, Ireland, to the Death and Marigolds Parade in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Mass in a county jail on Thanksgiving Day—to better understand devotion in her own life.
 The Virgin of Prince Street chronicles her quest, offering an intimate and unusually candid view into Livingston’s relationship with the swiftly changing Catholic Church and into her own changing heart. Ultimately, Livingston’s meditations on quirky rituals and fading traditions thoughtfully and dynamically interrogate traditional elements of sacramental devotion, especially as they relate to concepts of religion, relationships, and the sacred.

I am, deep down, quite a spiritual person. I was raised a Protestant and went to church every Sunday. As such, faith and organized religion were a very big part of my upbringing, but in a very individual and free way. There are many things considered "typically Christian" which I don't believe in, and yet the Domkerk in Utrecht fills me with a sense of home and belonging. I love the hymns, admire the sanctuary that a church can provide and do believe. Moving away from Utrecht removed me, in many ways, from the locus and practice of my faith, yet my belief remains as present as before. In what exactly I believe I still can't exactly define, but this is why The Virgin of Prince Street was such a fascinating book for me. Although Livingston is trying to find her way back to her Catholic faith, rather than my Protestant one, her struggle to combine the failure of organized religion with the beauty of individual faith was still something I recognized and found inspiring.

The Virgin on Prince Street is full of personal essays, all tied together by their author's journey. Many of them, eight in fact, describe her efforts to hunt down the statue of Mary which used to grace her church. This strand of the book is also somewhat of an elegy for the Catholic Church and especially its small-level existence. The tight-knit communities that lived out their whole lives within the walls of a church are slowly fading away, meaning that many parishes are being joined together. On the one hand this enriches a church community, but it also alters it. Livingston adored this statue of Mary, especially in hindsight, and is determined to track it down somehow. During her journey she meets all kinds of people who are devoted in their own way, reaching out to others who may be unsure. The other essays describe other types of devotion. In one, which was excerpted by LitHub, she describes the process of canonization as well as the death of Sister Lilian. In another, she visits Brigid's Well in Ireland. In each essay she expands what we think of as faith or devotion, showing the many different shapes it can take. The Virgin of Prince Street is not a book meant to convince anyone of the rights or wrongs of religion. Rather it is a very person account of one woman's journey towards her own personal devotion.

Sonja Livingston's writing is incredibly honest and open. Whether it is her almost desperate search for the Mary of Prince Street or the emotions roused by a mass held in a jail, Livingston infuses each essay and moment with her own personality. This is also what keeps the essays from becoming overdone or missionary. When Livingston tells of her admiration for a priest and his endless devotion to his community you can feel that her words come from a place of personal need, respect and longing. When she describes her fear of the confessional, something I as a Protestant don't really "get", Livingston avoids getting into the canonical nitty-gritty of the why and how, but rather focuses on our very human distaste of leaving ourselves vulnerable. More than any other book, perhaps, The Virgin of Prince Street has made me appreciate why so many do flock to Catholicism and its rigot and tradition. It has also made me re-examine my own approach to faith and my own need for stability.

I give this book...

4  Universes!

I was sucked in by The Virgin on Prince Street almost immediately. Sonja Livingston is incredibly honest about the difficulties of believing, of returning to faith and of confronting your own fears and doubts in the process. For anyone interested in faith, or struggling with it, I'd recommend this book.

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Review: 'Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction' by Lisa Kröger, Melanie R. Anderson

