Monday, April 13, 2015

Game of Thrones Review: Series 5, Episode 1

This is my first post in my new Film/TV section. It’s a little experimental and different tonally, but hopefully something you readers will enjoy. Do let me know, we'll see how it goes. 

Game of Thrones Recap and Review

‘The Wars To Come’. 

Series 5, Episode 1

*Spoilers ahead*, only read on if you’ve seen the episode.
The opener of Thrones’ 5th season begins with a flashback to Cersei’s youth and a visit to a creepy maegi. Well, she’s creepy in the book, the show has naturally beautified her and made her resemble someone who’s woken up after a night-out (and made sure she’s dressed in a way that accentuates her cleavage). Still, I’m glad they kept this episode from the book and gave it prominence as a starting point. Often the book’s prologues and epilogues are slightly distanced from the current situations main players, so if they were going to have a flashback, they put it in the right place. It’s also a vital piece of character back-story for Cersei – and Young Cersei nailed her part. This trip would plague her for the rest of her life. Her idealism over her future is shattered, much like Sansa’s is in Series 1, and she must live with the prophecy that she will outlive all her children and have everything she ever wanted taken from her.

Meanwhile, TYWIN’S EYES.

Dead Tywin’s eye-stones are way creepier than Joffrey’s were for some reason. Cersei and Jaime hang out by a dead body, again. But not in that way. This time they just chat. Cersei, kind of understandably, blames Jaime for their father’s death. And he looks a little self-loathing too. Both Lena and Nikolaj are brilliant in this scene, capturing the tension and conflicting feelings perfectly.
Everything is typically rich and visually stunning, even through a small spyhole in a crate as Tyrion is unloaded like cargo on new shores and as an idol is toppled from atop a Pyramid in Meereen. The camera work and visuals are perfect in this episode. Still, it takes little over 12 minutes for the first appearance of boobs as one of Dany’s unsullied visits a brothel, where he just wants to be held and sung to. Even though the woman knows this is his regular order, she strips completely and redresses because the show-runners often like to cut interesting plots and characters in order to have more nudity.
Up North, Stannis fails to understand anything about Wildlings and thinks he can make them ‘bend the knee’ and fight for him if he gives them a hunk of grass and Brienne fails to understand just how awesome Podrick Payne is. Darth Sansa/Alayne and Littlefinger’s carriage literally drives right past them as they bicker. Argh. So close guys. Still, Sansa’s her own boss these days which is nice.

In a wonderfully awkward scene Margaery walks in on her brother and his lover. Because she’s hungry. And doesn’t leave. She literally just takes a seat. Girl wants dinner.

Back across the seas, Tyrion switches into Lannister mode and cracks open the wine. Varys give him two options, stay and drink himself to death in paradise, or go save the world and befriend a Khaleesi. Tyrion responds with the quote of the episode: ‘Can I drink myself to death on the road to Meereen?’. 

He’s still got it.

Dany also has decisions to make as she is faced with a plea from Hizdahr to reopen the fighting pits, so the civilians who have just endured a brutal oppressive regime can fight each other to the death for sport and entertainment. Seriously guys? She’s a little reluctant but risks alienating herself from the ‘culture’ of her new people. She refuses but it is still food for thought as she goes to visit her dragons. She calls their names as if she’s calling a small domesticated pet, and is kind of surprised when they get a bit mad. Mother of… teenagers? (That one was a little cliché, I apologise. Teenagers get so much stick).

As she faces fire, Jon faces ice. He has the unenviable task of convincing Mance Raider to swear fealty to Stannis, or be publically burnt alive. Mance solidly responds that the freedom to make his own mistakes was all he ever wanted. Out of respect, Jon takes matters into his own hands and makes sure that Mance doesn’t suffer. Much.


This was a very good and balanced first episode. It sets up the key themes for most of the season, though Dorne doesn’t appear yet (or the Iron Islands, but it doesn’t look like they’ll be covered at all this series…), and it draws well on some key book material. It’s very well filmed and produced and gives a good range of characters and diverse storylines to reconnect with, obviously cementing that before introducing the new characters and settings. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

'Gold shall be their crowns and gold their shrouds...': Women and Mothers in George RR Martin's 'A Song of Ice and Fire'

I've had this in the works for a year or so. My ambition with this blog just kept growing until heights became unreachable. To do this comprehensively is just too big a task for right now so it is going to be more of an opinion piece supported by what research I have managed to do.

What I have written is shorter, simpler but still researched and something that I can build upon in the future. It centres upon two of my ‘favourite’ female characters in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series: Catelyn Stark and Cersei Lannister. As usual these ‘favourites’ of mine are much maligned by a lot of the readers and show-watchers. I’m also aware that when citing ‘good female characters’ in Game of Thrones, many would automatically think about Daenerys, Brienne or Arya – all who are ‘good’, or ‘badass’, in very overt ways. I love Brienne and Sansa, and like Arya and Daenerys, but they are quite easy to like and engage with as a reader – and I like a challenge. Daenerys, Arya and even Brienne all gain a certain degree of independence outside the moulds of society, determining their own path by fortune and by their own design. Catelyn and Cersei are, in some ways, more… troubling, and certainly more trapped.

