Thursday, August 25, 2016

'Not all of us receive the ends that we deserve.' - Review: The Muse by Jessie Burton

GoodReads description:

‘A picture hides a thousand words . . .

On a hot July day in 1967, Odelle Bastien climbs the stone steps of the Skelton gallery in London, knowing that her life is about to change forever. Having struggled to find her place in the city since she arrived from Trinidad five years ago, she has been offered a job as a typist under the tutelage of the glamorous and enigmatic Marjorie Quick. But though Quick takes Odelle into her confidence, and unlocks a potential she didn't know she had, she remains a mystery - no more so than when a lost masterpiece with a secret history is delivered to the gallery.

The truth about the painting lies in 1936 and a large house in rural Spain, where Olive Schloss, the daughter of a renowned art dealer, is harbouring ambitions of her own. Into this fragile paradise come artist and revolutionary Isaac Robles and his half-sister Teresa, who immediately insinuate themselves into the Schloss family, with explosive and devastating consequences . . .’

I appreciated Jessie Burton’s award-winning, bestselling The Miniaturist. I spent a Christmas hand-selling it at Waterstones and it was a well-written, well-crafted novel. But I loved The Muse. I engaged with it and its characters, heart and mind. They’re both great books, but The Muse is the one I’d go back to and the one that personally hit the spot. It had me from the selected quote before the story even began:

‘Never again will a single story be sold as though it were the only one.’ – John Berger

This is an epigraph which has been used in many well-known, acclaimed novels – it seems to have a track record of success of its own. John Berger is understandably part of most undergraduate studies in literature but it’s a quote that has so much resonance in so many fields of study, and life. At my university, we were shown Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk on the ‘Danger of a Single Story’ – and I’ve mentioned it before on this blog.

Jessie Burton’s The Muse certainly draws upon this idea of the single story – about the different ways things can be perceived, the way that different angles can convey different meanings, and the way that narratives can be controlled to include and exclude. It is, at its heart, about art in all its senses and incarnations – about responsibility, representation, power, dignity and consent:

‘It doesn’t matter what’s the truth; what people believe becomes the truth.’

Burton’s parallel narratives depict two women in different eras, both talented and creative, and yet both – partly because of circumstance, and partly by choice – hiding their gifts or holding back. Originally from Trinidad, Odelle Bastien (1960s) still feels an outsider- she explains:

‘I was – both by circumstance and nature – a migrant in this world, and my lived experience had long become a state of mind’

Burton navigates these angles of migration and ethnicity sensitively and thoughtfully, exploring how it feels to be away from your country of birth and trying to forge an identity in a place where – whether by virtue of gender or race – you may not be taken so seriously, and may feel compelled to hide away.

Marjorie Quick becomes a sort of mentor, as well as employer, eager to unlock Odelle’s talents and encourage them. Back in the 1930s, a young woman named Teresa seeks to do the same for Olive Schloss, the daughter of an art collector (also living away from home, in Spain) who paints secretly and brilliantly (better than Teresa’s artist half-brother, Isaac). The parallels and the way in which Burton toys with the seams of both stories and characters is delightful and utterly compelling. Each tiny twist seems to raise the stakes until the simple truth becomes the ultimate and most quietly devastating prize.

The dynamic between all the characters held me captivated. Like Odelle, I was fascinated by the enigmatic nature of Marjorie Quick and I loved that the bonds between women – between Odelle and Marjorie, and Olive and Teresa - are the most complex and intriguing. Both go beyond the connections that Odelle and Olive feel to the men in their lives and endure in a much stronger and more meaningful way.

The Muse is a book that is so cleverly layered that I feel I want to reread it again and again and to look at these characters from all angles. For now, these are just a few introductory thoughts on a novel I admire more each time I think about it.

Adichie’s ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ TED talk quotes:
  • ‘I realised that I had become so immersed in the media coverage of Mexicans that they had become one thing in my mind, the abject immigrant. I had bought into the single story of Mexicans and I could not have been more ashamed of myself.’
  • ‘So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become’.
  • ‘There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is "nkali." It's a noun that loosely translates to "to be greater than another." Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they're told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.’
  • ‘The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.’

The Muse quotes:
  • ‘Not all of us receive the ends that we deserve.’
  • ‘This is what she taught me: you have to be ready in order to be lucky. You have to put your pieces into play.’
  • ‘That if you really want to see your work to completion, you have to desire it more than you’d believe you have to fight it, fight yourself. It’s not easy.’
  • ‘It doesn’t matter what’s the truth; what people believe becomes the truth.’
  • ‘In the end, a piece of art only succeeds when its creator – to paraphrase Olive Schloss – possesses the belief that brings it into being’

 *Thank you to Picador and NetGalley for the chance to read an ARC of The Muse

Monday, August 8, 2016

'Not a horror. But a girl. Just a girl.' - Review: Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

GoodReads Description:

Destined to destroy empires, Mia Covere is only ten years old when she is given her first lesson in death.

