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. 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Game of Thrones, Series 5 Episode 9

‘The Dance of Dragons’

Series 5, Episode 9

*Spoilers ahead*, only read on if you’ve seen the episode.

I know I’ve fallen behind and so I am only going to briefly talk about episodes 7 and 8 before I get on to episode 9, which has more material and compelled me to write more. 7 & 8 were pretty mixed.

My discussion points from episode 7 – again, it’s hard to stomach Sansa’s plight. She is locked in her chamber and visited nightly by Ramsay. Sophie Turner is brilliant again but every avenue of hope is ripped away from her character in this episode. Brienne spends a good thirty seconds staring into the distance. As if they haven’t made joke enough of the Sand Snakes, Tyene beseeches a dying Bronn to tell her she’s the most beautiful girl in the world, flashes him and then gives him the cure to the poison she infected him with. I don’t really know why any of this happens. It wins dumbest scene of the episode.

Dany and Tyrion scenes, even though they haven’t met quite yet in the book, are really good – they have a great dynamic and seem to be developing a mutual respect. This is a change that has made sense so far and is working well for the development of both.

Now for Episode 9:

As the episode begins, Stannis’ camp is in bad shape. Melisandre looks on as tents burn, and she kind of looks expressionless and like she’s made of plastic. Which she could. Cause she has no soul. But sadly she doesn’t melt. In the book, the ordeal of Stannis and his army is still going on and is much more drawn out – here it is heavily simplified and rushed through as if the showrunners are just impatient to get it out of the way. Frustratingly, Stannis doesn’t listen to Davos – the only person giving him good advice, and sends him back to the Wall to ask for supplies. Bad things happen when Davos isn’t there and this is no different.
Jon brings the surviving Wildlings back to the Wall, only to have Ser Alliser glare down and make him sweat/freeze a bit. Jon Snow, in this episode, is like a cupcake – gaining more frosting as it goes on. Ser Alliser eventually lets them in but there are clearly tensions in the camp and it’s a ‘frosty’ welcome. Haha. Ha.

Before he leaves, Davos asks Stannis to let him take Shireen with him. Stannis insists that ‘his family stays with him’ and this is when I know that the very unsubtle hints of horror and manipulation throughout the season are about to come true. Watching this episode for the second time just lays bare all the emotional manipulation, which I optimistically mistook for characterisation, that this series has been in terms of Stannis and Shireen. Even a scene like Davos giving Shireen a wooden stag now seems cheap and tacky. This storyline has been so condensed and accelerated now that it seems even more contrived. I know that George RR Martin supposedly told the showrunners something like this would happen – but I don’t see how it can happen in a way like this – because Stannis is hundreds of miles away from Shireen in the books (she stays at the wall), and in a sample chapter from Winds of Winter, he has this exchange with a knight:

It may be that we shall lose this battle … in Braavos you may hear that I am dead. It may even be true. You shall find my sellswords nonetheless.’
The knight hesitated. ‘Your grave, if you are dead –‘
‘—you will avenge my death, and seat my daughter on the Iron Throne. Or die in the attempt.’

Which is a very different sentiment to ‘burn my child’. The way it could be done differently, which might make more sense – is if Selyse and Melisandre do it against his will or without his knowledge. It doesn’t lessen the horror but makes more character consistency sense.

In the show Davos, leaving, tells Shireen: ‘I’ll want to hear all about the dance of dragons when I’m back’ – which are the kind of weighted last words usually saved for Starks.

Prince Duran Duran in Dorne has invited everyone round for tea. Jaime secures Bronn, Myrcella (and Trystane’s) voyage with him. I have a feeling the Sand Snakes, if Ellaria has changed her mind, might have something to say about this (a way to incorporate part of Myrcella’s book storyline maybe?). Jaime allows Bronn to get a deserved elbow in the face.

In Braavos, Arya spots Ser Meryn Trant – who his having to endure Mace Tyrell’s random bursts og song. ‘Oysters, clams and cockles’ very quickly becomes infuriating and makes me claw at my ears. I can still hear it now. Arya follows Meryn into a brothel for our weekly brothel scene. This gets randomly more disturbing as the show has decided to make Meryn a paedophile, who will only accept a girl who looks barely a teenager.

Ellaria reswears her allegiance to Duran Duran and becomes much more like the Ellaria of the books – counselling Jaime, telling him that she knows he probably had nothing to do with Oberyn’s death and even drops in some relationship advice - ‘we love who we love’.

