Thursday, December 14, 2017

Review: Bonfire by Krysten Ritter

'The past is a trick of the mind. It's a story we misunderstand over and over' 

I definitely came to this one because of Krysten Ritter as I don’t often find myself in the thriller genre. I really like Krysten as an actress, for the roles she plays and for how she comes across in interviews and on social media. She’s great at both writing, and playing, the broken but deeply resilient (even though they don’t always know it) character. You can see it in her writing as well, that she’s invested in the internal workings of a character, however messy they may be. There’s a lot of that in Abby Williams, the protagonist of Bonfire, who returns to her hometown as an environmental lawyer on a case.  Her main memories of the town are of being an outcast and of the strange ‘fake’ illnesses, and a disappearance, that befell some of her school tormentors all those years ago.

There’s a murky, slow-burning atmosphere throughout the book which is quietly tantalising, I did feel that the fogginess surrounding Abby’s memories after a night of drinking had a tendency to become a bit too much of a suspense-engineering-device. The revelations at the end of the book also unfold too blearily and quickly – bursting into action and ending all within a few pages after the slow build of the past few hundred pages. It’s intriguing and controlled for the first half of the book but starts to slip as it goes on and the balance is off, meaning it becomes a little confusing and less powerful.

'There are the people of the world who squeeze and the ones who suffocate' 

Ritter does write very powerfully about teenage girls in particular - the things they will do to each other and also the things that are done to them and the way they are seen by the world. She’s extraordinarily perceptive and those are the moments that have stuck with me since finishing the book. I recall reading somewhere that Ritter originally intended this as a TV series and I do think it would work well on screen, particularly the way the ending plays out and the setting of the atmosphere and flashes of memory. The legal/environmental angle was something a bit different for a thriller and I found the look at the way a faceless corporation can benefit and/or harm a community was engaging and very relevant to our society.
I would be curious to see what else Ritter writes as she’s clearly highly intelligent and creative and with a real illuminating interest in complex ethical and social issues. Bonfire was engaging and atmospheric for the most part, but I think there’s more to come from this writer.

*Thank you to Cornerstone and NetGalley for the chance to read and review this one

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

'Everything could be different': 4-3-2-1 by Paul Auster (Review)

I’ve been meaning to read Paul Auster for a long time, so I was over the moon when I had the chance to review 4-3-2-1*. I know it’s very much a different beast to his other books, firstly, in terms of scale and narrative ambition, but it was well worth persevering with. It’s not one to be rushed, it took me probably 3-4 weeks of my commute but I have missed it since finishing it. It’s an extraordinarily layered coming-of-age tale (x4) – playful, tragic, philosophical and wise. But it’s not so much a character study as the study of an idea and it’s the wit and wisdom and tragedy with which Auster’s omniscient narrator explores this idea that the book really impacts lastingly. There will be a few spoilers in the following paragraphs so it may be best to read this after the book itself.

‘Such an interesting thought, Ferguson said to himself: to imagine how things could be different for him even though he was the same. The same boy in a different house with a different tree. The same boy with different parents. The same boy with the same parents who didn’t do the same things they did now… Yes, anything was possible, and just because things happened in one way didn’t mean they couldn’t happen in another. Everything could be different’ - 1.2

The story begins with Ferguson’s father initially emigrating to the U.S.A – and the comic moment where he forgets the America surname he’d devised, and his German ‘vergessen’ is mistaken for ‘Ferguson’. After the precedent for accident and irony have been set, the story begins with young Archibald Ferguson’s entry into the world, and the narratives divide into four. They have the same biology, the same DNA, they are all born in the same hospital at the same time but then all move to different suburban towns, and the fate of Ferguson’s father is different for each. They ultimately all choose different kinds of writing as their calling and, depending on events within their lives, become political to some degree and foster different relationships, though the relationship with Ferguson’s cousin Amy is fairly consistent with each.

While talking to Granta (, Auster laid out these themes and talked about how he wrote the book in a fever, ‘possessed’. He wanted to convey the idea that the ‘world is very precarious’, ‘life becomes death in a flash’ and ultimately, ‘we are all accidents’. The death in a flash reference is quite literal for one of the young Ferguson’s – who is killed by a tree struck by lightning. This is actually based on a real event which has haunted Auster from his childhood, when a boy was electrocuted by lightning next to him. Indeed the Fergusons all encounter random accidents, and three meet unexpected premature ends at different stages of their young lives. Each time is tragic as the omniscient narrator really elucidates the accidental and random misfortune of the moment, yet you’ve been so enmeshed with each Ferguson’s history and prospects and unique relationships, that each one weighs heavily.
Paul Auster

With 4 different narratives marking that coming-of-age experience, there are perhaps moments when things can feel repetitive. As puberty kicks in, you experience Ferguson’s first sexual cravings four times, and these are told in great detail. But Auster is nothing if not thorough in his mission and that is something to be admired ultimately.

Auster is so good at drawing out that human experience and those first realisations about the world as you grow up. I particularly loved the moment that one young Ferguson realises that adults are just as scared as children – something that’s intensely recognisable:

‘His mother looked agitated, more confused and distraught than Ferguson had ever seen her, no longer acting as the rock of composure and wisdom he had always thought she was but someone just like himself, a fragile being prey to sadness and tears and hopefulness, and when she put her arms around him he felt frightened, not just because his father’s store had burned down and there would be no more money for them to live on. But the truly frightening thing was to learn that his mother was no stronger than he was, that the blows of the world hurt her just as much as they hurt him and that except for the fact that she was older, there was no difference between them’ - 1.2

So much of the book is about the fragility and absurdity of existence, but also about living anyway – and not succumbing to the accompanying fear. Often there are brilliant, standalone sentences of the fates/universe/gods responding to events in this small individual’s existence:

‘The gods looked down from their mountain and shrugged.’ 6.3

The indifferent universe is something that I’ve always found intensely interesting in books I’ve read (I am a big Camus fan and fan of post-war existentialism in general) and it’s very much present here. In some ways it makes every action more poignant and important, it’s frustrating and tragic, but it’s also freeing. There’s something grimly satisfying about reading a line like that. 