Six years later, the child raised in shadows takes her first steps towards keeping the promise she made on the day that she lost everything.

But the chance to strike against such powerful enemies will be fleeting, so if she is to have her revenge, Mia must become a weapon without equal. She must prove herself against the deadliest of friends and enemies, and survive the tutelage of murderers, liars and demons at the heart of a murder cult.

The shadows love her. And they drink her fear. 

The first line lays it out how it is – this book is going to hold nothing back:

‘People often shit themselves when they die, did you know that?’

There will be no holding back.

The first chapter is very cleverly composed, and Kristoff hooks you immediately with his skill. There is a brilliant linguistic and syntactic equation of acts of sex and death in these opening paragraphs. For the reader, they happen simultaneously and simultaneously they are opposites and the same. They echo and mirror each other in so many ways and are contrasted only by alternating italicised and roman paragraphs. Reading these opening scenes is a visceral experience, and incredibly immersive.

The parallels between love and death re-emerge throughout the book. On her way to earn her place at the Red Church, the training school for assassins, Mia meets future fellow-student and friend, Tric. When he sees her fighting for the first time he notes that she and opponent move ‘like first time lovers – hesitant at first, drifting closer until finally they fell into each other’s arms, fists and elbows and knees, block and counters and strikes’. There are sharp moments of foreshadowing and the whole narrative is a puzzle coming together, twisting into a hugely exciting, adrenaline-fuelled conclusion. The final third is impossible to tear yourself away from. In a twisted way, I appreciated and welcomed its brutality. It lures you into a false sense of security and then shatters it, which I felt it was something it really needed to do to avoid falling into certain clich├ęs.

Mia’s full character and past is unveiled to us slowly and in snatches but it is worth the wait and the whole story is better for it. Mia is different to the other assassins-in-training – she is Darkin, and has an intriguing relationship with and degree of power over, shadows. Her constant companion is a very mysterious shadow cat named Mister Kindly. He consumes her fear and helps her sleep through the night – for reasons revealed as you read. I think there is much more to come from him as he is very much an enigma in this first book but their relationship is very unique and one of the more intriguing and different elements of the story. There are many books with training academies, trials, teens set against each other, assassins etc. but Kristoff knows how to write fantasy and he infuses Nevernight with enough other elements – foreshadowing, shocking twists, and stylistic flourishes that it embeds itself in your conscious as you read and remains long after – leaving you wanting more. I’ve pre-ordered the black sprayed-edges edition from Waterstones and look forward to learning more about Mia and Mister Kindly in particular.

Reading a digital ARC, without proper formatting, did make the footnote element of the narrator’s voice a bit disruptive. I’m reserving judgement on the narrative voice until I’ve read more but at this stage it feels an unnecessary extra, ‘telling’ things rather than allowing them to come up naturally in the story. It’s tone is sometimes a little cloying – but reading a finished copy may be a different experience in that regard and I’m sure it’s purpose will be clear further down the line.

I do have one more spoiler-y point to raise for discussion or general musing: I did have qualms about a certain practice in the Red Church (and Mia consenting to it) – and that is essentially the plastic surgery (weaving) they have to go through – to be made physically alluring (bigger breasts etc). In some respects I thought the controversial, more complicated aspects of this were glossed over, as Mia, and even Tric (who initially has reservations) go along with it mostly without comment. In some ways, it’s a shame because Mia is someone initially described as plain, small and scrawny – but someone who has so much power and is so talented that her appearance has never mattered. On the other hand, this could equally be more of a commentary on the morally contentious nature of the Red Church and what it wants to transform people into. It’s something to consider again once the series is finished perhaps.

‘You are luckier than you know. You were born without that which most people prize their loves for. That ridiculous prize called beauty. You know what it is to be overlooked. Know it keenly enough that you paid a boy to love you…’

After all, the Red Church is all about fashioning a new type of being; a complete assassin, and will remake those it needs to. The stakes are high and only the strongest will prevail and be accepted.
  • ‘Forget the girl who had everything. She died when her father did … Nothing is where you start. Own nothing. Know nothing. Be nothing.’
  • ‘It may not be right,’ Aalea said. ‘It may not be just. But this is a world of Senators and Consuls and Luminatii – of republics and cults and institutions built and maintained almost entirely by men. And in it, love is a weapon. Sex is a weapon. Your eyes? Your body? Your smile?’ she shrugged, ‘weapons. And they give you more power than a thousand swords. Open more gates than a thousand war walkers. Love has toppld Kings, Mia. Ended empires. Even broken our poor, sunburned sky.'

