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!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Review: Station Eleven - Emily St John Mandel

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

‘It was the end of the world as they knew it! Jeevan had had that song stuck in his head for several days now’

If I wasn’t won over already, an R.E.M. reference certainly did it. The song is oddly perfect for sections of this pre-/mid-/post-apocalyptic novel. In Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel does not indulge too heavily in the fear, hysteria and pain that accompanies the end of the world and its aftermath. Instead, many of her characters almost embrace the brave new world, a fresh start – and adjust. They all look for a way to make their mark and to mean something, but none sink into despair or hopelessness. They find new ways to live, even while holding onto the past.

We flit between the lives of several characters: Jeevan - the paparazzo turned paramedic, Kirsten - the child actress turned travelling performer, Miranda - the authoress of the titular comic book and first wife of Arthur Leander; Clark - Arthur’s close friend turned almost-curator of the Museum of Civilisation and Arthur himself - actor turned deceased. Many of them are survivors of the flu which wiped out 99.9% of humanity, and those that aren’t live on through their work and the impact it had on these individuals. There are threads that connect them all – even the most fleeting encounters can survive the end of the world. 

Mandel sets many of the post apocalypse scenes twenty years later to uncover what it is that truly lasts – and it’s not always what you’d expect. For example, Kirsten can’t remember much about the pre-collapse world, not even her mother’s face, but ‘she did remember Arthur Leander, and after that first sighting she went through every magazine she could find in search of him. She collected fragments, stored in a Ziploc in her backpack’. She cherishes a paperweight randomly given to her on the day he died, and of course the comics that also came from his hands. The memory and mementos of a celebrity, one she met only very briefly and hardly exchanged words with, is what she has brought with her through the end of the world.
Nathan Burton was asked to design the comic, written by Miranda and read by Kirsten, which underlies the book's themes
It is the Arts, primarily, which tie these individuals together, allowing them to impact each other beyond the limits of their lifespan and their encounters. Whether it is the performance of Shakespeare (Kirsten is part of the Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who tour their Shakespeare performances through settlements. We first meet her as a child actress involved in Arthur Leander’s final performance of King Lear) or the careful composition of a comic book never intended for publication, and of which only ten copies exist, the Arts are what remains and what endure.  Kirsten and her company live by the motto that ‘survival is insufficient’ (a Star Trek reference). Survival is not enough. Art gives meaning. Art crosses space and time. It breaches the final frontier. The book demonstrates this through its intertextuality – referencing cultural markers such as Star Trek, R.E.M and Shakespeare. Arthur’s surname may also have been inspired by a Greek mythical figure who dies trying to reach his lover and Jeevan’s name apparently means ‘bringer of life’ in Hindi (he becomes a paramedic).

‘Not quite a room, Jeevan thought now, looking around the stage. It was too transitory, all those doorways and dark spaces between wings, the missing ceiling. It was more like a terminal, he thought, a train station or an airport, everyone passing quickly through.’

These are Jeevan’s reflections shortly after Arthur Leander’s death on-stage at the beginning of the novel, before the Georgia Flu has really taken hold. They extend to the world that exists years later, that Kirsten wanders through and the terminal that Clark finds himself watching over. In their world everyone is just passing through, on a journey to somewhere – searching for scraps of meaning and memory (‘there was the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth and the shock of the collapse that followed, the first unspeakable years when everyone was traveling, before everyone caught on that there was no place they could walk to where life continued as it had before and settled wherever they could…’).
Emily St John Mandel
Station Eleven is a delicate tapestry of meaning - a careful examination of the world around us and the nature of human existence. It is written beautifully, with fluid long sentences and moments of poignant reflection and interconnection.