There are some reviews which have called Auster self-indulgent in this novel, and perhaps that’s true to a degree, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it as a negative. I am fine with writers like Auster, Gaiman, Atwood and indeed any writer being ‘self-indulgent’ so long as what they’re writing stimulates thought and challenges a reader in a productive way – ie. when a reader can reflect on it and draw multiple conclusions. They very premise of 4-3-2-1 is by its nature indulgent, and it’s open about that. Wouldn’t it be indulgent if we had four separate lives we could live and dip into?

‘Ferguson understood that the world was made of stories, so many different stories that if they were all gathered together and put into a book, the book would be nine hundred million pages long.’ 4.4

We should always try to read things which challenge us, and maybe even make us a little uncomfortable at times.

‘No, Ferguson replied, when Artie’s parents asked if he agreed with this boy, but that was what made their conversations so instructive, he said, because every time Mike challenged him he would have to think harder about what he believed in himself, and how could you ever learn anything if you only talked to people who thought exactly as you did’? 4.4

Auster explores sexuality (specifically pansexuality), political feeling, art, love, death and loss and so many of the colours on these spectrums. The reflection sexuality on love and ‘choice’ are poignant. All of the Ferguson’s follow wherever their feelings take them when it comes to love and sex – they very much fall in love with the person.

‘She still didn’t think of herself as a lesbian, she was simply a person in love with another person, and because that other person was beautiful and entrancing and unlike anyone else in the world, what difference did it make if she was in love with a man or a woman 4.3

‘Why did a person have to choose between one or the other, why block out one-half of humanity in the name of normal or natural when the truth was that everyone was Both, and people and society and the laws and religions of people in different societies were just too afraid to admit it. As the California cowgirl had said to him three and a half years ago: I believe in my life, Archie, and I don’t want to be scared of it. Brian was scared. Most people were scared, but scared was a stupid way to live, Ferguson felt, a dishonest and demoralizing way to live, a dead-end life, a dead life.’ 5.3

‘It wasn’t that Ferguson felt any enthusiasm for the Democrats, but it was important to make distinctions, he told himself, important to recognise that there were bad things in this flawed world, but also even worse things, and when it came to voting in an election, better to go for the bad over the worse’ 6.1

I delighted in moments like these - that last quote must be a cheeky reference to real-life politics and the situations that the UK and USA have found themselves in in the last couple of years. Indeed – another one:

‘What moment could be more important for the writing of books than a year when the world was on fire—and you were on fire with it?’ 7.4

There’s something to be learned in the individual lives of each Ferguson – in all the banal moments, the icky firsts, the freak accidents, and the existential quandaries. For me, the ending is clever and makes you think back on all you've read, adding further layers and elements of pathos. There's so much in this novel that could be explored and unpicked - but these are my thoughts as of now on a work I certainly admire and still find myself revisiting in my mind. It's a commitment worth making. 

More favourite quotes:

Self-aware narration:

‘There was, as there always is, another side to the story’ 2.1

On music:

‘The need for music that ran through their bodies, which as that point in their lives was no different from the need to find a way to exist in the world’ 2.1

On curiosity:

‘Anger and disappointment could take you just so far, he realised, but without curiosity you were lost’ 2.4

Even with four versions of a live, you’ll never have THE answer – just answers:

‘I’m saying you’ll never know if you made the wrong choice or not. You would need to have all the facts before you knew, and the only way to get all the facts is to be in two places at the same time—which is impossible.’ 2.4

On feeling:

‘We feel what we feel, he wrote, and we’re not responsible for our feelings. For our actions, yes, but not for what we feel’ 3.4

A beautiful moment of self-reflection:

‘Ferguson was beginning to understand how fragile he was, how difficult it was for him to steer his way through even the smallest conflicts, especially conflicts brought on by his own flaws and stupidities. For the point was that he needed to be loved, loved more than most people needed to be loved, entirely loved without respite through every waking minute of his life, loved even when he did things that made him unlovable, especially when reason demanded that he not be loved, and unlike Amy, who was pushing her mother away from her, Ferguson could never let go of his mother.’ 4.3

On life and the self:

‘People die, and the world goes on, and whatever we can do to help each other out, well, that’s what we do, isn’t it?’ 6.1

‘And what did it mean to be himself anyway, he wondered, he had several selves inside him, even many selves, a strong self and a weak self, a thoughtful self and an impulsive self, a generous self and a selfish self, so many different selves that in the end he was as large as everyone or as small as no one, and if that was true for him, then it had to be true for everyone else as well, meaning that everyone was everyone and no one at the same time’ 6.3

‘The world as it was could never be more than a fraction of the world, for the real also consisted of what could have happened but didn’t, that one road was no better or worse than any other road, but the torment of being alive in a single body was that at any given moment you had to be on one road only, even though you could have been on another, travelling toward an altogether different place’ 7.4

*Thank you to Faber for the chance to review 4-3-2-1 through Netgalley. 

Friday, June 23, 2017

Embrace the Wonder: My thoughts on Wonder Woman (2017)

I couldn’t not write about Wonder Woman. On a personal level, this film has been a revelation, a relief and an antidote. We’ve waited so long for this and it’s a huge moment, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. In terms of reading, the Greg Rucka return and run on the series this year has really reinvigorated my love for the character and I would definitely recommend the DC Rebirth Wonder Woman as a great place to jump on and learn about this character and see what she really is.

I was emotional from the second they announced the Wonder Woman film. I was emotional from the first trailer and the first reviews when I felt an enormous sense of relief and a huge weight lifted. Like many, I did not like Batman vs Superman. There were very few redeeming features in it (Wonder Woman was one of the only ones) and I do not like Snyder’s interpretation of Superman. There’s been very little heart, very little joy and substance to be found in the DC cinematic universe for a while.

