Monday, January 26, 2015

Talking about a generation: Solitaire by Alice Oseman

I love stumbling upon unique, well-written, relatable YA books (if they must be classed as such) which offer something a little niched. Alice Oseman has written one of these. It captured me instantly and was refreshing, personal and original for nearly the whole thing.

Now I adore narratives such as those in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the Catcher in the Rye etc. so Solitaire greatly appealed. It’s in the vein of being a kind of coming-of-age story dealing with the darker side of growing up in an honest and sometimes darkly humorous way – the troubled, despondent and brutally honest protagonist who exposes the ‘phoney-ness’ of the society around them. 

Tori was a strong, complex lead character and had a modern, relevant and darkly humorous narrative voice. But what was great was that she was surrounded by other developed and engaging characters who were very much on a par with her – such as her brother, Charlie, and new friend, Michael Holden. The story with her brother, in particular, was very affecting and I felt much more invested in his life and the other characters lives even without the mystery blog plotline. These three were equally memorable and individualised characters and everything felt very real – anyone at school today knows a Ben Hope, a Becky etc – but that didn't mean they were two-dimensional in any way.

Michael was a refreshing contrast/counter to Tori. He was kind of zany and unusual – defying all the usual genre conventions of the ‘male opposite to the female lead’. I was genuinely interested in him because he was so different. As a reader you feel hopeful that he’s not just a ‘love interest’ – you genuinely don’t know what role he will come to play in Tori’s life. We find out new, surprising things about him as Tori does – some quirky, some frightening, some lovable. This description nailed it for me:

Very ordinary-looking, not ugly but not hot, miscellaneous boy… I notice that he has one blue eye and one green eye. Heterochromia. He grins violently.’

I love that Oseman describes Michael as ‘miscellaneous’. Weirdly it made me warm to him because it simultaneously suggested he was anything but (in the ways that matter). The heterochromia and violent grin really cement him as this ray of difference in a character-scape of conformity present in so many high-school narratives - as Tori narrates: ‘the large majority of teenagers who attend Higgs are soulless, conformist idiots… sometimes I still feel that I might be the only person with a consciousness, like a video-game protagonist, and the rest are computer-generated extras who have only a select few actions, such as ‘initiate meaningless conversation’ and ‘hug’. I’m sure many can relate to that feeling and it’s brilliantly and succinctly expressed. Tori’s negativity never grated on me as it was always felt honest and was often tainted with humour. In Tori, Oseman has created a character that has very obvious faults but you very much care about and are invested in. She also never really puts any labels relating to mental health on things – not definitively anyway – which means that Tori isn’t a character you can easily push into a box or categorise, she does feel very much like an individual who is trying to work out who she is and where she fits – not having to conform to a type.

Within the first few pages there are some great, simple sentences which express volumes and invite you in straight away:

‘I think you should know that I make up a lot of stuff in my head and then get sad about it.’ (2)

‘Sometimes I hate people. This is probably very bad for my mental health.’ (4)

And this one is particularly endearing and pretty much cemented my desire to read on:

‘Personally, thinking or talking too much about ‘boy issues’ makes me want to shoot myself in the face’ (5)

I don’t think I’ve read those lines before anywhere else. I kind of rejoiced. I’m not dismissing those issues, but it’s not the only part of growing up – there is so much that’s pushed under the rug just to focus on ‘boy issues’ in books, as if romance must be included at all costs with an insistence that all teenagers are in the throes of some hormonal/sexual craze and if they’re not, or not pursuing these experiences, than they’re abnormal. There is no one YA/teen experience – there is no normal, and this is what Oseman really succeeds at showing.
There are some moments in this novel that really stand out and showcase just how naturally talented Alice Oseman is as a writer – and how much more there is to come from her. She captures the essence of things so perfectly at these times and creates some memorable pieces of prose that you wouldn’t be surprised to find in a novel with the cult status of Perks or Catcher in the Rye.

‘I caught a reflection of myself in a Waterstones window and I realised then that most of my face was covered up and who in the name of God would want to talk to me like that and I started to feel all of this hair on my forehead and my cheeks and how it plastered my shoulders and back and I felt it creeping around me like worms, choking me to death. I began to breathe very fast, so I went straight into the nearest hairdresser’s and had it all cut to my shoulders and out of my face.’

You can see just in this excerpt how the writing builds this claustrophobia and sense of panic and crisis by drawing out the sentence, the repeated use of ‘and’ – building and building, increasing to a dramatic climax without you noticing or feeling forced into it – you’re empathising all the way through – as if you’re Tori, suddenly aware of the oppressiveness of the very hair on your head. It’s violent and dark and frightening and just simple but natural and brilliant. There’s a rush of relief and victory when she cuts it away.

The core of the plot negotiates the social media/blogging/tumblr generation – the need for self-promotion, self-expression and a sense of self-importance. A need for some part of the external world to revolve around yourself. With the Solitaire blog, Tori has to experience the world revolving around her, but beyond her control – and how frightening that can be - a possible symptom of the cyber-age where information is accessible and it is easy to lose power and control as quickly as you feel you gain it.

*Spoilers ahead*

The tagline of the novel – ‘this is not a love story’ (made me think of 500 Days of Summer) – is where I felt slightly cheated once I put down the book. It so almost stayed true to this. And if I’m being fair, it wasn’t a love story – at least not primarily. The ‘love’ bit felt incidental at the end – and I think I’d almost have preferred it if Michael and Tori could have had just a strong platonic bond. That was what I came to be invested in, more than any romantic climax in front of the school burning down. Those final events didn’t click for me – I found the ending as a whole, and the resolution of the blog plotline, perhaps too melodramatic and unsubtle. I thought the idea, and the negotiation of the blogging age, was really clever and done in a layered and unbiased way which evoked the positives as well as the negatives, but I can’t quite pin down where it slipped at the end.

These are my only two qualms over Solitaire and by that point the book already had me convinced that I’d be recommending it to readers of all ages in the future. The overriding strength is Tori’s voice coupled with some genuine, diverse and interesting characters and Oseman’s own smart, sharp and relevant writing style. I would definitely read it again and recommend it to anyone growing up in this digital age where our lives are online and we relate to people in different ways. if you’re looking for a refreshing protagonist – a refreshing cast of characters in general – then Tori and Solitaire are it. I’m really looking forward to reading more from Oseman in the future – I can personally relate to so much of what she writes, she depicts that generation so perfectly (plus I respect her for achieving what I once dreamed of and with something of real relevance and value). 

