Thursday, October 22, 2015

Processing 'A Little Life' by Hanya Yanagihara

In a BBC interview with her, prior to the Man Booker announcement. Hanya Yanagihara spoke about her intentions when writing her shortlisted novel, A Litte Life. In the clip, which you can see here (, she speaks about wanting to show ‘how sometimes life is irreparable for people, because they’ve suffered such a profound amount of damage that they’re not able to come back from it’. In light of this approach, she further explores what it might mean to be saved and what it might mean to have a happy ending.

With this in mind, meet Jude St Francis. Although the book follows four friends, Willem, JB, Malcolm and Jude, it is Jude’s life which takes centre stage and the others fade in and out over the course of it.

This book is both about the limits of endurance and a test to the reader’s own endurance. It is a rolling film which occasionally stops to focus and tell, rather than show, a chapter or a moment. It goes to some of the darkest places imaginable and immerses you in them, repeatedly. It is a challenge, it is not for the vulnerable and has a lot of potentially triggering content for sexual abuse, bereavement and self-harm. It is upsetting, distressing, depressing, and yet – there is something that keeps bringing me back to it. I will discuss plot points which could be considered spoilers, this review/analysis is more intended for those who have read the book and want to join me in processing their thoughts.

My marker of whether a book is good/worth reading, the latter being the less subjective, is whether it makes me think, and think hard. Whether, the more I think about it, the more I uncover in my own mind and the wider I can see, where new paths are open to me and I feel like I have gained something in reading it. Obviously there are books I enjoy for other reasons, but with literary fiction, this is more often the measure.

A Little Life has definitely had me thinking, ruminating, brooding, and it is incredibly hard to process and find how to articulate a response to it. It was definitely worth reading for me, but that is not to say I enjoyed the experience. It is one of the hardest reading experiences I’ve had. I don’t think it’s a book you can or are meant to enjoy. It was, in parts, arduous, sometimes repetitive, frustrating and perhaps overwrought. Yet, it is a remarkable novel – unlike anything else you’ll have read or perhaps will ever read. It is brave and admirable and a work of art by an incredibly talented and thoughtful writer who wanted to push the limits and try to explore whether someone could come back from being so broken and having endured such extreme depravity. It had moments so affecting and perceptive and honest, that you had to sit back in awe. It contained multitudes. And in multitudes, there will always be good and bad. At 720 pages, the style was exacting and exhausting – but I think that’s very much what she intended – it is essentially a character study of someone damaged in every way possible both physically and mentally, and the people who want to save him and bring him back from the brink. How can you save someone who is so determined to die? And when it might be a mercy to let them? It is about the small kindnesses in the present that must always struggle and contend with the huge traumas of memory and flashback.

JB and Malcolm were introduced but actually were side-lined relatively quickly and more distant as it went on. Some of the friends reached such levels of success in their artistic careers that they became almost distant and implausible. They had some good moments, and JB’s art certainly played a role in exacting the emotion from different scenes. But they weren’t established as engaging characters despite lengthy introductions. Harold was my favourite and his relationship with Jude was the one that affected me the most. Jude met people of such evil extremes, repeatedly throughout his life – Harold and Willem are the two wholly, perpetually good people who hardly waver and love him so unconditionally. Yanagihara has said she deliberately wrote the extremes of love and unhappiness a little beyond their plausibility. It is true to say that Jude’s relationships fall into extremes, and perhaps that is something that can make the book seem perhaps too melodramatic at times, particularly certain fatal events near the end.

I adored Harold and Julia and their adoption of Jude at 30, I thought it was an incredibly hopeful and redemptive move for both parties given their histories and it was a real point of hope and light which the story desperately needed. I found Harold’s snippets of narration to be some of the most engaging and perceptive. He reflected a lot on the death of his own son in some really beautifully-written paragraphs:

‘You have never known fear until you have a child, and maybe that is what tricks us into thinking that it is more magnificent, because the fear itself is more magnificent… I would hold him in my arms and wait to cross the street and would think how absurd it was that my child, that any child, could expect to survive this life’

And after his son has died:

‘But here’s what no one says—when it’s your child, a part of you, a very tiny but nonetheless unignorably part of you, also feels relief. Because finally, the moment you have been expecting, been dreading, been preparing yourself for since the day you became a parent, has come. Ah, you tell yourself, it’s arrived. Here it is, and after that, you have nothing to fear again.’

Jude is his second chance, and even when he discovers he has adopted a man who he is perhaps also destined to lose, he is unwavering and constant and loves with his whole heart. 

‘If we were all so specifically, vividly aware of might go wrong, we would none of us have children at all.’

Yanagihara says she hasn’t written a word since finishing this novel, and may never write another again because of how much it took out of her. Indeed some of the most raw, vivid and uninhibited bits of writing are in the details of self-harm. Jude’s body is a canvas onto which all of his traumas are etched, as if he must make himself physically resemble how monstrous he feels.

‘He is disgusted and dismayed and fascinated all at once by how severely he has deformed himself.

‘Something about the fall, the freshness of the pain, had been restorative. It was honest pain, clean pain, a pain without shame or filth, and it was a different sensation than he had felt in years … He imagined he was knocking out of himself every piece of dirt, every trace of liquid, every memory of the past few years.’

After all the psychological damage, the horrible surprises and corruption of adult ideals and intimacies, the blunt simplicity of such physical pain seems a refreshing alternative, both a distraction and a point of focus. Yanagihara really gets to the heart of it in a gritty, grizzly, explicit way that has been missing from the literary scene.
Writing this, I have also started to consider that it is interesting that she explicitly explores male suffering. There are barely any female characters in the book. This is probably something you could write a whole thesis about. Julia, Harold’s wife, is the main female character I can think of, and she has very little dialogue and presence. It is the father-figure, the paternal role that needs to be redeemed for Jude as it is the father-figures – who appear first as saviours – who have always turned into the perpetrators of the most horrific abuse and violations of trust – all barring Willem and Harold. And yet, Jude is always expecting it of them – expecting that they will ultimately betray his trust as it has been betrayed so many times before.

