Thursday, 19 January 2017

Review: 'Good Me Bad Me' by Ali Land

As a thriller fan nothing gets me going as much as reading or seeing something I haven’t read or seen before. Admittedly this can be quite a task for an author since thriller novels and films abound, with new ones coming out seemingly every day. So when I saw Good Me Bad Me I was immediately intrigued by the blurb which promised all the right things. And I’m very happy to say that Land did not disappoint. Good Me Bad Me is both a gripping read and a book that will make you think. Thanks to Michael Joseph and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 12/01/2017
Publisher: Penguin UK - Michael Joseph
SET TO BE ONE OF THE MOST EXTRAORDINARY, CONTROVERSIAL AND EXPLOSIVE DEBUTS OF 2017 - for fans of quality psychological suspense and reading group fiction: once you read this book you'll want to talk about it . 'NEW N A M E . NEW F A M I LY. S H I N Y. NEW. ME . ' Annie's mother is a serial killer. The only way she can make it stop is to hand her in to the police. But out of sight is not out of mind. As her mother's trial looms, the secrets of her past won't let Annie sleep, even with a new foster family and name - Milly. A fresh start. Now, surely, she can be whoever she wants to be. But Milly's mother is a serial killer. And blood is thicker than water. Good me, bad me. She is, after all, her mother's daughter... Translated into over 20 languages, Good Me Bad Me is a tour de force. In its narrator, Milly Barnes, we have a voice to be reckoned with, and in its author, Ali Land, an extraordinary new talent.
‘But the hearts of small children are delicate organs. A cruel beginning in this world can twist them into curious shapes.’
Carson McCullers (1917-1967)

This is the quote that starts the book and, in many ways, sets the tone. At the centre of this novel is the question of Annie/Milly’s heart and what is in it. The nature vs. nurture debate has spawned not only dozens of academic discussions but also a whole range of literature. Humanity is fascinated with whether it is, at the core, intrinsically good, or if there is an innate ‘bad me’ which is only waiting to come out. Philosophers such as John Locke have argued for the child being a ‘tabula rasa’, a clean slate, upon which external influences start acting from the moment of its birth. So was it the belief of Rousseau that warfare and aggression are learned, and not innate. We find traces of these arguments in novels such as Jane Eyre in which Lady Blanche speaks of children with ‘bad blood’. Even Harry Potter addresses this when Dudley’s aunt monologues about how ‘if there’s something wrong with the bitch, there is something wrong with the pup’. What makes the latter of the two examples fascinating, and relevant, is that they seem to argue for a combination between nature and nurture. There is something of ‘bad me’ that is simply in all of us, in our blood, yet nurture has a major role to play in bringing it out. This cross-section within the debate lies at the heart of Good Me Bad Me. It explores to what extent evil is something that works upon us or from within us, whether bad things that have happened to us can make us do bad things too, or whether we secretly wanted to do those bad things all along.

Good Me Bad Me is filled with women of all ages and most walks of life. Evil serial killers are usually played by men in films or TV shows, with the rare female killer appearing as an extra special, scary treat. Very often her crimes are either sexual or against children, and in the worst cases the two are combined. It is this fear of evil women which fascinates me and which Land also cleverly picks up on throughout Good Me Bad Me. There is an almost blind trust in women to be maternal and caring, to want to protect children and to not be aggressive or violent. It’s the Feminine Ideal which has somehow survived into the 21st century and still makes it hard for women to talk about things such as Post-Natal Depression, the desire to not have children or the aggressive traits in our own personalities. Because of this ideal, the thought of a woman who goes against all this has always been fascinating and is present in a lot of literary and cinematic tropes. She is in the Femme Fatale, in the Last Girl, in the Virgin/Whore dichotomy. Good Me Bad Me addresses some of the points that arise from this combined fear and fascination with evil women and does so through a varied cast of female characters. There are the teenage girls, violently obsessed with their own lives and almost negligently cruel to each other. There are the mothers who care too much or not enough, those for whom motherhood is a challenge but don’t dare admit it. There are the women and girls who use what they have to get what they want, and those who want and give, but never get.