What did you think of Solitaire? Could it become this generation's Perks or Catcher


‘I don’t blog to get more followers or whatever. I’m not Evelyn. It’s just that it’s not socially acceptable to say depressing stuff out loud in the real world because people think that you’re attention-seeking. I hate that. So what I’m saying is that it’s nice to be able to say whatever I want. Even if it is only on the Internet.’

‘I actually think that a lot of people are very beautiful, and maybe even more beautiful when they’re not aware of it themselves. In the end, though, being beautiful doesn’t do much for you as a person apart from raise your ego and give you an increased sense of vanity.’

‘He shakes his head. “You know all the names to books, but you haven’t read a single one. It’s like it’s raining money, but you refuse to catch a single coin.”’

‘Everyone is okay with hurting people. Or maybe they cannot see that they’re hurting people. But I can.’ - the plight of the hyper sensitive

‘I think about the sea of anonymous students who had been so excited to watch this. It reminds me of the people who watched the beating-up of Ben Hope, jeering, laughing at pain. The crowd that had jumped up and down like children at the fireworks at The Clay, while the injured ran, terrified, burning. I close my fist. The piece of wood dissolves into dust.' - Oseman evokes the mob mentality that you can find online, the danger of the mass consciousness where people lose themselves. 

“Thought for the day,” says Michael. He lifts one hand and touches the bandage on my arm, fiddling with the frayed edges at my wrist. “Do you think that, if we were happy for our entire lives, we would die feeling like we’d missed out on something?”

Monday, January 5, 2015

'I need to find the edge of me' - a female superhero for our age? Introducing Carol Danvers' Captain Marvel

In light of my recent post on Carrie, aka Robin, in the Dark Knight Returns – I thought I’d do another relatively brief (in terms of depth) post on a female graphic novel/comic character. One of the gifts I received for Christmas was the first issue of the most recent Captain Marvel (by Kelly Sue DeConnick) collection – one of Marvel’s new(ish) diversifying characters. Now I am no comic buff (yet) and have only come to graphic novels quite recently but I have always had an interest in the superhero genre and an interest in diversity and women in literature - particularly dystopia. So I want to learn - this post is as much for me as for you guys!

I want to introduce those of you who don’t know to Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel (the latest of many but sure to become one of the most prominent female superheroes).

First a bit of backstory  which isn’t evident in the comic. (I admit this is heavily simplified and not comprehensive. For a look at the controversial side of her history see this link:

Carol is not just a new character conveniently assigned to fulfil a quota of female superheroes and protagonists which the comic/gaming world has been under pressure to provide (I am one of the people who want these – obviously there is though a tension between forcing it and creating natural/organic characters who are individuals and not just created for the sake of political correctness. Perhaps though this stage is necessary to get to the desired outcome. Diversity is something that has to be promoted and should ultimately only benefit the comic universe). 

Carol Danvers has been in the Marvel universe for a long time though it is only in the past two/three years that she has become THE Captain Marvel. Prior to this she was Ms Marvel and before that – a member of the Air Force and a Security Chief of a military base. Growing up she fought (notably against her father) for equal pay for women and to be deemed worthy in her father’s eyes in spite of his negligence. She received better grades but her brother was sent to college over her. She faced many civil struggles that women of the age were facing and confronted them with her characteristic stubbornness and refusal to play by others' rules. 

Carol is the incarnation of Captain Marvel which is going to be released as a film in 2018 – a credible female-led Marvel movie! This basically confirms she will be around for a while. She first came into existence in Marvel Super-Heroes #13 in 1968 and became Ms. Marvel in 1977. She becomes a human-Kree hybrid after being rescued by the then Captain Marvel in the 60s. The title ‘Ms.’ is definitively intended to release her from simple categorisation by marital status. As is typical in the comic world – her character has been changed over time, given different aliases, had stories written and unwritten and been given a variety of different characteristics. Overall though, she is shown to be confident (with a large ego!), stubborn, independent and highly powerful. She has super-strength, can fly, shoot energy beams from her hands and has a pretty practical suit which isn't gratuitously showing off her assets to the extent that we see in many female heroes, and villains, in the comic-verse. 

In the 2000s Danvers is on Iron Man’s side in Civil War (as an advocate of the Superhuman Registration Act) – which causes a rift in the Avengers. In DeConnick’s first go at the Captain Marvel storyline with Danvers, she interacts with and grows close to Spiderman and gains high rank in the Avengers team. Danvers is then effectively rebooted as Captain Marvel (a post-trauma/memory loss Captain Marvel who is trying to rediscover herself) in Higher, Further, Faster, More where she realises her dreams of working in space and joins forces with the Guardians of the Galaxy. Carol sets off to return an alien girl to her home world and defend a people who are being taken advantage of by the Spartax, and she does it in lovable, head-strong style. 

In a recent article by Time, which talks about Captain Marvel and the relationship comics have with feminism, Kelly Sue DeConnick outlines her goal in writing female comic book characters (

'“The test that I always give young writers is if you can take out your female character and replace her with a sexy lamp and your plot still functions, you’re doing it wrong,” says DeConnick. “You would be surprised how many times this is actually done. These women are purely there to inspire or motivate or reward or sometimes decorate. I don’t want all of our female characters to be good or to be role models. I just want them to have an interior life. If you can’t answer for me what does this character want in this scene, you’re not writing a woman, you’re writing a lamp. Start over.”'

The crucial thing, for me, is the sense she alludes to of interiority - a character's individual needs, dreams, and inner world. We get this with Carol in Higher, Further, Faster, More in one particularly thoughtful scene, as she contemplates her ambition of going to space:

'Have you ever seen a little girl run so fast she falls down? There's an instant, a fraction of a second before the world catches hold of her again... A moment when she's outrun every doubt and fear she's ever had about herself and she flies. In that one moment, every little girl flies. I need to find that again. Like taking a car out into the desert to see how fast it can go, I need to find the edge of me... And maybe, if I fly far enough, I'll be able to turn around and look at the world... And see where I belong.'