In the 12 months leading up to the release of Wonder Woman, I felt a lot of fear and trepidation. This was also partly due to the response to Ghostbusters last year, a film which I actually enjoyed. In the comic book world, over the last few years, there have definitely been some moments of extreme antipathy towards new female characters and feminist messages and campaigns led against a few creators. So a lot felt like it was at stake, approaching this movie and the emergence of a female hero, one of the trinity, into the mainstream cinematic universe. If it failed, we could very realistically not have had another chance at a female-led superhero movie for decades, and the stigma around them may have evolved into this amorphous thing that few would be brave enough to back or tackle.

I grew up obsessed with Star Wars, obsessed with football, with Lord of the Rings and superhero stories too. I always knew they were male-dominated, but I think I didn’t quite realise what I’d missed until this moment. Until I came out of Wonder Woman and burst into tears. I am so happy that there will be a generation of little girls growing up now, who get to see this and grow up with this too – to have both. But this film is so important, not just for those little girls, but for the little boys. The little boys who can also grow up in awe of a woman and see a different hero who they can also aspire to be like. I know my younger self needed this movie so much.

I felt something similar about 18 months ago, when Rey wields the lightsabre in The Force Awakens, and here I got to feel it through 140 minutes of a feature-length film devoted to it. I left feeling so lucky, and then also a bit uncomfortable that I had to feel lucky in the first place.

I’m so happy that Wonder Woman has had such a brilliant critical response. Critics have overwhelmingly picked up on the ground-breaking positives in the film and it scored 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is stunning after the DC films of recent years. On top of that, it’s done brilliantly at the box office and hopefully brought a whole new audience to the character and the comics. But, it’s so much more than all this to me.  

This is the most colour, saturation and vibrance that we’ve had in a DC film for a very long time. Some of the shots, both the colouring and composition, are jaw-dropping. The palette is full of variety and contrast and there are scenes that you will just find yourself gazing at and getting lost in. This is a film that needs to be appreciated on the big screen and I wish I’d seen it in IMAX too. It’s not CGI heavy until the end (and the CGI is slightly over the top in that sequence), but the light and colour that cuts through the DC darkness is such a relief.

Chris Pine completely won me over as Steve Trevor. The movie presents one of the nicer versions of Steve from the comics. The chemistry between Diana and Steve was magnetic and the romance element never overpowers the plot or individual character arcs, and doesn’t impact Diana’s growth. They both learn from each other, and neither compromises anything about their character in the process. They are partners doing their own thing. The movie shows how men and women who respect each other, balance each other and work well as partners and individuals. With the world as it is right now, and some of the worrying backwards steps in the last year, this film and Diana’s message and character was just what I needed. It’s a reminder of how we should all aspire to be; how we should think about everyone, love everyone, and never stop trying to help, and empathise with, every single living being. Diana’s empathy, which Steve and others first cannot understand, is one of her most unique and wonderful characteristics as a hero. 

Gal Gadot plays this perfectly. While watching this film, it feels like she was born to play Wonder Woman. She IS Diana in these moments. She nails her naivety, her reactions to mankind, her horror, her joy, her passion, her flaws, her limitless care and determination. It’s a stunning performance in every way and an iconic one. I’ve seen it compared to Christopher Reeve as Superman, and there are some wonderful parallels, particularly in the glasses, her goofiness in negotiating London society at first, and shielding Steve from a bullet with her wrist (notice also the little tribute to Rosie the Riveter posters in this scene). Wonder Woman was the ‘badass’ highlight of the travesty that was Batman vs Superman, but thank goodness she’s a million times more than that here.

Patty Jenkins directed this film brilliantly and it’s a breakthrough of incredible magnitude. It’s the first female-led superhero film, which didn’t have to change for anyone or anything or compromise any of its heart and soul. It’s here now for little girls, and boys, to grow up and enjoy and aspire to and that hopefully will get them reading and creating stories of their own, and not being afraid to tell them.

Yes, there are some narrative clichés and the villains are probably the weakest element of the film. More could perhaps have been done to not solely vilify the Germans, and to illustrate the point that both sides used hideous poisons and gases, and that both were culpable in so many ways. It also went down The Book Thief route of having German accents, but not the language, which I always find a bit weird. For me though, this film gets so much more so very right than it gets wrong. It didn’t have to be perfect, it had to be sincere and it had to be good – and it is. Patty Jenkins has made what they said was impossible and I feel so much gratitude towards her and Gal, to the scriptwriters, the composers, the costume-makers, and those of the comic writers and artists who really properly captured Diana over the years – who helped bring the heart and soul and the art to this movie and made it more than just ‘another superhero movie’.

I want to relive this experience again and again. I want to take everyone I know, of every age and gender. I hope they’ll feel it too, and understand. Take your daughters and your mothers but also your sons, brothers and fathers and show them this is also for them.

It has been so wonderful to witness the outpouring of love and solidarity from other directors, actors, writers and artists. They know what it means, and it’s such a tremendous show of unity and togetherness – and also so deeply individual and personal. I loved Greg Rucka’s tweet: ‘So much I love about #wonderwomanmovie but it comes down to this: @PattyJenks was sincere throughout. @GalGadot was sincere throughout. It’s a beautiful statement. It is an inspiring statement…’. And Gail Simone too – one of the most incredible comic writers to work on the book (and so many others) over the years: ‘I apologize for raving, but honestly, this is what I have been fighting for for years and I kinda feel like crying’ and ‘I get to go to bed knowing the Wonder Woman movie is in the world and is going to inspire kids for decades. BUT HOW DO I SLEEP NOW’. And so many wonderful people outside of the world of comics – who all found something in this movie too.

There’s over 7 billion people on this planet, people with different lives, different DNA, different circumstances and experiences. We can and should do our best to represent – but so much is so intensely individual that there will never be a perfect or fully satisfactory single representation. It doesn’t mean we can’t try to be sincere and still use imagination and empathy in fiction. There will always be faults, and things missed, but we can and should strive to acknowledge the beauty of a sincere creative effort, while always aspiring to do more and be better each time. The important thing is to keep creating and encouraging art and provoking thought and discussion. We can have hope and we can dream and do better and we can definitely stand up and applaud all those who aim to do the same.