Land’s world is not a pleasant one, but to a large extent it is a very honest one. It has become something of a trend to write about “complicated women”, but often these books lose all the nuance that is so crucial to them. Novels such as Gone Girl are simplified down to “the good housewife is actually a psycho, beware of all women” and are thereby crucially misunderstood. Naturally thrillers and crime novels are sensationalist in a sense, but they also address significant issues around how men and women are seen and see themselves. Good Me Bad Me strikes a very good balance between following the genre’s knack for the terrifying as well as giving some insight into the minds of the people it is serving up to the reader. Land throws in enough twists that both engender sympathy for all the characters, while also making a sword out of that sympathy. In the end Good Me Bad Me won’t tell you who is good and who is bad, it will give you enough material, however, to come to your own conclusions with your own justifications as to why.

Land’s writing throughout the novel is superb. First person narratives are always tricky and very often do not work. Not only does an author need to create a consistent voice for their narrator, that voice also has to change and develop throughout the story. In the case of thrillers or crime novels the extra task is added that the narrator on the one hand shouldn’t give too much away, but on the other hand also needs to reveal enough to keep the reader engaged. There is a very good reason as to why Good Me Bad Me had to be written in first person. Annie/Millie is the sole focus of this novel, it is her psyche, her mind, that is under the microscope, so to say. The way in which Land writes Millie, how she breaks up sentences, constructs thoughts and gives shape to internal processes is fascinating and really draws the reader into Millie’s mind. There is something fractured and hard, yet also vulnerable about the writing of the book which gives the reader a constant glimpse at what’s in Millie’s mind, even the things she herself would rather not know about.

I give this novel…
5 Universes!

I absolutely loved Good Me Bad Me. I raced through it, not only because I was desperate to know what would happen but also because Land gives you no choice but to hurdle along until the bitter end. I’d recommend this to fans of Psychological Thrillers and Crime Novels.

Review: 'My Life on the Road' by Gloria Steinem

My Life on the RoadGloria Steinem is as close to a living legend as it is possible to be. When I first started on my journey towards becoming the full blown feminist I am nowadays I knew her name and of some of her work. As the years passed, she would appear in articles and books I read at University and I'd see her on TV supporting and advocating causes I also believed in. It took until My Life on the Road, however, for me to actually sit down and get to know her. The beauty of this book, for me, lies in that I now do feel like I know more, not just about her, but about feminism, about women, about America, about freedom, about Native Americans and about struggle. I'm very grateful for this book. Thanks to Random House and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 25/10/2015
Publisher: Random House
Gloria Steinem—writer, activist, organizer, and one of the most inspiring leaders in the world—now tells a story she has never told before, a candid account of how her early years led her to live an on-the-road kind of life, traveling, listening to people, learning, and creating change. She reveals the story of her own growth in tandem with the growth of an ongoing movement for equality. This is the story at the heart of My Life on the Road.

As I said above, I am incredibly grateful to have read My Life on the Road. It's not a typical memoir, in that it lists a mountain of achievements and not-so-subtly asks for praise. Rather, it feels like having a long conversation, during a longer roadtrip, that started with the question 'Where are we going?' My Life on the Road doesn't stick to the usual route, takes random shortcuts down country lanes which lead to unexpected surprises, stops at random moments that enlighten, and doesn't require a clear destination. Steinem takes the reader all the way back to her childhood, discusses her fear of public speaking, the struggles she faced as a journalist and how her activism slowly but surely grew into becoming life- and era-defining. The memoir's emphasis, however, doesn't lie on Steinem herself. Rather, it's a book full of people. Although a life on the road sounds lonely, Steinem's life so far is full of wonderful moments, brilliant people, and shocking truths. For me, reading My Life on the Road brought a sense of freedom, in that a life doesn't have to follow a certain pattern, that activism is both small and enormous, that everyone starts somewhere with no clear idea of where they're going. And it made me excited, excited to hear more, see more, experience more. No wonder some think feminism is dangerous for young women, this combination of freedom and excitement is potent!

