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. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

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

People of earth. Human folk. Read this book. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 27, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Review: The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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