I’ve now seen the film twice and just sat back and revelled in every frame the second time. I definitely appreciated things like the soundtrack even more and I bought it immediately after. The music is so powerful and deeply evocative in every scene. It’s beautifully composed and performed, to capture every nuance and flicker of emotion.

On second-viewing that no-man’s land scene absolutely stood out even more. It’s flawlessly done and in the trailer it was the bit that I thought might make me cringe, but the editing, the photography, the pacing and the performance is pitch-perfect. I sat there in wonder and awe. That and the village scenes are the pinnacle of the film. I grew to love the characters of Sameer, Charlie and the Chief - again all had their flaws but all also had their individual stories and experiences which gave little insights into history and different experiences of war. I also loved Themyscira and the Amazons, the comedic moments as Diana encounters London are so much fun, and then the emergence of her and Steve’s partnership and the way everyone around her grows to respect her difference. The third act becomes a bit more like a standard Snyder-verse DC movie, and the CGI battle at the end has some weaker moments, but there are still moments in it with so much heart, beauty and power that had me in tears.

I really hope there’s a substantial featurette on the DVD about the Amazons and the incredible women who play them. Watching it the second time, I revelled in Robin Wright’s performance even more. She is immense as Antiope and her scenes are breath-taking. She exudes power, wisdom, experience and beauty and I love that they show her scars, muscles and lines proudly.

Sadly there isn’t enough time in the story to give enough to the incredible Amazon women, but I appreciated every second we had with every one of them. Ann Wolfe as Artemis is a great example. She looks incredible; proud and strong, and I hope it shows young girls that strength, power and athleticism are beautiful and aspirational too. Wolfe is widely acknowledged as the best female boxer in history. I love that they didn’t necessarily choose actors to play the Amazons, they chose extraordinary people who embody their spirit already.

This incredible cast excelled at everything that traditionally has always been ‘male-dominated’ – women with spears, arrows, wrestling, kickboxing – and the camera worked to show it all in its glory (slow-motion was used so well in this film, and not enough to feel too gimmicky). Here are women being completely natural as warriors. These aren’t girls dreaming of being the next Hollywood star on the cover of a magazine, they’re athletes, fighters, horsewomen, there’s even a published scientist – champions and, above all, hard-workers - all with different body types (see for more about all these women!). Take notice, because no matter their screen-time, these women are such an important part of this film and what it’s about. 

All that's left is just to say how glad I am that this film exists and just thank you to Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins especially, but also to all the creatives who played their part in this journey and who were, in the words of Rucka, sincere. 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Review: The Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh

Goodreads synopsis:
The daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has long known her place—she may be an accomplished alchemist, whose cunning rivals that of her brother Kenshin, but because she is not a boy, her future has always been out of her hands. At just seventeen years old, Mariko is promised to Minamoto Raiden, the son of the emperor's favorite consort—a political marriage that will elevate her family's standing. But en route to the imperial city of Inako, Mariko narrowly escapes a bloody ambush by a dangerous gang of bandits known as the Black Clan, who she learns has been hired to kill her before she reaches the palace.

Dressed as a peasant boy, Mariko sets out to infiltrate the ranks of the Black Clan, determined to track down the person responsible for the target on her back. But she's quickly captured and taken to the Black Clan’s secret hideout, where she meets their leader, the rebel ronin Takeda Ranmaru, and his second-in-command, his best friend Okami. Still believing her to be a boy, Ranmaru and Okami eventually warm to Mariko, impressed by her intellect and ingenuity. As Mariko gets closer to the Black Clan, she uncovers a dark history of secrets, of betrayal and murder, which will force her to question everything she's ever known.

Renee Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn duology was one of the fantasy debuts that I most enjoyed in the last two years. She has a deft touch with words and is great at creating the atmosphere of each world. She’s definitely a fantasy author to look out for over the next few years. There are definite parallels to Mulan in The Flame and the Mist, but very loosely. The Flame in the Mist is set in feudal Japan, as opposed to feudal China, but an obvious parallel is lead character, Hattori Mariko, adopting the guise of a boy in order to infiltrate the mysterious Black Clan. By doing this, she seizes control of her own future for the first time in a life that had thus far been sheltered and her destiny (marriage) decided for her.  

The pivotal moment, after she has apparently been attacked by the Black Clan and is threatened by a stranger, comes with this line:

‘I will not be bandied about by men any longer. I am not a prize to be bought or sold.’

With that, and the actions she follows it with, she reclaims her agency and sets the events of the story in motion. Ahdieh’s novel explores gender roles, and class, in feudal Japan (with definite relevance to the modern day too) and Mariko comes to stand out to the reader as a feminist mouthpiece within the culture of the book. When it seems sudden and forced, it is because there is not so much insight into her internal life (and can come across as being ‘told’ rather than ‘shown’ – this also goes for a few of Mariko’s other traits, such as her ingenuity) before the pivotal moment of her seizing control, but it becomes an invaluable part of who she is and will definitely be of value to readers, especially teen girls and boys who are reading fantasy for the first time.

The feudal setting of Japan is rich and detailed and was a joy to read about. It is a slow-burner and definitely a world that you grow into, but it’s very much worth it and is rich, vibrant and elaborate. My main reading experience of Japan has come through Haruki Murakami – which is obviously very different – so this was a new experience for me and Ahdieh drew me in masterfully. There’s definitely still a lot to be revealed about the characters’ pasts so I’m looking forward to that. Nothing about the book was predictable so I was genuinely riveted and eager to unravel the mysteries while reading. I am not a big fan of the romance angle that seems obligatory in YA fantasy, but the romance in The Flame in the Mist is very much secondary, a slow-burn and the element of disguise and mystery between the characters is very compelling. They are certainly interesting characters in their own right, with their own paths to follow – and very much equals, though I felt the male character did suffer from the brooding anti-hero trope.