My Life on the Road is filled with stories, anecdotes, brief glimpses into the lives of others, and realisations. That's because at the heart of My Life on the Road is storytelling and, its often forgotten partner, listening. By reading her memoir, the reader starts out on the path that Steinem herself travels: that of a listener. With each new chapter, each new aside, Steinem broadens the reader's world by showing how her own was opened through listening. But rather than advocate the 'be silent and listen to me preach'-approach, Steinem writes of a different kind of speaking and listening, one which is communal and equal. This book showcases the power of telling your story and thereby encouraging others to do the same. Whether it's Steinem's college tours which stretched into the early hours because once people realise they are being heard they have a lot to say, or Steinem herself being the one initiated into the true power of dialogue by women on an train across India, or women like Wilma Mankiller, My Life on the Road is an ode to conversation. There are those who think feminists are knowitalls, who want to tell you how to think and refuse to listen. They should read My Life on the Road and have their eyes opened.

Steinem is a great writer, which should come as no surprise considering she makes a living of it. Although there is no clear line throughout My Life on the Road, there is definitely a journey. And Steinem is very willing to share it with you, whether it's her own embarrassment at not knowing something, her own struggle with sexism in the workplace or the feeling of euphoria at having achieved something. Rarely do memoirs give me such an actual insight into someone's mind, someone's life. Although she writes about the past, My Life is on the Road is incredibly current. When she writes about the 2008 Democratic primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, many of her observations sting considering the November election. Despite the eight years that have come and gone, nothing changed in how Hillary Clinton was treated. When she writes about her involvement in Native American activism, the many prejudices and obstacles she sees Native Americans struggle with are still as present as ever. Solely for this, My Life on the Road is an enlightening read because it shows that the "fight" is not a battle but a journey. Every two steps forward sees us take a step back and we don't know where exactly it is we're going. But as long as we keep venturing forward, the destination will become clearer.

I give this memoir...

5 Universes!

If I hadn't been a supporter of Steinem before, I definitely would have been one after reading My Life on the Road. It's a memoir of insight, awareness and ideas, a book that shows the power of listening, of telling stories, of continuing to explore. I will be rereading it many times, as well as doing some footnote hunting to learn more. I'd recommend this not only to those already aware of Steinem and what she stands for, but also those who don't know her and are curious.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Inkitt is coming to an Android near you!

Image result for InkittI got approached by Inkitt about 2 weeks ago with some very exciting news which I can't wait to share with you. But first, let's talk about Inkitt itself! Inkitt is an online library of thousands of stories of all different genres, brought straight from authors to us readers. My favourite thing about them is their own 'I'm feeling lucky' button which presents you with a random story. It's an amazing way to discover new genres and different Indie writers. Independent authors need all the help they can get in getting the word out there about their work so I've always thought Inkitt was a great thing!

Now, what is the big news? Back in November, Inkitt launched an IOS app, which is great for Apple users but is less great for people like me who are staunch Android users. But Inkitt has heard our prayers and is ... *drum roll please* releasing an Android app globally today!
With the Inkitt app, readers can discover thousands of new novels by emerging authors anytime, anywhere (even when they're offline!) and get personalized recommendations based on their preferred fiction genres.
I love the fact that amazing new fiction will be mere finger taps away from now on! You can select reads, add them to your shelves, write reviews and discover even more new authors. A feature I love is the offline library, which means you can still read when not online. It'll be perfect for those journeys to work when I can't get reception on the metro! And I love the lay-out as well, it's nice and clean, not too cluttered, all about reading ease.

One of the reasons I prefer reading on my Kindle to reading on my laptop is that I can adjust my reading experience to my surroundings, and Inkitt totally took this idea on board for its app! Not only can you choose from its thousands of titles, you can also adjust font, letter size, background etc. to get the perfect reading experience.