There will be spoilers for show-watchers, so I would only read on if you have read the books, know plot and character details or aren’t bothered about knowing since they may not be included in the show anyway.

Catelyn and Cersei appear to be on opposite sides and become enemies: Stark vs Lannister, honour vs dishonour, good vs evil, North vs South etc. Upon closer inspection, they parallel each other in many regards. They are united by a simple fact: they will do anything to save their children.

Anything.

Through all their apparently warped, and sometimes murderous actions (particularly Cersei), both are driven by tragedy, loss and a feeling of powerlessness because of their sex and roles as wives (not necessarily by choice) and mothers.

The show has its own interpretation of the characters, which is just that, an interpretation. And there are times when it strays from the source material but Lena Headey and Michelle Fairley are both fantastic actresses who, I think, do understand their characters and play them well.

Particularly in her point-of-view chapters in A Feast For Crows, the reader can see just how paranoid Cersei is and how haunted and affected she was by a prophecy she was told as a young girl. The prophecy she must live with is enough to drive her mad – as she is told that she will outlive all of her children (‘Gold shall be their crowns and gold their shrouds … and when your tears have drowned you, the valonqar shall wrap his hands about your pale white throat and choke the life from you’ FFC, 611), endure an adulterous husband and will lose her power and status. She must live every day of her life, raising her children, knowing/fearing that they will die before her and there is nothing she can do to stop it (‘Queen you shall be … until there comes another, younger and more beautiful, to cast you down and take all that you hold dear’ FFC, 610).
Catelyn, too, thinks that she has outlived all, or nearly all, of her children (she does not count Jon as one of them). She believes Bran and Rickon to be dead, Arya to be lost/dead, Sansa in the clutches of the Lannisters and witnesses Rob’s own horrific murder. In the books, as opposed to in the TV show, she releases Jaime Lannister after hearing of Bran and Rickon’s apparent deaths, believing Sansa to be the only child she could possibly get back. (The show often omits details which seem small but actually radically alter or disrupt the continuity and character development, Robb is understanding of her motives in the books). In terms of their children, Cersei and Catelyn both seem doomed to suffer the worst as mothers.
The show has kind of broken my heart by apparently, so far, omitting Lady Stoneheart (Beric Dondarrion gives his ability to Catelyn when he finds her body in the river, and resurrects her as a mute, deformed living corpse). This storyline extension is one that takes part of womanhood – or of motherhood, in the wake of such horror – to a next stage which deserved to be seen. I am not saying I want Stoneheart for a cheap revenge narrative, but because she could come to stand for so much more. Catelyn was always a leader in life, her sex just didn’t allow it, she acted as advisor to Rob and stood by his side as a duty, rather than remaining in Winterfell to mother Bran and Rickon. Her most important warnings go unheeded because no one takes her opinion as ‘emotional’ woman and mother, seriously enough. I would like to see her lead the Brotherhood and where that storyline goes.

Valerie Estelle Frankel, in her book Women in Game of Thrones: Power Conformity and Resistance, writes of Lady Stoneheart as a ‘female monster’ (145). She is ‘the lady who was once highborn, conformist, lovely, well-spoken and proper has become her own shadow, a monster that lurks in the wild and subverts the patriarchy as a fearsome outlaw’ (145). She argues that such ‘female monsters produce shock, not because they are unusual… but because of their unwomanly conduct. With their immorality and amorality, they challenge human conventions’. Lady Stoneheart certainly conducts herself with a sense of amorality, in what we see of her. She is bloodthirsty and willing to hang Brienne and Podrick for their links to those who sinned against her. Estelle Frankel also alludes to a trope of folklore in which ‘women die powerless, betrayed by men, and then rise as monsters’ (146) – which aligns with the events of the Red Wedding and its aftermath. Stoneheart thus becomes an ‘outlet of female power’ and a representation of the ‘outcast’ (146), who can finally come back and challenge all the norms and standards of the world that trapped and pillaged her. She is finally unleashed as a warped but individual and independent woman, who could potentially be involved in the power play of Westeros.


By the end of A Dance With Dragons, nearly all of Cersei’s family ties are dissolved as well. She has been reduced to beast and outcast after her walk of shame and time in captivity – it will be interesting to see how that has changed her in Winds of Winter. It may create a Stoneheart out of her, having to fight for herself and rebuild her own world.

The show captures some of Cersei’s anger at being stuck as a woman in a man’s world (as cited by Estelle Frankel), as she sees it, which appears many times in the books. In episode 4 of series 3, she rallies against Tywin:

‘Did it ever occur to you that I am the one that deserves your confidence and your trust? Not your sons. Not Jaime or Tyrion, but men. Years and years of lectures on family and legacy … Did it ever occur to you that your daughter might be the only one listening to them, living by them, that she might have the most to contribute?’

This parallels a quote from A Feast For Crows, where Cersei rises in the wake of her father’s death:
Cersei did not weep, no more than her father would have. I am the only true son he ever had.’ (FFC, 54)

And this remains one of my favourite scenes from the series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZKgxzW4J3o

Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls Series 4, Episode 5. Lena delivers that line so beautifully. It’s a little different to the book material but I think it ties in to Cersei’s mothering side and how hard it was for her when Myrcella was sent away. Perhaps part of her is playing Oberyn, to win him to her side, but I am certain there is something genuine in this scene too.