The magical/fantastical elements are used sparingly in this book, and a little vaguely, but perhaps they will have a bigger role to play in the sequel. Mariko’s brother, Kenshin, also has some POV chapters and this provides a good foil – though we don’t get so much insight into his internal life. It will be interesting to learn more about Mariko’s family and their goals, and whether they’re all as honourable as she believes. I want to keep reading already. 

I would recommend this to anyone even loosely intrigued by the premise. I think there’s much more to come from Ahdieh and I will certainly read on with interest. I really admire how she’s willing to dive into a variety of cultures and create such rich stories with many layers of mystery and intrigue that need time to be unpacked fully. 


  • “We are so much more than what we do!” Mariko drew closer, as if nearness could invoke a sense of truth. “We are …” she searched her mind for the right things to say. “Our thoughts, our memories, our beliefs!” her eyes dropped to the dying boy. To the evil tree, slowly draining him of life. “This tree is not the forest,” she said softly. “It is but one part.”
  • I don’t want you to be a hero. And I don’t need anyone to save me.’
  • 'Mariko nudged the handle of her spoon with a bound fingertip. “Are you ever angry you were born a woman?” Yumi sat back on her heels and studied Mariko for a spell. “I’ve never been angry to have been born a woman. There have been times I’ve been angry at how the world treats us, but I see being a woman as a challenge I must fight. Like being born under a stormy sky. Some people are lucky enough to be born on a bright summer’s day. Maybe we were born under clouds. No wind. No rain. Just a mountain of clouds we must climb each morning so that we may see the sun.’
  • 'Mariko supposed it was possible all women and men were forced to wear their own kind of masks’

*Thank you to Hodder and NetGalley for a chance to read an eARC of the book.

Monday, May 1, 2017

'Find out what you might become' - Review: Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray

Goodreads synopsis: 

Noemi is a young and fearless soldier of Genesis, a colony planet of a dying Earth. But the citizens of Genesis are rising up - they know that Earth's settlers will only destroy this planet the way they destroyed their own. And so a terrible war has begun.

When Noemi meets Abel, one of Earth's robotic mech warriors, she realizes that Abel himself may provide the key to Genesis' salvation. Abel is bound by his programming to obey her - even though her plan could result in his destruction. But Abel is no ordinary mech. He's a unique prototype, one with greater intelligence, skill and strength than any other. More than that, he has begun to develop emotions, a personality and even dreams. Noemi begins to realise that if Abel is less than human, he is more than a machine. If she destroys him, is it murder? And can a cold-blooded murder be redeemed by the protection of a world?

Stranded together in space, they go on a whirlwind adventure through Earth's various colony worlds, alongside the countless Vagabonds who have given up planetary life altogether and sail forever between the stars. Each step brings them closer - both to each other and to the terrible decision Noemi will have to make about her world's fate, and Abel's.

I hadn’t read any of Claudia Gray’s books before this year, though I’d heard them recommended. I actually read Bloodline, my first Star Wars novel, back in January and really enjoyed it. I was still mourning Carrie Fisher and it was such a deft and impressive insight into Leia as a Senator and politician. It captured her spirit perfectly and cemented Claudia Gray as someone to look out for.

So when I heard about Defy the Stars, I thought I’d see what it was like.

It could have fallen into many a cliché if it had gone down the full-blown romance route, but it’s actually a deftly-handled look into the complications of a sentient AI and the romance angles are limited and I think you're meant to feel conflicted about them - I suppose for reasons that were also portrayed in the brilliant Westworld series this year. 

Noemi and Abel are both strong characters on their own and are both relating to their circumstances in very different ways. Noemi is a soldier for her planet, Genesis, which is resisting an invasion by Earth and Abel is a lost mech, the most advanced android in the galaxy, stranded in the middle of nowhere – lost to his master/father figure.

Mechs are designed to be disposable, to risk their lives where humans cannot, while Naomi has to come to terms with her role as a Genesis soldier – also expendable for the ‘greater good’ and the consequences that has for her faith. The story is really about them both finding their individual sense of purpose and liberation and learning how to make their own choices. I believe it’s going to be a duology and that the worlds will be fleshed out and it’s certainly left perfectly poised.

‘Conflicts are the price of sentience […] assert your own will. It’s the first step toward being something more than a machine. Find out what you might become.’

I definitely think the U.S. cover is stronger and more accurate to the book. The U.K. one is quite misleading and looks a little like a space-erotica. Which this book is not – at all. It does it a disservice. The book is very action heavy but the strongest moments are Abel’s moments of introspection and his relationship with his creator – Burton Mansfield – Earth’s leading scientist and the designer of androids for the purposes of war. The truth about Burton is something that the reader suspects naturally (recognising those self-seeking human qualities) but there is no reason why Abel should, so it is still emotionally compelling to see him discover the truth for himself and to have his innocence shattered. So much of his character is built around his loyalty to and what certainly seems to be affection for his creator, who he really sees as his father. It is all he has ever known to want – to be reunited with Burton. But his programming has been evolving while he has been stranded, and the narrative becomes him learning that there are other things to want.

‘Burton Mansfield’s greatest sin was creating a soul and imprisoning it in a machine’

Noemi, on the other hand, is intensely passionate, committed to her faith, though also questioning it, racked with guilt over the death of her friend, and determined to save her world, no matter the cost. These two personalities clash but also inform each other and come to teach the other the qualities that it is lacking. It’s very carefully portrayed and built up throughout.

There is definitely room for the narrative to go deeper (perhaps exploring the morality around human and AI nature and interaction even further, as Westworld did) and the political situation to be explored, and hopefully these are things that will be addressed in the sequel. It was a fast-paced and engaging read, even though it didn’t break any new ground in the genre, it certainly avoided its trappings and never fell into over-sentimentality. I’m interested to see where these two characters go and hopefully it only gets more complex. 

Thank you to Hot Key Books and NetGalley for a chance to read an eARC of the book. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

'Not all of us receive the ends that we deserve.' - Review: The Muse by Jessie Burton

GoodReads description:

‘A picture hides a thousand words . . .