And the best news? Inkitt has given me a download link so you don't even have to go out of your way to get your hands on their amazing app. Click Here to join in on the reading fun! I myself am already there ;)

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Review: 'The Spy' by Paulo Coelho

Mata Hari is a woman who has fascinated me for years. You should know by now that I'm all about women breaking gender norms. She was as enigmatic as they come and her end only aroused more questions than answers. Not only did she live during one of the most interesting times in European history, she played a very interesting role in that time. Combine my obsession with Mata Hari with my interest in Paulo Coelho, author of the cult classic The Alchemist, which I enjoyed, and you should have the perfect recipe. Unfortunately somewhere in the kitchen, however, something went wrong and I was left slightly unhappy with what was served. Thanks to Random House UK and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 22/11/2016
Publisher: Random House UK, Cornerstone

When Mata Hari arrived in Paris she was penniless. 
Soon she was feted as the most elegant woman in the city. 
A dancer who shocked and delighted audiences; a confidant and courtesan who bewitched the era’s richest and most powerful men. 
But as paranoia consumed a country at war, Mata Hari’s lifestyle brought her under suspicion. Until, in 1917 she was arrested in her hotel room on the Champs Elysees and accused of espionage. 
Told through Mata's final letter, THE SPY tells the unforgettable story of a woman who dared to break the conventions of her time, and paid the price.
Mata Hari was born to Dutch parents as Margaretha Zelle in 1876 in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands. At the age of 18 she answered a marriage ad in a newspaper and married Rudolf MacLeod a year later. He was a Army Captain in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and a ticket out of a life that was already becoming stifling. Unfortunately, he was also an alcoholic and abusive. The couple eventually returned to the Netherlands after the death of their youngest child and divorced. In 1903 Marghareta moved to Paris and in 1905 Mata Hari started making waves amongst the social and artistic elite. Mata Hari danced unlike any other, apparently exotic and other, yet incredibly sensual and physical at the same time. Over the years she became more known as a courtesan than  a dancer, embodying the Bohemian spirit of freedom and beauty. But as WWI loomed on the horizon, her fame turned into infamy. Then in 1917 she was arrested in Paris for spying for the Germans and thereby causing the deaths of 50,000 men. She was executed by a firing squad the same year at the age of 41. Margaretha's life was a turbulent and almost permanently outrageous one. She broke a lot of the rules in places for women both then and now, and telling her story is one hell of a mission. Despite the title of his novel referring to a very specific part of her life, The Spy does cover her whole life, attempting to give the reader a real insight into her life.

As I said above, something about this novel left me unhappy and even perturbed. On the one hand Coelho's novel provides a fascinating insight into the life and mind of a fascinating woman. He takes his liberties with history, moving events around to fit his own ideas, but he is honest about it and it works for the novel. I also don't think that Margaretha wouldn't have minded, considering the frequent liberties she herself took when telling her own story. On the other hand, however, his version of Mata Hari was strangely disaffected by most things. The way I imagine Mata Hari is as someone who lived intensely, saw the world around her, both its freedoms and limitations, and wanted to make the most of it. Coelho's Mata Hari, however, is uncaring about the events leading up to World War I and the people in her life. This could be a consequence of the form of the novel, more on that later, but it still left me slightly disenchanted. Who knew the proverb to never meet your heroes also counted for literary rendezvous'?

Coelho's writing can be stunning. In The Alchemist it is at times beautifully descriptive and then obtusely convoluted. In The Spy there are also moments of beauty, stunning quotes that really give an insight into how someone like Mata Hari might have felt. At other times, however, the pace is too high to truly make the reader care. The novel has the perfect set up, starting at the very end. The reader first meets Mata Hari in French prison and witnesses her final moments. From there Coelho lets Mata Hari "take the word" through a letter to her lawyer, written in the days before her execution. It's a brilliant way to bring the reader closer to her, but much of Coelho's work is undone when the novel ends with the lawyer's "reply". It really was a shame because it almost overturns all the work he has done to make Mata Hari appear sympathetic and for me the magic ended very quickly towards the end. Although Coelho does say he has taken liberties, there is a lot he didn't touch upon that would have fit beautifully with the story he does tell. As historian Julie Wheelwright has said of Mata Hari, she was:
" independent woman, a divorcee, a citizen of a neutral country, a courtesan and a dancer, which made her a perfect scapegoat for the French, who were then losing the war. She was kind of held up as an example of what might happen if your morals were too loose."
Personally I would have loved to read more about how perception of her changed, how her life in Paris was. Some of the most beautiful quotes from the novel are when Mata Hari lingers on the opportunities she took, the boundaries she broke and the expectations she dashed. More of that would have been welcome, but then The Spy is only 208 pages and not a biography.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

I enjoyed The Spy, it is a short and quick read, well-written and mostly engaging. With any other person at the centre, however, this novel would not have worked. Coelho doesn't do much to add to Mata Hari's mystery, but at least he also doesn't take away from it too much. I'd recommend this to people interested in finding out more about Mata Hari and fans of Coelho himself.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Review: 'Reckless I: The Petrified Flesh' by Cornelia Funke, Lionel Wigram, trans. by Oliver Latsch.