Suicide and depression affect so many. But suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50. This book follows one of those men who cannot see a way out, who cannot process and cope with what has happened to him, who will not open himself to more than one person – and that is very notable and topical and an angle that yields so much more to think about. Jude would give anything to keep himself hidden, to keep his suffering hidden, and he does, mostly, for his whole life. Could he have been saved? Or is there something, a current in society or the way we live that would have made it fundamentally impossible or implausible? I would be interested in hearing/reading people’s thoughts on these issues. Do you think Yanagihara explicitly wanted to focus on male emotional suffering and emotional male relationships because they are perhaps not always honestly represented or are under-represented? If so, then she has done a comprehensive and fascinating study – though it is prone to the extremes.

So at the end of it all, what is Jude's life worth? What are the efforts of Harold, Willem and Andy worth? 

It's like that quote from the diaries of Anais Nin - 'you can't save people, you can only love them'. And Willem and Harold and many more did. And they did save him repeatedly in many ways, in more ways than he ever dreamt of being saved at all. 

There is a lot more I could say and will probably think of – so I will perhaps add to this in the future. But for now I just want to get some of my thoughts up and thank you to the publisher, Picador (UK) and NetGalley for the ARC. I think you need to be warned when you pick up this book, that you may not be the same when you finish it – and whether that is for better or for worse, is dependent on you. If there is a word to epitomise A Little Life in every way - it is this:


Some of my favourite quotes/excerpts from A Little Life

  •  He wished, as he often did, that the entire sequence—the divulging of intimacies, the exploring of pasts—could be sped past, and that he could simply be teleported to the next stage, where the relationship was something soft and pliable and comfortable, where both parties’ limits were understood and respected
  • It would have been too melodramatic, too final, to say that after this JB was forever diminished for him. But it was true that for the first time, he was able to comprehend that the people he had grown to trust might someday betray him anyway, and that as disappointing as it might be, it was inevitable as well, and that life would keep propelling him steadily forward, because for everyone who might fail him in some way, there was at least one person who never would.
  • Always, there are people asking him if he misses what it had never occurred to him to want, never occurred to him he might have.
  • Wasn’t it a miracle to be adopted at thirty, to find people who loved you so much that they wanted to call you their own? Wasn’t it a miracle to have survived the unsurvivable? Wasn’t friendship its own miracle, the finding of another person who made the entire lonely world seem somehow less lonely? Wasn’t this house, this beauty, this comfort, this life a miracle? And so who could blame him for hoping for one more, for hoping that despite knowing better, that despite biology, and time, and history, that they would be the exception, that what happened to other people with Jude’s sort of injury wouldn’t happen to him, that even with all that Jude had overcome, he might overcome just one more thing?
  •  If I acknowledge that I am disabled, then I’ll have conceded to Dr Traylor, then I’ll have let Dr Traylor determine the shape of my life. And so I pretend I’m not; I pretend I am how I was before I met him. And I know it’s not logical or practical. But mostly, I’m sorry because—because I know it’s selfish. I know my pretending has consequences for you so –I’m going to stop.’ He takes a breath, closes and opens his eyes. ‘I’m disabled,’ he says. ‘I’m handicapped’ and as foolish as it is-he is forty-seven after all; he has had thirty-two years to admit this to himself-he feels himself about to cry.
  • This, he thinks, is his punishment for depending on others: one by one, they will leave him, and he will be alone again, and this time it will be worse because he will remember it had once been better.
  • It was precisely these scenes he missed the most from his own life with Willem, the forgettable, in-between moments in which nothing seemed to be happening but whose absence was singularly unfillable.
  •  And although he hadn’t fretted over whether his life was worthwhile, he had always wondered why he, why so many others, went on living at all; it had been difficult to convince himself at times, and yet so many people, so many millions, billions of people, lived in misery he couldn’t fathom, with deprivations and illnesses that were obscene in their extremity. And yet on and on and on they went. So was the determination to keep living not a choice at all, but an evolutionary implementation? Was there something in the mind itself, a constellation of neurons as toughened and scarred as tendon that prevented humans from doing what logic so often argued they should? And yet that instinct wasn’t infallible-he had overcome it once. But what had happened to it after? Had it weakened or become more resilient? Was his life even hiss to choose to live any longer? He had known, ever since the hospital, that it was impossible to convince someone to live for his own sake. But he often thought it would be a more effective treatment to make people feel more urgently the necessity of living for others: that, to him, was always the most compelling argument. The fact was, he did owe Harold. He did owe Willem. And if they wanted him to stay alive, then he would. At the time, as he slogged through day after day, his motivations had been murky to him, but now he could recognise that he had done it for them, and that rare selflessness had been something he could be proud of after all he hadn’t understood why they wanted him to stay alive, only that they had, and so he had done it. Eventually, he had learned how to rediscover contentment, joy, even. But it hadn’t begun that way.
  •  And he cries and cries, cries for everything he has been, for everything he might have been, for every old hurt, for every old happiness, cries for the same and joy of finally getting to be a child, with all of a child’s whims and wants and insecurities... for the luxury of tendernesses, of fondnesses, of being served a meal and being made to eat it.
  • That he died so alone is more than I can think of; that he died thinking that he owed us an apology is worse; that he died still stubbornly believing everything he was taught about himself—after you, after me, after all of who loved him—makes me think that my life has been a failure after all, that I have failed at the one thing that counted.
  • ‘You won’t understand what I mean now, but someday you will: the only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are—not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving—and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad—or good—it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.’
  • ‘Sometimes he wakes so far from himself that he can’t even remember who he is. “Where am I?” he asks, desperate, and then, “Who am I? Who am I?”
  • And then he hears, so close to his ear that it is as if the voice is originating inside his own head, Willem’s whispered incantation. “You’re Jude St. Francis. You are my oldest, dearest friend. You’re the son of Harold Stein and Julia Altman. You’re the friend of Malcolm Irvine, of Jean-Baptiste Marion, of Richard Goldfarb, of Andy Contractor, of Lucien Voigt, of Citizen van Straaten, of Rhodes Arrowsmith, of Elijah Kozma, of Phaedra de los Santos, of the Henry Youngs. “You’re a New Yorker. You live in SoHo. You volunteer for an arts organization; you volunteer for a food kitchen. “You’re a swimmer. You’re a baker. You’re a cook. You’re a reader. You have a beautiful voice, though you never sing anymore. You’re an excellent pianist. You’re an art collector. You write me lovely messages when I’m away. You’re patient. You’re generous. You’re the best listener I know. You’re the smartest person I know, in every way. You’re the bravest person I know, in every way. “You’re a lawyer. You’re the chair of the litigation department at Rosen Pritchard and Klein. You love your job; you work hard at it. “You’re a mathematician. You’re a logician. You’ve tried to teach me, again and again. “You were treated horribly. You came out on the other end. You were always you.”’