Her love for her children, whatever delusions accompany it, is certainly there in the books. Joffrey’s death is much more poignant in the book (on a separate note, so is Ygritte's - so moving) – even narrated by Tyrion, who, in that moment, sees just a scared thirteen year old boy, not a tyrannical menace: ‘the boy’s eyes met Tyrion’s. He has Jaime’s eyes. Only he’d never seen Jaime look so scared. The boy’s only thirteen. Joffrey was making a dry clacking noise, trying to speak. His eyes bulged white with terror … “Nooo,” Cersei wailed, “Father help him, someone help him, my son, my son…”’ (Storm of Swords Part 2, 257) and then ‘When he heard Cersei’s scream, he knew that it was over… His sister sat in a puddle of wine, cradling her son’s body. Her gown was torn and stained, her face white as chalk … it took two Kingsguard to pry loose her fingers’ (258).

Furthermore, unlike in the show, Jaime is not present at the wedding and Cersei can only describe it to him later: ‘If you had seen how Joff died… he fought, Jaime, he fought for every breath … He had such terror in his eyes … When he was little, he’d run to me when he was scared or hurt and I would protect him. But that night there was nothing I could do … Joff is dead and Myrcella’s in Dorne. Tommen’s all I have left.’ 429

This is Cersei at one of her moments of most profound and utter powerlessness. The inability to protect and save her child causes her immense grief and parallels Catelyn’s in the moment she kills Walder Frey’s wife, only for him not to care. Both are devastated by their own inability to save the ones they love. Both, driven mad by it.

In A Feast For Crows, Cersei is intensely protective of Tommen. When a sip of wine goes down the wrong way, she has a kind of panic attack and shows her true vulnerability:

‘My son is safe, Cersei told herself. No harm can come to him, not here, not now. Yet every time she looked at Tommen, she saw Joffrey clawing at his throat. And when the boy began to cough the queen’s heart stopped beating for a moment. She knocked aside a serving girl in her haste to reach him. … “I’m sorry, Mother,” Tommen said, abashed. It was more than Cersei could stand. I cannot let them see me cry, she thought, when she felt the tears welling in her eyes. She walked past Ser Meryn Trant and out into the back passage. Alone beneath a tallow candle, she allowed herself a shuddering sob, and another. A woman may weep, but not a queen.’ (FFC, 202)

She vows that no harm will come to him while she lives, she will ‘kill half the lords in Westeros and all the common people, if that was what it took to keep him safe’ (613). While Cersei’s point-of-view chapters don’t always do much to characterise her beyond her manipulations and schemes, she has moments of tenderness that we have not been privy to before:

“I will break my fast with the king this morning. I want to see my son.” All I do, I do for him. Tommen helped restore her to herself. He had never been more precious to her than he was that morning, chattering about his kittens as he dribbled honey onto a chunk of hot black bread fresh from the ovens… I was never so sweet and innocent, Cersei thought. How can he ever hope to rule in this cruel realm? The mother in her wanted only to protect him; the queen in her knew he must grow harder, or the Iron Throne was certain to devour him” 661-2

Certainly she is a warped character – as a daughter of Tywin Lannister, she was bound to be to some extent. She recognises her own youthful naivety in Sansa Stark and both punishes her and tries to protect her from it. But she is intelligent, fierce and protective – though she often channels these parts of herself in destructive ways. They are traits that Catelyn shares. Both make mistakes, they are human, but they are both far more complex women than they initially seem and of immense value to Martin’s writing. They deserve to be taken a little more seriously by watchers and readers – and show-runners. A character like Cersei, perhaps not always deserving of sympathy, still deserves an attempt at empathy.

Additionally, I would like to say that the series’ apparent omission of Arianne Martell is perhaps one of its most blatant disservices to women. One of the wonderful aspects about Dorne, which Oberyn tries to explain to Cersei in that scene I included, is that gender does not matter in terms of hierarchy – women can rule and be heirs – they can fight and hold their own, even the ‘bastards’ (see the Sand Snakes, Oberyn’s ‘bastard’ children). Arianne is the heir to Dorne. Yet the showrunners have appeared to erase her and transferred her status to a male character who is frankly not that interesting in the book. This is even more annoying given that she is going to a point-of-view character in Winds of Winter! Arianne, Stoneheart/Catelyn and Cersei, even a character like Val the wildling princess, would, if all featured in the TV show, have been complex female characters involved in the power play of Westeros – two, at least, in charge of men.

I do watch the show and have enjoyed it – brilliant casting, acting, settings, effects - but it does have its failings. I think some, completely made up, brothel scenes could be sacrificed – and I’m not convinced Talisa was a great character addition when they somehow made the Red Wedding even more horrible by having her stabbed in her pregnant stomach… Some of their creative decisions have not made sense (Tyrion and Jaime parting on good terms, then Tyrion going on a murderous rampage?!). I know it’s an impossible job to maintain consistency and continuity when condensing books of these sizes into a ten episode season of a one hour TV show, but Ros and Talisa are hardly more interesting than an Arianne or a Stoneheart, or even Tysha. Still, showrunners have said not to judge until they have finished their story, so we shall see how it plays out. In the meantime, I await the Winds of Winter with great interest. I thoroughly recommend readings the books for the immense plot and character detail that are there – it is a lot more rewarding.