I'm a sucker for a good book recommendation. I love curating my ever growing 'to read'-list on Goodreads, so naturally I'd be intrigued by a book meant to introduce me to a whole range of female authors. Ok, admittedly it was the title that got me first, since I simply cannot resist a Frankenstein reference, especially if it goes hand in hand with a Murder, She Wrote reference! Thanks to Quirk Books and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 9/17/2019
Publisher: Quirk Books
Meet the women writers who defied convention to craft some of literature’s strangest tales, from Frankenstein to The Haunting of Hill House and beyond. Frankenstein was just the beginning: horror stories and other weird fiction wouldn’t exist without the women who created it. From Gothic ghost stories to psychological horror to science fiction, women have been primary architects of speculative literature of all sorts. And their own life stories are as intriguing as their fiction. Everyone knows about Mary Shelley, creator of Frankenstein, who was rumored to keep her late husband’s heart in her desk drawer. But have you heard of Margaret “Mad Madge” Cavendish, who wrote a science-fiction epic 150 years earlier (and liked to wear topless gowns to the theater)? If you know the astounding work of Shirley Jackson, whose novel The Haunting of Hill House was reinvented as a Netflix series, then try the psychological hauntings of Violet Paget, who was openly involved in long-term romantic relationships with women in the Victorian era. You’ll meet celebrated icons (Ann Radcliffe, V. C. Andrews), forgotten wordsmiths (Eli Colter, Ruby Jean Jensen), and today’s vanguard (Helen Oyeyemi). Curated reading lists point you to their most spine-chilling tales.
Part biography, part reader’s guide, the engaging write-ups and detailed reading lists will introduce you to more than a hundred authors and over two hundred of their mysterious and spooky novels, novellas, and stories.

For those looking for an academic deep dive into the way female authors originated and developed the horror genre, turned it to their own benefits and used it as a form of self-expression, Monster, She Wrote is not the book for you. However, if you're looking for a reference guide that will allow you to explore all of the above independently, Monster, She Wrote is a perfect starting point. Starting with the "Founding Mothers", Kröger and Anderson track the wide variety of female authors who have expressed themselves through Horror and Speculative Fiction. Many authors in this book will be familiar to lovers of these genres, but there are also plenty of new discoveries to be made, especially once it explores the different offshoots of the Horror genre as well as the lost authors of the Pulp fiction era. Of course some authors you're looking for will not be featured, just as some you'd never expected will be. Considering the constraints on a book like this, Kröger and Anderson have done a great job at presenting a topical and chronological overview. (For some more unusual Speculative Fiction by women I also recommend Sisters of the Revolution.)

What I adored about Monster, She Wrote was the fun, almost conversational, tone. Sometimes reading this book felt like having coffee with a literature devotee who pleasantly but passionately told you about all these amazing people you've never heard of. Each author gets her own list of recommended titles and further reading, which means that if any of them catch your eye you can hit the ground running. The ways in which the authors featured in Murder, She Wrote took inspiration from each other, built upon each others' groundbreaking work and pushed boundaries wherever they could, is not just interesting but also inspiring. Much of the work done and art created by these women has gone on to inspire the male authors we hear so much about like H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. The fact that these female authors aren't as well-known is a shame and books like Murder, She Wrote are a great first step in correcting this error.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

Murder, She Wrote will be the end of your dreams of downsizing your 'to read'-list. Kröger and Anderson have written a great reference book for anyone looking to expand their knowledge of female authors in Horror and Speculative Fiction.

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Review: 'A Nail, A Rose' by Madeleine Bourdouxhe, trans. by Faith Evans

I was first drawn to A Nail, A Rose by its cover and especially the image central to it. It feels so French. It also immediately gives of a 'frustrated housewife' vibe, which I found intriguing. Although you'll definitely find that vibe in the stories contained in A Nail, A Rose, I'm happy to say that Bourdouxhe goes a lot deeper. Thanks to Pushkin Press and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this collection in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 10/1/2019
Publisher: Pushkin Press; Pushkin Collections

Enchanting stories of women's inner lives by the rediscovered Belgian author Madeleine Bourdouxhe
The seven stories in A Nail, A Rose confirm Madeleine Bourdouxhe's status as an under-appreciated master of the form. Like her critically lauded novels Marie and La Femme de Giles, these stories tunnel into the conflicted hearts of their female characters in fluid, beautiful prose.
These are stories of longing and dissatisfaction, of mundane lives ruptured by strange currents of feeling. A woman, wandering alone and heartbroken, is first attacked and then romantically pursued by a stranger, who returns to her house to offer her gifts. A maid wears her mistress's expensive coat to meet her lover, but finds herself more preoccupied with fantasies of intimacy with her mistress. With piercing insight and candour, Bourdouxhe offers seven unforgettable portraits of the expansive inner lives of ordinary women.
Pushkin Press, under its 'Pushkin Collection', has been steadily providing me with some brilliant, translated fiction, much of it written by women. As Faith Evans states in her introduction to these stories, Bourdouxhe had been almost forgotten. Born in Belgium, she was deeply engaged with the oppression of the war, the occupation of France and the effects of repression on a creative mind. She was also writing for Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre's magazine Les Temps moderne. All in all, she was a fascinating woman and I find it fascinating, and saddening, how many of such people have disappeared from our awareness over time. So I'm very pleased that publishers like Pushkin Press and people like Faith Evans continue to put their time, effort and money into returning such jewels to us from the past.