The Symphony are a fascinating microcosm of society - a ‘collection of petty jealousies, neuroses, undiagnosed PTSD cases, and simmering resentments’ who ‘lived  together, travelled together, rehearsed together, performed together 365 days of the year, permanent company, permanent tour’ – a medley of dysfunctional human relationships – ‘but what made it bearable were the friendships, of course, the camaraderie and the music and the Shakespeare, the moments of transcendent beauty and joy when it didn’t matter who’d used the last of the rosin on their bow or who anyone had slept with’. Despite their tensions, this group come to realise they would do anything for each other – if one is lost, they will not stop until they find them. It is their art and shared passion which unites them and transcends their differences. So when one quotes Sartre in the heat of their differences (that ‘hell is other people’) they come to reject it. In fact, Kirsten surmises, ‘Hell is the absence of the people you long for’.

Characters like Clark and Jeevan offer some of the best insights into the pre-apocalyptic world and the way its ending reveals some rarely acknowledged truths. Clark, at one point, bemoans modern society – recognising the people around him as ‘high functioning sleepwalkers’ (a brilliant term) - before he realises that he is just like the ‘iPhone people whom he’d jostled on the sidewalk earlier’, that he is just as ‘minimally present in this world’ as they are.

Would it be such a bad thing to start over? To try existence again in a different way? To feel able to be fully present? These are very relevant questions for the digital age.

Jeevan, on the other hand, has a moment where he is awestruck when he considers the sheer volume of what humans achieved in that pre-apocalypse world – and how integral they really were even when things seemed increasingly digitalised and mechanised.

He finds himself thinking about ‘how human the city is, how human everything is. We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie, it seemed to him; it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt’. There were always people behind the machines, connected in changing but still human ways. Similarl - while witnessing an airplane taking off after being grounded so long - a post-apocalypse Clark is awestruck by the improbability of flight.

There are many of these little, subtle revelations scattered throughout the novel. Unlike many post-apocalypse writers, Mandel doesn’t overlook the importance of the little things – the very simple, taken for granted things that people might miss and think about differently in their absence or scarcity. This is one of the greatest traits of Station Eleven.

Of course, Jeevan and co also realise that human existence was never everything. He feels himself ‘disappearing into the landscape… a small, insignificant thing... He had never felt so alive or so sad’. This brought to mind the Existentialism/Absurdism of Camus and his contemporaries – the liberation that can be found in the realisation of one’s own insignificance. It is something both liberating and traumatising. Even after everything and everyone ‘lost in the collapse’ there is ‘still such beauty’ - the world doesn’t end. That is crucial. Life begins again anew with every change.

In truth it’s a very hard book to describe and review – I can say that it’s brilliant and I know that because I feel impacted by its art in the same way as many of its characters. I love Mandel’s style, it’s easy to read and very hard to stop reading, while still being deeply thought-provoking and affecting in a subtle, carefully constructed way. The thought and care in each word is so evident by the time you reach the end. The idea of the Symphony – and the connections between each character’s story – made me think of Cloud Atlas and the way a piece of art can inspire and draw together so many different people. Then there’s a slight trace of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – truly dystopian, very dark and bleak – a journey through the wasteland of humanity. There’s a vaguely similar kind of threat in the sinister figure of the Prophet, and the way in which the Symphony are also on a journey through a kind of wasteland of humanity, albeit with a radically different atmosphere. Ultimately, Station Eleven is an experience of its own - in and of itself - and thoroughly deserves its National Book Award nomination and the acclaim it’s been getting. Read it and then read it again.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Review: Every Ugly Word - Aimee L. Salter

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

‘…each wound was unique, but all left you bleeding’

Aimee Salter’s bold debut Every Ugly Word delves deep into the dark depths of high school bullying. Seventeen year old Ashley Watson has been brutally bullied for four years all because of one little lie which changed everything and revealed the dormant cruelty that lay in her peers. Secretly in love with her only remaining friend (Matt) and chastised and lamented by her own mother, Ashley’s story is one of heart-breaking loneliness eased only by a curious truth: when she looks in the mirror, her twenty three year old self looks back. As she relays the story of her darkest days to her psychiatrist she must re-think the relationships she held most dear – above all, the one with her very self.
Salter brilliantly captures the way the effects of bullying don’t end when you leave school, the scars are for life unless you are lucky enough to find healing. I found the book an intriguing, if occasionally flawed, negotiation of how someone can come to love themselves.

