Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Review: 'Wicked Wonders' by Ellen Klages

I love short story collection! There is something about the art of writing a short story that still fascinates me. A short story author has to try and cram as much emotion, character development, world building and plot into a few pages as others authors do into a novel of hundreds of pages. I have read a lot of brilliant short stories, but I always love discovering new short story authors. So I was very excited to see Wicked Wonders pop up, with its enticing blurb promising some amazing stories. Thanks to Tachyon Publications and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date 23/05/2017
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
The Scott O'Dell award-winning author of The Green Glass Sea returns with her second collection: a new decade of lyrical stories with vintage flair.
Inside of these critically-acclaimed tales are memorable characters who are smart, subversive, and singular. A rebellious child identifies with wicked Maleficent instead of Sleeping Beauty. Best friends Anna and Corry share a last melancholy morning before emigration to another planet. A prep-school girl requires more than mere luck to win at dice with a faerie. Ladies who lunch keeping dividing that one last bite of dessert in the paradox of female politeness. 
Whether on a habitat on Mars or in a boardinghouse in London, discover Ellen Klages' wicked, wondrous adventures full of brazenness, wit, empathy, and courage.
One of my favourite literary genres is Magical Realism. When done well, Magical Realism describes ordinary life through those magical moments in which wonders happen. Although, according to Goodreads, Wicked Wonders doesn't qualify as Magic Realism, it has all the hallmarks of it. Each of Klages' stories is a snapshot of an ordinary-seeming life in which one day is only followed by another day and nothing else. And yet each of these lives is infused with something strange, magical, absurd and extraordinary that makes every story fascinating. There are twists and turns which are either unexpected or so well played they seem natural. In a way the stories in Wicked Wonders also feel like an elegy to America the way it was, with its quiet towns, forgotten corners and dreams of elsewhere. It gives the stories a nostalgic feel, yet without becoming too mourning. The reason the stories don't become a downer is because each has a subversive twist, something that makes you reconsider not just the story but also how you see the world. Why wouldn't you look at Maleficent as the hero of Sleeping Beauty? Why not set all your future hopes upon the Red Planet?

Perhaps it's a quote from Wicked Wonders itself that best describes the effects of this collection:
'Joy in a minor key.'
All the stories in Klages' brilliant collection have an understated charm. They start of so calmly and quietly, perfectly normal and straightforward except for those few notes that are both discordant and yet elevate the story. And then something wonderful happens on the pages of each story, and I think t is best described as joy. Even when a story moves you to tears, there is still an element of jubilation to it for the beautiful writing and the heartfelt emotions in each tale. The women and girls in Wicked Wonders are as the title prescribes: wonderful and wicked. They are normal, and yet not. They live in our world and yet they are a little removed from it. They are young and old, innocent and wise, trusting and heartbroken, excited and sad, and everything in between. Although it is not a collection "for women" perse, there is something brilliant about all these stories exploring such different parts of female life, even if it is the absurd or the magical.

I had never read a book or story by Ellen Klages before but I will definitely be looking into buying her other work now. Klages' writing feels understated yet really isn't. There are no over the top flourishes meant to overwhelm the reader, yet there are quiet gut punches here and there which work even more effectively. Her characters, most of them young girls, feel age appropriate without becoming boring or caricatures. There are some home truths hidden throughout the stories, about friendship, about love, kindness, loss and more which always feel honest. I don't know what it's like for other people, but I usually need the first three stories or so before I can get into the feel of a short story collection. With Wicked Wonders however I settled into the feel of the collection very quickly, from the first story called 'The Education of a Witch' really. The second story 'Amicae Aeternum', about a friendship surviving intergalactic travel, settled it for me. Each story only added to the sense of wonder that Klages created both with her writing and the themes in her story.

I give this collection...

4 Universes!

I really enjoyed reading Wicked Wonders. Every single story is filled with some wonder and some wickedness, but mainly with a lot of humanity and beautiful writing. I'd recommend this to everyone who likes short stories and is loving for a little bit of magic in their life!

