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): http://lexiesox.tumblr.com/ - 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. 

THE INVISIBLE LIBRARY BY GENEVIEVE COGMAN

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. 

ENDGAME: THE CALLING BY JAMES FREY

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


Quotes

‘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?”

Monday, January 5, 2015

'I need to find the edge of me' - a female superhero for our age? Introducing Carol Danvers' Captain Marvel

In light of my recent post on Carrie, aka Robin, in the Dark Knight Returns – I thought I’d do another relatively brief (in terms of depth) post on a female graphic novel/comic character. One of the gifts I received for Christmas was the first issue of the most recent Captain Marvel (by Kelly Sue DeConnick) collection – one of Marvel’s new(ish) diversifying characters. Now I am no comic buff (yet) and have only come to graphic novels quite recently but I have always had an interest in the superhero genre and an interest in diversity and women in literature - particularly dystopia. So I want to learn - this post is as much for me as for you guys!

I want to introduce those of you who don’t know to Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel (the latest of many but sure to become one of the most prominent female superheroes).

First a bit of backstory  which isn’t evident in the comic. (I admit this is heavily simplified and not comprehensive. For a look at the controversial side of her history see this link: http://www.vox.com/2014/11/5/7138099/captain-marvel-background-history-movie)

Carol is not just a new character conveniently assigned to fulfil a quota of female superheroes and protagonists which the comic/gaming world has been under pressure to provide (I am one of the people who want these – obviously there is though a tension between forcing it and creating natural/organic characters who are individuals and not just created for the sake of political correctness. Perhaps though this stage is necessary to get to the desired outcome. Diversity is something that has to be promoted and should ultimately only benefit the comic universe). 

Carol Danvers has been in the Marvel universe for a long time though it is only in the past two/three years that she has become THE Captain Marvel. Prior to this she was Ms Marvel and before that – a member of the Air Force and a Security Chief of a military base. Growing up she fought (notably against her father) for equal pay for women and to be deemed worthy in her father’s eyes in spite of his negligence. She received better grades but her brother was sent to college over her. She faced many civil struggles that women of the age were facing and confronted them with her characteristic stubbornness and refusal to play by others' rules. 

Carol is the incarnation of Captain Marvel which is going to be released as a film in 2018 – a credible female-led Marvel movie! This basically confirms she will be around for a while. She first came into existence in Marvel Super-Heroes #13 in 1968 and became Ms. Marvel in 1977. She becomes a human-Kree hybrid after being rescued by the then Captain Marvel in the 60s. The title ‘Ms.’ is definitively intended to release her from simple categorisation by marital status. As is typical in the comic world – her character has been changed over time, given different aliases, had stories written and unwritten and been given a variety of different characteristics. Overall though, she is shown to be confident (with a large ego!), stubborn, independent and highly powerful. She has super-strength, can fly, shoot energy beams from her hands and has a pretty practical suit which isn't gratuitously showing off her assets to the extent that we see in many female heroes, and villains, in the comic-verse. 

In the 2000s Danvers is on Iron Man’s side in Civil War (as an advocate of the Superhuman Registration Act) – which causes a rift in the Avengers. In DeConnick’s first go at the Captain Marvel storyline with Danvers, she interacts with and grows close to Spiderman and gains high rank in the Avengers team. Danvers is then effectively rebooted as Captain Marvel (a post-trauma/memory loss Captain Marvel who is trying to rediscover herself) in Higher, Further, Faster, More where she realises her dreams of working in space and joins forces with the Guardians of the Galaxy. Carol sets off to return an alien girl to her home world and defend a people who are being taken advantage of by the Spartax, and she does it in lovable, head-strong style. 

In a recent article by Time, which talks about Captain Marvel and the relationship comics have with feminism, Kelly Sue DeConnick outlines her goal in writing female comic book characters (http://time.com/3554606/captain-marvel-movie-kelly-sue-deconnick/):

'“The test that I always give young writers is if you can take out your female character and replace her with a sexy lamp and your plot still functions, you’re doing it wrong,” says DeConnick. “You would be surprised how many times this is actually done. These women are purely there to inspire or motivate or reward or sometimes decorate. I don’t want all of our female characters to be good or to be role models. I just want them to have an interior life. If you can’t answer for me what does this character want in this scene, you’re not writing a woman, you’re writing a lamp. Start over.”'