I find myself intrigued by this world that Kristoff is weaving and I’m certainly going to read on. I like the darkness, the mystery and the brutality; too many fantasies get bogged down in over-bearing, contrived romance plots and it seems that Kristoff is dodging that trap for the most part. It’s got its own distinct character but has many of the things I enjoy in my favourite fantasies (Throne of Glass, Game of Thrones…) and is certainly unafraid to push the boundaries of your expectations. I respect that Mia is a complex, layered, character who – by her own nature and belief- may be hard to love, and I look forward to learning more about her and her shadow cat (‘who is not a cat’). I want to see this world and mythology grow even more into its own in the sequels to come and anticipate them eagerly. 

Some other choice quotes:

  • 'Listen, girl,’ Aelius sniffed. ‘The books we love, they love us back. And just as we mark our places in the pages, those pages leave their marks on us. Indelible as the ink that graces them. I can see it in you, sure as I see it in me. You’re a daughter of words. A girl with a story to tell.’
  • ‘A few thought her some thing from the abyss; some daemonic servant of the mother set on their trail. Others mistook her for a horror from the Whisperwastes; some monstrosity spat into being by the dark pull of twisted magiks. But as she wove and swayed among them, blades whistling, breath hissing, the swiftest among them realised she wasn’t a daemon. Not a horror. But a girl. Just a girl. And that thought terrified them more than any daemon or horror they could name.’ 

Thank you to HarperVoyager and NetGalley for letting me read a digital ARC in exchange for honest review. Nevernight is published on 11th August.

Monday, May 16, 2016

'To be forgotten is to be free, you know that, don’t you?': The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North (Review)

Claire North is certainly one of the authors I admire the most. She takes on some of the most technically challenging and fiddly subjects to write about and is very versatile. Yet Touch, Harry August and Hope all tackle that human desire to leave a mark and to mean something. To mean something as a human being/life-form and what it is about yourself that is memorable and can leave an impression. She always challenges you to think beyond the bounds of the physical and the corporeal. In her books she has tackled the limits of gender, sexuality, time, memory and more. She is unafraid and quite unique and because of all this, I will pick up her books without hesitation.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope, a bit like Touch, is part globe-trotting thriller and part existential crisis/analysis. The focus of the plot (or one of them) is an app called Perfection which sets goals and rewards for people to ‘better themselves’. I read The Circle by Dave Eggers just a month or two before this and they definitely both explore this technological dystopian theme very well. While you’re reading, you only have to look up and around you to recognise how precariously balanced society is and how easily it could slip into something quite frightening. What Perfection is actually pushing is conformity – a very static set of ideals based on money, body-image and the like. Both The Circle and The Sudden Appearance of Hope touch upon the idea of the end of privacy, the constant need to share, the setting of goals and the reward schemes that only reward certain, approved behaviours – a subtle brainwashing and defining of worthiness. The chasing of targets and the relentless measuring of your life by strangers and trend-setters, telling you what it is to be worthy and when you deserve reward is juxtaposed with Hope’s innate condition of forgettability. The moment she turns her back, she is forgotten – by her family, her ‘friends’, by anyone she meets – except technology. The only path she leaves is digital.

Hope cannot have a job, cannot own property, cannot live in the ways society usually deems meaningful – she cannot legally exist as she is forgotten within a minute. Hope survives by becoming a criminal – an international jewel thief. It is as she sets out to steal a jewelled bracelet that Hope and Perfection are set on a collision course. Shaken by the death of someone connected to it and seeing the sinister potential of its elements of mind control, Hope sets herself a meaningful mission – to take it down.

Interestingly, Hope does meet someone like her, a fellow ‘forgettable’, who it seems becomes memorable by following the scheme of the app and letting it change him and help him conform. This leaves Hope with a heart-breaking choice – should she adopt the app herself and become memorable and known to her family, but as someone else, or honour them in retaining her own sense of integrity and difference? What if the cure is something worse than the disease? The only person who remembers Hope fully is her little sister, who has a form of brain condition.

Yet the process of writing her story is also a way of enacting meaning and leaving a trace. ‘I write this to be remembered.’ is one of the opening lines of the novel: ‘Whoever you are: these are my words. This is my truth. Listen, and remember me’. To cope Hope takes it upon herself to talk to scholars and monks ‘men and women who’d been held in solitary confinement for ears on end. You find the happiness you can, one said. Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes you gotta dig deep, but it’s there, the thing inside that you can be content.’ For Hope’s condition is a life sentence of its own – her world can only be a long solitary confinement with fleeting instances of connection.