Weirdly my only criticism is that this kind of insight doesn't really arise again - but this is perhaps unfair to level at the first part of a reboot. I guess that will only come with time. I wanted perhaps a longer comic that tried to plumb the depths a little more. But the adventure is still very enjoyable and does make you want to read more. Danvers is a self-proclaimed fan of two things – Star Wars and punching things so she is perfect as the only Avenger representative in space. It is a decision she takes at the cost of her relationship, but in a genuinely touching scene both she and the Iron Patriot agree it is what she needs and deserves. She gives up her relationship to focus on herself - and maybe it seems idealistic and contrived but it also makes a point of her independence and ambition, her refusal to compromise in issues of self-knowledge and integrity (makes more sense if you know about the memory trauma from previous versions). How can she love if she is not self-aware? Her relationship would never be fulfilling until she has more idea of her own being and her purpose. This moment is probably my favourite part and will definitely linger in my mind.  Also see this really beautiful post about the importance of the Captain Marvel movie for many women:

I think this comic is great for all ages - it's an exciting, clever, amusing and exhilarating adventure story with some of the most entertaining heroes, it features many diverse characters (and species) and includes a non-hetero romance (albeit briefly). Carol has great potential as a hero to connect with a new generation of young girls and women - and hopefully boys too. I just hope DeConnick can delve deep into this character and create a cast around her that will engage as many as possible. And I hope they get the casting right for the film so that they can give the Captain some gravitas and not just a preen and pretty face.


Friday, December 12, 2014

'To be on Earth is to be frightened': Reading Matt Haig's 'The Humans'

I haven’t had a spare second to write this in the last few weeks but I really enjoyed Matt Haig’s The Humans. To be honest, I was a Matt Haig fan before I even started reading his books. He writes some really great, balanced incisive and rational things on Twitter and on various other sites/newspapers/comment sections – promoting reading and empathy above all. I can relate to or agree with a lot of them. His new book, Reasons to Stay Alive is coming out early next year.

The Humans is great because of Matt Haig and his voice. He manages to balance a Douglas Adams Hitchhiker-esque sense of humour and satire with some profound and affecting insights into human life. On one level it’s very simple, the plot is even quite predictable, but following it as it unfolds is still very rewarding. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea but there’s a sense of integrity that I associate with this author where you can really trust what he’s saying and know that he means it – and if you can relate to it- it’s wonderful.

I think it’s absolutely necessary that readers try and empathise with this alien and view human life for what it is – from an outsider’s perspective. It’s something the world can really do with – learning to be objective, to step outside the familiar and be an alien for a while. The alien is kind of a metaphor and/or vessel for doing this. It can point out the inconsistencies in our lives and the illogical nuances of human behaviour that society has bred.  I loved Camus for doing this in a way with Meursault in The Outsider, and I appreciate how Rand did it with Howard Roark and co. It’s important to step into different shoes, to question everything, even if it reaffirms what you think already – there’s never anything to lose from doing it. The people we cast as the outsiders and disassociate with – sometimes it’s important to put them in context and look through their eyes (this doesn’t necessitate agreeing with them or endorsing them). Instead of vilifying people, try to first understand them. Human life may not matter in the grand scheme of things – in the infinite universe, but it matters for each individual and the relationships they foster and the actions they take and the things they write.

In The Humans, the alien narrator is sent to earth to take the form of Cambridge professor Andrew Martin in order to prevent him making a mathematical breakthrough that would render humanity too advanced – and would give this ‘ugly’ species too much power to be trusted with. All traces of Martin’s discovery – including the people he may have told and those too close to him (his wife and teenage son) to be trusted – must be eradicated. The alien coming to understand and relate to human life is not particularly new for a conceit and the story could be seen as simplistic as it evolves - but there is something in this eclectic bunch of characters (the suicidal teenage son and the tired, neglected wife) - as well as the genuinely funny, interesting and ambitious narrative voice - that makes this book feel special and unique.

Haig has talked openly and refreshingly about his mental health struggles and mental health in general and these certainly play into the novel on occasion - and, in a way, this book is about rediscovering that sense of wonder that can be found in some human behaviour – in love and family and friendship. Whereas his species had typecast humanity negatively as violent and brutish and irrational, the alien narrator discovers the wonder and joy and positivity that is also present in human life. The chapter entitled ‘Advice for a Human’ is kind of a love letter to anyone struggling with depression or emotional problems of any kind. Below I have listed some of my favourites of the points (there are 100! I have separated my comments on them with a dash) – they are great reminders and corrections to habits of thinking:

Advice for humans:

13. You shouldn’t have been born. Your existence is as close to impossible as can be. To dismiss the impossible is to dismiss yourself. – think about it for a minute. Think about the chances of fertilisation and the combination of genes and nature and nurture and every component of who you are and what it took to make you right at this moment. The millions of sperm, the generations before you – the chance of your parents meeting. You are utterly unique and utterly unlikely.

14. Your life will have 25,000 days in it. Make sure you remember some of them. – you are finite. You have limited time. Decide what to do with it and have no regrets.

19. Read poetry. Especially poetry by Emily Dickinson. It might save you. Anne Sexton knows the mind, Walt Whitman knows grass, but Emily Dickinson knows everything. – I love Emily Dickinson. She’s my favourite poet. I love that Matt Haig loves Emily Dickinson. I feel like our minds are related.

30. Don’t aim for perfection. Evolution, and life, only happen through mistakes.

38. Walt Whitman was right about at least one thing. You will contradict yourself. You are large. You contain multitudes. – this is so important and something that I needed reminding about. It’s not important to be right. No one is always right and nothing is always right. Embrace contradictions but still don’t shy away from thinking.

39. No one is ever completely right about anything. Anywhere. – ditto.

52. If you are laughing, check that you don’t really want to cry. And vice versa. – emotional extremes can be so interlinked.

53. Don’t ever be afraid of telling someone you love them. There are things wrong with your world, but an excess of love is not one.  – I love this. Sure it’s sentimental, but it doesn’t mean it’s not true. Don’t apologise or feel guilty for what you feel.

66. As a black hole forms it creates an immense gamma-ray burst, blinding whole galaxies with light and destroying millions of worlds. You could disappear at any second. This one. Or this one. Make sure, as often as possible, you are doing something you’d be happy to die doing.

