Saturday, 7 April 2018

Review: 'A State of Freedom' by Neel Mukherjee

I read Neel Mukherjee's The Lives of Others back in 2014, and when I saw his name pop up on Netgalley I remembered how much I had enjoyed his writing style as well as his sharp observations of human behavior. But still I wasn't prepared for the beauty and heartbreak that awaited me in A State of Freedom. Thanks to Chatto & Windus and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 06/06/2017
Publisher: Random House UK, Vintage; Chatto & Windus

What happens when we attempt to exchange the life we are given for something better? Can we transform the possibilities we are born into? 
A State of Freedom prises open the central, defining events of our century – displacement and migration – but not as you imagine them. Five characters, in very different circumstances, from a domestic cook in Mumbai, to a vagrant and his dancing bear, and a girl who escapes terror in her home village for a new life in the city, find out the meanings of dislocation, and the desire for more. 
Set in contemporary India and moving between the reality of this world and the shadow of another, this novel of multiple narratives – formally daring, fierce but full of pity – delivers a devastating and haunting exploration of the unquenchable human urge to strive for a different life.
At first glance the five stories in A State of Freedom seem to have been put together at random, sharing nothing except all being placed in India. However, as one works his way through each story, comes to care for or puzzle at each character, one starts to see how all of their stories are interlinked, how  one's actions affect the other, how each character's struggle is in a way representative of the other's struggle as well. The novel is prefaced by a quote from a Syrian refugee at the border of Austria, August 2015:
'Migrants? We are not migrants! We are ghosts, what's what we are, ghosts.'
Throughout the stories in A State of Freedom Mukherjee explores the stories of people who seem like ghosts, who live on the periphery, who can look in but not partake, or who are desperately struggling for a freedom they can't quite explain. If you could ask these characters what it is they want, I dont know if they'd be able to tell you. But they burn with a desire to live fully, to be completely, to take up space and be recognised. Not all characters in A State of Freedom are pleasant, but in each you can't help but recognise that spark of desire for freedom. And it is what makes these characters so recognisable and heartbreaking in the end.

Mukherjee tells five different stories in A State of Freedom, each strangely linked to the others and yet wholly independent. In the first story a father takes his son on a trip back to India from America, only to feel continuously haunted by his own weakening connection to his homeland and his son's seeming non-interest. In the second story a young man visits his parents in India while working on a cook book and gets to know the family's cook, a woman who works quietly and hard, with a whole story just waiting to be told. Class, pride, generational differences, it all comes to the surface in this story. The third story is perhaps the most difficult in A State of Freedom, in that its protagonist is not exactly likeable and yet you can't despise him. He finds a bear cub and hopes that by viciously training it he will be able to win both an emotional as well as financial freedom. In the fourth story we follow a woman from childhood to adulthood as she is moved around to work as a maid here or there, stripped of independence until she manages to claw as much of it back as she can. Interspersed with her story is that of her childhood friend who joined a Communist militant group in the hopes to change something, do something. The fifth and last story is perhaps the most heartbreaking, told without punctuation in a rambling stream of consciousness style. In this final story the follow a man who moved to the city to earn money for his family as his mind wanders, lost. This story is close to painful to read in its hopelessness and tragedy.

I have tried to describe the stories in A State of Freedom above as clearly yet non-spoilery as is possible, yet I don't know if I'll be able to find the words to explain just how heartbreaking some of them are. Mukherjee doesn't spare his readers and forces them to look upon his characters, his country, as clearly as he does. With unflinching but beautiful prose, Mukherjee describes the wonder of India's nature, the sumptuousness of its food, the harshness of its poverty, the brutality of its division between rich and poor, the pride and resilience of its people. In a way A State of Freedom is an ode to freedom, an encouraging cry to all of us who struggle day by day to reach some kind of state of freedom. And yet it is also a harsh reminder of just how far many of us are removed from finding that freedom, from being free in any sense of the word, from worry, financial burden, shame, oppression. A State of Freedom isn't a fun read, but it is one that will leave a beautiful ache once it's finished.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

There were times this collection made me want to cry, but there were also times when it filled me with hope. Mukherjee's five stories are horribly beautiful and stunningly sad, and I wholeheartedly recommend you read them. A State of Freedom will stick with me for a very long time.

Review: 'The Immortalists' by Chloe Benjamin

I think I recently came to accept that, one way or another, all books are about humanity's struggle with  both life and death. How do we live happily? How do we die peacefully? Why do we live? Why do we die? I appreciate that this is hardly groundbreaking, but I'm still fascinated by the many different stories we are capable of writing as a species in the search for answers, or at least a path that might lead to an answer. The search spreads across genres, centuries and cultures, and I love it. The Immortalists was the latest read I picked up that was searching, and I adored it. Thanks to Headline and  Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 08/03/2018
Publisher: Headline; Tinder Press

It's 1969, and holed up in a grimy tenement building in New York's Lower East Side is a travelling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the date they will die. The four Gold children, too young for what they're about to hear, sneak out to learn their fortunes. 
Such prophecies could be dismissed as trickery and nonsense, yet the Golds bury theirs deep. Over the years that follow they attempt to ignore, embrace, cheat and defy the 'knowledge' given to them that day - but it will shape the course of their lives forever.

What would you do if you knew the exact day you were going to die? This question has been asked by many a teenager during a half casual. half philosophical conversation with friends, and is usually followed by the equally deep 'If you had to choose between fighting a horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses, what would it be?'. But just because it's something everyone has thought about at least once doesn't mean that it isn't worth revisiting. The question of death is also, in many ways, a question about life. If you knew you had 20 years left, how would you spend them? Suddenly you're thinking about family, love, work, happiness, loss, everything that makes a life feel lived. There is no one template for a happy and fulfilled life, but the same is true for an unhappy life. Many novels have explored both the happy and unhappy among us, judged characters for their sins and praised them for their virtues, cried over their misfortunes and rejoiced with them in their victories. Since neither novelists or readers can stop pondering over what makes life and what makes death, we continue to receive novel upon novel exploring, or trying to, the full human experience. The reason I love reading these kinds of books is because in every character I read about I find something reflected that I recognise, about myself, about a friend, a family member. These kinds of novels, at least for me, enrich me experience of life.


In The Immortalists Chloe Benjamin takes an interesting approach to telling the stories of the four Gold children. Initially, in the beginning of the book during their childhood, the novel switches between their narratives, but once adulthood, or rather teenagehood for some, kicks in, Benjamin neatly divides her book into four sections, all narrated by a different sibling, one story following the other. At first I wanted more back and forth, see how the different sibling were coping at the same time with the same events, but there is something ingenious about this split because it echoes the separation of the Gold siblings as they grow up. Not only are most of them physically removed from each other, there is also a mental block between them that means each of them lives their life at a slight remove from the others. It's heartbreaking, but it also allows the reader to really focus on one sibling at a time. The Gold siblings go down very different routes in their lives and so every narrative is filled with both joy and crushing sadness. Benjamin addresses animal testing, HIV, alcoholism, mental health and so much more in The Immortalists but it never feels exploitative. Rather these are things her characters have to deal with, have to confront in one way or another. Throughout the novel there is one thing that stays standing, for better or for worse, a constant presence in all her characters' lives and that is family.