The crucial thing, for me, is the sense she alludes to of interiority - a character's individual needs, dreams, and inner world. We get this with Carol in Higher, Further, Faster, More in one particularly thoughtful scene, as she contemplates her ambition of going to space:

'Have you ever seen a little girl run so fast she falls down? There's an instant, a fraction of a second before the world catches hold of her again... A moment when she's outrun every doubt and fear she's ever had about herself and she flies. In that one moment, every little girl flies. I need to find that again. Like taking a car out into the desert to see how fast it can go, I need to find the edge of me... And maybe, if I fly far enough, I'll be able to turn around and look at the world... And see where I belong.'

Weirdly my only criticism is that this kind of insight doesn't really arise again - but this is perhaps unfair to level at the first part of a reboot. I guess that will only come with time. I wanted perhaps a longer comic that tried to plumb the depths a little more. But the adventure is still very enjoyable and does make you want to read more. Danvers is a self-proclaimed fan of two things – Star Wars and punching things so she is perfect as the only Avenger representative in space. It is a decision she takes at the cost of her relationship, but in a genuinely touching scene both she and the Iron Patriot agree it is what she needs and deserves. She gives up her relationship to focus on herself - and maybe it seems idealistic and contrived but it also makes a point of her independence and ambition, her refusal to compromise in issues of self-knowledge and integrity (makes more sense if you know about the memory trauma from previous versions). How can she love if she is not self-aware? Her relationship would never be fulfilling until she has more idea of her own being and her purpose. This moment is probably my favourite part and will definitely linger in my mind.  Also see this really beautiful post about the importance of the Captain Marvel movie for many women: http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=56708

I think this comic is great for all ages - it's an exciting, clever, amusing and exhilarating adventure story with some of the most entertaining heroes, it features many diverse characters (and species) and includes a non-hetero romance (albeit briefly). Carol has great potential as a hero to connect with a new generation of young girls and women - and hopefully boys too. I just hope DeConnick can delve deep into this character and create a cast around her that will engage as many as possible. And I hope they get the casting right for the film so that they can give the Captain some gravitas and not just a preen and pretty face.

  

Friday, December 12, 2014

'To be on Earth is to be frightened': Reading Matt Haig's 'The Humans'

I haven’t had a spare second to write this in the last few weeks but I really enjoyed Matt Haig’s The Humans. To be honest, I was a Matt Haig fan before I even started reading his books. He writes some really great, balanced incisive and rational things on Twitter and on various other sites/newspapers/comment sections – promoting reading and empathy above all. I can relate to or agree with a lot of them. His new book, Reasons to Stay Alive is coming out early next year.

The Humans is great because of Matt Haig and his voice. He manages to balance a Douglas Adams Hitchhiker-esque sense of humour and satire with some profound and affecting insights into human life. On one level it’s very simple, the plot is even quite predictable, but following it as it unfolds is still very rewarding. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea but there’s a sense of integrity that I associate with this author where you can really trust what he’s saying and know that he means it – and if you can relate to it- it’s wonderful.

I think it’s absolutely necessary that readers try and empathise with this alien and view human life for what it is – from an outsider’s perspective. It’s something the world can really do with – learning to be objective, to step outside the familiar and be an alien for a while. The alien is kind of a metaphor and/or vessel for doing this. It can point out the inconsistencies in our lives and the illogical nuances of human behaviour that society has bred.  I loved Camus for doing this in a way with Meursault in The Outsider, and I appreciate how Rand did it with Howard Roark and co. It’s important to step into different shoes, to question everything, even if it reaffirms what you think already – there’s never anything to lose from doing it. The people we cast as the outsiders and disassociate with – sometimes it’s important to put them in context and look through their eyes (this doesn’t necessitate agreeing with them or endorsing them). Instead of vilifying people, try to first understand them. Human life may not matter in the grand scheme of things – in the infinite universe, but it matters for each individual and the relationships they foster and the actions they take and the things they write.