72. Most humans don’t think about things very much. They survive by thinking about needs and wants alone. But you are not one of them. Be careful. – thinking and feeling too much is both a gift and a curse. But never give it up in favour of the alternative.

82. If you think something is ugly, look harder. Ugliness is just a failure of seeing.

88. Which is to say: don’t kill yourself. Even when the darkness is total. Always know that life is not still. Time is space. You are moving through that galaxy. Wait for the stars. – he’s addressing this to Andrew Martin’s son.

90. But know this. Men are not from Mars. Women are not from Venus. Do not fall for categories. Everyone is everything. Every ingredient inside a star is inside you, and every personality that ever existed competes in the theatre of your mind for the main role. – we are of the same material as stars. Categories are not everything. Often, they’re not anything.

I keep recommending this book to people and I’ve said what I wanted to say about it. Ultimately it will affect each individual differently – I know that it is one I will return to and I can’t wait to read more from Haig and to keep thinking and reading along with him. I love books that make me think and reach me deeply and this did both brilliantly. I love Haig’s style – combining mathematics (prime numbers especially) and logic with human feeling and negotiating some of the irrationalities too. There aren’t so many straightforward divisions as we think.

Some more great quotes:

‘For those that don’t know, a human is a real bipedal life-form of mid-range intelligence, living a largely deluded existence on a small water-logged planet in a very lonely corner of the universe’ 1

‘Humans, as a rule, don’t like mad people unless they are good at painting, and only then once they are dead. But the definition of mad, on Earth, seems to be very unclear and inconsistent. What is perfectly sane in one era turns out to be insane in another. The earliest humans walked around naked with no problem. Certain humans, in humid rainforests mainly, still do so. So we must conclude that madness is sometimes a question of time, and sometimes of postcode.’ 32

‘To be on Earth is to be frightened.’ 33

The narrator’s instructors: ‘the humans are an arrogant species, defined by violence and greed. They have taken their home planet, the only one they currently have access to, and placed it on the road to destruction. They have created a world of divisions and categories and have continually failed to see the similarities between themselves.’ 46 – they’re absolutely right – but the alien narrator is also absolutely right.

‘As well as religion, human history is full of depressing things like colonisation, disease, racism, sexism, homophobia, class snobbery, environmental destruction, slavery, totalitarianism, military dictatorships, inventions of things which they have no idea how to handle (the atomic bomb, the Internet, the semi-colon), the victimisation of clever people, the worshipping of idiotic people, boredom, despair, periodic collapses, and catastrophes within the psychic landscape. And through it all there has always been some truly awful food.’ 77

To be a human is to state the obvious. Repeatedly, over and over, until the end of time.’ 78

‘Everywhere you can see in their sky, or almost everywhere, is lifeless. That must affect them. That must give them ideas above their station. That must send them insane.’ 123

‘That’s what starts to happen, when you know it is possible for you to feel pain you have no control over. You become vulnerable. Because the possibility of pain is where love stems from.’ 165

‘Life, especially human life, was an act of defiance. It was never meant to be, and yet it existed in an incredible number of places across a near-infinite amount of solar systems. There was no such things as impossible. I knew that, because I also knew that everything was impossible, and so the only possibilities in life were impossibilities.’ 172

‘Social networking: it was the news show they had been waiting for. It was the show where the news could be all about them.’ 184

‘Love is scary because it pulls you in with an intense force, a supermassive black hole which looks like nothing from the outside but from the inside challenges every reasonable thing you know. You lose yourself, like I lost myself, in the warmest of annihilations.’ 196

‘The problem lying behind the lack of human fulfilment was a shortage not just of time but of imagination. They found a day that worked for them and then stuck to it, and repeated it, at least between Monday and Friday. Even if it didn’t work for them – as was usually the case – they’d stuck to it anyway. Then they’d alter things a bit and do something a little bit more fun on Saturday and Sunday. One initial proposal I wanted to put to them was to swap things over. For instance, have five fun days and two not fun days. That way – call me a mathematical genius – they would have more fun. But as things stood, there weren’t even two fun days. They only had Saturdays, because Mondays were a little bit too close to Sundays for Sunday’s liking, as if Monday were a collapsed star in the week’s solar system, with an excessive gravitational pull. In other words one seventh of human days worked quite well. The other six weren’t very good, and five of those were roughly the same day stuck on repeat.’ 197

‘The single biggest act of bravery or madness anyone can do is the act of change’ 260

‘You see, before coming to Earth I had never wanted or needed to be cared for, but I hungered now to that feeling of being looked after, of belonging, of being loved.’ 264

‘Everything in human life was a test. That was why they all looked so stressed out.’ 33

Please let me know what you thought about this book – and if you have any great recommendations, let me know! 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

'Carrie. She's perfect' - A Tribute to Robin in the 'Dark Knight Returns'

First - if you like this blog and what I'm doing, please take a moment to vote for me in the two categories I'm nominated in in the UK Blog Awards:

Young Person:

Arts & Culture:
Since leaving university I’ve really enjoyed the freedom of being able to read as widely as I can – to read anything I want and form my own ideas on it. I’ve come to the graphic novel quite late compared to a lot of people – but then it is overlooked by so many others. Over the last four or five months I’ve read Maus, Persepolis, Watchmen, some Amazing Spiderman and now the Dark Knight Returns (1986, written by Frank Miller and illustrated by him and Klaus Janson) and they’ve really opened my eyes. You’re missing out on a lot if you write off/ignore graphic novels.

I was shocked by how dark, gritty and just important many are. I’ve become very interested in the hero figures, and anti-heroes. As I’ve mentioned before, my dissertation was on the potential for female hero figures in dystopian lit – and I’m kind of bringing that to my readings of superhero stories. I’ve just finished the Dark Knight Returns (DKR) where Frank Miller gave us a female Robin – Carrie Kelly. So this is a little tribute to her role in the story. 

Carrie is pretty awesome in DKR.