Full Citation for Valerie Estelle Frankel:

-          Women in Game of Thrones: Power, Conformity and Resistance by Valerie Estelle Frankel. North Carolina: McFarland & Company inc., 2014



Saturday, March 28, 2015

Review: Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

*I received this book as an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review

‘Dates only make us aware of how numbered our days are, how much closer to death we are for each one we cross off. From now on, Punzel, we’re going to live by the sun and the seasons.’ He picked me up and spun me around, laughing. ‘Our days will be endless’

Our Endless Numbered Days was something a little different for my reading list and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I ended up reading it mostly in two sittings, completely immersed in Claire Fuller’s vivid prose and the way the narrative alternates between time-frames (the time spent in the forest, and the time after the return to civilisation).

Fuller weaves elements of the post-apocalyptic, the pastoral (hence the comparisons with Walden and Donoghue’s Room) and even suspenseful/psychological horror into her literary fiction, which she based on the ‘true’ life story of Robin van Helsum (a Dutch boy who claimed to have survived in a German forest with his father for 5 years). It’s a fascinating and mysterious premise which Fuller builds upon in an intriguing way, laying clues and lulling the reader into a false sense of security of ‘knowing’ what’s going to happen, or feeling as if they have predicted it (I felt the twists coming but their effect was in no way diminished). Instead, she has you, the reader, firmly where she wants you – right to the end.

It is Peggy’s father, James, who whisks her away to a hut (die Hütte) in the middle of a forest to begin a new life, away from civilisation. Initially he tells her that her mother, Ute, has died in a car crash while on tour; and then that civilisation itself has ended, and they are the only people left alive. The book's timeline begins in the 70s, depicting the ill-suited marriage of her mother and father and his involvement with a group of Survivalists who discuss methods for surviving the end of the world (amidst the historical context of the Cold War and the potential of nuclear catastrophe).  

‘They were members of the North London Retreaters. Every month they met at our house, arguing and discussing strategies for surviving the end of the world’

We know it takes Peggy nine years to return to her family – her mother, very much alive, and a brother she never knew she had - but we do not know just how much she has been changed or quite exactly what really happened in those woods until the end. She is by no means a reliable narrator, spending the formative years of her life alone in the woods with her increasingly unstable father. We become immersed in the experience of life in die Hütte, as young Peggy narrates it, delighting in the practical and the gritty aspects of survival – the skinning of squirrels, the hardships of winter, the descent of her father into madness and the possibility that they are not alone in those woods.

‘My father dropped a pile of foreign coins in her leathery palm and we hurried away. I had no idea this wind-worn woman, creased and bag-eyed, standing outside her barn with her cow on a rope, would be the last person I would meet from the real world for another nine years. Perhaps if I had known, I would have clung to the folds of her skirt, hooked my fingers over the waistband of her apron and tucked my knees around one of her stout legs. Stuck fast, like a limpet or a Siamese twin, I would have been carried with her when she rose in the morning to milk the cow, or into her kitchen to stir the porridge. If I had known, I might never have let her go'

In die Hütte, Peggy and her father construct a makeshift/imitation piano and music becomes both a way to stay sane and a measure of the descent into insanity.

‘If there was anyone else out there in all that blackness, a solitary note might flit through infinity and land on a shoulder to find its way inside that person’s head.’

Physically, Peggy becomes a young woman over those years and yet she is stuck in a state of timelessness, a feral unreality with a father who is so consumed by grief that he even sometimes confuses her identity.

The majority of the book is spent in the forest with Peggy and her father, and it is those sections you’ll want to re-read carefully come the end of the book. As a reader, you also enter a sense of timelessness as you read those years, so the change of pace and canter towards the ending is all the more startling and abrupt, leaving you with plenty to think about. A period of 8-9 years of daily, ritual survival in such a claustrophobic setting and without a concept of time or end-goal, could have been a challenge to read. But the sections in the forest do not lag because of the rich and vivid language and the interesting dynamic the two characters have with each other, themselves, and the world around them.

I found one moment particularly poignant and illuminative – where Peggy’s father tells her a bedtime story with her as the protagonist:

‘She heard the people of the world fighting with each other … they couldn’t live together happily. They lied to each other and when people do that, in the end, the world they have built will always come tumbling down. Punzel hated hearing the people of the world lie and argue. But one day she woke to find that the angry planet was silent; all she could hear was the sound of her father chopping wood for the stove and the animals asking her to come out to play. And Punzel was the happiest girl in the world.

Although he makes his daughter the protagonist, this says so much about James and whether he can be truly empathised or sympathised with. For him, there was a kind of apocalypse, one that destroyed everything he believed and made him renounce his faith in the world and the company of others. The book is also his tragedy, and the tragedy of a relationship/relationships gone wrong.