Cornelia Funke has owned my heart ever since my father read me Inkheart for the first time. Naturally he read it to me in German and I loved how she literally brought her characters to live from the pages. There is a magic in words and like other authors, Neil Gaiman comes to mind, Funke knows, appreciates and uses this. So of course I wanted to check out her newest and latest! Thanks to Pushkin Children's and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 29/12/2016
Publisher: Pushkin Children's
Ever since Jacob Reckless was a child, he has been escaping to a hidden world through a portal in his father's abandoned study. Over the years, he has made a name for himself as a finder of enchanted items and buried secrets. He's also made many enemies and allies--most important, Fox, a beautiful shape-shifting vixen whom Jacob cares for more than he lets on.
But life in this other world is about to change. Tragedy strikes when Jacob's younger brother, Will, follows him through the portal. Brutally attacked, Will is infected with a curse that is quickly transforming him into a Goyl--a ruthless killing machine, with skin made of stone.
Jacob is prepared to fight to save his brother, but in a land built on trickery and lies, Jacob will need all the wit, courage, and reckless spirit he can summon to reverse the dark spell--before it's too late. 
The best thing about The Petrified Flesh, the first book in Funke's new trilogy Reckless, is that the fantasy world she creates is fascinating. A beautiful conglomeration of everything to be found in the Grimms' Fairytales, the world behind the mirror is full of magic, witches, fairies, elves, and whatever else you can think of. One of the big joys reading this book is stumbling upon another little Grimms' gem you had forgotten about until it reappeared in Funke's pages. With two of the main characters named after and modelled upon Jacob and Wilhelm Grimms, it should come as no surprise then that the novel consistently moves only within the Grimms' tales. No sad mermaids, no sadder matchstick girls and definitely no pine trees with high Christmas aspirations. However, Funke manages to weave all the different rather well. Although it can become a bit confusing at times, this is rather due to the wrongly paced plot, rather than the world itself. Which leads me to one of my main points of criticism for this novel.

Usually Funke's strength is her story-telling, the weaving together of different fascinating characters and storylines through beautiful prose. Although the beautiful prose still survives into the translation, there are parts of the novel that feel ill-timed. The beginning is too sudden, too quick, introducing a whole range of characters and creatures but not giving the reader enough time to get acquainted with either, let alone start caring for any of them. Although this does improve, it can make the first 70 or so pages of the book a bit of a test. What kept me going was an interest in the world, not any of the human main characters. Conversely, it was the Goyl who I found most interesting and I loved the chapters dedicated to them. What makes the odd pacing especially confusing is that The Petrified Flesh definitely seems to be meant for younger readers, between middle-grade and YA. The chapters are short and sweet, clearly plot-driven and there is little exposition. Each chapter is introduced by a pretty illustration but there is no sense of large world-building as in novels like The Lord of the Rings or even the Narnia chronicles, which, in my opinion, falls within the same reader group. Perhaps for younger readers the pace and motions of the plot will be just fine, but for me they felt off and I found it hard to connect with the novel initially.

No matter the criticism above, Funke completely rewarded my faith in her in this novel. The opening line of the book made me breathe a happy sigh:
'The night was breathing in the apartment like a dark animal.'
The prose in The Petrified Flesh is beautiful. Funke excels at descriptions and there are plenty of those in the novel. She worked on the novel together with Lionel Wigram, the film producer/genius who bought the rights to the Harry Potter books for Warner Bros.. Knowing this, there is definitely a sense in which The Petrified Flesh moves like a film rather than a book. Character development comes from spare moments, quick actions rather than any extended time spent with a character. A reader who approaches this book wanting to sink away into rich prose, world-building, character development and lore might therefore be disappointed. Not that these things don't appear in the novel, but they are there sparsely, woven together by a fragile plot. For younger readers, however, this is a great introduction to both fairy tales and fantasy fiction. Props should also go to translator Oliver Latsch. Although some of the phrasing is occasionally awkward, Funke's writing still comes through very well into English.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