Sunday, September 20, 2015

'Culture, boredom, alienation and despair': The Manic Street Preachers and 'They're Not Like Us' by Eric Stephenson, Simon Gane, Jordie Bellaire and Fonografiks

I'm not going to lie - what first drew me to this book, was the fact that the Manic Street Preachers are my favourite band of all time – and They’re Not Like Us by Eric Stephenson (art by Simon Gane, colour by Jordie Bellaire and letters/design by Fonografiks) contains a multitude of nods to them. 

It’s an amazing feeling to find these in art/literature as it’s usually the Manics channelling or paying homage to others. They are definitely a literary/artistic/political band, songwriters Nicky and Richey (some of his favourite authors were Albert Camus, Dostoyevsky, Yukio Mishima, Arthur Rimbaud and Philip Larkin) read widely and delighted in quoting their favourite authors and philosophers and many of their albums reference or are inspired by art movements and paintings. 

There’s a lovely, rewarding sense of inter-textuality across culture here, with art beginning to reflect back at the Manics themselves.

The first, most blatant reference is the title of this volume: Black Holes For The Young.

This is a brilliant, psychedelic, yet fairly obscure, song by the Manics (featuring Sophie Ellis Bextor). It’s about the grim prospects for the future for the young when society is becoming increasingly artificial/vacant and polluted, the tension between the urban and rural, and the class divisions (‘no sun for you young boy’, ‘sit around in the London smog’, ‘no more feelings that you can feel’). It channels the idea that the young, particularly the less privileged, are growing up to face black holes and vapid emptiness with no prospect or reward and this is certainly an atmosphere reflected in this graphic novel. 
To introduce this series by the head of Image Comics, Eric Stephenson: They're Not Like Us sets out to tell the story of a girl with telepathic abilities, neglected by her parents, who has had enough of living. GoodReads blurb/introEisner-nominated NOWHERE MEN writer ERIC STEPHENSON teams up with red-hot artist SIMON GANE for an all-new ongoing series! We all have advantages over one another, but what if you were capable of things most of us can only imagine? What would you do – and who would you be? A doctor? An athlete? A soldier? A hero? Everyone has to make a choice about how to use the abilities they're born with... but they're not like us.
The general design and layout of the title pages resemble some Manics album cases and booklets, especially with the epigraph/quote at the start of each issue. The first issue is another Manics song title: ‘From Despair to Where’ (‘The place is quiet and so alone / Pretend there's something worth waiting for. / There's nothing nice in my head / The adult world took it all away). Indeed, in They’re Not Like Us, Syd finds this group of outsiders who resent the adult world and the way that adults, including their parents, have treated them. The lyrics in this song are simply brilliant, some of my favourite: outside open mouthed cows / Pass each other as if they’re drugged / Down pale corridors of routine/ … / Words are never enough / Just cheap tarnished glitter. It can’t be called apathy because these kids do care, they care too much, but the care has never been returned. They were not loved, because they were not understood. They are self-declared orphans. 

A Richey Edwards (the whole culture of early Manics and the Richey era does link nicely to the story and characters in it) lyric (featured in ‘Motown Junk’) opens the second issue: ‘Twenty-one years of living and nothing means anything to me’, which is pretty self-explanatory. The final words of that song are: ‘we live in urban hell, we destroy rock and roll’. The area and house that the group in They’re Not Like Us live in epitomises that urban hell; with vandalism, violence and crime rampant. 

The lyrics ‘culture, boredom, alienation and despair’ (from ‘Little Baby Nothing’ - the Manics were fighting the exploitation and abuse of women nearly 30 years ago) should be emblazoned across the top of each page of the story. They encapsulate what it is all about, both within the story and it's overall aesthetic and references to pop culture.

The volume ends with another Richey quote: ‘Find your truth. Face your truth. Speak your truth. Be your truth’ (from ‘Judge Yr’self’, another B-side). The arc sets up Syd's quest for her own truth and her emancipation from everything she has known. 

It’s very rewarding to see how some of these lesser-known songs have influenced and inspired America creator Eric Stephenson so deeply. It’s been a joy to read some of his interviews and see that these songs have had an impact on individuals across the Atlantic.

I suppose there are some parallels between Syd’s character and Richey but given what little we know about Richey’s disappearance, and whether it was suicide, it’s probably not a valuable course to pursue. 

(Minor spoilers ahead)

When we meet Syd, she is about to commit suicide. When a mysterious stranger shows up behind her, we perhaps think he will change her mind – but instead she plummets to the ground. Her despair is too strong. She wakes up in hospital and the stranger (introduced as The Voice) kidnaps her, bringing her to his house of misfits – a group of young people with abilities and a whole lot of resentment. One member is called Wire – perhaps a nod to Nicky Wire of the Manics, and is introduced as ‘the only man I’ve met who can honestly claim to be invulnerable’ (there you go, Nicky). At first description this sounds a bit similar to X-Men, with mutants living and being educated under the same roof by a guardian figure like Professor Xavier and segregated by their extremes attitudes to humans. In They’re Not Like Us, the Professor X figure is deeply disturbing, a man warped by his horrific past and deeply un-trusting of anyone outside. There have only been six issues so far, so we are still being introduced to the characters and story but The Voice is far from a benevolent protector and this is much, much darker than any X-Men story. 