She becomes older Bruce Wayne/Batman’s inspiration. She is perhaps the single thing that drives him on. This thirteen year old girl gives him hope for the future. With DC and Marvel you might be more used to a 'kick-ass heroine' or anti-hero like Black Widow, Catwoman or Talia – a kind of classic femme fatale. 
Carrie is refreshing. She’s (thankfully – since she’s meant to be thirteen!) not sexualised – she’s comparatively androgynous – but she equally doesn’t fall into the extremes of the categories of nerd, plain or sexless. With her fiery red quiff, thick but stylish glasses and self-purchased Robin outfit, she parades her independence and not her gender. Interestingly, the media and police in the story simply assume that she is male – calling her the ‘Boy Wonder’ (former Robin’s were known as this) – Carrie doesn’t care, it is her actions that matter. All we know of her parents is that they are hopelessly distracted by drugs and virtually non-existent in Carrie’s life; she has to be self-reliant at a young age. 

Carrie is kind of special. Batman has often threatened to fire his Robins at the slightest sign of disobedience, He warns Carrie on multiple occasions but never, in this case, actually follows through. He respects her individuality and recognises her essential spirit and integrity.

She is an awesome Robin because her actions make a huge difference. She saves the Dark Knight on several occasions and plays a pivotal role in shaping the future of the city. Batman absolutely trusts and relies on her.  
Saving Batman
She learns quickly and intelligently but also uses her own initiative. There’s no need for romance (again, she’s thirteen) of any kind. If anything, Batman becomes a kind of surrogate father but without inhibiting her independence or establishing himself too forcefully as ‘dominant-male’. This aging man and thirteen year old girl see each other as equals.

Here is a woman - albeit a very young one - who is ever active, ambitious, not distracted by boys and proudly wears an outfit traditionally worn by a male character. She is no damsel – if anything, Batman is the one who often needs to be saved (I should mention I haven’t yet read Dark Knight Strikes Again. I know her role changes slightly there). 
'Boy Wonder'; while Batman calls her the gender-neutral 'soldier'
I loved the Dark Knight Returns. It is brilliantly dark - full of interesting societal issues and novel ways of portraying them. I would recommend it to anyone – even if you’ve never picked up a comic or graphic novel before and know nothing about them. There are some great characters – unique kinds of characters which aren’t necessarily getting coverage elsewhere. Miller and Janson delight in the ugly and warped, in outcasts and mutants; and fans of dystopian literature would certainly enjoy this work. There are strong dystopian elements – with an old, grey-haired/future Batman feeling the limits of his body as well as that distinct nightmarish reality of Gotham City itself. We see Superman, Batman, Green Arrow, Catwoman/Selina Kyle as they haven’t been seen before – old, trapped, used, abused – with an overarching sense that something’s been lost, something’s gone wrong – what’s become of these heroes? What has society driven them to? What have they allowed themselves to become? There's no idealism here. While super men and women of old have withered and faltered, the future is in the hands of the young. 
She's young, she's smart, she's brave
In the darkest night, it’s a thirteen year old girl, stepping into the shoes of boys before her, who shines brightest. 

I’d love to hear from people who have read this work and have any others to recommend based on what I’ve taken from it! 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

UK Blog Awards 2015 - Vote!

This blog is really important to me - with it, I feel like I have a voice. I try to make it different by analysing and reviewing books in my own particular way - drawing out the deeper themes and hopefully making people think about things they wouldn't have considered normally. I've never not had a book on the go! And I hope I contribute something of value. 

If you enjoy this blog and have a spare moment, please, please vote for me in the UK Blog Awards. It would mean the world. I am eligible in two categories:

Young Person:

Arts & Culture:

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

'I am no one. I am Kepler. I am love. I am you' - Review: Touch by Claire North

Before we begin - if you have a moment and enjoy what I do - please vote for me in the UK Blog Awards:
*I received this book as an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review

In his final moments, Kepler (one of the awesome things about this novel is that gender is kind of irrelevant but for the sake of ease I’m just going to refer to Kepler as a ‘he’) desperately reaches for the man who is murdering him and jumps for the first time. A simple touch in the raging heat of heightened trauma triggers an ability to switch between bodies. He inhabits them like houses and often cherishes them more intimately than a lover. The brutal and inexplicable murder of one of his ‘hosts’ sets Kepler on a quest for answers and a dab of vengeance against the mysterious organisation hot on his heels. Touch is a complex, considered and original thriller which will take you on a ride across the world; crossing borders, swapping skin and ultimately seeing through different eyes.

Claire North (one of the pseudonyms of Catherine Webb) takes on this premise – a challenging one to do well – and doesn’t turn it into a gimmick. Crucially, for me, she doesn’t skirt around the deeper, existential nature of the subject. There are plenty of sci-fi novels and films about body-snatchers, invaders or possessions but North has written something wholly unique. Action scenes are adrenaline fuelled with the ambitious quick-change of identities, achieved through some clever writing tricks and formatting. For all his switching, the reader never loses trace of Kepler’s distinct identity.

The only issue I had with Touch is that it is pretty long, and moves at such a pace, that it is therefore quite a challenge to maintain focus and keep track of everyone and everything going on. I began to care less about the plot (hard to stay engaged for that long, but I didn’t mind because I still enjoyed the other aspects) and more about the way Kepler and these ghosts were searching for meaningful existence - and the moral implications of their nature. I have delayed over this review because I feel I cannot do the book and the complexity of its subject matter justice, analytically, until I have read it again for clarity and honed in on certain supporting characters. I think there’s a lot there to draw out so this is an endorsement rather than a criticism!

The way this book explores love and relationships, when it does, borders on revolutionary (you could argue it explores concepts like pansexuality). Gender is certainly unimportant to Kepler, who learns to appreciate the nuances of human behaviour:

‘You have no preference – for either sex, I mean?”
“I have a preference for good teeth and strong bones, I replied. “I have a preference for clear skin and, I must admit it, I have something of a weakness for red hair, when I find it, and it’s real”

Couple this with a stunning meditation on beauty:

“Beauty is a hard attribute to measure. I have been a long-necked model with golden hair, my lips fresh, my eyes wide, my skin silk. And in this guise I found it hard to walk in my tight red heels, and bewailed how quickly my skin lost its sheen when not pampered with a regime more time-consuming than sense. The volume of my hair was lost after a single wash, the fullness of my lips cracked within a day. No more than a week was I this model of fine proportions before irritation at the maintenance drove me on to simpler pastures. It is not beauty, in an eye, a hand, a curl of hair. I have seen old men, their backs bent and shirts white, whose eyes look up at the passers-by and in whose little knowing smiles there is more beauty, more radiance of soul, than any pampered flesh. I have seen a beggar, back straight and beard down to his chest, in whose green eyes and greying hair was such handsomeness that I yearned to have some fraction of him to call my own, to dress in rags and sweep impetuous through city streets. The tiny woman, four foot eight of purple and pearl; the chubby mother, her bum heaving against denim jeans, her voice a whip-snap between supermarket aisles. I have been them all, and all of them, as I regarded myself in their mirrors, were beautiful.”