A Nail, A Rose contains 7 stories, all of which are about women, but one of which is narrated by a man. Bourdouxhe looks at the interior lives of women, their secret frustrations, the blindness of those around them to their suffering, the restraints of society, the deep love and compassion they are capable of. Evans points out the lushness of Bourdouxhe's descriptions, how similar to Surrealist artists it is. There is definitely a Surrealist tinge to to Bourdouxhe's stories, whether it is the odd juxtaposition of images or the deep connection to the unconscious many of her female characters exhibit. The stories are, mostly, named after their main characters. 'Irene' is lost after the end of love and then attacked; 'Anna' feels disconnected from her life, husband and body that allow her no mental exercise; 'Louise' is a maid who dreams of understanding her mistress and the world more; 'Leah' is torn between a fantasy and reality; and 'Blanche' has shut herself off from the world around her to survive it. Meanwhile, 'Clara' is a story about silence and death and 'Rene' about an angry young man and a woman he can't impact.A standout story is 'Sous Le Pont Mirabeau', which is divided into small chapters and chronicles a chapter of Bourdouxhe's own life when, shortly after giving birth, she flees Nazi-occupied France. It is a beautiful story of motherhood, the kindness of strangers and the futility of war.

Each of Bourdouxhe's characters is a fully drawn, yet elusive portrait. They each leave a mark, have an impact, yet not even Bourdouxhe can entirely capture them, which seems on purpose. These women, who everyone seems to assume they can know, possess or overpower, are their own creatures, with thoughts often thousands of miles away. There is a dreamlike quality to Bourdouxhe's writing, which is perfectly captured by Faith Evans. Her translations follow the hazy yet insistent tone of Bourdouxhe's writing, the beauty and freedom of nature and dark night. There are some absolutely beautiful passages in A Nail, A Rose which stuck with me. I will definitely be exploring more of Bourdouxhe's oeuvre, especially as more of her works are apparently available in translation now.

I give this collection...

4 Universes!

Bourdouxhe's stories are far from gentle and yet they seem to exist on an unconscious, almost dreamlike plane. They hold harsh truths, beautiful moments and messages worth considering. Anyone interested in exploring both writing under oppression as well as early feminist writing should absolutely give A Nail, A Rose a go.

Thursday, 3 October 2019

Review: ‘Frankissstein: A Love Story’ by Jeanette Winterson

Frankenstein is one of the first novels I fell in love with. I adored its language, I adored Mary Shelley, and I was fascinated by the novel's provenance and message. I wrote university essays about it and my copy of Frankenstein was annotated on almost every other page. It also let to my love for Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. So I knew that I wanted to read Frankissstein from pretty much the moment I heard about it. Thanks to Grove Atlantic and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 10/1/2019
Publisher: Grove Atlantic
Since her astonishing debut at twenty-five with Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson has achieved worldwide critical and commercial success as “one of the most daring and inventive writers of our time” (Elle). Her new novel, Frankissstein, is an audacious love story that weaves together disparate lives into an exploration of transhumanism, artificial intelligence, and queer love.
Lake Geneva, 1816. Nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley is inspired to write a story about a scientist who creates a new life-form. In Brexit Britain, a young transgender doctor called Ry is falling in love with Victor Stein, a celebrated professor leading the public debate around AI and carrying out some experiments of his own in a vast underground network of tunnels. Meanwhile, Ron Lord, just divorced and living with his mom again, is set to make his fortune launching a new generation of sex dolls for lonely men everywhere. Across the Atlantic, in Phoenix, Arizona, a cryogenics facility houses dozens of bodies of men and women who are medically and legally dead… but waiting to return to life.
What will happen when homo sapiens is no longer the smartest being on the planet? In fiercely intelligent prose, Jeanette Winterson shows us how much closer we are to that future than we realize. Funny and furious, bold and clear-sighted, Frankissstein is a love story about life itself.