In a way, I would have been curious to continue to see what happened next – how Peggy recovers and assimilates back into everyday existence – whether she can get her grip back on reality or if the effects and beliefs of those years have left her with psychological scars that run too deep. Fuller’s chosen ending nevertheless allows your imagination to run wild, encouraging you to think more deeply about what has gone on, and it certainly packs an emotional and psychological punch. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Review: 'Reasons To Stay Alive' by Matt Haig

First - I very almost cried in public when I heard the news about Terry Pratchett's death. He was one of my favourite authors in my childhood. He was remarkable - from his open discussions about death and Alzheimer's and Assisted Dying, to his witty, imaginative and profound fantasy fiction with the Discworld series. He was a brilliant mind and human being who brought joy to so many. My thoughts are with all those who knew him and others suffering from Alzheimer's. 

One of the greatest fantasy authors of all time

- “‘I meant,’ said Ipslore bitterly, ‘What is there in this world that truly makes living worthwhile?” Death thought about it. Cats, he said eventually. Cats are nice.” 

- 'Goodness is about what you do. Not what you pray to.'

- 'WHO KNOWS WHAT EVIL LURKS IN THE HEART OF MEN?
The Death of Rats looked up from the feast of potato.
SQUEAK, he said.
Death waved a hand dismissively. WELL, YES, OBVIOUSLY ME, he said. I JUST WONDERED IF THERE WAS ANYONE ELSE' 

Secondly -


Following on from a post I did a month or two ago about The Humans, this is a post to honour Matt Haig and his brave and touching new book - part memoir, part self-help, part a-few-hours-in-the-mind-of-Haig. 

It chronicles the period in his twenties when, living in Ibiza, he came closest to attempting suicide, and reflects on his life before and after. Haig writes brilliantly - he has become one of my favourite contemporary authors, so this book is immensely readable - it is not a slog in any way (each section is only a couple of pages) and is full of light and hope and is tinged with his own brand of perceptive humour (always reminds me of Douglas Adams). I think this book is essential reading for ANYONE - for modern LIFE. It's very well balanced (Haig's use of listing is in itself a kind of literary trope) and it became a bestseller almost immediately. That a well-written book about mental health became a bestseller in its first week is testament to Haig's ability to capture an audience and to engage resonate with individuals of all ages - which he does brilliantly on Twitter too. 

I've included some extracts of my favourite parts - I have read widely on this subject, it features in some of my favourite novels and I know many who suffer. Hopefully this book will help people open up about their experiences and things they feel embarrassed or ashamed to talk about and will help others understand how to help and how to just be there for someone with depression - and not to quit when it gets hard.

Depression lies. Depression makes you think things that are wrong.
The thing to take from this first page is that, if you can, challenge every automatic thought you have - patterns and habits that you believe are the truth. Haig later writes: 'The key is in accepting your thoughts, all of them, even the bad ones. Accept the thoughts, but don't become them.'


'If someone loves you, let them'. That is a lot harder than it sounds for many. It can be so difficult to love someone who does not love themselves but if you help each other through then it can be so rewarding and create a much stronger and more intimate bond. There will be lows, and moments when you may feel like there's nothing you can do or that the person is attacking you for no reason, but understand that their vision may be impaired in that moment and they just need you to stay. It will be worth it (if they become abusive, that's another story. Obviously a situational approach is important). 


'Trees are great'. Obviously this resonated with me. Trees are awesome. Live among the trees. Also, cats. 

Anyone who quotes Camus is guaranteed a place in my heart. But seriously, both options can be equally terrifying - and that is when stasis and paralysis take hold. 


The existential horrors can make you feel alienated - like you're the only one able to see clearly and you want to wake everyone else up - stop them on their way into work, talk through the meaning of everything etc. But Haig also reminds us of the improbability of life - the minuscule chance that any one of us had of being the sperm that made it, the way our genes aligned precisely in order to make us as we are and it's big and scary and random and comforting all at the same time. 


'A physical body is a universe in itself'. We simplify far too much and are only beginning to scrape the surface of everything that a human is, particularly in relation to neuroscience.

Haig's symptoms.




Being hyper-sensitive can feel like a curse but it is also a gift and if you channel it positively - it can fuel creativity and innovation. You can access emotions and thoughts that others may not be open to. You can raise awareness and make brilliant art and see the world in different ways.


'Maybe love is just about finding the person you can be your weird self with'


Haig caters for all affected - which is also part of what makes this book great. One, Four and Six are absolutely crucial to remember, especially if you are in a relationship where it's just the two of you. 


Books are a chance to communicate on your own wavelength and it can be the greatest relief. Read, read widely, listen to music, seek out the things that make you feel heard and valued and safe. Challenge yourself when you can but never punish yourself. Books and art are the only real way we have of truly communicating with our minds - to truly reach the inner life of another human being. 


This is an important text to have on your bookshelf - you never know when you may need it - the chances are you or someone you know will experience depression or something similar during your lives and even if you don't, knowing about it and the way our mind works is still important, especially in a rapidly changing/evolving world (see http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/help-information/mental-health-statistics/UK-worldwide/). Haig has done something very important and I am looking forward to reading more from him in the future. I definitely recommend his novels as well! Let me know what you think and maybe some of your favourite reads on the same subject. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

Why You Should Read 'The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender' (aka You Should Read The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender)

People of earth. Human folk. Read this book. 