In The Humans, the alien narrator is sent to earth to take the form of Cambridge professor Andrew Martin in order to prevent him making a mathematical breakthrough that would render humanity too advanced – and would give this ‘ugly’ species too much power to be trusted with. All traces of Martin’s discovery – including the people he may have told and those too close to him (his wife and teenage son) to be trusted – must be eradicated. The alien coming to understand and relate to human life is not particularly new for a conceit and the story could be seen as simplistic as it evolves - but there is something in this eclectic bunch of characters (the suicidal teenage son and the tired, neglected wife) - as well as the genuinely funny, interesting and ambitious narrative voice - that makes this book feel special and unique.

Haig has talked openly and refreshingly about his mental health struggles and mental health in general and these certainly play into the novel on occasion - and, in a way, this book is about rediscovering that sense of wonder that can be found in some human behaviour – in love and family and friendship. Whereas his species had typecast humanity negatively as violent and brutish and irrational, the alien narrator discovers the wonder and joy and positivity that is also present in human life. The chapter entitled ‘Advice for a Human’ is kind of a love letter to anyone struggling with depression or emotional problems of any kind. Below I have listed some of my favourites of the points (there are 100! I have separated my comments on them with a dash) – they are great reminders and corrections to habits of thinking:

Advice for humans:

13. You shouldn’t have been born. Your existence is as close to impossible as can be. To dismiss the impossible is to dismiss yourself. – think about it for a minute. Think about the chances of fertilisation and the combination of genes and nature and nurture and every component of who you are and what it took to make you right at this moment. The millions of sperm, the generations before you – the chance of your parents meeting. You are utterly unique and utterly unlikely.

14. Your life will have 25,000 days in it. Make sure you remember some of them. – you are finite. You have limited time. Decide what to do with it and have no regrets.

19. Read poetry. Especially poetry by Emily Dickinson. It might save you. Anne Sexton knows the mind, Walt Whitman knows grass, but Emily Dickinson knows everything. – I love Emily Dickinson. She’s my favourite poet. I love that Matt Haig loves Emily Dickinson. I feel like our minds are related.

30. Don’t aim for perfection. Evolution, and life, only happen through mistakes.

38. Walt Whitman was right about at least one thing. You will contradict yourself. You are large. You contain multitudes. – this is so important and something that I needed reminding about. It’s not important to be right. No one is always right and nothing is always right. Embrace contradictions but still don’t shy away from thinking.

39. No one is ever completely right about anything. Anywhere. – ditto.

52. If you are laughing, check that you don’t really want to cry. And vice versa. – emotional extremes can be so interlinked.

53. Don’t ever be afraid of telling someone you love them. There are things wrong with your world, but an excess of love is not one.  – I love this. Sure it’s sentimental, but it doesn’t mean it’s not true. Don’t apologise or feel guilty for what you feel.

66. As a black hole forms it creates an immense gamma-ray burst, blinding whole galaxies with light and destroying millions of worlds. You could disappear at any second. This one. Or this one. Make sure, as often as possible, you are doing something you’d be happy to die doing.

72. Most humans don’t think about things very much. They survive by thinking about needs and wants alone. But you are not one of them. Be careful. – thinking and feeling too much is both a gift and a curse. But never give it up in favour of the alternative.

82. If you think something is ugly, look harder. Ugliness is just a failure of seeing.

88. Which is to say: don’t kill yourself. Even when the darkness is total. Always know that life is not still. Time is space. You are moving through that galaxy. Wait for the stars. – he’s addressing this to Andrew Martin’s son.

90. But know this. Men are not from Mars. Women are not from Venus. Do not fall for categories. Everyone is everything. Every ingredient inside a star is inside you, and every personality that ever existed competes in the theatre of your mind for the main role. – we are of the same material as stars. Categories are not everything. Often, they’re not anything.

I keep recommending this book to people and I’ve said what I wanted to say about it. Ultimately it will affect each individual differently – I know that it is one I will return to and I can’t wait to read more from Haig and to keep thinking and reading along with him. I love books that make me think and reach me deeply and this did both brilliantly. I love Haig’s style – combining mathematics (prime numbers especially) and logic with human feeling and negotiating some of the irrationalities too. There aren’t so many straightforward divisions as we think.