Stannis visits Shireen’s room, muttering some drabble about ‘sometimes a person has to choose. Sometimes the world forces his hand … he must fulfil his destiny’. Shireen just asks if she can help, which is a big mistake. The innocent and the honourable often suffer the worst fates in Game of Thrones. Shireen is led out, clutching her little stag and looking confused. As she realises what is happening, she screams for her parents. Watching her mother crack is one of the hardest bits. As the flames start, Selyse shoves Stannis aside and runs for her daughter – as if she’s just snapped out of it and remembered she is a mother. She collapses as guards hold her back and my heart breaks. It’s heart-rending and often they would end the episode on a moment like that, but this time we switch to the grand opening of the fighting pits. Which it’s quite hard to care about right now.

Dany decides she quite likes smart-talking Tyrion, who issues a series of put-downs to her irritating husband. Because you can’t keep a good Jorah down, he pops up to fight again. I think even Dany is beginning to admire his persistence. After successfully laying the smackdown on every challenge, Jorah launches a spear through a Son of the Harpy who is about to stab Dany. Apparently there are thousands of them, just to add to the drama. Hizdahr, even though he’s been acting suspiciously, doesn’t last long. Jorah offers Dany his hand, which I really hope doesn’t give her greyscale, and they hop down into the pit to try and escape.

Tyrion saves Missandei. Missandei saves Tyrion. But the Sons of the Harpy have them all surrounded, even as Jorah and Daario single-handedly hold off hundreds. A big army of Unsullied would be really useful right now. Seriously, where are they?

Missandei and Dany hold hands and share a moment of ‘we’re going to die but at least we’re together’. That is, until Dany’s ride shows up and she jets on out of there. Harsh, Dany, harsh. At one point Drogon breathes his stinky dragon breath in her face and then squeaks adorably. This is all kind of epic and true to Game of Thrones. Even with some dodgy effects this is pretty impressive and a nice way to end the episode. She is now just about completely caught up with her book story and I think events in the finale will match more closely to what we know from the books for certain characters. For others, I think it isn’t hard to guess the trajectory they will take. Dany’s future though, is harder to predict, and I just hope that Winds of Winter arrives in the next couple of years.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

'Gold shall be their crowns and gold their shrouds...': Women and Mothers in George RR Martin's 'A Song of Ice and Fire'

I've had this in the works for a year or so. My ambition with this blog just kept growing until heights became unreachable. To do this comprehensively is just too big a task for right now so it is going to be more of an opinion piece supported by what research I have managed to do.

What I have written is shorter, simpler but still researched and something that I can build upon in the future. It centres upon two of my ‘favourite’ female characters in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series: Catelyn Stark and Cersei Lannister. As usual these ‘favourites’ of mine are much maligned by a lot of the readers and show-watchers. I’m also aware that when citing ‘good female characters’ in Game of Thrones, many would automatically think about Daenerys, Brienne or Arya – all who are ‘good’, or ‘badass’, in very overt ways. I love Brienne and Sansa, and like Arya and Daenerys, but they are quite easy to like and engage with as a reader – and I like a challenge. Daenerys, Arya and even Brienne all gain a certain degree of independence outside the moulds of society, determining their own path by fortune and by their own design. Catelyn and Cersei are, in some ways, more… troubling, and certainly more trapped.

There will be spoilers for show-watchers, so I would only read on if you have read the books, know plot and character details or aren’t bothered about knowing since they may not be included in the show anyway.

Catelyn and Cersei appear to be on opposite sides and become enemies: Stark vs Lannister, honour vs dishonour, good vs evil, North vs South etc. Upon closer inspection, they parallel each other in many regards. They are united by a simple fact: they will do anything to save their children.


Through all their apparently warped, and sometimes murderous actions (particularly Cersei), both are driven by tragedy, loss and a feeling of powerlessness because of their sex and roles as wives (not necessarily by choice) and mothers.

The show has its own interpretation of the characters, which is just that, an interpretation. And there are times when it strays from the source material but Lena Headey and Michelle Fairley are both fantastic actresses who, I think, do understand their characters and play them well.