Perhaps I was too old for this novel, since the pacing and depth of Reckless: The Petrified Flesh didn't work for me. However, I really appreciated the beauty of Funke's prose and the pleasurable dip back into Grimms' fairy tales. The one think Funke and Wigram have definitely achieved is making me desperate to reread them classics. I'd recommend this to fans of Middle Grade and YA Fantasy.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Review: 'A Wrinkle in Time' by Madeleine l'Engle

A Wrinkle in Time (A Wrinkle in Time Quintet, #1)I have finally done it! I've read one of the books from my 'Everyone seems to know these ones, why haven't I read them'-list! A Wrinkle in Time is the kind of book I have heard people wax nostalgic over, brought back straight to their childhood memories of reading late at night. What finally drew me to the novel was the curious mix between a female protagonist, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Children's Literature. For a novel that is over fourty years old that feels like quite an achievement. So I set to it, to sort of mixed results.

Original Pub. Date:1973
Publisher: Yearling Books
It was a dark and stormy night; Meg Murry, her small brother Charles Wallace, and her mother had come down to the kitchen for a midnight snack when they were upset by the arrival of a most disturbing stranger. 
"Wild nights are my glory," the unearthly stranger told them. "I just got caught in a downdraft and blown off course. Let me be on my way. Speaking of way, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract".
Meg's father had been experimenting with this fifth dimension of time travel when he mysteriously disappeared. Now the time has come for Meg, her friend Calvin, and Charles Wallace to rescue him. But can they outwit the forces of evil they will encounter on their heart-stopping journey through space?
Perhaps Meg Murry was the girl who started of the Awkward Teenage Girl trend in YA fiction, but if that is true than no author has ever rivalled L'Engle in actually describing what the mind of a teenager is like. From the beginning of the book Meg is struggling with wanting to fit in, but also wanting to be herself; comparing herself to others and always finding herself lacking; and having no one in the world who really seems to understand her, except her little brother. Meg's quick moves between anger and sadness and happiness are rather recognisable for anyone who remembers their teenage years, but L'Engle also gives them a context within which they make sense. There is no irrationality in how Meg is characterised, which is one of the joys of A Wrinkle in Time. She is a great heroine, one who is afraid, stubborn, angry, dedicated, loyal and above all, determined. She makes me wish I'd read this book when I was younger, so I could have appreciated her more.

At the heart of A Wrinkle in Time is the struggle between Good and Evil, which comes as no surprise when one finds out about L'Engle's Christianity. However, this conflict never feels like an excuse for L'Engle to become preachy but rather like simply an opportunity to discuss some crucial themes such as conformity and what we call 'the status-quo'. The Evil in L'Engle's galaxy takes the form of a darkness that dominates planets into absolute conformity. There is no room for individuality, creativity, spontaneity or difference, and wherever those things do appear they are punished. If one looks at the state of our own world now, how harsh some of our differences are punished and how much conformity is welcomed, A Wrinkle in Time still proves a timely read. Despite all its innocence, L'Engle's novel doesn't pull punches and especially for children it is an important message. The combination of the wild Meg, the insightful Charles Wallace and their trusty friend Calvin, through which we encounter all these themes makes them both delightful and interesting at the same time.

Madeleine L'Engle reminds me, in many ways, of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Their Christianity and their time informed their fantasy worlds, the morals and virtues that exist within, yet it never becomes entirely explicit. Lewis, out of these three, is the most opaque when it comes to his religion, his story lines clearly inspired, if not taken, from Christian lore. For L'Engle it is mainly the division between good and evil, light and darkness, and the idea of love as a guiding force which inspires her narrative. I do believe I am almost too old to have read this novel now. Although I can see its charm and the excitement of it, especially the Science Fiction elements of the novel, I have become used to more intricate plots, more detailed explanations and descriptions. However, the message at the heart of the novel still shines through the pages and captured my imagination. L'Engle creates some absolutely beautiful images which have made me want to keep reading the next novels in the Time Quintet series, of which this one is the first.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I can understand the fascination with A Wrinkle in Time now! Meg is a delight and L'Engle is a great writer. Both the Science Fiction and YA elements of the novel work well and, surprisingly, they work beautifully together. I'd recommend this to both SciFi and YA fans.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Review: 'Swing Time' by Zadie Smith