I adored these passages in the book and Kepler’s personal, inner struggle is deeply moving:

“Will put his hand on my arm and said, “I can see you now.” “See what?” “You,” he replied. “Doesn’t matter who you’re wearing, where you’ve come from; I wait by the car and when you come to find me, I know it’s you.” “How?” He shrugged. “I dunno. Something in the way you walk. Something in the way you look. Something old. I can recognise you, whoever you are. I know who you are now.” I tried to answer and found I had nothing. My eyes were hot, and I turned my face away and hoped he didn’t see me cry.”

I can’t praise North enough for this. Kepler is also certainly a morally conscious ghost. He often specifically chooses people whose lives are in a bad place in order to put them on a better path. Sure, he may not have a right to do this – but given his situation, it is one of the more positive ways of using his abilities. He can be charitable in his invasion (though sometimes he drugs the body he is in so there is some kind of explanation for their confusion and memory loss).

“I look at people in the same way an architect might look at a great house” – or perhaps how you might look at a house with potential for improvement/renovation. He explains that ‘everyone needs a hobby, and everyone was mine” – he has to find a meaningful way to live, since he must exist in someone else’s skin. But he is also aware of all the issues – the person who cannot explain a period of memory loss and with their life changed around them, their body used (sometimes sordidly) – “a blink of the eye, and all things change. Consequences are only for the ones who stay behind” and “Move on to the next life, bigger, better than before. The next life is always better”. His is a life of constant movement, constant change, never-ending – and to be recognised is both his greatest desire and his greatest fear.

*this quote may contain minor spoilers*

“I’ve known Galileo for nearly a hundred years. He – it – loves to be loved. It is all that we ever want. We are beautiful and we are wealthy and people love us for it, but it is not us that is loved, merely the life we are wearing. I loved Josephine. I was… happy when I was her. I was beautiful as Josephine. I was a person when I was her, I was Josephine. Not some shadow playing a part, but her, whole and true, a truth that was more whole than anything she had been. It’s that that makes beauty. Not leg or skin or breast or face, but wholeness, total and true. I was beautiful as Josephine, and Galileo… hasn’t been beautiful for a very long time”

There’s this overarching question throughout of ‘do you like what you see?’ – it seems to drive everything for the ghosts and its meaning only becomes obvious as you read on. It's achingly beautiful and resonant.

“We always like what we see, people like us. We always see how something else could be better than what we have. Perhaps today, perhaps tomorrow, perhaps this face, perhaps these hands, perhaps… perhaps I will be better. Perhaps no one will care for the things I did when last I was someone else. Perhaps someone will love me. Perhaps they will love me. Perhaps if I love them enough, they’ll have no choice but to love me in return. Do you like what you see? we ask, and the answer is yes, of course. I love it. I love it. If I am it, will you love me?”

(Could Touch be hinting at certain aspects of modern society - always wanting more; the things we'll do to be loved; changing appearance and behaviour; the grey area of the internet where identities can be assumed; posing as another; the age of the image; the age of instant gratification; the age of technology and celebrity - why do people act the way they do?) 

The writing is stunning; the action – at times – exhilarating; the depth and emotion – always – thought-provoking and touching.

There are ghosts in society. 

It could be you. 

Touch is out Feb 2015

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Jonas Karlsson's 'The Room': the Bjorn Legacy

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

Jonas Karlsson’s The Room sets the struggle for individuality in what is often thought of as the most banal, mundane and conformist of settings – the office. Bjorn works for the ambiguously named Authority. He plans out his daily work routine meticulously and displays compulsive behaviour in his navigation of work relations. His only escape from this routine is the mysterious room which no one else will admit exists. Yet when Bjorn believes himself to be in this room, his colleagues only see him lurking vacantly and unsettlingly by the wall. As office tensions escalate the banal begins to intersect with questions of individualism, metaphysics and ontology. The very nature of being, existence and truth is called into question. Karlsson’s sharp and compelling satire is both witty and unsettling, perceptive and ambiguous, and ultimately forces you to make up your own mind.

Bjorn is pedantic, convinced of his own superiority and utterly unable to relate emotionally to those around him. Yet like Meursault in Camus’ L’Etranger (The Outsider), he is oddly likable. He is a kind of anti-hero, both the office’s most efficient worker and inadvertently its most disruptive influence.

His observations of office life are great to read, they are rational and calculated to the extreme, devoid of emotional considerations. In one chapter he lingers by the desk of one of his female colleagues, studying a picture she has pinned by her desk. He stands there ‘for a while, looking at the badly drawn child’s picture of a sunset, and wondered if she was aware of its flagrant inaccuracy. Maybe she was blinded by her emotional involvement?’. Being solely in Bjorn’s head makes the narrative unreliable, but the extent of its unreliability is open to interpretation. Is he mentally ill? Or is he the only truly sane person there? Should the book be read and held to the standards of logic and realism? Or is it a kind of metaphor? It works on both levels. Bjorn certainly sees himself as ‘the person who had dared to break the pattern and think along new lines, the person who had dared to think ‘outside the box’’ and is convinced that he is being persecuted and tricked by the mob. His colleagues are distinctly lacking in sympathy if he is mentally ill - in fact, many are cruel and mocking. Karlsson thus alludes to social issues of mental health in the workplace without making them wholly explicit.

Jonas Karlsson
Bjorn’s own observations are extreme and perhaps unfair, but still valid. He marks out all around him as ‘inhibited people’ who don’t see the ‘nuances’, they ‘think everything’s fine… they don’t see the faults because they’re too lazy to allow themselves to have their everyday routines disturbed. They think that as long as they do their best, everything will work out okay. You have to remind them. You have to show people like that what their shortcomings are.’ It’s harsh and it’s arrogant but I think sometimes we look to literature for observations like these. We need someone to make them. Whether it is because he appears an underdog in the war for the office, Bjorn is a sympathetic character. There is one moment of clear emotion which stayed with me and is very moving:

‘I suddenly felt how lonely it is, constantly finding yourself the only person who can see the truth in this gullible world. I turned off the radio and went and stood by the window, looking out. The snow had turned to rain and for a moment I thought it might have leaked into the flat when I felt the first traces of wetness on my cheeks.’