Particularly in her point-of-view chapters in A Feast For Crows, the reader can see just how paranoid Cersei is and how haunted and affected she was by a prophecy she was told as a young girl. The prophecy she must live with is enough to drive her mad – as she is told that she will outlive all of her children (‘Gold shall be their crowns and gold their shrouds … and when your tears have drowned you, the valonqar shall wrap his hands about your pale white throat and choke the life from you’ FFC, 611), endure an adulterous husband and will lose her power and status. She must live every day of her life, raising her children, knowing/fearing that they will die before her and there is nothing she can do to stop it (‘Queen you shall be … until there comes another, younger and more beautiful, to cast you down and take all that you hold dear’ FFC, 610).
Catelyn, too, thinks that she has outlived all, or nearly all, of her children (she does not count Jon as one of them). She believes Bran and Rickon to be dead, Arya to be lost/dead, Sansa in the clutches of the Lannisters and witnesses Rob’s own horrific murder. In the books, as opposed to in the TV show, she releases Jaime Lannister after hearing of Bran and Rickon’s apparent deaths, believing Sansa to be the only child she could possibly get back. (The show often omits details which seem small but actually radically alter or disrupt the continuity and character development, Robb is understanding of her motives in the books). In terms of their children, Cersei and Catelyn both seem doomed to suffer the worst as mothers.
The show has kind of broken my heart by apparently, so far, omitting Lady Stoneheart (Beric Dondarrion gives his ability to Catelyn when he finds her body in the river, and resurrects her as a mute, deformed living corpse). This storyline extension is one that takes part of womanhood – or of motherhood, in the wake of such horror – to a next stage which deserved to be seen. I am not saying I want Stoneheart for a cheap revenge narrative, but because she could come to stand for so much more. Catelyn was always a leader in life, her sex just didn’t allow it, she acted as advisor to Rob and stood by his side as a duty, rather than remaining in Winterfell to mother Bran and Rickon. Her most important warnings go unheeded because no one takes her opinion as ‘emotional’ woman and mother, seriously enough. I would like to see her lead the Brotherhood and where that storyline goes.

Valerie Estelle Frankel, in her book Women in Game of Thrones: Power Conformity and Resistance, writes of Lady Stoneheart as a ‘female monster’ (145). She is ‘the lady who was once highborn, conformist, lovely, well-spoken and proper has become her own shadow, a monster that lurks in the wild and subverts the patriarchy as a fearsome outlaw’ (145). She argues that such ‘female monsters produce shock, not because they are unusual… but because of their unwomanly conduct. With their immorality and amorality, they challenge human conventions’. Lady Stoneheart certainly conducts herself with a sense of amorality, in what we see of her. She is bloodthirsty and willing to hang Brienne and Podrick for their links to those who sinned against her. Estelle Frankel also alludes to a trope of folklore in which ‘women die powerless, betrayed by men, and then rise as monsters’ (146) – which aligns with the events of the Red Wedding and its aftermath. Stoneheart thus becomes an ‘outlet of female power’ and a representation of the ‘outcast’ (146), who can finally come back and challenge all the norms and standards of the world that trapped and pillaged her. She is finally unleashed as a warped but individual and independent woman, who could potentially be involved in the power play of Westeros.

By the end of A Dance With Dragons, nearly all of Cersei’s family ties are dissolved as well. She has been reduced to beast and outcast after her walk of shame and time in captivity – it will be interesting to see how that has changed her in Winds of Winter. It may create a Stoneheart out of her, having to fight for herself and rebuild her own world.

The show captures some of Cersei’s anger at being stuck as a woman in a man’s world (as cited by Estelle Frankel), as she sees it, which appears many times in the books. In episode 4 of series 3, she rallies against Tywin:

‘Did it ever occur to you that I am the one that deserves your confidence and your trust? Not your sons. Not Jaime or Tyrion, but men. Years and years of lectures on family and legacy … Did it ever occur to you that your daughter might be the only one listening to them, living by them, that she might have the most to contribute?’

This parallels a quote from A Feast For Crows, where Cersei rises in the wake of her father’s death:
Cersei did not weep, no more than her father would have. I am the only true son he ever had.’ (FFC, 54)

And this remains one of my favourite scenes from the series:

Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls Series 4, Episode 5. Lena delivers that line so beautifully. It’s a little different to the book material but I think it ties in to Cersei’s mothering side and how hard it was for her when Myrcella was sent away. Perhaps part of her is playing Oberyn, to win him to her side, but I am certain there is something genuine in this scene too.

Her love for her children, whatever delusions accompany it, is certainly there in the books. Joffrey’s death is much more poignant in the book (on a separate note, so is Ygritte's - so moving) – even narrated by Tyrion, who, in that moment, sees just a scared thirteen year old boy, not a tyrannical menace: ‘the boy’s eyes met Tyrion’s. He has Jaime’s eyes. Only he’d never seen Jaime look so scared. The boy’s only thirteen. Joffrey was making a dry clacking noise, trying to speak. His eyes bulged white with terror … “Nooo,” Cersei wailed, “Father help him, someone help him, my son, my son…”’ (Storm of Swords Part 2, 257) and then ‘When he heard Cersei’s scream, he knew that it was over… His sister sat in a puddle of wine, cradling her son’s body. Her gown was torn and stained, her face white as chalk … it took two Kingsguard to pry loose her fingers’ (258).