On a hot July day in 1967, Odelle Bastien climbs the stone steps of the Skelton gallery in London, knowing that her life is about to change forever. Having struggled to find her place in the city since she arrived from Trinidad five years ago, she has been offered a job as a typist under the tutelage of the glamorous and enigmatic Marjorie Quick. But though Quick takes Odelle into her confidence, and unlocks a potential she didn't know she had, she remains a mystery - no more so than when a lost masterpiece with a secret history is delivered to the gallery.

The truth about the painting lies in 1936 and a large house in rural Spain, where Olive Schloss, the daughter of a renowned art dealer, is harbouring ambitions of her own. Into this fragile paradise come artist and revolutionary Isaac Robles and his half-sister Teresa, who immediately insinuate themselves into the Schloss family, with explosive and devastating consequences . . .’

I appreciated Jessie Burton’s award-winning, bestselling The Miniaturist. I spent a Christmas hand-selling it at Waterstones and it was a well-written, well-crafted novel. But I loved The Muse. I engaged with it and its characters, heart and mind. They’re both great books, but The Muse is the one I’d go back to and the one that personally hit the spot. It had me from the selected quote before the story even began:

‘Never again will a single story be sold as though it were the only one.’ – John Berger

This is an epigraph which has been used in many well-known, acclaimed novels – it seems to have a track record of success of its own. John Berger is understandably part of most undergraduate studies in literature but it’s a quote that has so much resonance in so many fields of study, and life. At my university, we were shown Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk on the ‘Danger of a Single Story’ – and I’ve mentioned it before on this blog.

Jessie Burton’s The Muse certainly draws upon this idea of the single story – about the different ways things can be perceived, the way that different angles can convey different meanings, and the way that narratives can be controlled to include and exclude. It is, at its heart, about art in all its senses and incarnations – about responsibility, representation, power, dignity and consent:

‘It doesn’t matter what’s the truth; what people believe becomes the truth.’

Burton’s parallel narratives depict two women in different eras, both talented and creative, and yet both – partly because of circumstance, and partly by choice – hiding their gifts or holding back. Originally from Trinidad, Odelle Bastien (1960s) still feels an outsider- she explains:

‘I was – both by circumstance and nature – a migrant in this world, and my lived experience had long become a state of mind’

Burton navigates these angles of migration and ethnicity sensitively and thoughtfully, exploring how it feels to be away from your country of birth and trying to forge an identity in a place where – whether by virtue of gender or race – you may not be taken so seriously, and may feel compelled to hide away.

Marjorie Quick becomes a sort of mentor, as well as employer, eager to unlock Odelle’s talents and encourage them. Back in the 1930s, a young woman named Teresa seeks to do the same for Olive Schloss, the daughter of an art collector (also living away from home, in Spain) who paints secretly and brilliantly (better than Teresa’s artist half-brother, Isaac). The parallels and the way in which Burton toys with the seams of both stories and characters is delightful and utterly compelling. Each tiny twist seems to raise the stakes until the simple truth becomes the ultimate and most quietly devastating prize.

The dynamic between all the characters held me captivated. Like Odelle, I was fascinated by the enigmatic nature of Marjorie Quick and I loved that the bonds between women – between Odelle and Marjorie, and Olive and Teresa - are the most complex and intriguing. Both go beyond the connections that Odelle and Olive feel to the men in their lives and endure in a much stronger and more meaningful way.

The Muse is a book that is so cleverly layered that I feel I want to reread it again and again and to look at these characters from all angles. For now, these are just a few introductory thoughts on a novel I admire more each time I think about it.

Adichie’s ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ TED talk quotes:
  • ‘I realised that I had become so immersed in the media coverage of Mexicans that they had become one thing in my mind, the abject immigrant. I had bought into the single story of Mexicans and I could not have been more ashamed of myself.’
  • ‘So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become’.
  • ‘There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is "nkali." It's a noun that loosely translates to "to be greater than another." Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they're told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.’
  • ‘The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.’

The Muse quotes:
  • ‘Not all of us receive the ends that we deserve.’
  • ‘This is what she taught me: you have to be ready in order to be lucky. You have to put your pieces into play.’
  • ‘That if you really want to see your work to completion, you have to desire it more than you’d believe you have to fight it, fight yourself. It’s not easy.’
  • ‘It doesn’t matter what’s the truth; what people believe becomes the truth.’
  • ‘In the end, a piece of art only succeeds when its creator – to paraphrase Olive Schloss – possesses the belief that brings it into being’

 *Thank you to Picador and NetGalley for the chance to read an ARC of The Muse

Monday, August 8, 2016

'Not a horror. But a girl. Just a girl.' - Review: Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

GoodReads Description:

Destined to destroy empires, Mia Covere is only ten years old when she is given her first lesson in death.

Six years later, the child raised in shadows takes her first steps towards keeping the promise she made on the day that she lost everything.

But the chance to strike against such powerful enemies will be fleeting, so if she is to have her revenge, Mia must become a weapon without equal. She must prove herself against the deadliest of friends and enemies, and survive the tutelage of murderers, liars and demons at the heart of a murder cult.

The shadows love her. And they drink her fear. 

The first line lays it out how it is – this book is going to hold nothing back:

‘People often shit themselves when they die, did you know that?’

There will be no holding back.

The first chapter is very cleverly composed, and Kristoff hooks you immediately with his skill. There is a brilliant linguistic and syntactic equation of acts of sex and death in these opening paragraphs. For the reader, they happen simultaneously and simultaneously they are opposites and the same. They echo and mirror each other in so many ways and are contrasted only by alternating italicised and roman paragraphs. Reading these opening scenes is a visceral experience, and incredibly immersive.