The flaws I refer to are really just me nit-picking and it’s only in relation to the logistics of the Older Me and Younger Me dynamic which might just require a suspension of disbelief rather than a full blown investigation into the space-time continuum and what not. (Questions that those interested in the sci-fi element might ask: is Ashley’s life on some kind of loop? How did her Older Me have an Older Me too? What are the repercussions for this after the final events? What merits an Older Me? Are their lives separate? Is it some kind of parallel universe where Younger Ashley’s actions don’t affect her Older Self’s circumstances? Is her Older Self just a projection? Does any of this actually matter?)

Ultimately I don’t think these issues destabilise the narrative or message too much.
I find it is best to look at it like this: often in therapy they speak about how the patient must develop a compassionate attitude towards themselves, and my theory is that Older Ashley is literal manifestation of something like this. Ultimately the patient must save themselves, and again this is literalised in Salter’s novel.

When Older Ashley sacrifices herself and crashes through the mirror to catch her younger self, she has made the ultimate sacrifice and demonstrated how much she values and has come to love younger Ashley. This changes her future and is undoubtedly the most important relationship in the novel for the reasons I have mentioned.

Aimee Salter
The book’s great strength is that it can prompt this kind of thinking and different interpretations. Matt, rather than just being the best friend/love interest/jerk, is a believable human being who is equally flawed and not a knight-in-shining-armour in any sense. As Older Ashley wisely says: ‘There has to be more to your life than Matt’. This is one of the few Young Adult books I have read recently in which I think the ‘love interest/arc’ is successful and not a weakness. By the end your feelings towards Matt will be extremely confused but he won’t be the most important relationship in Ashley’s life whatever happens, and that’s important. Salter remains true to her ‘heroine’ (probably not the right word because Ashley herself acknowledges she is not a hero).

It was with great relief that I read the lines: ‘Matt sits forward in his chair as if he might rise. But there is fear on his face and I am reminded that he has never fully believed in me. Never. Even our good days were underlined with doubt’. I felt relieved because Ashley is not dependent on him or what he thinks any longer, she recognises who he is and that she can never rely on him or any other person. She makes a rational assessment and it allows her to really take a grasp of her own character and face the tasks ahead. She doesn’t give it all up for a belief in a happy ending. That’s not to say she doesn’t love him and can’t be with him, just that she must always put herself first in order to grow. It’s a subtle but quite revolutionary shift for a young woman in a YA novel.

In terms of structure, I think the book is framed quite well even though the psychiatrist situation is slightly cliché. The pace is set by these two parallel timelines which are working to the point where they converge. She must reach the end of her story and session with her psychiatrist and reach and confront the darkest day of her life in the past. The alternating sections ensure there is a driving force which, particularly in the latter stages, makes this book a real page-turner.

There is something really authentic and sincere about this book which makes it endearing. It’s clear, as Salter has said, that parts of it are inspired by experience and that it very sincerely wants to be something that people can relate to and learn from. The bit where I really admired how serious it was was when Ashley’s psychiatrist asked her if she wanted to die that day and she responds – ‘I wished I was dead… it’s not the same thing’. There is a tremendous amount of insight in that sentence alone.

So this is not a light read, and some readers may get frustrated with the relentlessness of the descent into everything getting worse, and with Ashley often making what we can recognise as harmful decisions but it encourages and fosters understanding. The unapologetic authenticity of the struggle and how it is told demands respect and the result is a thought-provoking and heart-wrenching story which I’m sure many will find solace in.