Frankenstein, as originally written, is far removed from the way it is portrayed in most modern media. No bolts, no nonsensical words, no Igor, almost no horror. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a meditation on the effects of unchecked progress, on the megalomania of some creators, and on the consequences of creation. Frankissstein is a story about what happens when our creations get away from us. It's also about the rapid progress of creation, of happenstance, and maybe fate, that leads us from one step to the next. At times highly philosophical, while also focused on the small details of human, physical life, Frankissstein asks us who we are. As the reader you find yourself wondering, are we just bodies or are we souls? Could we imagine our lives without bodies? And if yes, would that be preferable? Winterson doesn't provide answers, but she does show us how language, gender, technology and politics all come together to shape our future.

In Frankissstein, the future of our world seems to rest in the hand of two men who are almost polar opposites. Victor Stein, a mysterious, maybe mad, scientist, is hoping for a world in which humans are released from their fleshy prisons. He is fascinated by Ry, by their very existence and at times his fascination with Ry edges into cold, analytical interest. His ideas, and his willingness to see them through, are when the novel edges into something almost akin to horror, and yet Victor is a fascinating character. At times his philosophical arguments suck some of the tension out of the narrative, but they are great food fro thought. Ron Lord looks at the future in a different way. Rather than wanting to "free" humans of their bodies, he is looking at technology and AI as a way to support our (read: men's) physical desires. His sex robots are both a hilarious and strangely sad presence in the Frankissstein. In one scene I found particularly memorable, we catch a short glimpse of what a sex robot's life might be like if they developed any kind of conscience or memory. It was heart-breaking and the casual way in which he dismisses the fact many bots are returned with their heads smashed in is chilling.This will also be part of our future, Winterson warns; not just the high-minded scientists striving for next-level humanity, but also the opportunists who support our most brutish instincts.

Winterson confidently moves between 19th century Europe, where Mary Shelley is creating her masterpiece, to 21st century Brexit Britain, where an array of characters is looking into the future, each in their own way. It's Ry, once Mary, who is one of the standout characters of the novel. They are a transgender man, but also considers themselves a 'hybrid', both man and woman. They have created their own body in their own (mental) image, and this engenders both fascination and confusion in the people around him. A doctor themselves. Ry is surrounded by those who are trying to shape the future, yet they are oddly sidelined from these attempts themselves. They was able to shape themselves, but the future seems out of their grasp. Similarly, the novel tracks Mary Shelley as she writes Frankenstein, argues with Byron, and faces loss after loss. Mary's scenes are some of the most beautiful, evoking the language of her own novel, and analyzing with acuity and gentleness the effects of loss and restraint.

A lot can be said about Frankissstein and I haven't said half I thought. It will take some time to let it all sink in, and as the world changes so might my thoughts on this novel. But it is a great addition to the original Frankenstein, and much more in line with Mary Shelley's idea than most other media.

I give this novel...

4 Universes.

Frankissstein is a fascinating novel full of ideas that are innovative and thought-provoking. Anyone with an interest in Frankenstein, AI, robotics and the question of our souls, will find Frankissstein an interesting and rewarding read.