Some more great quotes:

‘For those that don’t know, a human is a real bipedal life-form of mid-range intelligence, living a largely deluded existence on a small water-logged planet in a very lonely corner of the universe’ 1

‘Humans, as a rule, don’t like mad people unless they are good at painting, and only then once they are dead. But the definition of mad, on Earth, seems to be very unclear and inconsistent. What is perfectly sane in one era turns out to be insane in another. The earliest humans walked around naked with no problem. Certain humans, in humid rainforests mainly, still do so. So we must conclude that madness is sometimes a question of time, and sometimes of postcode.’ 32

‘To be on Earth is to be frightened.’ 33

The narrator’s instructors: ‘the humans are an arrogant species, defined by violence and greed. They have taken their home planet, the only one they currently have access to, and placed it on the road to destruction. They have created a world of divisions and categories and have continually failed to see the similarities between themselves.’ 46 – they’re absolutely right – but the alien narrator is also absolutely right.

‘As well as religion, human history is full of depressing things like colonisation, disease, racism, sexism, homophobia, class snobbery, environmental destruction, slavery, totalitarianism, military dictatorships, inventions of things which they have no idea how to handle (the atomic bomb, the Internet, the semi-colon), the victimisation of clever people, the worshipping of idiotic people, boredom, despair, periodic collapses, and catastrophes within the psychic landscape. And through it all there has always been some truly awful food.’ 77

To be a human is to state the obvious. Repeatedly, over and over, until the end of time.’ 78

‘Everywhere you can see in their sky, or almost everywhere, is lifeless. That must affect them. That must give them ideas above their station. That must send them insane.’ 123

‘That’s what starts to happen, when you know it is possible for you to feel pain you have no control over. You become vulnerable. Because the possibility of pain is where love stems from.’ 165

‘Life, especially human life, was an act of defiance. It was never meant to be, and yet it existed in an incredible number of places across a near-infinite amount of solar systems. There was no such things as impossible. I knew that, because I also knew that everything was impossible, and so the only possibilities in life were impossibilities.’ 172

‘Social networking: it was the news show they had been waiting for. It was the show where the news could be all about them.’ 184

‘Love is scary because it pulls you in with an intense force, a supermassive black hole which looks like nothing from the outside but from the inside challenges every reasonable thing you know. You lose yourself, like I lost myself, in the warmest of annihilations.’ 196

‘The problem lying behind the lack of human fulfilment was a shortage not just of time but of imagination. They found a day that worked for them and then stuck to it, and repeated it, at least between Monday and Friday. Even if it didn’t work for them – as was usually the case – they’d stuck to it anyway. Then they’d alter things a bit and do something a little bit more fun on Saturday and Sunday. One initial proposal I wanted to put to them was to swap things over. For instance, have five fun days and two not fun days. That way – call me a mathematical genius – they would have more fun. But as things stood, there weren’t even two fun days. They only had Saturdays, because Mondays were a little bit too close to Sundays for Sunday’s liking, as if Monday were a collapsed star in the week’s solar system, with an excessive gravitational pull. In other words one seventh of human days worked quite well. The other six weren’t very good, and five of those were roughly the same day stuck on repeat.’ 197

‘The single biggest act of bravery or madness anyone can do is the act of change’ 260

‘You see, before coming to Earth I had never wanted or needed to be cared for, but I hungered now to that feeling of being looked after, of belonging, of being loved.’ 264

‘Everything in human life was a test. That was why they all looked so stressed out.’ 33



Please let me know what you thought about this book – and if you have any great recommendations, let me know! 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

'Carrie. She's perfect' - A Tribute to Robin in the 'Dark Knight Returns'

First - if you like this blog and what I'm doing, please take a moment to vote for me in the two categories I'm nominated in in the UK Blog Awards:

Young Person: http://www.blogawardsuk.co.uk/candidates/the-literary-tree-2/

Arts & Culture: http://www.blogawardsuk.co.uk/candidates/the-literary-tree/
Since leaving university I’ve really enjoyed the freedom of being able to read as widely as I can – to read anything I want and form my own ideas on it. I’ve come to the graphic novel quite late compared to a lot of people – but then it is overlooked by so many others. Over the last four or five months I’ve read Maus, Persepolis, Watchmen, some Amazing Spiderman and now the Dark Knight Returns (1986, written by Frank Miller and illustrated by him and Klaus Janson) and they’ve really opened my eyes. You’re missing out on a lot if you write off/ignore graphic novels.