Swing TimeZadie Smith is an author who I've always wanted to read something by. Although On Beauty was been on my to read-list I have somehow never gotten to it. When I saw Swing Time on Netgalley, however, something about the cover and the blurb drew me in immediately. I loved the theme of dance running through the novel and it fits it beautifully! The novel is highly crafted and labour intense, yet seemingly effortless and mesmerising. Thanks to Netgalley and Penguin Books for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 15/11/2016
Publisher: Penguin Books; Hamish Hamilton

Two brown girls dream of being dancers--but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, about what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It's a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.
Dazzlingly energetic and deeply human, Swing Time is a story about friendship and music and stubborn roots, about how we are shaped by these things and how we can survive them. Moving from northwest London to West Africa, it is an exuberant dance to the music of time.
Swing Time is so much more than a story of two friends growing apart. In less than 500 pages Smith combines a whole variety of themes, narratives and voices which makes reading Swing Time an incredibly rich experience. Smith tells her story across time, the unnamed female narrator moving between her childhood, her teen years, her current life and the more recent past haphazardly. In any other writer's hand this may have been extremely confusing yet in Smith's hands this looseness with time elevates the story. Our narrator finds connection points, almost accidentally, all through her life between her past, present and future, which transform her life and the novel into a living, breathing creature. There are no clear cut 'and then's, no strict division of where one story starts and the other ends. Smith's characters live, continuously present but not always at the surface. As Smith brings different themes to the forefront, so some characters make a reappearance front centre stage in the narrator's life. With dance at the heart of Swing Time, it should come as no surprise that the novel moves fluidly and fascinatingly, a show perfectly timed and yet coming across beautifully spontaneous.

At the heart of this novel are two brown girls, half white and half black, and their struggle with their place in the world, their heritage, their history, their immediate surroundings and whatever life throws at them in fascinating. I myself am from two countries, yet Germany and the Netherlands share a lot of culture and history so there never was a sense in which I felt there were two separate parts of me. For the narrator, however, there is a sense in which she feels constantly "in between". Smith brings this conflict to the forefront in a number of great scenes in which the reader is led to question their own thoughts regarding race and heritage. The novel's story leads the narrator to West Africa where she has to confront a lot of her own thoughts. Smith doesn't force this issue down either the reader's or her narrator's throat, but rather lets both strive towards finding their own answers to the questions she presents. Aside from race, Smith also highlights the issues of class which affect a life just as much. Where you're born, into which city, neighbourhood, street, compound, what your parents do, what your grandparents did, if they're educated or working class, all of this has an effect on your own life and I have never seen this written about quite as well as Smith does in Swing Time. As the novel moves to West Africa religion also enters the novel and, without spoiling anything, it adds a whole other level to novel.

Smith's writing in Swing Time works perfectly for the novel's story. As said above, the non-chronological story-telling really uplifts the novel and I really enjoyed it. Smith is able to tell the story of a full woman's life, the different influences that play a role in our decisions, the memories and events that have an impact throughout our lives. With the cast she creates Smith really is able to tell multiple women's stories, without judgement, mostly, and with a lot of understanding. Another aspect of this book is the first person narration, which can be hit and miss. Too many authors rely on it to make their characters sympathetic, as if being stuck in their head automatically makes a reader like them. Some authors, however, manage to use first person narration to create a "real" character, showing all the good and all the bad, the conflicts and the victories. By the end of Swing Time I felt like I knew Smith's main character, in a way I haven't with a lot of other books.

I give this book...

5 Universes!

I absolutely loved Swing Time. A dance really is the best metaphor for it, since you're watching the show from your own comfy seat but can't help become fascinated by the movements, the story and the drama. Smith brings a lot to this novel and asks a lot of very interesting questions. I'd recommend this novel to fans of Literary Fiction and Women's Writing.