In one interview, Stephenson spoke about an occasion where he was mugged by a ‘group of kids who seemed more interested in just giving someone a hard time than anything else… for a lot of young people, there’s a growing level of dissatisfaction with the world, a feeling that there isn’t much waiting for them as they become adults … with that in mind, I started wondering how kids with that kind of frustrated outlook might act if they were born with abilities that made them stand out from everyone else’. In the same interview, Stephenson acknowledges the comparisons to Professor X and draws in Fagin from Oliver Twist, who ‘trained young orphans to be thieves’ (one of the characters is named Fagen). 

In Volume One, we only scratch the surface with many of the characters – there is certainly a lot more to be found out, even though we do learn about The Voice’s heartbreaking backstory – a genuinely upsetting moment and beautifully and darkly illustrated by Gane. 

This volume collects the first 6 issues of the comic, and I think it will be a slow build. A lot of this is just getting to know the situation and the characters and their powers and attitudes. I personally like this because I’m all about the psyche and the character development – but others may find the lack of plot progression disappointing. 

The art grew on me over time – at first, I didn’t think it communicated facial expressions very well, but there are some truly inspired pages and it actually suits the tone and captures the desensitization, now that I think back. The opening page of the first issue is stark and effective, just showing a pair of feet on the edge of a roof. Will she or won't she? Perhaps you expect her to be talked down from the precipice. Perhaps all your expectations will be confounded by this story. Syd’s first line of narration reads:

I live to fall asleep’.

Despair and despondency haunt these pages and ripple outwards across the panels. Simone Gane’s full page depictions of the house that Syd ends up living in are simply stunning. They are impressive works of art that would sit on any wall comfortably. The panels are sometimes tinged with a reddy-brown-orange, a marker of the violent energy at the heart of the group. 

Syd's telepathy and being overwhelmed by the voices in her head
As Syd settles into the house she learns about the way they use their powers. And it doesn’t sit comfortably with her. The group goes out and selects a person to attack, creating an illusion for the rest of the world to see as they do it. Granted, these people are usually perverts or miscreants, but sometimes they just happen to be walking in the wrong place at the wrong time – endangering the cover and anonymity of the house and those in it. They attack ‘the dregs of humanity’, the ‘simple-minded tourism and vapid consumerism’ (these could be early Manics lyrics), the ‘lemmings’, ‘sheep’ and ‘zombies’. Even Syd, the supposed moral conscience of the group, is drawn to the rush and release of adrenaline for a time, excited by the violence and arrogance and sheer energy of her comrades. But throughout these issues, she struggles with where she fits in this new world. One night she reflects that everyone has ‘capacity for good and band’ and that her ‘whole life, everyone has tried to anaesthetize the way that I feel. The whole situation was totally fucked up and wrong, and yet … maybe… I had a right to be a little bad’. The nature of evil and where it come from seems certain to be a theme that Stephenson will explore further. But the end of the comic sets Syd on a different path, and I can’t wait to see where it goes. I am already impatient for the next volume – and not just for the Manics references.

This is the story of desensitized youth and what intolerance and refusal to understand and empathise can do. And there’s so much more to come. If it sounds like your cup of tea, and it won't be everyones, then pick it up and give it a try. Single issues are available in comic shops and digitally and the first trade volume is available in stores and through online retailers. I know I'll be looking out for Volume 2, and I'd be interested to hear what Manics fans, and the Manics themselves think of it. 

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Two of my favourite finds from LFCC: Asia Alfasi and Rachael Smith

It's taken me a while to get this posted but I just wanted to show you all a couple of little comics that I picked up at LFCC in July. One is from a creator I've been following for about a year, because of the time I spent in Libya. She is Libyan-Scottish artist/creator Asia Alfasi and is one of the nicest people you'll ever meet. I can't wait to read her finished graphic novels when they're ready. She is at most cons so look out for her table if you go. Another one is just a charming little book called Flimsy's Guide to Modern Living by Rachael Smith. It features a cat, which pretty much sold it straight away, and his life advice - delivered with humour and genuine insight!

Flimsy is pretty awesome. Look at that smile. He's a little blue kitten and she's done a few mini-comics with him in his infinite wisdom. They're great on a rainy day and the advice is pretty solid. You can see more of her work (including Doctor Who cartoons) on her website:

She works with Titan and does many of the comic strips at the back of Doctor Who single issues and was nominated in the Emerging Talent category in the 13/14 British Comic Awards. Her second graphic novel, The Rabbit, is out this year!

She's also illustrating a book about a boy with Asperger Syndrome called Blue Bottle Mystery.

I also got Asia Alfasi's mini (con-only) collection called Harvest, which is beautiful and just makes me want an Alfasi/Ewa graphic novel soon!
The introductory story is part memoir as she comes to terms with her identity in Scotland in 1997. She is called things like 'hanky head' and accused of 'nickin' the books'. She only begins to feel at home when she is by herself with her manga, one that she'd watched years ago in Libya. It is something familiar in a new and often unwelcoming country. Rediscovering manga helped her start drawing again and won the admiration of her peers and it helped her to 'bridge relationships between a Libya lass and her Scottish peers'. Asia then inserts a statement of intent: 'my goal since has been to use this beautiful art to take part in a global cultural dialogue. Will you take part in the conversation? *smiles*' 
It's charming and beautifully illustrated, a great taster that makes you want more. The middle story is A Drought of Another Sort: A Silent Reflection and showcases another, more sparse style. In it, a small child falls and drops their glasses. When he puts them back on the world is barren and rocky, until he finds a paintbrush which restores life and colour. The only words are 'What did you read?' - it's a lovely meditation on the power of art and creativity and how vivid and colourful it can make the world, and how it connects us to other people. 
The final piece is Asia's translation and adaptation of Juha: The Fantastic Tales of Sheikh Nasruddin, which are traditional Middle-East folktales and often humorously portray a life-lesson. They are both funny and thought-provoking and Asia brings them to life with beautiful colour and definition. It was lovely to be introduced to some of these charming tales which I may never have come across otherwise! I would love to read more and will keep looking out for her at cons. I definitely recommend you do too - art is the great communicator and can enlighten us so much. 

