Friday, February 27, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Review: The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 23, 2015

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

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

It's just exquisite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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