It took me a while to get into The Immortalists. I didn't know what to expect. Would this book gives us something supernatural, would Benjamin infuse the lives of the Golds with Magical Realism? The answer to both of those questions is no. And yet I found myself consistently fascinated by the different roads Benjamin travelled in her novel.Throughout The Immortalists Benjamin sticks largely to the real, the tangible, the felt realities of life. Yet especially in the chapters dedicated to Klara, she allows the magic of faith and belief to shine through. There are some stunning moments in this novel of pure sadness and love that feel magical in their own way. The Immortalists isn't a happy book per se, but each of her characters' lives is described with such gentle honesty by Benjamin that you can't help but get sucked in. Benjamin doesn't shy away from revealing the darker side of her characters, and this can definitely take some readers by surprise, but by following them down the rabbit hole she can also show us the moments of joy and beauty that occur in every life. Despite all its tragedy, The Immortalists is also a love letter for its own kind to the beauty of a human life.

I give this novel...


4 Universes!

I took my time with The Immortalists but every time I put it down I found myself thinking about it, curious where it would go, what would happen if I kept reading. And so I kept returning to Benjamin's characters. It's a thoughtful book, one that will make you both sad and quietly joyous at the same time. I'd definitely recommend this to fans of Literary and even Philosophical Fiction.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Short Review: 'Herding Cats' by Sarah Andersen

Sarah Andersen was one of the first artists I discovered online and then followed into print. Now that I have a black cat myself as well her art continues to be both uproariously funny as well as surprisingly relevant. I am now used to realising that I am describing one of her comics to a friend, desperately trying to explain why the picture of her in the fur coat throwing money around in a bookstore is, like, me. So of course I had to pick up Andersen's newest book as well! I need new material, my friends are getting bored! Thanks to Andrew McMeel's Publishing and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 27/03/2018
Publisher: Andrew McMeel's Publishing
Sarah's Scribbles,  Goodreads Choice Award for 2016:  Best Graphic Novels & Comics
". . . author Sarah Andersen uses hilarious (and adorable) comics to illustrate the very specific growing pains that occur on your way to becoming a mature, put-together grownup. Andersen’s spot-on illustrations also show how to navigate this newfound adulthood once you arrive, since maturity is equally as hard to maintain as it is to find … "--The Huffington Post 
Sarah valiantly struggles with waking up in the morning, being productive, and dealing with social situations. Sarah's Scribbles is the comic strip that follows her life, finding humor in living as an adulting introvert that is at times weird, awkward, and embarrassing. 
I rewrote this initial paragraph about 5 times just to stop myself from doing what I threatened above: describing funny comics and thereby stopping them from being funny. So rather I'd just like to summarise all the different things Andersen still manages to encapsulate in her art:

  • Milenial existential dread
  • The importance of love and support between friends
  • Cat shapes
  • The pleasure of being comfortable with yourself
  • That sad music is the best music
  • The horror that are periods
  • AND SO MUCH MORE!!
I literally love Sarah Andersen's art, there is not a single comic in this book I somehow couldn't relate to or didn't find funny.


Something I really enjoyed about Herding Cats were the last 30 or so pages on Andersen's creative process, called 'Making Stuff in the Modern Era: A Guide for the Young Creative and 'Part Two: Artist Survival''. In it Andersen talks about the double-edged sword that is the Internet for an artist, but also for everyone else if we're being honest. Anyone who puts their own content online has to prepare themselves for being shut down at best and straight up harrassed at worst. One of the reasons why I love the book blogging community so much is because I feel like we're all quite chill and supportive, but it's rough out there on the Internet sometimes. So how do you cope with that as a budding artist? Andersen talks about how to deal with art blocks, criticism, and the importance of taking a break and then getting right back to work.

I give this book..

5 Universes!

What can I say, I love myself some good art. Just like the previous instalments of Sarah's Scribbles, Herding Cats is full of great comics and good advice to any aspiring artists. Now all I need is a house with a coffee table so I can proudly display Herding Cats there.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Review: 'Children of Blood and Bone' by Tomi Adeyemi

I adore Fantasy books. I love sinking away into different, magical worlds full of surrprises and marvels. My specialisation at University in Medieval Literature was in large part due to just how many of my favourite novels were based on medieval texts and events. But I found myself getting just a little bored, if you can believe such a thing! While medieval Europe has a wealth of stories to tell, I was desperately looking for a Fantasy book that used something else as its inspiration, that would surprise me and teach me. Children of Blood and Bone was that book for me. Thanks to Macmillan Children's Books and Nethalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange

Pub. Date: 08/03/2018
Publisher: Pan Macmillan; Macmillan Children's Books

They killed my mother. They took our magic. They tried to bury us. NOW WE RISE. 
Zélie remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. When different clans ruled - Burners igniting flames, Tiders beckoning waves, and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoning forth souls. But everything changed the night magic disappeared. 
Under the orders of a ruthless king, anyone with powers was targeted and killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope. Only a few people remain with the power to use magic, and they must remain hidden. Zélie is one such person. Now she has a chance to bring back magic to her people and strike against the monarchy. 
With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must learn to harness her powers and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good. Danger lurks in Orïsha, where strange creatures prowl, and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to come to terms with the strength of her magic - and her growing feelings for an enemy.
As I said above, no matter how much you love a genre, you still want it to surprise you. Part of why I get so tired of some Fantasy  novels is because they do exactly what has been done before. They see Tolkien and think 'I should also write novels set in a mythological Europe and draw my inspiration from Anglo-Saxon/Norse sources and it will be great', only they forget it isn't as easy as TOlkien made it seem. So when I saw Children of Bloog and Bone I got very excited because here was a Fantasy novel that went down a different path, that would introduce me to a different kind of world, a different kind of language and culture. In and of itself, that makes Adeyemi's novel incredibly brave and fascinating.

Inspired by West-Africa. stories and history, takes some of Fantasy and YA's most used tropes and does something new and interesting with them. We have Zélie, a girl with the power of magic in her blood, just waiting to be awakened. She is stubborn and passionate, but also deeply marked by her day to day experience. And this is why I continue to think of Children of Blood and Bone as brave. Because Adeyemi doesn't shy away from the dark side of her world, of our world. Children of Blood and Bone is full of racially-charged violence, both physical and emotional. Zélie is not just an outsider, she is looked down upon, a second class citizen, marked and shamed, constantly afraid and full of anger. She is one hell of a character to write and, especially considering this novel is meant for younger readers, Adeyemi does a brilliant job at showing to constant battle within Zélie. She is surrounded by other fascinating characters that follow the genre's conventions while not doing so at all. Amari is a princess, but also a rebel. She is a scared sister and a fierce friend. She goes through some of the most interesting development out of all the characters, in my opinion. There is also her brother Inan, who  is consistently torn between different sides. He is a truly tragic character and that is what I enjoyed about him.