Monday, October 6, 2014

'When you realise the wolf is inside you...': Epistolary Angst and Ava Dellaira's 'Love Letters to the Dead'

Ava Dellaira’s Love Letters to the Dead owes a lot to The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Dellaira was Stephen Chboksy’s padawan) but as it goes on it just about succeeds in finding its own voice. I have actually found it hard to start reading a new book after finishing it because it has moments of heartfelt insight that really settle in your mind. Laurel has her own distinct history and her own unique pains which Dellaira draws out at just right pace while making her a believable and intriguing character.

Let’s get the Perks comparisons out of the way. Making these comparisons isn’t exactly helpful – certainly not as helpful as pointing out the differences - but it highlights the crucial themes (in these ‘young adult’ novels) which arise. So there is a slightly different premise in Love Letters but essentially they both use the epistolary format in a similar, confessional and therapeutic kind of way. Both Charlie and Laurel find encouragement in their English teachers, who prompt them to explore their own thoughts and who they want to be. They both become friends with people who are struggling with their sexuality and the quirky outsiders who smoke pot and skip class. There are family issues, sibling bonds, first loves, and instances of sexual abuse. All set over a year at the intermediary stage of high school. It’s becoming a formula, but it’s the quality of the writing and the depth of the characters and their development which ultimately matter. 

Laurel begins writing letters to the dead as an extension of her High School English project. Among the contemporary cult heroes she writes to are Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Amelia Earhart, Janis Joplin, River Phoenix, Judy Garland and Heath Ledger. In them she tries to come to terms with her sister’s death – and life -, feeling abandoned by her mother and her life beginning again at a new school. This might feel a bit gimmicky to some readers, but it is redeemed by Laurel engaging a little with the intended recipients and their own stories. They are all relevant to a degree. It will divide readers though – especially those who have read similar things before. A lot of the drama and relationships are predictable and the journey to their resolution perhaps not explored deeply enough, particularly in some of the side characters. Some readers have felt a bit distanced from the characters and unable to relate or engage with them, others have felt the opposite. Unhelpfully, I felt in between. It wasn’t the kind of revelation I’ve experienced before but I warmed to the novel in the second half particularly – when it got darker and more intricate and I came to quite like it regardless of its flaws.

*Spoiler* It may be a strange assertion but I think Dellaira was doing something subtle and clever in the way May (Laurel’s older sister) died. Her death was something strange and inexplicable – a kind of universal accident. She was there one minute and gone the next – whether it was a change in the wind, suicide, a slip – she falls off the bridge. That is part of what hangs over Laurel throughout her letter writing – it seemed so silly, so preventable. If it was murder or a car accident or something it would be a very different story. As it is it is posited as a kind of existential struggle as well as a personal one. I think it’s the letters to Kurt Cobain that Laurel begins to find especially challenging – the relationship between her grief, her resentment, her inability to comprehend what happened – the Absurdity of May’s death - and his suicide. She fixates on his suicide note (‘you said it in one sentence I can’t get out of my head: I simply love people… so much that it makes me feel too fucking sad. Yes, I understand’). The resentment boils over at times: ‘Nirvana means freedom. Freedom from suffering. I guess some people would say that death is just that. So, congratulations on being free, I guess. The rest of us are still here, grappling with all that’s been torn up’ and ‘I don’t know why I’ve written you all these letters. I thought you got it. But you just left, too. Like everyone does’. Her one-way conversation with Kurt is crucial in her negotiation of her feelings surrounding her sister’s death, and her mother’s departure. It helps her to realise that she is angry and that she must find a way to forgive May (‘the truth is, I don’t know how to forgive my sister. I don’t know how to forgive her, because I don’t deserve to be angry at her. And I’m afraid if I am, I will lose her forever’.)