Review: 'A Gallery of Poisoners' by Adrian Vincent

I have been drowning myself in beautiful Magical Realism, Fantasy and Fairytales lately, but then found myself craving some fun and quick non-fiction, the kind of book that cleanses your palate a bit but also gives you something fun and scandalous. And I found that cleanser in A Gallery of Poisoners. Who doesn't want to while away the lazy hours of the day by reading about Victorian poisoners and their scandalous court cases? Thanks to Endeavour Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!

Pub. Date: 25/11/2016
Publisher: Endeavour Press

Here are thirteen cases of fatal passions, unfortunate acquaintances and gruesome endings.
Presenting infamous cases ranging from 1857 – 1972, Adrian Vincent revisits the lives of some of the most notorious killers ever to be brought to justice. What drives someone to specialise in devising agonising death for their victims? 
Vincent reveals the lure of money, lust and deviancy as they manifest in pure evil — lurking beneath the surface of domestic bliss and professional respectability. Wives dispatching husbands for their cash.  
Lovers killing for passion. The infamous Mary Ann Cotton, who poisoned three husbands and eleven of her children. Graham Young, who was fascinated by poisons from the age of twelve and given to administering lethal concoctions — just to see what would happen. Obsessive poisoners like Tillie Gburek, a middle-aged woman who found a taste for making deadly soups — and got through a series of husbands … There’s the voyeuristic ménage à trois where a husband enjoyed his wife taking a lover which had dire consequences … While the so-called Angel of Death, Nurse Waddington, ran her own nursing home.
Killers who specialised in devising agonising death for their victims. A Gallery of Poisoners is classic true crime at its best — thrilling and disturbing in equal measure.
A Gallery of Poisoners was originally published in 1993 but was republished by Endeavour Press on November last year. I wonder whether it would have made a timely Christmas present... surely an ominous one. Poisoners have always held a certain fascination with people. Perhaps it is the subterfuge that usually goes along with it, the idea of the murderer calmly sitting opposite their victim as they drink the poisoned wine or eat the poisoned cake. In the thirteen cases described by Vincent in A Gallery of Poisoners we get exactly the images we want, the lover who has to be dispatched before he causes a scandal, the husband-killing wife, the husband who gets sick of his nagging wife. The list also includes both very well-known murder cases, such as Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, and more unknown yet equally fascinating ones. Just for these arguably over-the-top stories, A Gallery of Poisoners is a fun read, giving the reader exactly what they want. If these cases weren't historically true, they would be almost too cliche to be believable.

As the book's subtitle points out, A Gallery of Poisoners actually focuses on 'case histories of murder by poisoning'. Although this may seems like just a fancy way to say 'stories about poisoners', it actually reveals more about the content of the book than you may expect. Vincent doesn't just give dramatic, and potentially fictionalised, retellings of the lead up to and the actual poisonings, he also focuses on the trials afterwards. By doing so, he grounds his book in history and facts, thereby also giving himself the liberty to speculate here and there. Throughout reading the different cases it becomes fun to track different people, whether it was a junior counsel or the crown prosecutors, from one case to another, seeing them both succeed and fail at defending their clients, getting promoted or demoted, etc. (Most notable here is Edward Marshall Hall.) Also interesting is the way in which Vincent considers both gender and class in the novel, hopping between America and England to show the fates of victims, murderers and bystanders. He especially shows awareness of the circumstances of women in Victorian England, with their small means and curtailed opportunities. Although he never excuses any of the murderers, he is also not blind to external pressures which prevents A Gallery of Poisoners from becoming sensationalist.

Vincent's writing style is very direct and to the point. Often the cases start with who gets murdered, which means suspense is not exactly a big aspect of A Gallery of Poisoners. However, the way Vincent speculates as to motives and means is interesting, and he does it with an off-hand humour which often surprised me into laughter. Throughout A Gallery of Poisoners Vincent drops in his own two cents here and there, commenting on the tactics of the poisoners, their missteps, the courtroom antics of defendants or the general state of British law. While each case history is fascinating, I would not recommend trying to sit down and read all of them at once. Although possible, eventually a sense of repetition does set in. Vincent does his best, but it is more fun to read a story here and there.