The parallels between love and death re-emerge throughout the book. On her way to earn her place at the Red Church, the training school for assassins, Mia meets future fellow-student and friend, Tric. When he sees her fighting for the first time he notes that she and opponent move ‘like first time lovers – hesitant at first, drifting closer until finally they fell into each other’s arms, fists and elbows and knees, block and counters and strikes’. There are sharp moments of foreshadowing and the whole narrative is a puzzle coming together, twisting into a hugely exciting, adrenaline-fuelled conclusion. The final third is impossible to tear yourself away from. In a twisted way, I appreciated and welcomed its brutality. It lures you into a false sense of security and then shatters it, which I felt it was something it really needed to do to avoid falling into certain clichés.

Mia’s full character and past is unveiled to us slowly and in snatches but it is worth the wait and the whole story is better for it. Mia is different to the other assassins-in-training – she is Darkin, and has an intriguing relationship with and degree of power over, shadows. Her constant companion is a very mysterious shadow cat named Mister Kindly. He consumes her fear and helps her sleep through the night – for reasons revealed as you read. I think there is much more to come from him as he is very much an enigma in this first book but their relationship is very unique and one of the more intriguing and different elements of the story. There are many books with training academies, trials, teens set against each other, assassins etc. but Kristoff knows how to write fantasy and he infuses Nevernight with enough other elements – foreshadowing, shocking twists, and stylistic flourishes that it embeds itself in your conscious as you read and remains long after – leaving you wanting more. I’ve pre-ordered the black sprayed-edges edition from Waterstones and look forward to learning more about Mia and Mister Kindly in particular.

Reading a digital ARC, without proper formatting, did make the footnote element of the narrator’s voice a bit disruptive. I’m reserving judgement on the narrative voice until I’ve read more but at this stage it feels an unnecessary extra, ‘telling’ things rather than allowing them to come up naturally in the story. It’s tone is sometimes a little cloying – but reading a finished copy may be a different experience in that regard and I’m sure it’s purpose will be clear further down the line.

I do have one more spoiler-y point to raise for discussion or general musing: I did have qualms about a certain practice in the Red Church (and Mia consenting to it) – and that is essentially the plastic surgery (weaving) they have to go through – to be made physically alluring (bigger breasts etc). In some respects I thought the controversial, more complicated aspects of this were glossed over, as Mia, and even Tric (who initially has reservations) go along with it mostly without comment. In some ways, it’s a shame because Mia is someone initially described as plain, small and scrawny – but someone who has so much power and is so talented that her appearance has never mattered. On the other hand, this could equally be more of a commentary on the morally contentious nature of the Red Church and what it wants to transform people into. It’s something to consider again once the series is finished perhaps.

‘You are luckier than you know. You were born without that which most people prize their loves for. That ridiculous prize called beauty. You know what it is to be overlooked. Know it keenly enough that you paid a boy to love you…’

After all, the Red Church is all about fashioning a new type of being; a complete assassin, and will remake those it needs to. The stakes are high and only the strongest will prevail and be accepted.
  • ‘Forget the girl who had everything. She died when her father did … Nothing is where you start. Own nothing. Know nothing. Be nothing.’
  • ‘It may not be right,’ Aalea said. ‘It may not be just. But this is a world of Senators and Consuls and Luminatii – of republics and cults and institutions built and maintained almost entirely by men. And in it, love is a weapon. Sex is a weapon. Your eyes? Your body? Your smile?’ she shrugged, ‘weapons. And they give you more power than a thousand swords. Open more gates than a thousand war walkers. Love has toppld Kings, Mia. Ended empires. Even broken our poor, sunburned sky.'

I find myself intrigued by this world that Kristoff is weaving and I’m certainly going to read on. I like the darkness, the mystery and the brutality; too many fantasies get bogged down in over-bearing, contrived romance plots and it seems that Kristoff is dodging that trap for the most part. It’s got its own distinct character but has many of the things I enjoy in my favourite fantasies (Throne of Glass, Game of Thrones…) and is certainly unafraid to push the boundaries of your expectations. I respect that Mia is a complex, layered, character who – by her own nature and belief- may be hard to love, and I look forward to learning more about her and her shadow cat (‘who is not a cat’). I want to see this world and mythology grow even more into its own in the sequels to come and anticipate them eagerly. 

Some other choice quotes:

  • 'Listen, girl,’ Aelius sniffed. ‘The books we love, they love us back. And just as we mark our places in the pages, those pages leave their marks on us. Indelible as the ink that graces them. I can see it in you, sure as I see it in me. You’re a daughter of words. A girl with a story to tell.’
  • ‘A few thought her some thing from the abyss; some daemonic servant of the mother set on their trail. Others mistook her for a horror from the Whisperwastes; some monstrosity spat into being by the dark pull of twisted magiks. But as she wove and swayed among them, blades whistling, breath hissing, the swiftest among them realised she wasn’t a daemon. Not a horror. But a girl. Just a girl. And that thought terrified them more than any daemon or horror they could name.’ 

Thank you to HarperVoyager and NetGalley for letting me read a digital ARC in exchange for honest review. Nevernight is published on 11th August.

Monday, May 16, 2016

'To be forgotten is to be free, you know that, don’t you?': The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North (Review)

Claire North is certainly one of the authors I admire the most. She takes on some of the most technically challenging and fiddly subjects to write about and is very versatile. Yet Touch, Harry August and Hope all tackle that human desire to leave a mark and to mean something. To mean something as a human being/life-form and what it is about yourself that is memorable and can leave an impression. She always challenges you to think beyond the bounds of the physical and the corporeal. In her books she has tackled the limits of gender, sexuality, time, memory and more. She is unafraid and quite unique and because of all this, I will pick up her books without hesitation.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope, a bit like Touch, is part globe-trotting thriller and part existential crisis/analysis. The focus of the plot (or one of them) is an app called Perfection which sets goals and rewards for people to ‘better themselves’. I read The Circle by Dave Eggers just a month or two before this and they definitely both explore this technological dystopian theme very well. While you’re reading, you only have to look up and around you to recognise how precariously balanced society is and how easily it could slip into something quite frightening. What Perfection is actually pushing is conformity – a very static set of ideals based on money, body-image and the like. Both The Circle and The Sudden Appearance of Hope touch upon the idea of the end of privacy, the constant need to share, the setting of goals and the reward schemes that only reward certain, approved behaviours – a subtle brainwashing and defining of worthiness. The chasing of targets and the relentless measuring of your life by strangers and trend-setters, telling you what it is to be worthy and when you deserve reward is juxtaposed with Hope’s innate condition of forgettability. The moment she turns her back, she is forgotten – by her family, her ‘friends’, by anyone she meets – except technology. The only path she leaves is digital.