You will thank me forever. It will make you feel wonder and sorrow and joy and you will get that quiet/screaming/aching feeling that only the best writers can induce. 

1. This is not a children’s book. I can only just about understand its classification as YA - it's just too reductive to make it into a high-school metaphor for 'fitting in'. I think anyone who doesn’t come across or read this because of those genre classifications is missing out.

2. For me, quality-wise, this holds its own with the literary summits of Magical Realism (One Hundred Years of Solitude, Midnight's Children etc.) Obviously it is different in many ways, but it would comfortably sit alongside these on a bookshelf.

3. This book surprised and surprised me again - it was so unexpected and so very welcome. Ava Lavender is narrator and protagonist, in theory, but she does not take centre stage till the end. She is born with the wings of a bird, wings she seeks to hide under a cloak - afraid of being judged. In every other way she is just a girl, a girl with a very interesting and unconventional family.

4. I was equally engaged with the stories of each and every family member - the generations before her. Emilienne and Viviane particularly spoke to me (esp. the latter) - I felt so much for them and became so invested in their lives. It's not often in these 'generational sagas' that I can recall each generation or remain invested in them.

5. Leslye Walton unfolds it all so carefully and poetically that it tugs at your heart the whole way through - and not in any sappy, overbearing or sentimental way. You're explicitly being told a story, and yet nothing feels forced. It's like it's unravelling itself organically. The emotion is subtle and wrapped in the beautiful language and expressions. 

6. One reviewer perfectly expressed it – this story isn’t ‘sanitised’ for a 'fragile' audience (not a children's book). It was shocking, tragic, dark and traumatic in parts, but full of love of all kinds, in all its broken forms and all its best. It’s a fable and fairytale that rings with eternal truths. 

7. It’s full of broken, scarred people – love's victims. People who had to overcome great odds. People who lost in love but continued and found meaning. Some of the best people.

8. I want to write so much - about Viviane Lavender and Jack Griffith and Gabe and Emilienne and Rowe and Henry and the bakery... about broken promises and regrets and friendship and family... but I just can’t divulge too much because you need to experience it as I did. I don’t even want to say what themes there are because I want you to be as stunned and grateful as I was. I don’t want to rob you of any measure of the experience. 

Instead, I will leave you just with some snippets of Leslye Walton’s magic.

- The bird-watcher never noticed Pierette’s drastic attempt at gaining his affection and instead moved to Louisiana, drawn by its large population of Pelecanus occidentalis. Which only goes to show, some sacrifices aren’t worth the cost. Even, or perhaps most especially, those made out love. 14

- If the past had taught her anything, it was that as long as she didn’t love someone, he wasn’t as likely to die or disappear 29

- By this point Viviane Lavender had loved Jack Griffith for twelve years, which was far more than half of her life. If she thought of her love as a commodity, and were, say, to eat it, it would fill 4,745 cherry pies. If she were to preserve it, she would need 23,725 glass jars and labels and a basement spanning the length of Pinnacle Lane. If she were to drink it, she’d drown. 107

- I found it ironic that I should be blessed with wings and yet feel so constrained, so trapped. It was because of my condition, I believe, that I noticed life’s ironies a bit more often than the average person. I collected them: how love arrived when you least expected it, how someone who said he didn’t want to hurt you eventually would. 173

- And that might just be the root of the problem: we’re all afraid of each other, wings or no wings.” 177

 - But while the thought of being dead seemed appealing, the actual act of dying did not. Dying required too much action. And if recent events proved anything, my body wasn’t going to give over to death without a fierce fight; so if I were to kill myself, I’d have to make sure I could do it. That I’d be good and dead once it was all over and not mutilated or half deranged but still dreadfully alive. 287

Friday, February 27, 2015

'That's for saying 'feminist' like it's a four letter word, creep.' - Reading Thor #5

I picked up the new issue of Thor the other day, fascinated by the new direction they're taking and the recent controversy of - a woman picking up the hammer! I loved this issue - it's written with guts and its pointed and barbed comments at the critics of it's new direction are brilliant. I can't wait to read the rest of the series. The new Thor is mysterious, divisive and a pretty intriguing character already. Jason Aaron has written it very well and I love the bold, colourful art by Jorge Molina. It makes a real fearless statement. 

Odin, All-Father, is not very happy about how events transpired but Thor Odinson has accepted the worthiness of his successor and retreated to the pub.

Creel is a comical villain, the mouthpiece for the sexism that has abounded in recent months. He tells Thor she has picked the wrong 'fella to play dress-up with' and that 'damn feminists are ruining everything!'. He then calls her 'Tinkerbell' and asked if she sent Thor Odinson to 'sensitivity training'... ugh. 