There are some great quotable passages especially when Dellaira is writing about the real depths of Laurel’s despair – the things we keep hidden from our peers, and even from our closest friends. Writing to Amy Winehouse, Laurel explains: ‘there was something between me and the world right then. I saw it like a big sheet of glass, too thick to break through. I could make new friends, but they could never know me, not really, because they could never know my sister, the person I loved most in the world. And they could never know what I’d done. I would have to be okay standing on the other side of something too big to break through’. When there are parts of your past or yourself that you can’t reveal to those you consider closest to you, it can be incredibly alienating (more than that – it can reaffirm in your mind that you’re weird or alien) and that is really expressed here. As the novel darkens, Laurel writes: ‘I hope one of you hears me because the world seems like a tunnel of silence. I have found that sometimes, moments get stuck in your body. They are there, lodged under your skin like hard seed-stones of wonder or sadness or fear, everything else growing up around them. And if you turn a certain way, if you fall, one of them could get free… I feel like I am drowning in memories. Everything is too bright’. The imagery here is almost perfect. That is all.

I randomly love what Laurel writes to Judy Garland when talking about Judy’s own childhood – ‘you learned right away that applause sounds like love’. I suppose it’s because it says a lot about fame and performance – the things that motivate people often lie in their childhood. Like the way that Laurel writes that Judy used her ‘voice like glue to [her] family together’ by singing to stop them fighting or to make them laugh.

Here’s a corny one from Laurel’s stoner guru (friend) Tristan: ‘When we are in love, we are both completely in danger and completely saved’. Tristan tends to play guitar, alone and unheard and Laurel surmises that ‘he does this for the same reason Hannah doesn’t turn in her work when her teachers say she is smart. I think a lot of people want to be someone, but we are scared that if we try, we won’t be as good as everyone imagines we could be’. Or perhaps, as we imagine we could be.

But Tristan’s best contribution comes much later and it is a really resonant message about any personal struggle: 

You fall asleep in the foothills, and the wolf comes down from the mountains. And you hope someone will wake you up. Or chase it off. Or shoot it dead. But when you realise that the wolf is inside you, that’s when you know. You can’t run from it. And no one who loves you can kill the wolf, because it’s part of you. They see your face on it. And they won’t fire the shot.’ 

There are some things that other people can’t reach, and you have to face the wolf yourself, but it’s not because they don’t love you.

There’s too many to analyse individually and as usual they are at the end of this post. If you can relate to any of these then I think this book is worth reading, because it’s always nice to find understanding in the pages of a book. Like I said, the second half is stronger and it reaches a conclusion that feels satisfying (perhaps too much so?). Don’t let other people put you off, because with books like this in particular it’s really subjective and can be really a negotiation of your own demons.

I'd be interested in hearing what you thought - does it do enough to distinguish itself? Is it too similar to others of its kind? 

Other Quotes:

- 'It’s sad when everyone knows you, but no one knows you… and if you wear leather pants, and have a beautiful body, and drink lots of expensive wine, and if your voice sounds like the edge you strike a match on, then these things are blocks that you have given them to build the person they want… I want people to know me, but if anyone could look inside of me, if they saw that everything I feel is not what it’s supposed to be, I don’t know what would happen.'

- (When her friend Hannah starts painting bruises on her cheekbone): 'Sometimes we want our bodies to do a better job of showing the things that hurt us, the stories we keep hidden inside of us.'

- 'You grew up so fast, River. But maybe the little boy who needed someone to protect him never went away. You can be noble and brave and beautiful and still find yourself falling.'

- 'Amy, you were all over the covers of tabloids and stuff, doing what you did. and how the world is now, how we follow everyone and try to see everything, it changes the story. It makes your life into someone else’s version of you. And that’s not fair. Because your life didn’t belong to us. What you gave us was your music. And I am grateful for it.'

- 'I thought about how for a long time, I wanted to be soaring above the earth. I wanted Sky to see me as perfect and beautiful, the way I saw May. But really, we all just have these blood and guts inside of us. And as much as I was hiding from him, I guess part of me also always wanted Sky to see into me – to know the things that I was too scared to tell him. But we aren’t transparent. If we want someone to know us, we have to tell them stuff.'

- '“There are a lot of human experiences that challenge the limits of our language,” she (Mrs. Buster) said, “that’s one of the reasons that we have poetry.” Then she said, “I’m proud of you. It’s not easy, and you’ve done a great job this year.” She didn’t have to be that nice to me, but she was.'