Alone you can lose yourself, or you may find yourself, and most of the time you do both’.

One of the main repeated encounters Hope has throughout her quest is with a lady called Byron, someone who seems somewhat envious of Hope’s condition – telling her that ‘to be forgotten is to be free, you know that, don’t you?’. And this is another interesting discourse that unfolds throughout the narrative – the definition of freedom, and how people would live without inhibition,  knowing they could never be caught, they could do anything, get away with anything. Byron is excited by the prospect, wanting to live without limits, not understanding Hope’s discipline (‘you have no need to conform, what’s the point? No one will thank you for it, no one will remember you.’) – but Hope comes to realise that freedom also means honouring the freedom of those around her – that self-discipline is crucial and she must impose her own limits and meaning (the idea that freedom that impinges upon the freedom of others is wrong). To some extent – you have to ‘permit yourself to be defined by the world that surrounds you’. The whole exchange and the relationship between these two women is written brilliantly – in some ways they are so similar and yet there are fundamental philosophical differences that are unpacked very neatly and effectively.

‘I impose disciplines upon myself, discourse, reason, knowledge…’
‘To fill the place where society should be?’
‘Yes. And to keep me sane. To help me see myself as others might see.’

Some of the most poignant passages come in Hope’s longing to mean something to her family and the brilliance of North’s writing shines through in one of the descriptions of Hope’s mother:

‘Mum comes in. Her hair is bright white, cut down to the surface of her skull, and age has made her face something extraordinary. Each part of it needs an atlas to describe; her chin is many chins, still small and sharp but etched with muscle and line, layered one upon the other. Her cheeks are contoured bone and silky rivers of skin, her eyebrows waggle against great parallels of thought on her forehead, her mouth is encased in smile lines and pout lines and scowl lines and worry lines and laughter lines and there is no part of her which is not in some way written over with stories’.

Hope can see all the markings of experience and all the imperfections and find beauty in them – a kind of beauty that Perfection would never recognise. She knows that her mother could never love the being that Perfection would make of her.

As a character, you pity Hope, but at no point does the book make an emotional spectacle of her tragic condition – it productively explores the nature of it and draws up on it poignantly when it needs to. The parallel plot involving the jewel heist and Perfection balances the narrative and paces it, while also cementing the relevance of these timeless, universal questions in the modern, digital age. An age in which we leave a constant digital trail but long, enduring, meaningful engagements are in decline and under threat. 

The only thing I do find with some of North's book is that it's sometimes hard to engage with, keep track of and remember the wide variety of secondary characters (if you’re not careful, you  might find yourself a bit lost) but do persevere and revisit – it’s worth it in the end and you will find yourself wanting to go back to this book again. Touch was one of my Books of 2015.

Fittingly, The Sudden Appearance of Hope is unforgettable.

*Thank you to Orbit of Little Brown Book Group UK and NetGalley for letting me read a digital ARC in exchange for honest review. The Sudden Appearance of Hope is published on 19th May 2016. 

Further quotes:

  • The past was just a present that had been, the future was a present yet to come, and only now remained, and I stood by the sea, recovering my landlegs from the road, and wept.       
  • Knowledge. What should I do with this place inside me where experience – tears of joy, shrieks of laughter, the anxiety of work, the warmth of friends, the love of family, the expectations of the world – what should I do with that place which was never filled? I put knowledge there. And in knowledge, I find myself. This sounds like an intellectual void where heart should be, but look and you may find…
  •  Look for the words “perfect woman” and you find bodies. Diagrams, explaining that the perfect face belongs to an actress with smoky eyes, the perfect hair comes from a princess; the perfect waist is barely narrow enough to support the generous breasts that balance on it; legs disproportionately long, smile that says “take me”. Photoshopped features combining the faces of movie stars and models, pop idols and celebrities. Who is the perfect woman? According to the internet, she is a blonde white girl with bulimia; no other characteristics are specified.
  • Know thyself, and know everyone else. Having no one else to know me, having no one to catch me or lift me up, tell me I’m right or wrong, having no one to define the limits of me. I have to define myself, otherwise I am nothing, just a … liquid that dissolves. Know yourself. But finding definition without all the… the daily things that give you shape…’

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Review: The Map of Bones by Francesca Haig (The Fire Sermon #2)

*This review may contain spoiler for the first book in the series, The Fire Sermon, and minor spoilers for The Map of Bones.