Bjorn’s somewhat ineffective boss, Karl, and his colleague John are the only ones who defend him, however feebly. John, in particular, evokes the more metaphysical themes of the book when he stands up besides Bjorn and declares that ‘maybe we’ve reached a point now where this room has a certain significance. And on these terms then it obviously does exist’. When Ann responds that ‘either there is a room or there isn’t’, Karl protests that ‘it’s not quite that simple’, which should probably be the tagline for the story.

If, like me, you like the work of Beckett, Camus and Kafka then this is going to be a very satisfying read, that is, if you enjoy the satisfaction of ambiguity and multiple interpretations. Others may find these same qualities frustrating. The language is sharp, clear and incisive with meticulously accurate and detailed but unembellished descriptions. It is sparse and direct, in keeping with Bjorn’s character and the setting. For something that sounds and appears so bare and simple it is a richly complex and refreshing read.

Further analysis and comparison:

Reading The Room brought to mind a number of other similar reading experiences I have had and a few texts which I think share and can illuminate the themes. These are the aforementioned The Outsider by Camus, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. I mainly wanted to look at and compare some of the endings – all share a similar build-up of tension and then reach a very charged climax which resist conventional plot resolution.

The ending of The Room:

‘When I got to the room I opened the door, then closed and locked it behind me as quickly as I could. For a brief while I could breathe again and think more or less clearly. I leaned against the wall and let my eyes roam around the familiar space. Everything looked much the same, yet somehow different. I could hear the others outside. They were there already, knocking on the door. Banging on the wood. They wouldn’t be happy to stay on the outside this time. The blows were getting harder and harder. I realised it was only a matter of time before they forced the door open and got inside and started poking about. I looked around to find somewhere to hide but couldn’t see anywhere particularly good. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and walked into the wall. The wall closed around me, like yogurt around a spoon. In there it was dark and soft. Surprisingly clean and free from lines and edges. No angles or corners for dirt to get into and hide. No light no sound. The smell in there made me think of the sea, and lilacs, and St Paulsgatan by the junction with Bellmansgatan at five o’clock in the morning at the end of May.

I could hear them calling my name outside, and I thought: you’ll never find me here.’

So Bjorn makes a break for the room, followed by the angry office mob. The room is clearly a place of solace for Bjorn throughout the text. In it he finds understanding he can’t find in the modern world. There is quiet and a regularity which is also flexible. It is a place of his own in which he can express himself. This notion of freedom (of expression and of creation) allows him to walk in to the wall, for it to close around him like yoghurt. The wall is soft, clean and free – there is nothing threatening or misleading or oppressive. The final line oozes defiance and triumph – tainted with a similar loathing (or a sense of the unhinged) which can be found in Meursault’s final lines and the end of The Yellow Wallpaper.

The ending of The Outsider/L’Etranger:

I looked up at the mass of signs and stars in the night sky and laid myself open for the first time to the benign indifference of the world. And finding it so much like myself, in fact so fraternal, I realised that I’d been happy, and that I was still happy. For the final consummation and for me to feel less lonely, my last wish was that there should be a crowd of spectators at my execution and that they should greet me with cries of hatred.’ – The Outsider, Albert Camus (from Joseph Laredo’s translation for Penguin Modern Classics)

Both protagonists are marked by hysteria at the end of their narratives – experiencing a kind of cathartic climax and sense of power – or an embrace of powerlessness and absurdity. They embrace the ‘cries of hatred’ from potential or actual spectators, finding release in their own personal happiness and indifference. Meursault, throughout his narrative, has been similarly non-conformist and emotionally detached, defined by an action or actions that no one else understands and want to punish. They are both in varying degrees of existentialist narrative, confronting the Absurdity (man’s search for meaning in the universe vs the universe’s indifference. See Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus) around them. Bjorn sees it in the office and the practices and routines of his colleagues. He sees it, for instance, in the child’s drawing on the wall. At the end of each narrative both Meursault and Bjorn seem to embrace the freedom that comes from living with Absurdity – the meaningless of what is around them - something their colleagues or spectators could not cope with.  

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is a victim of patriarchal oppression and the ‘rest cure’ which leads to her seeing moving shapes in the wallpaper of the room she is kept in. The line ‘there are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will’ really ties in to Bjorn’s relationship with his room, particularly at the end.

The ending of The Yellow Wallpaper:

‘”I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall so that I had to creep over him every time!’

In what appears to be a state of madness, which she has been driven to by her husband and carer, the protagonist celebrates her triumph and escape. In trying to mute her self-expression and freedom, they drove her mad, leading her to find a kind of solace and identification in the wallpaper.

Then there is the governess in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. There are similarities in that she believes she sees ghosts and that the children are controlled by evil spirits. Nobody else fully believes her, she seems to grow more paranoid and hysterical (though the reading of woman-as-hysterical is misogynistic and I don’t agree with it) as the novella goes on. It ends with one of the children seeming to confirm her suspicions - she clutches at him passionately and he ambiguously dies in her arms. These protagonists are driven to varying degrees of emotional outburst – unlike what they have displayed or experienced before. 

Are they victims or villains? It is not that simple.

These are just a few comparisons that popped into my head as I read and are meant as a starting point for discussion/thought. All of these texts work on different levels and their themes are not straightforward. There’s an element of the gothic (perhaps not in L’Etranger) and the psychological in them, despite the huge differences in where they’ve come from and the times in which they were written. They all concern a kind of battle against oppressive forces that are denying them certain kinds of expression and freedom. And they all absolutely depend on the immersion, implication and involvement of the reader so if you’re willing to go deep, dive in! 