She surprises him with some new hammer moves of her own, laying down her own style and then breaks his jaw for 'saying 'feminist' like it's a four letter word, creep'. It's amazing. There's been a lot of backlash to feminism recently and I just find it quite confusing because for me, feminism isn't one definite thing. I don't relate at all to any 'man-haters' or people who blame men for all situations. Many women perpetuate sexist stereotypes too. Equality between the sexes works both ways - men face many kinds of sexism too. But feminism, for me, is more individual - something that a woman can take for herself, internally - but also something that crucially starts a discourse in society for things that maybe haven't been talked about before, that gives others courage to take part. It's something positive, creative and intellectually and individually empowering, rather than aggressive or destructive - it should not target or blame anyone necessarily. It can work on making small yet significant changes and hopefully make big ones for women around the world who are not as fortunate as we are. Like anything it has different sections, extremes, and people who think different things and probably don't agree with each other. 
In comics and books and films and culture - I just want diversity and relatability and good complex characters - it's not about point-scoring or forcing things, though obviously big steps to make change sometimes feel forced at first before they settle. At the Oscars recently, so many picked up on the negatives in Patricia Arquette's speech and judged her and attacked her without knowing the first thing about her. I think she was talking about her character in the film as well as herself and had good, positive intentions. I commend her for using the stage to try and be productive. No one is right about everything and no one expresses it correctly all the time. We all contradict ourselves - we all learn. But it's good to try and use our voices, to take criticism, acknowledge it and learn but also to stick by what we believe so long as we've thought it through. It's important that we accept being challenged because that's the only way our ideas can improve - but it's got to be rational challenging, not vicious or derogatory or mocking.  
'Thor is Thor'. With Batgirls, Supergirl/woman, Spiderwoman etc. it's kind of refreshing to have Thor just be Thor. It was nice that the women in this issue, even the villain, felt some kind of bond with and respect for this new Thor. There was no jealousy, back-stabbing or feeling the need to put it each other down. Women were well-represented. 
'It would seem neither of us place much faith in what we have been told'. Thank you Jason Aaron for sticking to your guns. It looks like Odinson will remain on the scene, which is still quite nice given the affection fans have for him and it will be interesting to see what role he can play, given that his father is intent on hunting down and discovering the secrets of this new Thor. It's implied that she may be someone we already know from the Marvel universe and her identity looks like one of the plot-lines that will drive the series. This is definitely one of the more interesting Marvel twists lately and I hope all fans are looking forward to the future and just having a great range of characters.
If I was to bring my degree into this I'd say some of the scenes with Odinson depict the 'castrated' male, comically emasculated - no I can't do it.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Review: The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig

*I received this book as an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review

'A history written in ashes, in bones. Before the blast, they say there'd been sermons about fire, about the end of the world. The fire itself gave the last sermon; after that there were no more.'

The Fire Sermon is the much anticipated first novel of a post-apocalyptic trilogy penned by poet Francesca Haig

Since the nuclear blast that separated the world into Before and After, every person is born with a twin – an Omega (physically deformed in some way and consequently branded and cast out) and an Alpha (a perfect, human specimen). The antagonism between Alpha and Omega is complicated by a simple fact: one twin’s death will always result in the other’s. Powerful Alphas instead choose to lock their Omega counterpart away for safekeeping while others are simply sent to live far away in towns of their own, rejected by their families.

Cass and her twin Zach are unusual, having remained unidentified until their early teens because Cass carries no physical deformity. She is a Seer – plagued by psychic visions and dreams and a different way of thinking. As a rare anomaly herself, she is valuable to both sides knows only that she must inform the Omegas what the Alphas are planning before it’s too late.

I think the premise for the book has potential but I did feel this first one fell a bit flat. In The Hunger Games/Divergent climate, I think this had to do more to distinguish itself - to push the boundaries and conventions and really cement its world and characters. Instead there’s the reluctant female protagonist boy fight over - but without a lot of depth or development, and a hint at a love-triangle between characters who haven’t yet been established strongly enough to feel for. The problem with Kip’s blank slate (a boy that Cass rescues) is that there’s very little for the reader to identify with and see in him, it’s hard to engage with him as more than a companion who occasionally makes amusing quips. I really want Haig to give the reader more in the sequels. More insight, more internal life, more complexity, more basis for how the world is, more believability, more emotion. (I actually kept recalling Garth Nix and Sabriel while reading this, more than The Hunger Games and definitely more than The Road (both of which are referenced in the blurb) – I think it was the scenes of adventure and travelling as well as the relationship between Kip and Cass.)

There is potential - The Fire Sermon plants seeds which could really have blossomed into interesting and novel dystopian territory if they had been picked up and allowed to grow. Things such as:

  • Disability, illness and stigma – the treatment of the disabled as well as the way that Cass is an outsider to both Alphas and Omegas because she is not physically marked. The idea of people being blamed for their disabilities and misfortunes by those in power.
  • Gender politics – Zach feeling afraid of Cass and that she’s taking away his rights by trying to remain entitled and equal
  • Nuclear disaster– the chemical effects of some kind of disaster are a really interesting path to open up, considering things like the Bhopal disaster, events in Japan and throughout history. The Before is hopefully something Haig will explore in the sequels.
  • Technology - the dangers of technology are hinted at but not explored in this one ('people in the Before asked too many questions, probed too far, and look what that got them.')
  • Nazism and eugenics – there are a lot of similarities to the suffering of the Jews in the war – including imprisonment, branding and the idea of a superior race/biology. 