So when I reviewed The Fire Sermon, the first book in this series, I wrote this:

‘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’

And in book two, The Map of Bones, she delivers. It feels unburdened and able to breathe more freely following events at the end of the first book and Kip’s death. Cass now comes into her own as a character and we get to know her as she goes through grief, and without the distraction of romantic interests for now. There is much more interiority and the prose blossoms in these moments. There is also more travelling and journeying but it doesn’t feel like filler, events unfold naturally and there are certainly big game-changing ones that occur.

We get to know more about Zoe, stripping the layers away as the book goes on, but Piper is still a slightly more one-dimensional character – I haven’t quite got a hold on him yet. The villains (Zach and co.) are also quite limited but mainly because there isn't really a chance to spend much time with them. I enjoyed this as a sequel – and second books are probably the hardest to get right in a trilogy. If some of those secondary characters develop more in the third then I think we’re onto a winner.

The Map of Bones, perhaps even more so than being a dystopian quest-narrative, is a solemn, bleak meditation on memory and grief, and what it is to really know someone. Haig comes into her forte with some of Cass’s and Zoe’s reflective moments and inner struggles – for example, this beautiful line on the way we remember someone after they’re gone:

“…but I betrayed her, too, when I only remembered the bad parts. I should have remembered her properly, even though it’s harder.”

It’s a deeply moving moment and a cathartic one both for the characters and the reader. The journey they go on in this book is as much mental and emotional as it is physical, and you do feel like they’ve travelled a long distance in both by the end.

The gradual revealing of more and more about the blast and the Before is also very effective. It is implied that the people of the Before advanced too far with their machinery and technology, all leading to a nuclear disaster. Hence the intense mistrust of tanks and other machinery by the residents in the After (except for Zach and some of the other Alphas who want to use it for their own cruel purposes).

"It’s always said that everything’s broken, since the blast,” [Piper] said. “And we both know there’s plenty that’s broken enough.” There were so many different kinds of brokenness to choose from. The broken-down mountains, slumped into heaps of slag and scree. The towns and cities from the Before, the bones of a world. Or the broken bodies he’d seen, too many to count.

“…what good ever came out of the Before? The one thing that we know for certain about these people is that they, and their machines, destroyed the world. They brought about all of this.” – The Ringmaster

The pacing and the subtlety is much stronger throughout the narrative and, a true poet, Haig’s imagery is incredibly powerful and memorable.

‘I was a walking emissary of the deadlands, spreading ash wherever I went.’

‘This was how violence worked, I was learning: it refused to be contained. It spread, a plague of blades.’

‘Words were bloodless symbols we relied on to keep the world at bay.’

More forces and perspectives are coming to play and the world is both deepening and expanding. The language and imagery is very evocative and visual and I’m beginning to see how it could be compared to The Road by Cormac McCarthy in terms of atmosphere and landscape. I now have high hopes for book three. Some readers may struggle more with this one as the pacing is slower than other recent offerings in the genre, but there are key moments of action and reveals are measured and gradual. I personally found this much more rewarding than frustrating – where book one was a bit more hit-and-miss with pace, this one finds a consistent balance. 

If you've read The Fire Sermon and, like me,  weren't sure, then I definitely recommend you give this a read as it adds much, much more and Haig stylistically hits her rhythm. This trilogy is beginning to lay its own ground and I look forward to reading more.  
Discussion Point: 

I guess there is a certain discussion point that did spring to my mind when I was thinking about these books: Haig certainly makes the Omegas our heroes – and defines them by deformity, and yet the protagonist/hero that she gives us is one who is an exception – who does not have a physical deformity and is ‘special’. What does this say in the climate of diversity? Is it a missed opportunity or is there a more intricate exploration of the mental health of someone with Cass’s powers? I’d be interested to hear what others think. I think it’s very complicated given the premise of the novels but I found The Map of Bones a good and thought-provoking read nonetheless and trust Haig’s intentions and knowledge of the world and characters she is building.

I like that there is a very interesting choice that the characters are faced with by the end *potential spoiler alert*: is it better for everyone to be equal, although all with a degree of 'deformity', or for the Alpha-Omega twin-death bond to continue? It's going to be very interesting to unpack in the next book as it certainly complicates the endgame of the different parties.

Further quotes:

-          “…although you like to think you’re so far above the assumptions and prejudices of the rest of the world, it turns out you’re not so different from them after all.” - Zoe

-          'Hope was not a decision I made. It was a stubborn reflex. The body squirming toward the air. The taking of the next breath, and the one after that.'

*Thank you to Gallery Books (US) and HarperVoyager (UK) for letting me read a digital ARC in exchange for honest review. 

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Review: Passenger by Alexandra Bracken

GoodReads description:

Passage, n.
i. A brief section of music composed of a series of notes and flourishes.
ii. A journey by water; a voyage.
iii. The transition from one place to another, across space and time.