*UPDATE 15/01/2015 The Room is released today! Check out the amazing videos submitted for the Kingston Animation Competition - run by Vintage. I particularly love the Winner and the Runner-up. They're a good sample of the book's themes. You can hear readings from the book here:

Sunday, October 19, 2014

YALC panel: 'Women in Fantasy' Panel at London Film and Comic Con

YALC panel: Women in Fantasy at London Film and Comic Con

I attended my first Comic Con today and it was largely because of this really exciting panel – on a topic that I have written about before (my dissertation was on women in dystopia) and definitely will include on this blog again. I was frantically taking these notes while listening so I apologise if there are any inaccuracies – I have tried to summarise it the best that I can and capture the heart of each answer. Some of the books and characters mentioned I hadn’t heard about before so that was very exciting but also means I haven’t joined the analysis so much this time – all that I’ve written here is attempting to report what was being said. I will certainly investigate them though and it’s exciting to learn about the characters that have inspired others – there’s a whole world out there and always more to find out! The panel was hosted by Liz De Jaeger and included Samantha Shannon (The Bone Season), Laure Eve (Fearsome Dreamer; The Illusionists) and Zoë Marriott (Shadows on the Moon; and many others!) who were all awesome.
Favourite Fantasy Female Characters?

Both Zoë and Laure mention some Tamora Pierce characters – Alanna and Daine. Alanna is often described as a tomboy who longs to be a knight rather than a ‘young lady’ while Daine is a warrior and a mage (forgive me, I haven’t read these books). They feature in The Immortals Quartet and The Song of the Lioness Quartet.
Laure also mentions Lucy Pevensie from The Chronicles of Narnia because she shows herself to be tenacious, having to insist at the beginning that she is not insane and not making things up – Laure says she drives the story – unlike Susan. 

But Susan is on Samantha’s list – along with Hermione Granger and Arwen from Lord of the Rings. She likes the first two because they show it is okay to be sensible and to be bossy while it was Arwen’s horse riding scene with an ailing Frodo in the Fellowship of the Ring that stayed with her.

What constitutes a ‘strong female character’?

Samantha challenges the term itself, arguing that ‘strong female character’ has become a buzzword – instead it should be more about ‘complexity’. She acknowledges that there seem to be two main categories of female character these days – they are either a Bella (Twilight) or a Katniss (The Hunger Games) – but neither should be a blueprint. To make Katniss the definition of ‘strong female character’ does her a disservice because it makes her ‘two dimensional’. She’s more than a fierce-some warrior figure. She has vulnerabilities, moments of passivity and allows herself to be moulded by those around her on many occasions. Seeing Katniss as a great fighting hero completely ignores the intricacies of character and the subtle complexity in The Hunger Games - they're there, I've literally checked. 

Laure backs up Samantha’s argument – female characters must be complex and often their weaknesses are as important as their strengths. Being physically strong and physically active is not the crucial factor and not what women were necessarily asking for from ‘strong female characters’.

Zoë adds that in media the female characters that were presented could have been replaced by a ‘lampshade’. In her eyes it is not helpful to say that the two important traits are ‘strong’ and ‘female’ – too often we have been presented with a ‘fighting female sex toy’ (eg. ‘Halle Berry in Catwoman’ is one example).

So how do you write/create these women? 

‘By making them people’, Laure answers. 

Samantha argues for the importance of a compelling voice and a backstory – Paige from The Bone Season began simply as a voice rather than a person.

Why are female characters important specifically for fantasy and young adults?

Samantha’s response here is brilliant: ‘because we are still asking that question’ (originally Joss Whedon's quote). How often is that asked about male characters? Fantasy has been traditionally masculine/male dominated so, Samantha believes there is a need for visibility and representation – the ‘genre should mirror the world as it is’. She also explains that while women writing in genres like crime and fantasy sometimes adopt an androgynous name, she eventually decided that she would use her own name to try to break down these boundaries.

Laure, on the other hand, says it is no longer necessary to write female protagonists in YA, simply because there are so many already. Rather than being hung up on gender, she wants to write good characters. They all point out that YA fantasy is usually no different to adult fantasy and the supposed ‘genre distinction’ is just a tag in a bookshop.

Zoë explains the common perception that YA is dominated by female writers and female characters – but when you look more closely it is the men who get more awards, more sales and more critical acclaim. There is still not gender parity and people still think in terms of ‘boy books’ and ‘girl books’.

What gender stereotyping have you come across and really ‘gets your goat’?

It is often the case that the characters we love that become stereotypes and safe options, Zoë states. Although men can write very good female characters, even when reading the best authors she finds herself still conscious of a ‘male gaze’ – you can be empathising with a character and then the narrative will pull you back to show you her body (particularly the private parts…).

Laure’s pet peeve is the ordinary girl suddenly gifted with powers (and unaware of her attractiveness) who then encounters a hot boy who explains it to her and then drives the plot.

The best female characters in fiction?

Samantha immediately mentions Celaena Sardothien from Sarah Maas’ Throne of Glass series – for her extreme self-awareness and self-confidence. She also plugs a Swedish fantasy trilogy about a set of vastly different and individual girls who discover they are witches (the first book is called The Circle).

Alina Starkov from Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy gets Laure’s vote. She discovers she has an amazing power… and a sexy man comes along… but they are both very complex.

Zoë recommends s N. K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy which she says is beautifully written and full of character revelations and development.

Have you ever been asked to tone something down for female characters?
Both Laure and Samantha say ‘no’ (Bloomsbury bought The Bone Season as an adult book).

Zoë, however, describes one instance where she was asked to make a female character less competent (more useless) at fighting (and yet in Stormbreaker, fourteen year old Alex Rider, was allowed to do whatever he wanted). She also references the divide between High Fantasy (often medieval/imagined worlds/epic) and Urban Fantasy (contemporary setting) – in the case of the latter editors put more onus on the protagonist being likable and easier to empathise with.

Ultimately the important thing, Samantha adds, is to have variety.

The panel then moved on to audience questions, discussing their inspirations for becoming authors, the strange and invisible fame that comes with it and the sensation of power and magic you can have as an author. I found the whole session really engaging and am very glad I made the effort to go. Although there is a long way to gender parity, and still a lot to be desired in many of the female characters we are presented with in film, TV and literature, it is an exciting time for women in fantasy and reassuring to know there are writers like these out there – a new and bold generation.

Thank you to all the organisers and participants including Showmasters, YALC and Waterstones.

I would love to hear your own answers to these questions and any opinions you may have on Women and Fantasy literature or literature in general!