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Review: 'The Dutch House' by Ann Patchett

I won't lie, my first impulse to read The Dutch House came from it's name. I'm half-Dutch and lived in the Netherlands for most of my childhood. I have very fond memories of the architecture and the people, which means I hoped for some kind of nostalgia from The Dutch House. Ann Patchett gave me much more than that. Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 9/25/2019
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Like swallows, like salmon, we were the helpless captives of our migratory patterns. We pretended that what we had lost was the house, not our mother, not our father. We pretended that what we had lost had been taken from us by the person who still lived inside.*****A masterpiece from the Orange Prize-winning, New York Times number one bestselling author of Commonwealth and Bel Canto: a story of love, family, sacrifice, and the power of place.***** 
Danny Conroy grows up in the Dutch House, a lavish folly in small-town Pennsylvania taken on by his property developer father. Though his father is distant and his mother is absent, Danny has his beloved sister Maeve: Maeve, with her wall of black hair, her delicacy, her brilliance. Life is comfortable and coherent, played out under the watchful eyes of the house’s former owners in the frames of their oil paintings, or under the cover of the draperies around the window seat in Maeve’s room. 
Then one day their father brings Andrea home: Andrea, small and neat, a dark hat no bigger than a saucer pinned over a twist of her fair hair. Though they cannot know it, Andrea’s advent to the Dutch House sows the seed of the defining loss of Danny and Maeve’s lives. Her arrival will exact a banishment: a banishment whose reverberations will echo for the rest of their lives. 
For all that the world is open to him, for all that he can accumulate, for all that life is full, Danny and his sister are drawn back time and again to the place they can never enter, knocking in vain on the locked door of the past. For behind the mystery of their own enforced exile is that of their mother’s self-imposed one: an absence more powerful than any presence they have known. 
Told with Ann Patchett’s inimitable blend of wit and heartbreak, The Dutch House is a story of family, betrayal, love, responsibility and sacrifice; of the powerful bonds of place and time that magnetize and repel us for our whole lives, and the lives of those who survive us.
As The Guardian notes in its review, the 'immense “folly” at the heart of this novel' is the Dutch House itself. The concept of the 'folly' comes from medieval morality plays and is usually shown as a character leading the protagonist astray, or at least attempting to. In The Dutch House, the house itself is what influences all the characters. Beautiful inside and out, it is the locus for many of the novel's most dramatic scenes. It's where families are created and broken, where good fortune meets bad fate. It is full of the belongings of its previous, Dutch inhabitants who either died tragically in the war or of illness. It is also full of childhood memories for our narrator Danny Conroy, who never knew another home. The house is a place of love, memory, grief and mistakes, and these themes continue to play throughout the novel.

Aspects of different fairy tales echo strongly through The Dutch House, especially Cinderella. With their mother tragically disappeared, Danny and Maeve are exposed to a new step-mother, Andrea, with two young daughters who exacts their banishment. The two siblings now set out not unlike Hansel and Gretel, except that the new reality they find themselves in is the true witch's house. Devoid of inheritance, Maeve makes Danny bilk an education trust set aside for them and Andrea's children, laboring for a profession he has no intention of taking on. There are surprise reveals, fairy godmothers of a sort, amoral saints and a deep sense of tragic fate. As Patchett writes: “They had all become characters in the worst part of a fairytale.” There is no escaping where their path is leading, and yet both Maeve and Danny take one step at a time, overcoming and reliving. There is no magical solution and a lot of life will feel wry and cruel, yet Patchett never forgets the magic of the small moments.

Told non-chronologically, Patchett relays the entire life of Danny and Maeve's consistent presence in it. The narrative loops back and forth through time, revealing much before it has happened and yet never losing its tension. Patchett's novel asks its reader how we cope with grief and with the past. Can we reconcile ourselves with it? Is revisiting the place of loss beneficial or not? Should those who transgress against us be punished, and if yes, how? And is history bound to repeat itself? For all these big questions, Patchett has written a beautiful novel, full of heart-warming and heart-breaking moments that show us the true impact of family. I adored Maeve, she is one of my favourite characters I've read in a while. She is full of heart, stubborn, proud and deeply wounded. Through her major 'folly', but also through her straightforward yet magical writing, Patchett crafts a story that is both benediction and conviction for its characters. At the end, I walked away feeling that I had read something true.

I give this novel...

5 Universes.

The Dutch House is a beautiful novel, one that kept me constantly, deeply engaged with its characters. This was my first experience reading Patchett but I have developed a deep affection for her writing and can't wait to dig into her other novels. But The Dutch House will stay on my mind for a long time.