- 'Maybe when we can tell the stories, however bad they are, we don’t belong to them anymore. They become ours. And maybe what growing up really means is knowing that you don’t have to just be a character, going whichever way the story says. It’s knowing that you could be the author instead.'

- 'Sometimes when we say things, we hear silence. Or only echoes. Like screaming from inside and that’s really lonely. But that only happens when we weren’t really listening. It means we weren’t ready to listen yet. Because every time we speak, there is a voice. There is the world that answers back. When I wrote letters to all of you, I found my voice. And when I had a voice, something answered me…. I know I wrote letters to people with no address on this earth. I know you are dead. But I hear you. I hear all of you. We were here. Our lives matter.' 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Aliya Whiteley's The Beauty: Mushrooms and Masculinity in a World Without Women

Aliya Whiteley’s The Beauty lays out a fascinating dystopian forecast and presents a world which must adapt to the loss of the female sex. The novella is not your average dystopia, rather, it belongs in a kind of anti-genre called the New Weird, where boundaries between horror, science fiction, dystopia and speculative fiction are blurred and crossed. With this brave and engaging premise, Whiteley has written a novella that lingers in your mind long after you’ve finished reading, embedding itself in your consciousness and raising new questions every day. So many strands and layers of thought are provoked in this concise and beautifully written novella.

The story is told from the point of view of Nathan, a member of a commune who had separated from society even before the loss of women. He is the resident storyteller-

‘My name is Nathan, just twenty-three and given to the curation of stories. I listen, retain, then polish and release them over the fire at night, when the others hush and lean forward in their desire to hear of the past’.

His stories help the community to remain sane in the face of tragedy and their own seemingly unavoidable doom. The process of telling the stories forces Nathan to question not just his own nature but the nature of truth and memory and gender. He begins to become less certain of what he knows and what is accepted. Reflecting on the past and his memories changes them upon each revisiting. Remembering women alters them and affects his own conception of gender. Then the Beauties rise from the ground - they are ambiguous mushroom creatures in a feminine mould. Their arrival forces the whole commune to re-evaluate what it knows. They must either unite and move forward or fracture beyond repair.

As readers we are encouraged to consider a myriad of issues. What happens to the ‘male’ and the ‘masculine’ when the female/feminine is gone? When it perhaps does not need to define itself so stringently against something? What it means to be male literally begins to evolve in The Beauty – as the Beauties infiltrate the camp, it is the men who start to reproduce. If women did die out, what would the next stage in evolution be? How would a male body adapt? The arrival of the Beauties prompts this deconstruction of male identity.

As Nathan puts it:

Aliya Whiteley
‘I was sixteen when they all died and I thought I understood this loss, but it comes to me that I didn’t know what women gave to the world. It wasn’t about their lips, their eyes or the gentle quality of their voices. It was about the way that all men are a part of them. And now we are part of nothing.’

It has been speculated that some varieties of mushroom, such as Lion’s Mane, have regenerative or nerve healing properties. Are the Beauties come to heal the damage done to the male population, while forging new neurological and physical connections?

‘There are signs of change, of regeneration, and I saw the first mushrooms in the graveyard on the morning after I ripped up the photograph of my mother’s face and threw the pieces over the cliff, into the fat swallowing folds of the sea.’

The virus wiped out women and seems to resurrect them as something other. On one level The Beauty is a dystopian negotiation of Otherness and how a community set in their ways can react to a foreign entity. Some feel threatened and afraid and respond violently. Others embrace the change. The tensions rise and the micro-society they have created begins to unravel. The potential dystopian mushroom motif could draw from certain mushroom characteristics – that they require preformed matter to live and mostly deteriorate whatever it is they feed off. To live they must destroy.  This ties in with the idea of a post-apocalyptic struggle for existence. In a similar way, as the Beauties attach themselves to male partners, the male body begins to change (the genitals deteriorate). Men like Nathan encourage the integration and acceptance of these processes. The full extent of the changes can only be imagined beyond the end of the book.