Hope cannot have a job, cannot own property, cannot live in the ways society usually deems meaningful – she cannot legally exist as she is forgotten within a minute. Hope survives by becoming a criminal – an international jewel thief. It is as she sets out to steal a jewelled bracelet that Hope and Perfection are set on a collision course. Shaken by the death of someone connected to it and seeing the sinister potential of its elements of mind control, Hope sets herself a meaningful mission – to take it down.

Interestingly, Hope does meet someone like her, a fellow ‘forgettable’, who it seems becomes memorable by following the scheme of the app and letting it change him and help him conform. This leaves Hope with a heart-breaking choice – should she adopt the app herself and become memorable and known to her family, but as someone else, or honour them in retaining her own sense of integrity and difference? What if the cure is something worse than the disease? The only person who remembers Hope fully is her little sister, who has a form of brain condition.

Yet the process of writing her story is also a way of enacting meaning and leaving a trace. ‘I write this to be remembered.’ is one of the opening lines of the novel: ‘Whoever you are: these are my words. This is my truth. Listen, and remember me’. To cope Hope takes it upon herself to talk to scholars and monks ‘men and women who’d been held in solitary confinement for ears on end. You find the happiness you can, one said. Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes you gotta dig deep, but it’s there, the thing inside that you can be content.’ For Hope’s condition is a life sentence of its own – her world can only be a long solitary confinement with fleeting instances of connection.

Alone you can lose yourself, or you may find yourself, and most of the time you do both’.

One of the main repeated encounters Hope has throughout her quest is with a lady called Byron, someone who seems somewhat envious of Hope’s condition – telling her that ‘to be forgotten is to be free, you know that, don’t you?’. And this is another interesting discourse that unfolds throughout the narrative – the definition of freedom, and how people would live without inhibition,  knowing they could never be caught, they could do anything, get away with anything. Byron is excited by the prospect, wanting to live without limits, not understanding Hope’s discipline (‘you have no need to conform, what’s the point? No one will thank you for it, no one will remember you.’) – but Hope comes to realise that freedom also means honouring the freedom of those around her – that self-discipline is crucial and she must impose her own limits and meaning (the idea that freedom that impinges upon the freedom of others is wrong). To some extent – you have to ‘permit yourself to be defined by the world that surrounds you’. The whole exchange and the relationship between these two women is written brilliantly – in some ways they are so similar and yet there are fundamental philosophical differences that are unpacked very neatly and effectively.

‘I impose disciplines upon myself, discourse, reason, knowledge…’
‘To fill the place where society should be?’
‘Yes. And to keep me sane. To help me see myself as others might see.’

Some of the most poignant passages come in Hope’s longing to mean something to her family and the brilliance of North’s writing shines through in one of the descriptions of Hope’s mother:

‘Mum comes in. Her hair is bright white, cut down to the surface of her skull, and age has made her face something extraordinary. Each part of it needs an atlas to describe; her chin is many chins, still small and sharp but etched with muscle and line, layered one upon the other. Her cheeks are contoured bone and silky rivers of skin, her eyebrows waggle against great parallels of thought on her forehead, her mouth is encased in smile lines and pout lines and scowl lines and worry lines and laughter lines and there is no part of her which is not in some way written over with stories’.

Hope can see all the markings of experience and all the imperfections and find beauty in them – a kind of beauty that Perfection would never recognise. She knows that her mother could never love the being that Perfection would make of her.

As a character, you pity Hope, but at no point does the book make an emotional spectacle of her tragic condition – it productively explores the nature of it and draws up on it poignantly when it needs to. The parallel plot involving the jewel heist and Perfection balances the narrative and paces it, while also cementing the relevance of these timeless, universal questions in the modern, digital age. An age in which we leave a constant digital trail but long, enduring, meaningful engagements are in decline and under threat. 

The only thing I do find with some of North's book is that it's sometimes hard to engage with, keep track of and remember the wide variety of secondary characters (if you’re not careful, you  might find yourself a bit lost) but do persevere and revisit – it’s worth it in the end and you will find yourself wanting to go back to this book again. Touch was one of my Books of 2015.

Fittingly, The Sudden Appearance of Hope is unforgettable.

*Thank you to Orbit of Little Brown Book Group UK and NetGalley for letting me read a digital ARC in exchange for honest review. The Sudden Appearance of Hope is published on 19th May 2016. 

Further quotes:

  • The past was just a present that had been, the future was a present yet to come, and only now remained, and I stood by the sea, recovering my landlegs from the road, and wept.       
  • Knowledge. What should I do with this place inside me where experience – tears of joy, shrieks of laughter, the anxiety of work, the warmth of friends, the love of family, the expectations of the world – what should I do with that place which was never filled? I put knowledge there. And in knowledge, I find myself. This sounds like an intellectual void where heart should be, but look and you may find…
  •  Look for the words “perfect woman” and you find bodies. Diagrams, explaining that the perfect face belongs to an actress with smoky eyes, the perfect hair comes from a princess; the perfect waist is barely narrow enough to support the generous breasts that balance on it; legs disproportionately long, smile that says “take me”. Photoshopped features combining the faces of movie stars and models, pop idols and celebrities. Who is the perfect woman? According to the internet, she is a blonde white girl with bulimia; no other characteristics are specified.
  • Know thyself, and know everyone else. Having no one else to know me, having no one to catch me or lift me up, tell me I’m right or wrong, having no one to define the limits of me. I have to define myself, otherwise I am nothing, just a … liquid that dissolves. Know yourself. But finding definition without all the… the daily things that give you shape…’