Tomy Adeyemi's writing is beautifully descriptive and full of power. The way she describes different settings, whether its towns, temples or nature, is incredibly vivid and full of colour and life. I really loved the phrases of Yoruba she incorporated into her novel, as well as the fact she doesn't always translate them. If Tolkien could make up a language and not provide a translation, then Adeyemi can most definitely do the same with an existing language! Her prose is largely straightforward, which really serves to highlight the beauty of her descriptions and also works well for the plot, which moves at a nice pace. At times I felt the novel moved a little bit too quickly, or didn't linger where I expected it to, but then Adeyemi will give you everything you could want at other moments. The one thing she will also give you? One hell of a cliffhanger... I have no idea how I'll make it to the release of the second book in the Legacy of Orïsha series, which apparently isn't till 2019. Guess I'll gear up for a reread then!

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

Children of Blood and Bone is a breath of fresh air, full of beautiful imagery and hard-hitting representations of racism. The fact Adeyemi brings these two things together so seamlessly and doesn't let her plot break down under the weight of the latter is incredible. I'd recommend this to anyone interested in Fantasy and West African mythology.

Review: 'Starlings' by Jo Walton

It is no secret that I love short stories. They are so hard to write, but are beautiful to read. There is something brilliant about how authors manage to create a whole world, complete characters and stunning story in just a few pages. So when I saw Starlings I wanted to read it straight away. I had heart of Jo Walton before but actually hadn't read anything by her yet. Knowing she writes Science Fiction and then seeing the mention of legends in the below blurb, I had a feeling that I would love Starlings. And guess what, I did! Thanks to Tachyon Publications and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 23/02/2018
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
“Exquisitely written feats of imagination, each one leaving an impression long after it’s done.”Kelley Armstrong, author of Bitten and Rituals 
In her first collection, award-winning novelist Jo Walton (Among OthersThe King’s PeaceNecessity) delivers both subtle legends and reinvented realities. An ancient coin cyber-spies on lovers and thieves. The magic mirror sees all but can do nothing. A cloned savior solves a fanatically-inspired murder. Three Irish siblings thieve treasures with bad poetry and the aid of the Queen of Cats.
Starlings starts of with an eponymous poem, which immediately became one of my favourite things about this collection of work. Also at the beginning of Starlings is Walton's introduction in which she prepares the reader for what is to come. She explains how the stories that are about to come are partially experimentation, efforts on her side to try something new, to understand how short stories work, or how to write a play. For some perhaps this might lessen their enthusiasm but it actually heightened mine. I love seeing the process, the work, that authors put into creating their work. It's part of why I love Tolkien so much, because you can trace all the work he did over the years to build his work. And in the same vein Jo Walton now shows us her work. Here is a short story that was really a poem. Here is a joke that became a short story. Each story is followed by a few lines from Walton explaining how it came into being, how it started, what happened to it, how she feels about it. In a way reading Starlings made me feel very close to Walton and I admire her bravery in revealing her process to us, showing us the different puzzle pieces and how they came together.

There are too many stories and poems in Starlings to go through all of them so I'm just going to tell you about some of my favourite ones. 'A Burden Shared' is a brilliant look at a future in which you can share your physical pain with others. The story is scary, sad and sweet all at once. 'On the Wall' was a great take on the Magic Mirror in Snow White, 'Three Twilight Tales' a beautiful triple story that constantly surprised me. 'Jane Austen to Cassandra' was not at all what I expected but I loved it. 'Out of It' was another story that took a classic as a jump off point and then ran with it. I really loved those stories in Starlings. Perhaps my utter favourite in Starlings was actually a short play, 'Three Shouts on a Hill', a loving and satirical take on Irish legends, poetry, and mythology itself. I loved how it went a little meta towards the end and I also thought it was just really funny. I would pay to see this, actually... When it comes to the poems my favourite was definitely 'Hades and Persephone' because that's just the kind of person I am. It was also a great poem.

Walton is an award-winning novelist, so she really doesn't need me commenting on her writing style. But I'm going to anyway. I really enjoyed how surprising each story was. By being open in the introduction about the fact she was experimenting with these stories, I went into Starlings not knowing what to expect and being excited about that. Almost every story felt like a thought exercise, especially when you could see Walton had been inspired by something and had decided to take it one step further, to see how far she could push a certain thought or idea. I enjoyed all the different directions that Starlings went to, whether it was into space, into the mind of a computer, heaven, or the future. Also, if something perhaps didn't entirely work, then Jo Walton is the first to admit it and suggest why. For an established author to take risks like these is really interesting and as an aspiring author myself I actually found it really inspiring. I will definitely be rereading Starlings in the future, even if only for the sheer fun of some of her stories.

I give this collection...

4 Universes!

I adored Starlings and pretty much raced through the different stories! Jo Walton takes risks with her stories and imagery and it really pays off. I loved being surprised by every story, wondering what was going to happen next etc. Whether you've already read her novels or are new to Walton like me, definitely check out Starlings!

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Short Review: 'Scarlet A: The Ethics, Law & Politics of Ordinary Abortion ' by Katie Watson

Abortion is a difficult topic to tackle. Everyone has an opinion, and almost everyone also feels very strongly about those opinions. I myself have always been a big proponent of women being allowed to make the choice that is right for them, which means that the government needs to make sure that healthy and safe options are available. But even though I have read other books about abortion before, Scarlet A offered a lot of new insights and was very well written. Thanks to Oxford University Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 01/02/2018
Publisher: Oxford University Press

Although Roe v. Wade identified abortion as a constitutional right 45 years ago, it still bears stigma--a proverbial scarlet A. Millions of Americans have participated in or benefited from an abortion, but few want to reveal that they have done so. Approximately one in five pregnancies in the US ends in abortion. Why is something so common, which has been legal so long, still a source of shame and secrecy? Why is it so regularly debated by politicians, and so seldom divulged from friend to friend? This book explores the personal stigma that prevents many from sharing their abortion experiences with friends and family in private conversation, and the structural stigma that keeps it that way. 
In public discussion, both proponents and opponents of abortion's legality tend to focus on extraordinary cases. This tendency keeps the national debate polarized and contentious, and keeps our focus on the cases that occur the least. Professor Katie Watson focuses instead on the cases that happen the most, which she calls "ordinary abortion." Scarlet A gives the reflective reader a more accurate impression of what the majority of American abortion practice really looks like. It explains how our silence around private experience has distorted public opinion, and how including both ordinary abortion and abortion ethics could make our public exchanges more fruitful.
In Scarlet A, Watson wisely and respectfully navigates one of the most divisive topics in contemporary life. This book explains the law of abortion, challenges the toxic politics that make it a public football and private secret, offers tools for more productive private exchanges, and leads the way to a more robust public discussion of abortion ethics. Scarlet A combines storytelling and statistics to bring the story of ordinary abortion out of the shadows, painting a rich, rarely seen picture of how patients and doctors currently think and act, and ultimately inviting readers to tell their own stories and draw their own conclusions.
Key to Scarlet A is what Katie Watson refers to as 'ordinary abortion'. Initially I was confused as to what she was referring to, but once I got it I understood just how important it is to discuss. Watson is right when she says that most conversations around abortion are about those extraordinary cases such as rape, incest, or immediate danger to the well being of the mother and/or child. I myself have never had an abortion, but know friends who have, and not for the reasons mentioned just now. These are the ordinary abortions that Watson discusses in Scarlet A, the abortions that are done because the women aren't ready to be parents, or because they know they don't have the money for a child, or because they simply don't want children and made a mistake. These types of abortions make up the majority of abortion cases, yet they are also the ones that aren't discussed openly and that come with a lot of shame. It is incredibly important that books like Scarlet A address the experiences of these women, especially when they do it as well as Watson does.