Friday, August 28, 2015

Fear and Phobia: 'Everything is Teeth' by Evie Wyld & Joe Sumner

I was lucky enough to win a copy of Everything is Teeth by Evie Wyld and Joe Sumner from Cape Graphic Novels/Vintage at PRH. I was drawn to it because, as a girl, Evie Wyld was fascinated by/obsessed with sharks and there are points in my life when I have been too. It’s a weird curiosity - one merged with fear and horror and awe and respect and it was only a while ago I began to realise how much this ‘fear’ had been shaped by twisted portrayals in the media and film – all from a very deliberate fear-mongering, self-interested, human perspective. People are infinitely scarier, infinitely crueller and infinitely more senseless than sharks and always will be. The things we do to the world around us, and to sharks, are infinitely worse than those they 'do' to us. 
Everything is teeth and everything can hurt us.
Sharks, unfortunately, evoke many of the states that makes us afraid – being unexpectedly dragged down, alone in a wide expanse, at the mercy of nature and in an environment of which we’ve barely scratched the surface. These ideas, suspicions and nightmares overtake reality. The sea is a space on earth where man has been unable to stake his claim and power and domination – it is beyond our control and comprehension.  

This graphic novel is a memoir of Evie’s childhood, divided between Peckham and Australia and is illustrated brilliantly by Joe Sumner. He interweaves a couple of different styles – with the stark photorealism of the sharks and the horrific, gruesome injuries sustained by shark attack survivor Rodney Fox, and simple cartoonish depictions of the human characters and settings. The colour palette is predominantly black and white, while the Australian landscapes are sometimes tinted with a weak but warm yellow and the shocking crimson of blood. For me, the photographic quality of the sharks is a brilliant contrast to everything else – they are what is most real and vivid and show how our fears can be more sharply defined than reality. Their realism also cements them as the focus and fixation of young Evie, their clarity is a strange kind of relief against the more subtle emotional undertones of her life. One of the facts that most fascinates Evie is that shark skin is serrated, capable of cutting you on its own, brushing against you by accident. They are both a grand metaphor for fear and loss but also intrinsically important in themselves.

This is generally quite a subtle and quiet book, the more important things are left unsaid but linger beneath the surface. There are hints of difficulties within the family, her father comes across as an isolated, disconnected character and her brother returns from being bullied at school, comforted only by her shark stories.

Throughout the narrative, this question is at the heart: are sharks fantastical man-eating monsters or innocent creatures who seek survival like all other life forms?

One of the most affecting pages is an image of a beached shark, ‘fat with young’, and when cut open, ‘they lie in dead rows. They look like puppies, soft and smooth and slippery’. Young Evie cradles one of the pups as her uncle disassembles the carcass. Nothing needs to be said, as the undertones are in the striking visuals and the short, descriptive sentences. Evie admits that she feels worse ‘than when, in order to accommodate the new microwave, the pet goldfish were poured into Peckham Rye pond’. This time the trail of blood is of their own making and exploitation.

Every time her family venture into the sea, Evie cannot help but envisage a scenario where they are eaten and taken from her – a hint at that fear of death and loss that sits quietly in the story. My favourite illustrations are those where Evie is walking down a street or across a field, and a shark is ever present in the background – even as she sits on the sofa, lies in her bed or washes in the bath. In a series of panels, cartoon Evie morphs into a shark herself. It’s the quiet image always at the back of her brain that seems to colour every experience.

Evie comes to realise that, it’s somewhat natural to be afraid of sharks because we are afraid of death, but death is not all that they are. She accepts that Rodney Fox went into the sea of his own accord and knew the risks and rather than running away in fear – she seeks to learn and understand more about the thing that’s made her afraid – to stare it in the face long enough for it not to control or dictate the rest of her life.

I would love for sharks to be explored more fully in literature and art, rather than simply as monsters and killing machines, Evie’s memoir is a really interesting exploration of her own journey from fear to acceptance. It’s a quiet book, with no dramatic climax, and no argument beyond the subtle inflections of the imagery and words, but it’s one that lingers in your mind and will leave you scratching at the surface, wanting to know more and better understand what it is that you're really afraid of. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Review: 'All The Bright Places' by Jennifer Niven

Busy-ness means it’s taken me a while to get round to reviewing All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven, even though the thoughts have been in my head since I finished it a few weeks ago.  I really, really admire Jennifer Niven and her reasons for writing the book. The author’s note is amazing. I think it’s definitely a valuable one for teens and young adults to read – especially with the growing attention to mental health and suicide amongst young people, particularly male. Suicide is the leading cause of death in men under the age of 35 (Department of Health, 2005) and it’s something that we need to understand and empathise with in our literature, for all ages.

Niven’s descriptions and cataloguing of inner thoughts are very good and very human, this is the real strength of the work. I found it much harder to relate to and engage with the dialogue (and the names were very The Fault In Our Stars). The dialogue is all very neat, idealised and poetic – it’s lovely but not necessarily believable or relatable. It’s the kind of dialogue of metaphor-heavy, star-crossed lovers that you would find in a John Green book, which doesn’t sit so well with who either character really is and what they’re going through. I just felt it sometimes relegates Violet and Finch to the quirky, artistic, offbeat romantic heroes, without the edge and depth and reality that you see in their inner-thoughts. There is a disconnect there which I couldn’t quite get over. Finch was an interesting character but I felt that Niven created him very much as an ‘other’, that quirky artiste figure/romantic hero, which is absolutely fine but I hope that there are more characters in YA who struggle with very real things who don’t have to be outlandish and ostracised, and you could spend more time in their head and their experience of daily life. Of course, Finch is very memorable the way he is. I just worry these characters will feel fake and distanced from the experience of teens reading this and going through similar things. It’s not all poetry, it can be gritty and messy and confusing – particularly falling in love when you’re going through something like this, which can be the most terrifying, self-doubt and paranoia-inducing thing.

There are definitely some quotes in this one that will stay with you. Finch’s fixation on Virginia Woolf was really intriguing and that line from her letters is very affecting –

‘You have been in every way all that anyone could be… if anybody could have saved me it would have been you’

My favourite, though, is Violet’s observation –

What a terrible feeling to love someone and not be able to help them.’ That’s one of the best and most perceptive lines in relation to mental illness and the frustrations and helplessness that come with it. The people who are left behind are often left to wonder if they could have done more, and sometimes the simple truth is that there is nothing they could have done. It’s like that Anais Nin quote – ‘you can’t save people, you can only love them’.