I was shocked by how dark, gritty and just important many are. I’ve become very interested in the hero figures, and anti-heroes. As I’ve mentioned before, my dissertation was on the potential for female hero figures in dystopian lit – and I’m kind of bringing that to my readings of superhero stories. I’ve just finished the Dark Knight Returns (DKR) where Frank Miller gave us a female Robin – Carrie Kelly. So this is a little tribute to her role in the story. 


Carrie is pretty awesome in DKR.

She becomes older Bruce Wayne/Batman’s inspiration. She is perhaps the single thing that drives him on. This thirteen year old girl gives him hope for the future. With DC and Marvel you might be more used to a 'kick-ass heroine' or anti-hero like Black Widow, Catwoman or Talia – a kind of classic femme fatale. 
Carrie is refreshing. She’s (thankfully – since she’s meant to be thirteen!) not sexualised – she’s comparatively androgynous – but she equally doesn’t fall into the extremes of the categories of nerd, plain or sexless. With her fiery red quiff, thick but stylish glasses and self-purchased Robin outfit, she parades her independence and not her gender. Interestingly, the media and police in the story simply assume that she is male – calling her the ‘Boy Wonder’ (former Robin’s were known as this) – Carrie doesn’t care, it is her actions that matter. All we know of her parents is that they are hopelessly distracted by drugs and virtually non-existent in Carrie’s life; she has to be self-reliant at a young age. 

Carrie is kind of special. Batman has often threatened to fire his Robins at the slightest sign of disobedience, He warns Carrie on multiple occasions but never, in this case, actually follows through. He respects her individuality and recognises her essential spirit and integrity.

She is an awesome Robin because her actions make a huge difference. She saves the Dark Knight on several occasions and plays a pivotal role in shaping the future of the city. Batman absolutely trusts and relies on her.  
Saving Batman
She learns quickly and intelligently but also uses her own initiative. There’s no need for romance (again, she’s thirteen) of any kind. If anything, Batman becomes a kind of surrogate father but without inhibiting her independence or establishing himself too forcefully as ‘dominant-male’. This aging man and thirteen year old girl see each other as equals.

Here is a woman - albeit a very young one - who is ever active, ambitious, not distracted by boys and proudly wears an outfit traditionally worn by a male character. She is no damsel – if anything, Batman is the one who often needs to be saved (I should mention I haven’t yet read Dark Knight Strikes Again. I know her role changes slightly there). 
'Boy Wonder'; while Batman calls her the gender-neutral 'soldier'
I loved the Dark Knight Returns. It is brilliantly dark - full of interesting societal issues and novel ways of portraying them. I would recommend it to anyone – even if you’ve never picked up a comic or graphic novel before and know nothing about them. There are some great characters – unique kinds of characters which aren’t necessarily getting coverage elsewhere. Miller and Janson delight in the ugly and warped, in outcasts and mutants; and fans of dystopian literature would certainly enjoy this work. There are strong dystopian elements – with an old, grey-haired/future Batman feeling the limits of his body as well as that distinct nightmarish reality of Gotham City itself. We see Superman, Batman, Green Arrow, Catwoman/Selina Kyle as they haven’t been seen before – old, trapped, used, abused – with an overarching sense that something’s been lost, something’s gone wrong – what’s become of these heroes? What has society driven them to? What have they allowed themselves to become? There's no idealism here. While super men and women of old have withered and faltered, the future is in the hands of the young. 
She's young, she's smart, she's brave
In the darkest night, it’s a thirteen year old girl, stepping into the shoes of boys before her, who shines brightest. 

I’d love to hear from people who have read this work and have any others to recommend based on what I’ve taken from it!