Furthermore, unlike in the show, Jaime is not present at the wedding and Cersei can only describe it to him later: ‘If you had seen how Joff died… he fought, Jaime, he fought for every breath … He had such terror in his eyes … When he was little, he’d run to me when he was scared or hurt and I would protect him. But that night there was nothing I could do … Joff is dead and Myrcella’s in Dorne. Tommen’s all I have left.’ 429

This is Cersei at one of her moments of most profound and utter powerlessness. The inability to protect and save her child causes her immense grief and parallels Catelyn’s in the moment she kills Walder Frey’s wife, only for him not to care. Both are devastated by their own inability to save the ones they love. Both, driven mad by it.

In A Feast For Crows, Cersei is intensely protective of Tommen. When a sip of wine goes down the wrong way, she has a kind of panic attack and shows her true vulnerability:

‘My son is safe, Cersei told herself. No harm can come to him, not here, not now. Yet every time she looked at Tommen, she saw Joffrey clawing at his throat. And when the boy began to cough the queen’s heart stopped beating for a moment. She knocked aside a serving girl in her haste to reach him. … “I’m sorry, Mother,” Tommen said, abashed. It was more than Cersei could stand. I cannot let them see me cry, she thought, when she felt the tears welling in her eyes. She walked past Ser Meryn Trant and out into the back passage. Alone beneath a tallow candle, she allowed herself a shuddering sob, and another. A woman may weep, but not a queen.’ (FFC, 202)

She vows that no harm will come to him while she lives, she will ‘kill half the lords in Westeros and all the common people, if that was what it took to keep him safe’ (613). While Cersei’s point-of-view chapters don’t always do much to characterise her beyond her manipulations and schemes, she has moments of tenderness that we have not been privy to before:

“I will break my fast with the king this morning. I want to see my son.” All I do, I do for him. Tommen helped restore her to herself. He had never been more precious to her than he was that morning, chattering about his kittens as he dribbled honey onto a chunk of hot black bread fresh from the ovens… I was never so sweet and innocent, Cersei thought. How can he ever hope to rule in this cruel realm? The mother in her wanted only to protect him; the queen in her knew he must grow harder, or the Iron Throne was certain to devour him” 661-2

Certainly she is a warped character – as a daughter of Tywin Lannister, she was bound to be to some extent. She recognises her own youthful naivety in Sansa Stark and both punishes her and tries to protect her from it. But she is intelligent, fierce and protective – though she often channels these parts of herself in destructive ways. They are traits that Catelyn shares. Both make mistakes, they are human, but they are both far more complex women than they initially seem and of immense value to Martin’s writing. They deserve to be taken a little more seriously by watchers and readers – and show-runners. A character like Cersei, perhaps not always deserving of sympathy, still deserves an attempt at empathy.

Additionally, I would like to say that the series’ apparent omission of Arianne Martell is perhaps one of its most blatant disservices to women. One of the wonderful aspects about Dorne, which Oberyn tries to explain to Cersei in that scene I included, is that gender does not matter in terms of hierarchy – women can rule and be heirs – they can fight and hold their own, even the ‘bastards’ (see the Sand Snakes, Oberyn’s ‘bastard’ children). Arianne is the heir to Dorne. Yet the showrunners have appeared to erase her and transferred her status to a male character who is frankly not that interesting in the book. This is even more annoying given that she is going to a point-of-view character in Winds of Winter! Arianne, Stoneheart/Catelyn and Cersei, even a character like Val the wildling princess, would, if all featured in the TV show, have been complex female characters involved in the power play of Westeros – two, at least, in charge of men.

I do watch the show and have enjoyed it – brilliant casting, acting, settings, effects - but it does have its failings. I think some, completely made up, brothel scenes could be sacrificed – and I’m not convinced Talisa was a great character addition when they somehow made the Red Wedding even more horrible by having her stabbed in her pregnant stomach… Some of their creative decisions have not made sense (Tyrion and Jaime parting on good terms, then Tyrion going on a murderous rampage?!). I know it’s an impossible job to maintain consistency and continuity when condensing books of these sizes into a ten episode season of a one hour TV show, but Ros and Talisa are hardly more interesting than an Arianne or a Stoneheart, or even Tysha. Still, showrunners have said not to judge until they have finished their story, so we shall see how it plays out. In the meantime, I await the Winds of Winter with great interest. I thoroughly recommend readings the books for the immense plot and character detail that are there – it is a lot more rewarding.

Full Citation for Valerie Estelle Frankel:

-          Women in Game of Thrones: Power, Conformity and Resistance by Valerie Estelle Frankel. North Carolina: McFarland & Company inc., 2014

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.