In one devastating night, violin prodigy Etta Spencer loses everything she knows and loves. Thrust into an unfamiliar world by a stranger with a dangerous agenda, Etta is certain of only one thing: she has traveled not just miles but years from home. And she’s inherited a legacy she knows nothing about from a family whose existence she’s never heard of. Until now.

Nicholas Carter is content with his life at sea, free from the Ironwoods—a powerful family in the colonies—and the servitude he’s known at their hands. But with the arrival of an unusual passenger on his ship comes the insistent pull of the past that he can’t escape and the family that won’t let him go so easily. Now the Ironwoods are searching for a stolen object of untold value, one they believe only Etta, Nicholas’ passenger, can find. In order to protect her, he must ensure she brings it back to them—whether she wants to or not.

Together, Etta and Nicholas embark on a perilous journey across centuries and continents, piecing together clues left behind by the traveler who will do anything to keep the object out of the Ironwoods’ grasp. But as they get closer to the truth of their search, and the deadly game the Ironwoods are playing, treacherous forces threaten to separate Etta not only from Nicholas but from her path home... forever.

This was an intriguing adventure-romance which delves into history and time travel with care and detail. As a novel, it explores issues of family, race and identity in different time-contexts. 

Bracken's knowledge and historical detail is one of the strongest aspects of Passenger. I enjoyed the construction of each world, and wish we could have spent longer in each time to really see these primary characters adapt, develop and relate. Their adventure and romance sometimes felt a bit too rushed, despite both Nicholas and Etta being interesting individual characters. The romantic tension did feel a little forced and too detailed, leaving little time for the chemistry to build somewhat independently of the text itself. Nicholas is a very guarded character, understandably so given his time and origins as the child of a slave and her master. It is understandable for him to be guarded from Etta and those around him in the story, but with a two-character alternating narrative, Bracken perhaps could have let the reader in a little more. We don't get many private moments with him, whereas we really benefit from the opening chapters with Etta. 

I really enjoyed the opening chapters as we get to know Etta and what drives her and her love of music. Bracken writes these scenes brilliantly and really gets in Etta's head, and introducing the key relationships in her New York 2015 life. Similarly, there are some really nice moments with Nicholas on the ship, in his own time, with his sort of surrogate ship family. I would have loved to see these play out a little longer before the protagonists are thrown together. 

Again you don't really get a strong sense of the character of the villain - Cyrus Ironwood - but the history of the families is bound to be expanded upon in the sequel and I am looking forward to learning more - those family/surrogate family elements were some of the things that really hooked me. At this stage, Cyrus just exists to impose a sense of threat and a ticking-clock to carry the plot forward in this first book. 

Overall, it's a slow, careful and intriguing build (except for the romance angle, which I found a little too forced and rushed). It would have been nice to see the chemistry and relationship between Etta and Nicholas develop more organically, but the writing is very much 'telling you' it's happening. In terms of plot, the pace zooms into overdrive in the final few chapters and the ending is a whirlwind of a cliff-hanger which should fire nicely into the sequel and shake things up a bit. I'm intrigued by this world, particularly the negotiations of different cultures and the time-travel concept that Bracken is building and will pick up the sequel with interest when it arrives.

Thank you to Quercus Children's Books for a chance to read an eARC via NetGalley. This book is out in the UK on the 7th of April!

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Review: Radio Silence by Alice Oseman

GoodReads Description: 

What if everything you set yourself up to be was wrong?

Frances has always been a study machine with one goal, elite university. Nothing will stand in her way; not friends, not a guilty secret – not even the person she is on the inside.

But when Frances meets Aled, the shy genius behind her favourite podcast, she discovers a new freedom. He unlocks the door to Real Frances and for the first time she experiences true friendship, unafraid to be herself. Then the podcast goes viral and the fragile trust between them is broken.

Caught between who she was and who she longs to be, Frances’ dreams come crashing down. Suffocating with guilt, she knows that she has to confront her past…
She has to confess why Carys disappeared…

Meanwhile at uni, Aled is alone, fighting even darker secrets.

It’s only by facing up to your fears that you can overcome them. And it’s only by being your true self that you can find happiness.

Frances is going to need every bit of courage she has.

The good news – Alice Oseman’s second novel is just as good as her first. It captures the next stage of life – the move from school to university - while exploring some really important issues around school success and how teenagers are taught to define their self-worth. Again she involves the Tumblr generation in a realistic (but not cringe-y) way. She also draws in fandoms, the perks and flaws of social media, male-female friendship, ethnicity, sexuality and so much more and they all weave together in a very engaging way that today’s generation will definitely appreciate. 

Radio Silence is a must-read for those in their final years at school.