Watson accomplishes something almost miraculous with Scarlet A, which is making the abortion debate accessible and, as far as possible, understandable. As an academic, she makes sure to either explain her jargon or to avoid it as much as possible. She shares her own interest and thoughts throughout the book, without influencing her readers, which makes Scarlet A feel more personable than many other books out there. She includes to stories of many different women, and men, about their experiences with abortion, the shame they felt, or that they didn't feel, the anger they faced, the support they received, how their thoughts have evolved since the abortion. Scarlet A also looks into the different Supreme Court cases since Roe vs. Wade that addressed abortion, discusses the terms used in the abortion debate, and much more. I walked away from Scarlet A with a lot more information than I had before, but also with a new perspective on a number of related issues.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

Katie Watson manages to make Scarlet A an incredibly accessible book, opening up a debate that is famously tricky and full of loopholes. I'd recommend that everyone interested in knowing more about abortions, about the stories of people who have gone through one, about the politics and the ethics around the debate, read Scarlet A.

Review: 'The Lonely Hearts Hotel' by Heather O'Neill


Every once in a while you read a book that surprises you at every corner. I wanted to read The Lonely Hearts Hotel from the moment I read the blurb with its promises of fairytales, a circus, love, loss and the Depression, all mixed together. I wondered how Heather O'Neill would bring it all together into one coherent novel, if that was even possible, but I can tell you now that she succeeded! Thanks to Quercus Books and Netgalley for providing a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 23/02/2018
Publisher: Quercus Books
'A fairytale laced with gunpowder' Kelly Link  
The Lonely Hearts Hotel is a love story with a difference. Set throughout the roaring twenties, it is a wicked fairytale of circus tricks and child prodigies, radical chorus girls, drug-addicted musicians and brooding clowns, set in an underworld whose economy hinges on the price of a kiss.  
It is the tale of two dreamers, abandoned in an orphanage where they were fated to meet. Here, in the face of cold, hunger and unpredictable beatings, Rose and Pierrot create a world of their own, shielding the spark of their curiosity from those whose jealousy will eventually tear them apart.  
When they meet again, each will have changed, having struggled through the Depression, through what they have done to fill the absence of the other. But their childhood vision remains - a dream to storm the world, a spectacle, an extravaganza that will lift them out of the gutter and onto a glittering stage.  
Heather O'Neill's pyrotechnical imagination and language are like no other. In this she has crafted a dazzling circus of a novel that takes us from the underbellies of war-time Montreal and Prohibition New York, to a theatre of magic where anything is possible - where an orphan girl can rule the world, and a ruined innocence can be redeemed.

Aaah Magical Realism. Nothing is more fantastical and true than Magical Realism in my mind. Real life is full of of little, magical moments that seem to come straight from a novel. And the beauty of Magical Realism is that the genre's novels celebrate those small moments, it allows the outrageous to be normal and the normal to be magical. Think of  a movie like Pan's Labyrinth, which doesn't hide the horror of this world, but also doesn't let its darkness overshadow the beauty and innocence of childhood and the world. In The Lonely Hearts Hotel O'Neill lets that beauty shine, while also writing about the Depression, depression itself, heartache, abuse, drugs and violence. Although all these things are addressed, The Lonely Hearts Hotel never feels entirely sad or hopeless. Rather O'Neill manages to celebrate the perseverance and beauty of humanity exactly by showing us its lows as well as its highs. Above all, however, the novel is an ode to the imagination and to love.

At the heart of The Lonely Hearts Hotel are Rose and Pierrot. two orphans who meet at an orphanage and brighten their fellow orphans' days with their tricks. Both seemed touched by a fantastical innocence that allows them to wholeheartedly believe in their dreams and hopes, no matter how cold and harsh the world outside themselves really is. Throughout their story there is a sense of fate and doom, as the two are constantly torn apart and almost brought back together as they try to survive in Depression-era Montreal. The novel moves effortlessly between their two narratives, showing us how both mature in the lifepaths set out for them. Whereas Pierrot moves violently from dazzling heights to harrowing lows, Rose lives with a steady, determined belief in her dream of a circus, of freedom, of love. At times O'Neill is very explicit, whether it's about her characters' sexual exploits or their descents into drug use. For some readers this might be a little off-putting, but I loved how honestly O'Neill describes her characters. She doesn't sugarcoat their actions, doesn't hide their madness or the depths to which they sink. But by showing us the lows, the highs are all the more spectacular.

Heather O'Neill's writing is brilliant. I hadn't read her previous books or heard of her, but the magic promised by The Lonely Hearts Hotel captivated me immediately. From the first page, O'Neill delivered on the promise made by the blurb. Not only were the characters she created incredibly interesting, but the way she described them was both loving and honest, which means the reader couldn't help but love them in return. One of the main things I adored about The Lonely Hearts Hotel was how O'Neill set her scenes. Whether it's the orphanage, a hotel, Montreal in winter, New York, a circus act, a casino. O'Neill describes it all in beautiful detail, to the point where I could close my eye at any point during the novel and picture exactly what was going on. The Lonely Hearts Hotel feels like a film noir, one of those classic movies that takes you away for a while, let's you escape and indulge yourself in beautiful language and outrageous characters. I can't wait to dig into Heather O'Neill's other books to get another dose of her writing!

I give this novel...
4 Universes!

The Lonely Hearts Hotel is an outrageously, dangerously beautiful book! Stunningly written by Heather O'Neill, this novel will take you to the most unexpected places and the most dizzying heights. At times the novel's themes are very dark and that may not be for everyone, yet I would encourage all readers to give The Lonely Hearts Hotel a try. You won't regret it!