Also, as Finch notes:

The problem with people is they forget that most of the time it’s the small things that count

The Great YA Quote Board
on Pinterest
The little acts of kindness and support can be the most vital. I’m really glad Jennifer Niven had the chance to share this story with the world, it will definitely add to an important dialogue and I have a lot of respect for it, despite some of my qualms. Those criticisms are probably some of the things that have helped it to sell well and appeal and get this subject across to a larger audience. She is definitely a very talented writer and this is a book well worth reading for anyone as they grow up in this day and age.

Some other favourite quotes:
-          “Before they can start in on Finch, and the selfishness of suicide, and the fact that he took his life when Eleanor had hers taken from her, when she didn’t get a say in the matter-such a wasteful, hateful, stupid, thing to do - I ask to be excused.”

-           “It's my experience that people are a lot more sympathetic if they can see you hurting, and for the millionth time in my life I wish for measles or smallpox or some other easily understood disease just to make it easier on me and also on them.”

-           I know life well enough to know you can’t count on things staying around or standing still, no matter how much you want them to. You can’t stop people from dying. You can’t stop them from going away. You can’t stop yourself from going away either. I know myself well enough to know that no one else can keep you awake or keep you from sleeping.” 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

'They were never little to me ... and they're not temporary anymore': The pursuit of meaning in Scott McCloud's 'The Sculptor'

The Sculptor, by Scott McCloud, is hands down the most extraordinarily powerful and resonant graphic novel I’ve ever read – in fact, it’s probably one of the most powerful pieces of art/literature I’ve ever seen/read. It’s a look at aesthetics and the arts through an existential lens - the indifference of the universe to one man’s dreams and the senselessness of some of the things that life throws at us.
They were never little to me...
I came to this book because of Steve Seigh on Talking Comics (Issue #172 of the Podcast) – he just talked about it in the most evocative way and I knew that it was something I had to read for myself.

The book's tagline has a few issues, I feel it almost misrepresents it as a boy meets girl cliché. It’s not like that at all. It’s about discovering what actually matters in life and the very real consequences of our decisions and the sacrifices we make. It goes to very dark places. It’s not sugar-coated in any way and Scott McCloud follows through in a tragic, harrowing but also beautiful and uplifting way. 

The relationship between the protagonist, David, and the girl who tells him 'everything will be okay', Meg, is dark as both parties are flawed – David is very self-absorbed as he’s been so completely alone for so long, while Meg struggles with a deep and dark depression. David has to empathise and be there for someone else for the first time in a long time –and she fights him furiously. Though she first appears to him as an angel acting in an art installation, singling him out, he must come to see her as the flawed, beautifully broken and complex human being beneath that angel 'do-gooder' exterior. 
Steve talks about how he read this book till 3 o’clock in the morning, from cover to cover, because he ‘could not put it down’ – I don’t think this is a book you will ever truly put down. I still pick it up and look through the pages and the final panels still make me very emotional.

As a budding sculptor who had been hyped growing up, everyone expected big things of David, he never quite achieved them. When the bills start stacking up and his landlord’s had enough – David finds himself in the depths of despair and hopelessness. He faces the very real questions:

What would you give to be remembered? For your art to ‘mean something’? To make a mark?
David has no one in the world… he’d give his life.

From that moment, he is granted the power to sculpt anything with his bare hands – and 200 days to do it in - 200 days to live.

During those 200 days David has to confront the vagaries of everything he thought he wanted – what does it even mean to ‘mean something’ or to ‘make a mark’? Who exactly is it he wants to remember him? Does that collective entity/audience even exist? What is it that he has to sculpt?

It is harder than he imaged to find that one thing to share with the world to make it all worth it. When he meets Meg he is inspired by her, by the woman who shows him attention and makes him feel worth something, he wants to share what means the most to him. It’s a very complicated and meaningful relationship that builds between them and McCloud does it very well and creates very deep and complex characters. The things that matter are the small, fleeting moments that don't seem big at the time but they're the ones to hang on to - the moments of clarity and contentment - the ones that people may overlook or take for granted, the underrated kindnesses and individual points of meaning that make no impact on anyone else.
Anyone’s who has studied art or been involved in the art community will really identify with this book – it takes a long hard look at the art community and the whims and prejudices artists must contend with – the sense of utter powerlessness that so many feel and the difficulty in standing out. 

N.B. My favourite film from the last year - Whiplash - kind of explores similar issues in the music world; issues like that danger of having a single vision and the things you can lose along the way = perhaps you lose more than you gain in the pursuit of brilliance. However much you come to respect them - neither of the main characters in Whiplash are very balanced or likeable, but you kind of recognise their ambition and understand what they're after - it's one of the great issues and battles of human existence - to chase greatness and to perhaps find you're chasing a red herring.  

The artwork/illustration is spectacular with its melancholy palette of blues, blacks and whites. The expressions of the characters and composition of each scene are so involving and powerful. It’s cinematic and free form and you feel the clock ticking and the growing sense of mania and urgency – the ending is bleak, perhaps cynical in some ways, but it all follows through so perfectly and the whole story is brilliantly executed. I don’t want to give too much away but I want everyone to read this book and feel what I felt. You are very much missing out if you don't, this is one I'll treasure for the rest of my life. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

'That's right... just a girl': Adventures in the comic book universe

I've been exploring the comic world with the help of the amazing Talking Comics crew and their podcast ( The comic book/graphic novel world would be an infinitely more overwhelming place without  them. 

