Saturday, March 28, 2015

Review: Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 16, 2015

Review: 'Reasons To Stay Alive' by Matt Haig

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

One of the greatest fantasy authors of all time

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

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

The Death of Rats looked up from the feast of potato.
SQUEAK, he said.
Death waved a hand dismissively. WELL, YES, OBVIOUSLY ME, he said. I JUST WONDERED IF THERE WAS ANYONE ELSE' 

Secondly -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haig's symptoms.

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 9, 2015

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

People of earth. Human folk. Read this book. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 27, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Review: The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 23, 2015

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

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

It's just exquisite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Snapshot Reviews of Recent Reads: The Invisible Library and Endgame #1

I have been reading profusely over the last few months and had the idea of doing some snapshot reviews, shorter (comparatively) than my usual ramblings/analyses, but still drawing attention to some of the more interesting books I've come across. 


This is a new sci-fi/adventure series from Tor UK based around an inter-dimensional library which harvests and preserves fiction from different realities. It’s a fun roller-coaster of an adventure which still has potential for more character insight and development in future sequels. There are limitless possibilities to the base concept – which is enough to whet every book lovers’ appetite on its own. There are elements of Sherlock Holmes, Victorian England, magic, horror and Steampunk. For me, the library and its hierarchy were the most intriguing part of this debut – especially with the time and space relativity and the careful balancing act that was Irene’s childhood – that’s something I’d love Cogman to go into in the sequels.

It’s a thrilling ride and I will come back for more if these elements come further into play – there are hints that they will – as these will make it a little more thought-provoking as well fun and fantastical. Irene was an interesting female lead, and her job as a spy is pretty awesome, but would love to see her come into her own even more. Kai felt like a bit of a distraction – especially as he was introduced immediately as being ‘beautiful’ – it made it harder to relate to him from that moment because it was a bit of a cliché. Again, it will be interesting to see where Cogman takes both characters as there is obviously still a way to go. 


I knew nothing about James Frey before reading this and that is probably a good thing- I wasn’t prejudiced in any way while reading the novel. Endgame #1 works as a piece of the puzzle that Frey is trying to create – it includes its own puzzles which promise a literal treasure of gold coins for any who can solve it – but the entire project involves a film, game and novella as well as future sequels and puzzles. This network of tie-ins will form a whole, no part really exists to stand alone – and that is something to note when critiquing this book. 

This first novel sets up the fight to the death between 12 bloodlines, only one of which will survive. It is a fast and compelling read but a fairly shallow one on its own, flitting between a starting cast of twelve/thirteen characters and their viewpoints as they race across the globe. It is, however, a truly diverse cast of characters – hailing from places like India, China, Turkey, Ethiopia, Australia, Italy, England and America. So once you get past the initial conceit of teenagers-killing-each-other, which has become familiar, the book develops an intriguing character of its own. My favourite characters were probably An Liu (China) and Chiyoko Takeda (Japanese). Both had complex backgrounds and inhibiting character traits, a volatility and a vulnerability which made them particularly fascinating. It definitely felt like there was more to them than some of the others.

At present it doesn’t feel like Endgame can be classed as a dystopia – it is set on a recognisable planet Earth with no overt forces of oppression in the foreground, though these may come into play in the sequels. Frey’s style can become repetitive after 400 pages, but he knows how to build suspense and he is ruthless when he needs to be (I liked the anti-romance in Christopher’s storyline). I admire the project and the effort that is going to go into this to make it an immersive experience – I think it will be easier to review and form a clear opinion once all components are available. It was certainly interesting to read and I remain curious.

Would be interesting to hear what other people make of both projects - particularly Frey's (no obvious Hunger Games comparisons please!)

Monday, January 26, 2015

Talking about a generation: Solitaire by Alice Oseman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Spoilers ahead*

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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