Sunday, 25 February 2018

Review: 'The Song of Seven' by Tonke Dragt, trans. Laura Watkinson


We all have those books that are intrinsically linked to our ideas and memories of childhood and family. They are the books passed down by parents, the books that are read to you when you’re young, the books that have become inside jokes. Most of those books for me are either Dutch or German and have literally been passed down to me by my father and mother. One of these is De Zevensprong, a delightful  adventure about storytelling, reading, hidden treasures and friendship. So when adult me saw an English translation of that childhood favourite, I knew I had to get my hands on it and see if that innocent magic would retain its power not only in another language but also on another, older, me. Thanks to Pushkin Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 06/02/2018
Publisher: Pushkin Press
An exciting new stand-alone adventure by the internationally bestselling author of The Letter for the King.
Seven paths, seven unlikely friends, and one extraordinary adventure featuring magicians, secret passages, conspiracies, hidden treasures, a black cat with green eyes and a sealed parchment which predicts the future.At the end of every schoolday, new teacher Mr Van der Steg entertains his pupils with tall tales of incredible events, which he claims really happened to him - involving hungry lions and haunted castles, shipwrecks and desert islands. One day, when he can't think of anything suitably exciting to tell them, he invents a story about a very important letter which he's expecting that evening, with news of a perilous mission. Evening arrives and so, to his surprise, does an enigmatic letter...
And so Mr Van der Steg is drawn into a real-life adventure, featuring a grumpy coachman, a sinister uncle, eccentric ancestors, a hidden treasure, an ancient prophecy and Geert-Jan, a young boy who is being kept prisoner in the mysterious House of Stairs.

So, De Zevensprong, or The Song of Seven, was a major part of my childhood. Some of my favourite memories are of my father reading the book to me when I was young, or Skyping home while at University only to realize my family is binge-watching a Dutch TV adaptation of the book. When a novel is that close to your heart it becomes close to impossible to be objective about it. The same counts for the Harry Potter books, for example. I will defend those books to the death, simply because they have become a part of me and my history. The Song of Seven is special, in a way, because it deals in and of itself with story telling as well. Mr. Van der Steg, a relatively new teacher, entertains his students by telling them wild tales of distant and imagined lands. The children adore the adventure, while he is able to keep them quiet and engaged. All is well, until a new story begins and it comes to life. Stories are no longer a distant thing, suddenly there is danger around the corner and people aren’t who they say they are. What always added to this novel’s magic for me was that it felt so true to the gentle magic of the Eastern provinces of the Netherlands, where folk tales and legends lurk behind every corner and all names and rhymes have meaning and power.

The Song of Seven is a children’s book, but one of those that has something to offer to readers from all ages. At the centre of the novel is teacher Frans Van der Steg, who is still relatively new to his surroundings and his students. Van der Steg is the guiding thread through the novel, desperately wanting to know just what is going on, while trying to live up to the brave heroes of his own tales.  One day, he tells his students he is waiting for a terribly important letter since he can’t think of any stories to tell. Lo and behold, a letter does arrive for him, setting him and his school children on a path of adventure and mystery. The reader is as fresh and unaware as Van der Steg, which means that each of his discoveries and confusions are shared by the reader. Although the novel starts very calmly, the plot really picks up speed about a third into the book and it becomes almost impossible to put down. Tonke Dragt put everything you might want from an adventure story into this book, and yet it never feels to full or unfocused. The mysterious prophecy and confusing Sevenways don’t distract from the importance of friendship and love for adventure that the novel tries to instill.

Tonke Dragt is, rightfully, celebrated in the Netherlands. Her fiction has enriched countless of childhoods with her stories of adventure. Her writing style is straightforward and spare on big words, perfect for the younger readers, and yet, without any fancy frills, Dragt is immensely good at creating atmosphere. Whether it’s the House of Stairs or a rambunctious school class, she describes everything in such a way that you don’t even have to close your eyes to see it. She also doesn’t underestimate her readers, and there are many points in the book that remain mysterious. Dragt retains that sense of magic and legend by not spelling everything out perfectly, nor by giving a reason for everything. Some things just are, and The Song of Seven almost feels like a snapshot, capturing the potential for many more stories to come. De Sevensprong is beautifully translated by Laura Watkinson, who captures the easy flow with which Dragt writes her books, as well as the charming quirks of her characters. I was very happy to see that all the Dutch names were retained, rather than changed, even if they might take some getting used to for English readers. The Song of Seven is the perfect book for adventurous young readers and their parents.

I give this novel…
 
5 Universes!

I adored The Song of Seven. It is that simple. In a sense, Tonke Dragt’s books are part of the reason why I have always held the secret ambition to become a writer. Her novels are heartwarming and inspiring, and I’m incredibly happy that her stories will now be available to even more readers.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Review: 'A Burst of Light: and Other Essays' by Audre Lorde


For me reading is not just about enjoyment, but also about improving myself. Some books combine those two aspects, and one of those books is A Burst of Light. A collection of essays and journal entries written by Audre Lorde, this book has a lot to offer to any reader curious about both Lorde and her experiences. It is also an incredibly touching read at times, showing just why Lorde became as influential as she did. Thanks to Dover Publications, Ixia Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 13/09/2017
Publisher: Dover Publications; Ixia Press
"Lorde's words — on race, cancer, intersectionality, parenthood, injustice — burn with relevance 25 years after her death." — O, The Oprah Magazine
Winner of the 1988 Before Columbus Foundation National Book Award, this path-breaking collection of essays is a clarion call to build communities that nurture our spirit. Lorde announces the need for a radical politics of intersectionality while struggling to maintain her own faith as she wages a battle against liver cancer. From reflections on her struggle with the disease to thoughts on lesbian sexuality and African-American identity in a straight white man's world, Lorde's voice remains enduringly relevant in today's political landscape. 
Those who practice and encourage social justice activism frequently quote her exhortation, "Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare." In addition to the journal entries of "A Burst of Light: Living with Cancer," this edition includes an interview, "Sadomasochism: Not About Condemnation," and three essays, "I Am Your Sister: Black Women Organizing Across Sexualities," "Apartheid U.S.A.," and "Turning the Beat Around: Lesbian Parenting 1986," as well as a new Foreword by Sonia Sanchez.
"You don't read Audre Lorde, you feel her." — Essence
The title for this collection of essays is from Audre Lorde’s poem ‘Never To Dream of Spiders’, of which ‘a burst of light’ is the last line. This has always been one of my favourite poems by Lorde, despite the fact it partially makes me sad. I always feel like there is a sense of foreboding doom, of misery and death there. And yet the poem also holds beautiful memories of love and togetherness and a sense of perseverance and strength. The reason I want to explain my thought on the poem is because I think they reflect on A Burst of Light itself as well. The poem’s ‘condemnation within my blood’ refers to Lorde’s battle with cancer, which plays a big role in the essays in this book. However, Lorde’s life was also one marked both by struggle as well as achievement, condemnation and recognition, rejection and acceptance.

Her whole life Audre Lorde fought, and the essays collected in A Burst of Light are a testimony to that. ‘Sadomasocism: Not About Condemnation’ shows Lorde addressing female sexuality, as well as the power play between the sexes both within and without the bedroom. In ‘I Am Your Sister: Black Women Organizing Across Sexualities’ she discusses her identity as both a black woman and a lesbian and the conflict between those two identities. ‘Apartheid U.S.A’ shows both Lorde’s deep care for women and oppressed people around the world as well as the anger that kept her going. Her comparisons between her America and the South African Apartheid regime she sees on the TV are sharp but true. In ‘Turning the Beat Around: Lesbian Parenting 1986’ she discusses the pitfalls of parenting, especially those that appear in your way if society looks sideways at you. The largest part of A Burst of Light is made up of the eponymous ‘A Burst of Light: Living with Cancer’. This is truly where I started understanding the drive that helped Lorde to write and fight so. Her desire to own her own body and to be herself, to be able to live and love freely, it all comes out in these journal entries as we follow Lorde from her diagnosis through different treatments and different moods.