There's so much I want to read and I started with some of the female-led superhero comics because it tied in to a lot of research I did around my university dissertation and has been a way into a universe I now want to explore more widely. I am very excited for the All New, All Different Avengers and for Miles Morales taking over as the main Spiderman. I think the Batman universe is always dark and compelling and I am looking forward to reading some Indie graphic novels like Sculptor by Scott McCloud and Russian Olive to Red King by Kathryn and Stuart Immonen (both recommendations by Talking Comics). In the meantime, here are my initial favourites: 

1) The new Thor series by Jason Aaron has definitely been my favourite series to follow and got me interested in a character and world that I could never relate to before. Don't underestimate what Aaron has done - and it's paying off. This series has sold huge numbers and the 'twist' in who is beneath the helmet was magnificently pulled off and fit so well in the universe and the history. It didn't feel gimmicky or contrived. The colours and art have been sensational, making this book a visual treat and it would be well-worth your time and money picking up the trade. I can't wait to read more of this character's story, I hope she sticks around. There was a lot of 'female-solidarity' in Aaron's writing, which was very pointed and loaded. I think it had it's place because of the huge controversy over this character existing at all, but now hopefully this Thor can have her own story and firmly individual character - the reveal provides a great foundation for this and thoroughly integrates it. 

Stunning and colourful spreads
'You have never met another Thor like me...
this is not the end of my story'

2) The first couple of volumes of the Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang run on Wonder Woman were superb. They made some bold moves and have created the definitive Wonder Woman for me (it looks particularly great compared to what the Finch's are doing now). I just hope they can find the right creative team again for her in the future. She is an exceptionally powerful woman but with strong compassion and integrity. She is physically strong, good at focusing her emotions and fiercely protective and caring over those close to her. She looks athletic and formidable and is rooted in her culture and mythology in a way that makes a lot of sense in these issues. I would recommend reading at least the first two trades of Azzarello and Chiang's run for a rich and layered look at the character and her context. I loved seeing her in London too!

'I won't be bound that way to any man'

3) Spider-Gwen didn't hit the heights I'd hoped in it's first 5 issues but the previews for the Autumn look promising. One thing I think the Amazing Spiderman movies did well, was re-establish the character of Gwen Stacy and build on her. She was proactive and resourceful and hugely impressive intellectually - she was Peter's superior in so many ways. Emma Stone brought a warmth to the character which really reminded me how cool and unique she is. So I really want Spider-Gwen to expand on that and fulfil her potential. I love the costume design - the colours are vibrant and highly stylised. I just want them to do more in establishing her as Gwen first. Initially she just had the same snark as Peter and could almost have been any girl. I really want her to be a force of personality with that scientific/intellectual fervour too. I want to recognise her as Gwen more - but also for her to build on the Gwen that has existed before and continue making her unique and awesome. I don't imagine Gwen just being spider-snarky, but having, perhaps, a more composed sense of humour in some ways. It's obviously just the beginning though, and she's in good hands. Again, this has to be more than a gimmick - I want it to take itself seriously and really grab this character by the horns.

'I'm 'just' a girl'

Silk is another interesting and diverse spider-verse character to look out for in her solo series. Like Spider-Gwen, this is just getting started - and it has perhaps started more effectively by focusing on the character and building from there. She is an Asian-American spider-woman who has spent years locked in a bunker, convinced she was a threat and emerges to find no trace of her family or the life she knew before. 


I loved 'Year One' of Injustice: Gods Among Us - I think it could have stood alone as just that year as I haven't felt so invested in the following Years. It was a powerful alternative take on the DC heroes and their relations and had a really compelling dystopian AU narrative which was genuinely shocking and incisive in its explorations of power and consequence. 

My boyfriend got me Volume 5 of the Gail Simone Batgirl run, which I also really enjoyed. I need to explore that story more because it was incredibly striking and dark. This is obviously just a start and my opinions are still forming as I explore this world and it's history. I am looking forward to reading more Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel as well as branching out into some Indie books. I'm also collecting Secret Wars! I will let you know what I think. For now - Thor is an absolute must. 

Let me know what you think and any recommendations you may have! Happy to hear about any and everything! And follow me on Bloglovin by clicking the links to the left! 

Monday, June 22, 2015

Review: 'Love May Fail' by Matthew Quick

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

'Love may fail, but courtesy will prevail.' - Jailbird, Kurt Vonnegut

This is the first chance I’ve had to write this, even though I finished Matthew Quick’s ‘Love May Fail’ in a few days almost as soon as I received it through Netgalley.

I enjoy reading Quick’s work because he uses a unique blend of themes that really speak to me; whether it’s mental health, the role of parents and teachers, of love and relationships and pain and betrayal – he does it all in a very particular, quirky (Quick-y) style which blends the humorous and ironic (without belittling anything) with heartbreaking situations and broken, eccentric/flawed characters. 

Portia Kane is having a meltdown. After escaping her cheating husband and their posh Florida life, she finds herself transported back home and back to square one. In need of saving herself, she sets out to find and resurrect a beloved high-school English teacher who has retired after a violent incident in the classroom.

But she quickly learns that it's not a one-woman job. Luckily she meets a few people on her journey. Can Chuck, the handsome brother of Portia's old school friend, together with a sassy nun and a metal-head little boy, help Portia's chances in her bid for renewed hope in the human race? (from

Oddly I read the blurb of the book and it sounded like everything I’d normally avoid (cliché romantic comedy), even the title would usually turn me off, but I know better with Matthew Quick – I know that I’ll always find something of what I’m looking for in his books.

Love May Fail has Camus, Bon Jovi (‘Ah, bullshit. Eighties hair metal was fun. It’s still fun. God, I miss guitar solos. Where did those go? They were like the orgasm of the song. Why would you ever cut those out? What do teens even do in mirrors now if they can’t play air guitar?’) Dead Poet's Society and Ernest Hemingway references, which are enough to win me over any day and Quick has cited all these as influences in many interviews. The plot is contrived at points and heavily dependent on suspension of disbelief and coincidence but Quick’s writing is intelligent and inter-textual and taps into sides of humanity that don’t get explored enough. 

My favourite of his books remains Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock but Love May Fail is another, sometimes trying, but ultimately thought-provoking adult novel. There are times when Portia felt like a bit of a parody of herself, but switching between different character perspectives ultimately balanced out the different characters’ eccentricities and gave just enough of their inner-workings. As someone who grew up in the Gossip Girl generation, however, the name Chuck Bass always made me double take.