If I didn’t get into Cambridge, everything I had tried to be throughout my school life would be a total waste.’ – Frances, Radio Silence

The historical associations of Oxbridge – as the only destination for the best and brightest – the prestige, the privilege – the confirmation of genius, the mythical guarantee of success, it is still lorded over today’s children. It is still the pillar against which schools measure and brandish their greatness and often a factor in parents of a certain background selecting the institution they wish their children to go to. But Oxbridge isn’t, or shouldn’t be relevant anymore. The Oxbridge ideal is out of date and it’s actively harmful to the way kids think and what they strive for. Many are measuring their self-worth on archaic and narrow ideals. I really relate to Frances’ plight in this regard. I think Alice is brilliant at really getting into the very real struggle and sorrow that Frances goes through – she acknowledges that you could argue it is coming from a position of privilege in the first-world – that it seems selfish and ungrateful but that doesn’t mean it isn’t any less real and important and doesn’t hurt. Frances’ quest for Cambridge and that whole part of her experience gave me so many flashbacks and it honestly reads so truly – I think so many people who haven’t felt understood or represented before will feel a wave of relief when reading this book. Some teenagers work really hard, get on with their parent(s), aren’t just interested in parties, drinking and romance and still have an absolutely engaging and complex story to tell.

Your whole life for about 16 years, is school, university is the focus and end-goal imposed on you, and you so desperately want to be special and worth something but you have such narrow parameters within which to define that success. Radio Silence really got me thinking again about those years at school, approaching university, and I really hope that it starts a conversation in terms of the curriculum, degrees and maybe just understanding generally what a lot of people are going through and how we can help them. 

I remember a lot of people telling me that university was the best time of their life, and maybe that’s true for some but for others it is a melting pot of anxiety and academic frustration and homesickness and confusion. You could come from school where all your essays got top grades and suddenly find yourself floundering in a place with very little guidance on offer and which still only really rewards people who think in a certain way (usually the way of the person marking the work, if you’re doing the Humanities). I was also told at school that I'd really enjoy university (I studied English Literature) as there was so much freedom and I could write about whatever I wanted however I wanted. That wasn't true. In some ways I found it much more restrictive - they still wanted me to think a certain way and write in a very formulaic way and it quashed my inspiration and enjoyment and my desire to really think for myself. I still love English Literature, and I did learn new ways of thinking and was introduced to some great literature and had a couple of great professors but I also was so relieved to escape it afterwards and be master of my own learning and writing again - to try and recapture some inspiration and sense of identity. Some people find themselves, many also lose themselves – and it’s really interesting and desperately sad to see that happen to Aled in Radio Silence

I really appreciated the focus on friendship, academic life and family. So many of these books, particularly in this age-group, get wrapped up in romance and love-interests and it’s so refreshing not to have that – because, personally, that wasn’t my focus at that age, and it doesn’t seem like it’s Frances’ either – work and finding friends you can be yourself with both feel far bigger and more intense. The platonic relationships in Radio Silence are so, so powerful and moving and heart-warming that you don’t need any contrived romance plot.

The cast of the book is brilliant and diverse – but not in a box-checking way, it's all written with so much care and attention to detail that you feel connected to every character and you appreciate all the things that make them unique. Alice writes so well about these things partly because she is a clever, talented writer, and also because she is true to herself and her experience and is living the world she is writing and reflecting on experiences that are far more recent than an older adult thinking back and trying to make their experience apply to today’s youth. She’s unflinchingly honest, articulate and observant and it’s very much needed in this contemporary market. I couldn’t put it down – I read late into the night and on the train and am still thinking about it.

The podcast narrative is beautiful and tragic and unique, as was the look at the way people interact with their ‘obsessions’ on Tumblr – it can be a frighteningly intense, even dangerous, place but Oseman also shows the creativity and sense of community it can foster. You can start to understand the way people think and interact in these new ways as the world evolves and all the repercussions of those interactions. 

This book is a message – don’t get trapped, question everything – question what you want and what society/school is telling you and whether it’s right for you and be yourself because otherwise there is a lot of suffering that you could fall into. Don’t let your school try to define you by the universities you apply to or the subjects you study, laugh at the ones who try to hand-pick and coach you to get into Oxbridge, just find the things and the people you love and hold on tight.

Radio Silence is one of the books on the market that is most worth reading right now, because you won’t have read anything like it, you won’t have met these characters before – none of them are ‘types’ and you may even finally feel understood and able to process the confusing and messy years of your teenage/young adult life. Even if it’s not your personal experience or something you can relate to, it’s worth reading to spend a few hours in the heads of these very real characters and to see the world through their eyes. Oseman brings so many new, overlooked or marginalised voices into play and has hopefully given them a real platform in YA and it's brilliant community. 