Lorde’s writing is inspiring, especially when she writes about the civil rights movement and feminism. It is fascinating to read the constant work she does, the effort she puts into considering and debating everything, assessing the world we live in and trying to change it for the better. But reading her work has a very different effect on me than, for example, reading Gloria Steinem’s work. Although I like her poetry I have always struggled a little bit with Audre Lorde, and that is also true of A Burst of Light. When I read Steinem’s On the Road there were a lot of things that I could relate to. That is not the case with Audre Lorde. Living as a black, gay woman in America, Lorde had experiences that I will never have to face, that I can only appreciate from a remove but not really identify with. To pretend I could would almost be an affront to Lorde’s work, and so reading A Burst of Light was very much a learning opportunity. I don’t understand all of her anger because it is rooted in how the world was fundamentally different for her than it is for me, but by learning about her I also learn about the experiences of countless women across the world right now. Feminism still has a long road to go to becoming truly intersectional, but by reading A Burst of Light I have found myself moving further down that road.

I give this book…
 
4 Universes!

A Burst of Light is a truly inspirational and touching read. Lorde’s love and strength come through so clearly in the essays chosen for this book that I walked away feeling like I’d just had a conversation with her myself. Her bravery in the face of cancer and her determination to do things her way are lessons I will carry with me from now on.

Review: 'When the English Fall' by David Williams

Dystopias abound in contemporary literature, science fiction and literary fiction. Whether it's classics like The Handmaid's Tale and its terrifying prediction about where we might be heading, or modern staples like The Hunger Games that excited countless young readers, there is something about a good dystopian novel that sets it apart from other fiction. It is both art and warning, politics and literature, entertaining and educational. So I like to dig into whatever dystopian novel I can find, to see what it has to offer. When the English Fall was as mind-opening and beautiful as I could have wished. Thanks to Algonquin Books and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 11/07/2017
Publisher: Algonquin Books
A riveting and unexpected novel that questions whether a peaceful and non- violent community can survive when civilization falls apart.
Again, all are asleep, but I am not. I need sleep, but though I read and I pray, I feel too awake. My mind paces the floor.
There are shots now and again, bursts here and there, far away, and I cannot sleep. I think of this man in his hunger, shot like a rabbit raiding a garden. For what, Lord? For stealing corn intended for pigs and cattle, like the hungry prodigal helpless in a strange land.
I can hear his voice.
When a catastrophic solar storm brings about the collapse of modern civilization, an Amish community is caught up in the devastating aftermath. With their stocked larders and stores of supplies, the Amish are unaffected at first. But as the English (the Amish name for all non-Amish people) in the cities become increasingly desperate, they begin to invade nearby farms, taking whatever they want and unleashing unthinkable violence on the gentle communities.
Written as the diary of an Amish farmer named Jacob who tries to protect his family and his way of life, When the English Fall examines the idea of peace in the face of deadly chaos. Should members of a nonviolent society defy their beliefs and take up arms to defend themselves? And if they do, can they survive?
David Williams’s debut novel is a thoroughly engrossing look into the closed world of the Amish, as well as a thought-provoking examination of how we live today and what remains if the center cannot hold.
When the English Fall bridges a beautiful gap in dystopian literature. Usually these kinds of novels are set in faraway or fictional countries, or in our distant past where the foundations of the world we know now are hardly recognisable. They are often set in cities, focusing on young people's struggle to become themselves in a society that restricts individuality and emotion. In When the English Fall Williams does something completely different, making his novel one of the most enlightening and eye-opening I have read in the last few months. Some may dispute me calling it a dystopian novel but I feel like it fits, because When the English Fall shows us the downfall and chaos of a society that is both like ours and isn't, a world in which something has gone horrible wrong, a world in which our worst characteristics come to the forefront. Williams protagonists are an Amish family, mostly cut off from the modern day world aside from selective communications. I realized early on in When the English Fall that I had never really considered an apocalypse from their perspective. I also had the even more frightening realization that I would be literally lost if a solar storm like this hit and I'd have to rely on my knowledge of nature and farming. Eye-opening and horrifying indeed.

When the English Fall is also a philosophical novel. The oppositions between natural and manufactured, pacifist and aggressive, independent/alone and co-dependent/supported are all addressed in their own way by Williams. He does so mostly without preaching or becoming judgemental. There is clearly a sense in which he loves the way in which Jacob's family lives, yet he and the reader also senses just how far removed from the "modern world" they are. My favourite member of the family was the young daughter Sadie, who has strange insights into what is to come and what has to happen, while never losing that innocence and determination that signifies youth. Utterly confused and yet strangely calm and determined, she forges along down the path she has been set on, never once doubting her own instincts and the love of her family. It was a strangely empowering portrayal to read, and by the end of When the English Fall I was incredibly fond of her. Williams' novel is part of that fascinating 'found literature' trope that always leaves the reader slightly unsatisfied. What happens next? But what did they do then? How does it "end"? The Handmaid's Tale does the same and I think in part that is what gives books like these their strength; the fact that they don't provide you with all the answers, with an easy lesson to learn, but rather with questions you will have to think about for yourself.

David Williams manages to make you care for these characters through their virtue, rather than their suffering. Trust me, I know how saccharine this sounds and I slightly hate myself for putting it that way, but it's true. Jacob and his family are sketched by Williams with a kindness and love that shines in their actions. The way they help each other, support each other, appreciate and trust each other is truly beautiful and is what makes them so dear to the reader. A different aspect of When the English Fall that I really enjoyed was how slowly yet steadily Williams upped the ante. The whole novel is utterly calm and yet there is that consistent edge of danger and uneasiness that makes even the smallest movement suspicious. Perhaps that was one of the strongest messages of the novel, just how quickly those bonds of trust and understanding can fall away and leave everyone to suffer fear and danger alone, but also how strong those bonds can be, and how key to survival.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I adored When the English Fall and all it did. It made me think and question, gasp and smile. Williams describes a frequently explored situation from a previously unexplored angle, adding something new to a rich genre. I definitely can't wait to read whatever he writes next.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Review: 'The Hoarder' by Jess Kidd

An ancient, once-grand home? A feisty, resourceful young woman taking on a grumpy, lonely old man? Sarcastic saints? All of those things sound awesome and I wish more books put together this exact combination of random yet brilliant elements. As you can see, The Hoarder seemed right up my alley, promising generational bitterness and dark mystery. And The Hoarder delivered on many levels, if perhaps not on all of them. Thanks to Canongate Books and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 01/02/2018
Publisher: Canongate Books