I like it a lot more when I think about the book from the perspective of disability and illness, maybe combined with nuclear disaster. The Alphas believe the Omegas carry the effects of the poison – and have become synonymous with it – they literally brand them as outcasts. Cass’s case could equally be aligned with mental illness and stigma attached to it – the sense of having no physical symptoms and the discomfort and mistrust in others that that provokes. As a main character with a complex disposition, I would have liked to engage with her more - but there wasn't a great deal of interiority. 

For me, Haig has created some great material but just hasn’t done enough with it yet or gone deeply enough to really make it affect me emotionally or intellectually. Perhaps too much happens too quickly, there is too much telling and not enough showing – though it is difficult to fault Haig’s prose itself. I would have liked to see Zach and Cass’s relationship explored more deeply and the twin bond to really be probed. The final chapters were action-packed and written well but did not have as much impact as they could have, had things been more developed throughout. The love story was sadly cold and unconvincing – as were many of the relationships – even parental.

Having said this, I do want to read on and I will read the next books because I think there is something here which just needs to be drawn out and committed to, but I currently have very mixed feelings about this one as a launching pad.


N.B. I do love, love, love the cover – if you want to see how it was made go to (it’s a really special, interesting process): http://lexiesox.tumblr.com/ - she’s a brilliant designer and has done some great book covers in the past (including one of my favourites – The Shock of the Fall). 

Monday, February 23, 2015

'The past stays on you the way powdered sugar stays on your fingers': The Night Circus and Magical Realism

‘The past stays on you the way powdered sugar stays on your fingers. Some people can get rid of it but it’s still there, the events and things that pushed you to where you are now.’ - Widget (250)

It's just exquisite.

Those sentences just epitomise the magical quality of the storytelling that you will find in Erin Morgenstein's The Night Circus. It's tactile, completely sensory; you can taste it, visualise it, touch it with your fingertips. I have never been so uniquely immersed in a story. It is thick with the smell and texture of dark caramel, coffee roast, warm and salted popcorn that melts on your tongue – all of these are repeated sensory motifs. You begin to see in black and white, with flashes of red.

There are a few reviews that have complained about the lack of depth to the characters and to the love story. I would challenge them to approach it differently - as a work of Magical Realism. This is not the story of Celia or of Marco, or even of Celia and Marco. This is the story of the circus, as a living breathing entity. The circus is the central character and it develops beautifully, those around it flick in and out over generations. For many narratives, I would be the first to jump on any weaknesses in character development or relatability - but this is an entirely different experience. As a reader, you live and breathe it all as you spend your own time at the circus - an experience enhanced by the intermittent sections of second person narrative (the rest is told in third person omniscient, and reads almost like a fable or fairytale).

Celia and Marco are the victims of a game, of which the circus is the stage and tool, which they were bound into by their respective mentors – two egotistical magicians who disagree on teaching methods. Celia’s life is bound to this game by her own father – who essentially bets her life for his own pride. But as the game progresses, Celia and Marco come to realise it is not only their fates that are tied to the circus and things begin to get messy. The question is: can they break the chains of this fate set out for them without destroying each other and those around them?
The red-haired twins, Poppet and Widget, who are born on the opening night of the circus remind me of another work of Magical Realism – Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (where the protagonist, Saleem Sinai is born at the exact moment of Indian independence and possesses mysterious powers). I’m not sure if this was a deliberate tribute or reference but it’s a lovely parallel in the genre. Poppet can see flickers of the future, while Widget can read the past on people. Other intriguing characters are the clockmaker Herr Friedrick Thiessen and young Bailey – the boy who longs to escape from his home and becomes enchanted by the circus.

Celia and Marco’s story is used to further illuminate the circus – they imbue it with magic and fantasy and unrelenting beauty – creating new tents and worlds for each other. It is a place where actual magic is made to seem like an illusion – rather than the reverse. It is a romance played out through art and creativity and it is lovely to watch it unfold, dancing before your eyes.

They want to believe that magic is nothing but clever deception, because to think it real would keep them up at night, afraid of their own existence…’ – the Man in the Grey Suit (482)

There’s a particularly memorable conversation between Widget and the Man in the Grey Suit late in the book when Widget begins to doubt if his story-telling is important:

Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang Souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There’s magic in that. It’s in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift. Your sister may be able to see the future, but you yourself can shape it, boy. Do not forget that… there are many kinds of magic, after all’ - the Man in the Grey Suit (482)

It’s a brilliant, almost self-conscious, commentary on the act of writing and could be about the book itself. Morgenstein understands that not everyone will comprehend the Circus or what she is doing in this semi-experimental narrative, but that does not stop it being important or reaching others.
I was sad when this book ended, the ending resists high drama, or the tragic explosive climax I was expecting, instead it slips away but maintains a quiet power.
I would definitely read this book again, and again. It's a wonderful escape - a relief from every day life. It may not be everyone's cup of tea but there are many kinds of magic, and not all of them suit every reader.

Our revels are now ended. These our actors
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-clapp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself, 
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life 
Is rounded with a sleep
- Prospero, The Tempest, Act IV, Scene 1 
(Quoted in The Night Circus)