Published by exciting and upcoming publisher Unsung Stories, The Beauty is unforgettable. It is startling and original, daring and considered. The language flows beautifully, a celebration as well as an exploration of the art of storytelling. In dystopian style it ends somewhat ambiguously, appropriately so, with the future uncertain. Take the time to let this novella affect you. It may be short but it latches onto you like a virus (of the best variety) and prays on your mind. 

*thank you to my friend Richard Stenner for his fungi expertise!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Let's Give This New Social Media Trend a Purpose

A new trend is sweeping social media which I can't resist participating in but I want to give it a purpose so I am donating to Give A Book (I've just made a donation to Give A Book. You can do the same at and also recommend English PEN and any books for prisoners scheme. Reading and writing are more important than I can put into words so if I am to share the books that stayed with me and affected me I'd like everyone to have the opportunity to be similarly changed and to broaden their mind. Words and ideas can change the world - but crucially, they can change you as an individual. Let's give this trend a purpose and spread the word. Because, as Give a Book says, reading matters. If you don't read you can only think and dream so far.

My ten books are:

1. The Fountainhead - Ayn Rand 
2. The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Stephen Chbosky
3. Middlemarch - George Eliot 
4. L'Etranger - Albert Camus 
5. Atlas Shrugged - Ayn Rand 
6. A Room of One's Own - Virginia Woolf 
7. The Mill on the Floss - George Eliot 
8. The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald 
9. Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock - Matthew Quick 
10. To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee 

Honourable mentions to Mockingjay, The Book Thief, 1984, Brave New World, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, The Bell Jar, Lord of the Rings and Wuthering Heights 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Pre-Release review of a Dystopian Debut

Click here to see My review of Stephen Oram's dystopian thriller Quantum Confessions

I was asked by Wordery to do a review of Oram's debut and you can read it all at the link above. It was a scintillating read and novel in its combination of spirituality and science.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Dead Poet's Society - Remembering Robin Williams

'The question, O me! So sad, recurring -- What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here--that life exists, and identity; 
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.' - 
O me, O life
Walt Whitman

Dead Poet's Society is the film that made the most profound impression on me growing up, and a huge part of that was Robin William's enigmatic portrayal of Mr Keating. The teacher who even now is not really allowed to exist but gets his students living and feeling, aiming to make their lives mean something. Williams affected me again in Good Will Hunting, he was the master of these roles of quiet profundity, which could reach into the person watching and alter them. That's how I choose to remember him. He contributed some of the best verses in the powerful play. 

Any lover of literature should make watching this film a priority. There are an abundance of references to Whitman, Frost, Herrick and Thoreau - especially the Carpe Diem poetic tradition (which is Mr Keating's ultimate message). Todd is the student I really identify with, afraid to speak out and not believing in what he has to say, and then there's the ultimately tragic Neal. Keating changes their lives, perhaps riskily and unconventionally, but also in a way that ultimately gives them self-esteem and makes them feel alive, for however short a time. The question we're left with is: is living intensely for a short time ultimately more worthwhile than going through the motions for an eternity? Perhaps yes.

Keating is responsible for the best of these boys, not the tragedy. Keating's fate is probably, sadly, realistic but he is a lovely ideal to look up to. Some people I've watched the film with found the ending too depressing and failed to see the hopeful and positive elements - essentially for them the tragedy overshadowed the other messages of the film - which it did for the powers at the school as well. As Mr Keating says, we must always remember to look at things in a different way.

Robin Williams will always be a genius in his own right and I hope that any conversation about depression and mental health that has now been started actually continues so that a real difference can be made in the lives of sufferers and that there's not so much fear and stigma attached to talking about it. 

O captain, my captain - Rest in Peace and thank you for your art. 


'We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race and the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.' 

'You must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation." Don't be resigned to that. Break out!'