Maud Drennan - underpaid carer and unintentional psychic - is the latest in a long line of dogsbodies for the ancient, belligerent Cathal Flood. Yet despite her best efforts, Maud is drawn into the mysteries concealed in his filthy, once-grand home. She realises that something is changing: Cathal, and the junk-filled rooms, are opening up to her.
With only her agoraphobic landlady and a troop of sarcastic ghostly saints to help, Maud must uncover what lies beneath Cathal's decades-old hostility, and the strange activities of the house itself. And if someone has hidden a secret there, how far will they go to ensure it remains buried?
The Hoarder beautifully walks the line between a contemporary mystery and a Magical Realism-adjacent fiction book. I had not read anything by Jess Kidd before although I had seen other bloggers raving about her previous work, and after reading The Hoarder I can see why they were so excited. Kidd has that gift that makes something utterly odd seem utterly natural, while something perfectly normal becomes eerily terrifying.Whether it's Cathal Flood's mansion, that goes from imposing to terrifying within seconds, or the saints, who effortlessly go from handing out sarcastic comments to fore-spelling danger, Kidd's The Hoarder will keep you on your feet.

Maud Drennan is a fascinating protagonist. She is a seemingly no-nonsense, straightforward woman who just wants to get the job done, even if that means entering a spooky house haunted by a cantankerous old man. She lives with a delightful if troubled landlady who provides many of the most humorous phrases in the book. But Maud isn't all that she seems. She has her own secrets, buried away so far even the reader doesn't know if they'll ever be uncovered. And then there are the saints that keep appearing, at once helpful and distracting to Maud's mission to declutter Cathal Flood's house and her own mind. Kidd crafts her carefully, never making her too perfect to be relatable, while also dipping into the trope of the unreliable narrator. How much can we trust what Maud is telling us? She is only one person in this tale, after all, and every tale has at least two sides, no? There are some heartbreaking moments in this novel when it comes to family and the history one crafts for oneself. What I mean by that is the tragedy of when we have to face that the life we have crafted for ourselves may not be based on fact, that every family has a closet containing a skeleton or two. The way Kidd allows Maud to confront herself in this novel, gently but determinedly, losing and finding her way as she goes, was fascinating to read.

As I said above, Jess Kidd's writing has a particular magic that makes everything uncanny and beautiful at once. I was gripped by the novel almost immediately, loving the way Kidd crafted her narrative. The Hoarder is filled with absolutely stunning imagery. Whether it's Cathal Flood's mansion, its winding corridors or Maud's childhood memories, Kidd crafts these scenes in delicate and emotive detail until I genuinely felt I could picture them if I closed my eyes. Kidd brings an Irish charm to her novel, largely in Maud's characterization, that made me want to dig deeper into Irish literature as well. One thing that did leave me a little disappointed was that I figured out the "mystery" part of the novel relatively quickly, about a hundred pages before the main character did. Although this didn't lessen my enjoyment of the novel's beauty, it did mean that some parts exploring the mystery dragged a little bit. However, towards the end of the novel there were still a number of twists that made for an exciting finale.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I raced through The hoarder at an unbelievable pace. Even though I figured out parts of the plot beforehand, I wanted to know exactly where Kidd was going to take this story. Full of touching and beautiful moments, The Hoarder has made me determined to get my hands on her next book as soon as I can!

Review: 'Folk' by Zoe Gilbert

Fantasy is my jam, and so are short story collections. When you combine the two you basically get a collection of awesome fairy tales, the kind of thing that allows you to steal away into a completely different world for some beautiful escapism. I have chased these types of books down relatively successfully, but clearly the Fates think I haven't done well enough because suddenly Folk appeared on my path. And God was it good! And how beautiful is that cover? Thanks to Bloomsbury Circus and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 08/02/2017
Publisher: Bloomsbury Circus
Every year they gather, while the girls shoot their arrows and the boys hunt them out. The air is riddled with spiteful shadows – the wounds and fears and furies of a village year. 
On a remote and unforgiving island lies a village unlike any other: Neverness. A girl is snatched by a water bull and dragged to his lair, a babe is born with a wing for an arm and children ask their fortunes of an oracle ox. While the villagers live out their own tales, enchantment always lurks, blighting and blessing in equal measure. 
Folk is a dark and sinuous debut circling the lives of one generation. In this world far from our time and place, the stories of the islanders interweave and overlap, their own folklore twisting fates and changing lives. 
A captivating, magical and haunting debut novel of breathtaking imagination, from the winner of the 2014 Costa Short Story Award.
As I said, both Fantasy and short stories are my thing. My love for them started when I was very young. In my childhood home we had a shelf in the bookcase dedicated purely to fairy tales from all across the world. One of my favourite things to do was pick a book at random from this shelf and sink away into all these different stories that were somehow connected yet all independent as well. There is a magic to fairy tales that doesn't just come back to the actual magic in them. Rather, their magic lies in how they expand the mind, how they cast a different light on old issues, how they mix sweetness with bitterness and beauty with horror. Fairy tales don't explain themselves, at least not the original ones. There are morals there, sure, but you will have to find those for yourself. There is a sense of the ancient to them which nothing else really matches. Where do these stories come from? What inspired them and how do they still inspire? Because of their mysterious origins, fairy tales can belong to anyone and everyone.

In Folk, Zoe Gilbert tells us the stories of Neverness, a mysterious village on a remote island. Each story is told by a different character in the village. These characters come from all ages, different parts of the village and island and even from the different generations living there. This approach allows for Folk to create a sense of connection and tradition without having to info-dump the reader. Characters mentioned casually in one story will become the narrators of another. Events that take place in the foreground in one tale will be referenced in a later tale. Although this is perhaps confusing initially, it really pays off later on in the stories. There is no world-building as such, as one might expect. How did the island come about? Why do the people in Neverness seem so touched by magic? Where do their traditions come from? There are no clear answers to these questions, rather the stories just exist as they are, to be enjoyed as they are. I loved this about them because it allows you to sink into the beauty of each separate story without demanding more from it.

Zoe Gilbert's writing is beautiful. From the very first story she manages to infuse her writing with a sense of suspense , danger and beauty. As the reader gets accustomed to Neverness and its particular peculiarities, Gilbert consistently manages to conjure up a sense of magic and mystery. She moves seamlessly across the village and island, describing its stunning and powerful nature and the effects it has on the island's inhabitants. Her characters are sparsely but carefully drawn. You never get tired of her characters as she keeps their characterisation just subtle enough to make the reader think there must be more, to want to dig deeper. I'm wowed by the fact this is Gilbert's first fiction book, because the deftness with which she writes is masterful. Folk is also beautifully illustrated by Isobel Simonds, the author's aunt. They feel as ancient as the stories and are an incredible addition to the book. I can't wait to get my hands on a hard copy of this book in order to see how the illustrations and stories interplay.

I give this collection...