*I received this book as an ARC for honest review on NetGalley. Thank you to HarperCollins Childrens for the chance to read it. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Why Character Wins in Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens

AKA I got excited. 

You don’t just come back to Star Wars because of the compelling/exciting plot – stripped to it’s bones it is THE plot. Dark vs Light. Hero vs Villain. Father vs Son. (This is to put it all very simplistically)

You come back because you fall in love with the characters.

That’s what the prequels lacked for me, no one fell in love with Anakin or Obi Wan or Padme as characters. They were fairly wooden. And I didn’t hate those films – I found bits of them painful and the acting was lacking but I was interested in the journey Anakin took to becoming Vader. It could have been executed a lot better, but there were bits I did enjoy. They lacked heart. Both The Force Awakens and the original trilogy have earnest, excited characters with lots of life inside them that you feel protective of and affection for. They inspired your love.

You come back for Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia. Three icons who have endured the years.

And you will come back for Finn, Rey and Poe because they inspire the same love that I, and you, felt for that original trio. And that is a credit to Boyega and Ridley, who are both quite new on this stage, and Isaac who is just stepping into these kind of action/adventure roles. Ridley must have felt such pressure and the world on her shoulders – a female lead in a Star Wars movie – a female with perhaps more power than perhaps any character we’ve seen before on Star Wars… It’s brilliantly subversive and a huge task – she would be taken to pieces if she didn’t play it well, but she does – you can see her passion so visibly on screen. She plays it with youthful energy and wonder and excitement – you can feel her excitement both as an actress and a character to be part of this – and you can feel that that’s how you’d be if you were in those shoes too. 

It’s the same with Finn – he seems breathlessly excited in his acting – he’s charming and funny and you want to learn with him and Rey as they take their first steps. Poe fits so naturally – like he was born into that role. Rey and Boyega interact brilliantly and wittily, and it’s so fun to watch their friendship grow as they both get thrown into these new worlds and roles. The old cast are very much mentors and it’s great to see them again but it’s really just as exciting spending a lot of time with Rey and Finn. Forget the ‘political correctness’ and agenda-filled debates and enjoy this because Rey and Finn have already shown they’re so much more than that. Many of the complainers and nay-sayers have the wrong priorities and are just voicing insecurities. These two actors and characters are more than capable of sustaining and reviving a love for Star Wars and what it’s always been at it’s heart.

In the same way your favourite character could be any of Luke or Han or Leia – here you could pick almost anyone and it’s so fun to have all these options – all different in their own way.

I LOVE Rey and I feel strongly protective of her and Daisy Ridley – I, and probably many women who grew up watching Star Wars and wanting to be part of it, feel such an affinity to her and that’s already given me so much more than I hoped for from this film. To have Rey – whose eyes light up at ships and droids and scavenging - in a Star Wars film feels so amazing and I’m almost jealous of the young girls who will grow up watching this and the young boys who will grow up watching her and Finn and Poe and have them as their first point of hero. (I’m not saying Leia wasn’t awesome – she definitely was and is – but Rey is another great character for this generation – she is self-sufficient and proactive and in all the action). The villains were perhaps a bit thinner but I did think Adam Driver played some of his moments very well – you can see the conflict in him in the big moments and hopefully his character will grow as the movies progress. Hux was much more one-dimensional but I think this movie was more focused on introducing the heroes and the villains will be fleshed out later (Molly Weasley would still shut him down in a second though).

Yes, it was nostalgic. Yes, it did replicate the plot of the first one – but I think it did that to recapture that awe and to really show it was going to put all its effort into launching these characters – because they are what’s crucial. I am very much a CHARACTER-over-plot person – I know that might not be the same for a lot of people – but give me good characters, characters I care for and engage with – and I will watch the movie time and time again regardless of plot deficiencies, wobbles and moments where I have to suspend disbelief or ‘not-question-it’. It was the right focus for this film I think – launching a new trilogy. And there were some moments of surprise and nice twists and plot mysteries to carry it through too.

I needed to write this after listening to the review by Talking Comics – my favourite podcast. They always get reviews and debates pitch perfect and they inspired all these thoughts and this excitement to bubble up in me, so that I word-vomited this out as soon as I got home from work. I’m so excited for this saga to continue and just for how thrilling it is to be back on this ride with great characters and a captivated audience. 

I have several reviews and thought-pieces in the works for books by Louise O'Neill, Howard Jacobson, Victoria Aveyard, Sabaa Tahir and G. Willow Wilson (Ms Marvel!) which I will work on over the next few weeks - but this couldn't wait!