My favourite part was the story of Mr Vernon (and his dog, Albert Camus) and the impact he had on Portia. I was less interested in the love story, though Chuck, as a recovering addict and father-figure to his nephew, was a compelling character on his own.

Mr Vernon: ‘You gotta believe once in a while, kids. That’s what I’m trying to tell you here. The world will try to crush that belief out of you. It will try its damnedest. ‘If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.’ Does anyone know who wrote that?’

Portia: ‘Ernest Hemingway. It’s from A Farewell To Arms. We read it Sophomore year.

Mr Vernon attempts to make his students understand the cost of being strong, and tells them that one day they will all understand. He certainly experiences such a cost (this could be seen as paralleling the fate of Mr Keating in Dead Poet’s Society – perhaps this is one interpretation of what could have become of a man like Keating after), in a senseless, unprovoked attack by a student which leaves him broken and damaged for the rest of his life. It is this Mr Vernon that Portia has to try and restore. A depressed and suicidal alcoholic, who names his dog Albert Camus. In a darkly comic scene, the dog jumps to its death from his apartment window – what Mr Vernon interprets as an act of suicide. There is something of the Camus-ian anti-hero in Mr Vernon at this point, a quality of the Meursault – as he wonders ‘if it’s wrong to miss my dog much more than I miss my mother’ (he finds out his mother, who’s letters he has never opened, has died). Mr Vernon’s thinking is consumed by a grim strand of the Absurd (see in relation to Camus)  – a dark embrace of the futility and irrationality of his existence and a step away from society’s emotional standards and claims on him.

It is this that Portia must contend with, as if somehow saving Mr Vernon will save a whole group of students who have also made mistakes or had accidents and suffered.

Portia: ‘FUCK YOU, you have a responsibility to your students! FUCK YOU, you have a responsibility to yourself!’

Mr Vernon: ‘Why?’ I yell. ‘Why? If you can tell me, I’d be most grateful. I was just a high school English teacher. No one cared! No one at all! The world does not give a flying hoot about high school English teachers! Why do I have a responsibility to anyone? What responsibility do I have?’

Portia: ‘To be a good man! Because you changed the lives of many kids. Because we believed in you!’

Both are guilty of extremes of thinking – Portia is full of a romantic idealism – a belief that a kind of adoration or love between teacher and students will prevail, while Mr Vernon has fallen into apathy and Absurdism, believing only in love's failure.

I particularly like that Quick (a former teacher himself) acknowledges the role of a teacher who positively impacts their students – so many of his books make the case that such teachers can save lives, without even being aware – they change worlds and mould minds. They matter and often they can go their whole lives without realising just how much. Portia’s quest is an admirable one, to give this gift to the teacher who helped her. Too often in society, the voices of appreciation and the simple acts of gratitude are lost in the focus on the negative and the extreme or people simply forget to express positive feelings that seem small in the moment. The pivotal roles that teachers can play are expressed also in the personal lives of Leonard (in Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock) and Portia here. Both need the surrogate paternal figures, and what other source is it to come from – with varying degrees of absent parents and the majority of their formative years spent in school?

In a great interview with Mountain X (I will reference this a few times, all Quick quotes will be from here:–) Quick spoke about how he tried to channel his ‘inner Mr. Keating’, ‘with no real life experiences to back my claims’ and then left teaching ‘completely burned out and dangerously depressed’. He also speaks about the parts of the ‘teacher/student relationship’ that he finds fascinating:

‘It gets frozen in time. I eternally think of my former students as teenagers, even though some of them are in their thirties now. They have careers, houses and children of their own. And they think of me as a teacher even though I haven’t written a lesson plan or graded a test in more than a decade. I’ve given talks at the high school I attended as a teenager and I still can’t call my former teachers by their first names. I don’t think I ever will be able to do that.’

In the same interview, Quick alludes to a comment once made that his ‘characters take turns in rescuing each other.’ This certainly plays out in Love May Fail, as there seems to be a cycle of rescue attempts and fails and people trying to do their best in difficult situations – it is all emphasized by each switch in perspective.

In her attempted rescue of Mr Vernon, Portia wants to fulfil some of her childhood fantasies:

‘When I was in your class I used to pretend you were my father, because I never had one—and if I got to pick, I would have wanted a father exactly like you. I used to fantasize about you taking me places like the Mark Twain House and teaching me about great writers, the way other fathers might teach their sons about baseball players at the ballpark. And now we’ve been to the home of a famous writer together. It’s kind of like a childhood dream come true for me’

Even Chuck recognises the power of such a figure as a constant:

‘He’s been my one constant since I quit heroin, and a constant is a powerful thing’

It is ‘Romantic’, in a ‘wonderfully platonic way’, as Mr Vernon muses, ‘the former student returning after all these years to save the grizzled teacher who has suffered calamity and given up hope –it’s poetic, but it’s simply not real life’.

Instead, Portia and Chuck must find something of that inspirational time with the old Mr Vernon in each other, and their bond grows from the shared memory of those formative years and the teacher who inspired them. Their grand gestures for Mr Vernon fail to have the desired effect, and when he runs away in fear – both must face the question:

‘What do you do when the person you admire most literally turns his back on you?’

The answer is, muddle through, put your heart and soul into something worthwhile and hope it pays off in the end. For Portia, it is to write the novel she’s been meaning to, and to make it a tribute to the teacher who kept her going. This is where the title has such resonance – Quick has talked before about the influence of this quote (taken from the beginning of Vonnegut’s Jailbird: ‘Love may fail, but courtesy will prevail’), and Vonnegut in general, on him. For Quick, this quote embodies the notion that ‘small, simple things save us in the end’ (see Mountain X interview) – perhaps not the grand, memorable gestures but the quiet acts of gratitude and care – the smallest courtesies done with sincerity.

‘Some students beat the hell out of you with a baseball bat, and some students save you by writing novels. And we’ve got to thank our saviour no matter how many times we feel attacked and broken, because we damn well need them. So that’s what today is about. Thank you, Portia, for Love May Fail’

Love May Fail is heart-warming, moving, funny, dark and full of small, simple feats of impact and it resonates on an individual and human scale.