4 Universes!

I absolutely adored Folk. From the first story I was drawn in by Gilbert's mysterious island and its magical inhabitants. The stories are beautifully human despite the enchantment hovering just below their surface. I can't wait to read more from Zoe Gilbert! I'd recommend this to anyone interested in Short Stories and Magical Realism.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Short Review: 'Hidden Women: The African-American Women Mathematicians who Helped America Win the Space Race' by Rebecca Rissman

I come from a family that is in love with space. Whether it's Star Wars, From the Earth to the Moon, actually applying to ESA, or studying Astronomy, we love the stars. So of course we loved Hidden Figures and the attention it brought to the African-American women who worked tirelessly to support the American space programme and yet weren't recognised for it. Since the movie came out I have been looking for more information on these women, and Hidden Women was a great introductory read. Thanks to Capstone and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 01/02/2018
Publisher: Capstone

Tells the gripping story of four female African-American mathematicians who literally made it possible to launch US rockets--and astronauts--into space. Tells the thrilling tale of how each woman contributed, the struggles and resistance each experienced, and the amazing results. Consultants currently work for NASA.
When Hidden Figures came out, it spawned a whole range of books on the women central to the story. There were a plethora of them and I found it quite difficult to choose one to start with. African-American women have often had their hard work erased, either by actively hiding their involvement or giving the praise to those already in the spotlight. You can see it even now in America, where African-American women are a leading force in preventing people like Roy Moore winning elections, or organising protests for women's rights. What also adds interest to the women in Hidden Women is that they are a rare breed: women working in STEM. Although at university level women are more likely to study these subjects and do well in them, women still struggle against preconceptions in these fields. From young girls being told to pick Barbies over building sets, to young women being harassed in laboratories, a lot of obstacles still stand in women's ways. It is my hope that books like these, by bringing the stories of these women back, it will inspire more young women to enter these fields and have their contributions rewarded.

Rebecca Rissman does a great job at introducing the various women she describes. She tracks Katherine Johnson, Miriam Mann, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Annie Easley and Christine Darden, as well as some of the women currently working for NASA. She shows how these women worked their way up, as well as the challenges they faced on the way. African-American women then and now find themselves struggling not only against misogynistic prejudices, but also have to overcome racial stereotypes and active racism. Rissman really manages to convey their passion for the work they do, as well as their determination to let nothing stand in their way. Hidden Women is a great introductory read, giving you some of the details without getting too bogged down. I call it introductory because I would have loved some more information, for Rissman to dig down a little bit deeper into the circumstances of the women, the actual work they did, etc. But this isn't necessarily the book for that. Rissman made sure to consult people currently still working at NASA and the bibliography at the end of the book makes a great jumping off point for future research and reading.

I give this book...

3 Universes!

For those who want to know a little bit more about the African-American women who worked for NASA during the space programme, Hidden Women  is perfect. However, I'm still looking for a book that will really dig into their lives and their work. Recommendations anyone?

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Review: 'The Wicked Cometh' by Laura Carlin

I'm always looking for historical fiction and mystery stories with female protagonists set in Victorian England. Sadly I have also often been burned during that search. It takes a deft touch to combine all those different aspects and not have one of them become disastrous. So when I saw The Wicked Cometh I was immediately intrigued. People are going missing? Wickedness in London? A bright young woman in the midst of it all? I am SO here for it! Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 01/02/2018
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
'We have no need to protect ourselves from the bad sort because we ARE the bad sort . . .' 
'This newspaper has taken note that the past month has been remarkable for the prevalence of cases where men, women and children are declared missing. Scarcely a week passes without the occurrence of an incident of this type' - The Morning HeraldTuesday 13 September 1831 
Down the murky alleyways of London, acts of unspeakable wickedness are taking place and the city's vulnerable poor are disappearing from the streets. Out of these shadows comes Hester White, a bright young woman who is desperate to escape the slums by any means possible. 
When Hester is thrust into the world of the aristocratic Brock family, she leaps at the chance to improve her station in life under the tutelage of the fiercely intelligent and mysterious Rebekah Brock. 
But whispers from her past slowly begin to poison her new life and both she and Rebekah are lured into the most sinister of investigations, dragging them into the blackest heart of a city where something more depraved than either of them could ever imagine is lurking. . .
In a sense The Wicked Cometh is a mystery novel that tries to answer a straightforward question: why are people disappearing? But Laura Carlin uses this as a way to address class which, in my eyes, definitely elevates the plot. Hester is poor, incredibly poor, living among equally poor and hungry and cold people in London the 1800s. But her life wasn't always like this. When her parents were alive she enjoyed comfort and education, but now, as an orphan, she has not much to hope for. That is, until pure chance literally throws her in the way of the Brock family where she gets another chance. Through Hester, Carlin is able to show the harsh divide between the rich and poor, how the former can look down upon the latter with disgust and zero awareness of how they came to be poor. The constant clash between expectations and reality are really interesting and add an extra layer of meaning to The Wicked Cometh.

In the next paragraph I'm going to discuss two different themes running through the novel, however, these are pretty much spoilers. So please ignore the rest of this paragraph if you want to remain unspoiled! Still with me? Ok, let's go! At the heart of the wickedness taking place in London lies the working on human corpses in the hope to gain, at least initially, medical knowledge. It is something that also popped up in Rawblood, the contemporary terror of people at the mere thought of human corpses being operated on in order to advance medical knowledge. Carlin strikes a successful balance in showing both the understandable fear of her characters, as well as how her bad guy has lost his subjectivity when it comes to his endeavour. It was done really well I thought, especially combined with The Wicked Cometh's focus on class. The disregard with which the upper class considers the lower really comes out through this plot line. Another theme was love, especially love between women. Carlin worked this out so beautifully in The Wicked Cometh that I was rooting for it before the characters themselves were even truly aware of their feelings. Not once did it feel Carlin would exploit their love for sensationalism, rather she treated it like the previous thing love is.

The Wicked Cometh is incredibly atmospheric and this is all due to Laura Carlin's beautiful writing. Her London comes to life through her descriptions which are incredibly evocative, whether it's the dirt on the streets or the sound of the crowd. The houses, the people, the weather and mood, it's all described in a way that draws the reader in straightaway. I felt like I was watching a movie sometimes, with the amount of detail Carlin managed to confer to me. Carlin takes a lot of time at the beginning of the novel to set her scene and establish her characters, which may not work for everyone but I loved it. Also, I adored Hester, she was such a scrappy and determined main character who stayed true to herself as much as she could. Carlin makes some choices towards the end of the novel which felt a bit rushed, as if she was trying to tie every story line together into one thread and thereby stretched some of them a bit too far. In a way some of these choices reminded me of the Gothic novels of the time, deeply dramatic and a bit too much, but sadly it didn't really work and betrayed some of the strong plot choices made earlier in the novel. However, this didn't really affect my opinion on the overall novel that much, compared to a different novel I read recently.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I adored The Wicked Cometh with all of its sumptuous details and lovable heroines! I was sucked into the plot straightaway and loved all of the dramatic twists and turns. I would definitely recommend this to anyone interested in Historical Fiction and Mystery. I will definitely keeping my eye out for Laura Carlin's next novel.