I give this book...

3 Universes!

A Gallery of Poisoners is a quick and interesting read. It gives some fascinating insights into both murder cases of the past as well as the court cases that followed. Reading the book in one sitting may be a bit dull, but to dip in now and then and read a story or two is exactly the kind of fun you may need. I'd recommend this to fans of historical fiction and murder mysteries.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Review: 'In the Name of the Family' by Sarah Dunant

I am a history fanatic so any novel which tackles a major period in history or an infamous family or a momentous battle or really anything that impacted history is bound to have me excited. So when I saw In the Name of the Family, a novel dedicated to 'Machiavelli & the Borgias' I was already on the edge of my seat. They are some of the most fascinating people to have lived in Italy, which says a lot, and yet they were still largely strangers to me. So I was overjoyed when I got approved for In the Name of the Family and I was fascinated once I started reading. Thanks to Little Brown, Virago and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 02/03/2017
Publisher: Little Brown; Virago

In the Name of the Family - as Blood and Beauty did before - holds up a mirror to a turbulent moment of history, sweeping aside the myths to bring alive the real Borgia family; complicated, brutal, passionate and glorious. Here is a thrilling exploration of the House of Borgia's doomed years, in the company of a young diplomat named Niccolo Machiavelli.

It is 1502 and Rodrigo Borgia, a self-confessed womaniser and master of political corruption is now on the Papal throne as Alexander VI. His daughter Lucrezia, aged twenty-two, already thrice married and a pawn in her father's plans, is discovering her own power. And then there is Cesare Borgia: brilliant, ruthless and increasingly unstable; it is his relationship with the diplomat Machiavelli which offers a master class on the dark arts of power and politics. What Machiavelli learns will go on to inform his great work of modern politics, The Prince.
But while the pope rails against old age and his son's increasing maverick behavior it is Lucrezia who will become the Borgia survivor: taking on her enemies and creating her own place in history.
Conjuring up the past in all its complexity, horror and pleasures, In The Name of the Family confirms Sarah Dunant's place as the leading novelist of the Renaissance and one of the most acclaimed historical fiction writers of our age.
History is a fascinating topic because it always changes. This might sound fallacious but history is not as set a thing as many of us think or hope. History is written by the winners, by the survivors, by those with the loudest voice, and as such we often have to reconsider what we know when a new viewpoint comes to light. The revision of history is an ongoing and important cause, which often gives a voice to those who were always silenced. Historical Fiction has a very interesting role in that process, since it allows authors and readers to take a different kind of look at history, one that is perhaps not entirely factual but often very human. What kind of a man could Cromwell have been? What was it like aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff? What kind of scars did the Yugoslav wars leave on a young girl? Historical fiction allows us modern people to see history as human, as something both destined and accidental, both flawed and sublime. and this is exactly what Sarah Dunant does in In the Name of the Family.

Dunant tackles some major historical figures in this novel about whom a lot has been written, not just academically but also in popular culture. The Borgias have been immortalised in a TV show as well as in countless novels and films. There is Rodrigo Borgia, or Alexander VI, the pope who flouted the celibacy rules and happily fathered children throughout his reign. There is Cesare Borgia, whose brutality and cunning in warfare blew away all of his contemporaries. There is Lucrezia Borgia, so beautiful she must of course have slept with half of Italy, including her own family. The way this family has been both idolized and vilified goes back centuries, but Dunant takes a surprisingly fresh and insightful look at this family, especially Lucrezia. History is notoriously unfair to women, both silencing them and loudly decrying them. In In the Name of the Family Dunant attempts to undo some of the prejudices thrown at the Borgia family, without sugarcoating their behaviour. Rather, she lets a humanity shine through that brings the Borgias to life as human beings with conflicting loyalties, dreams, hopes and fears. She does the same for Machiavelli, who has become not only an adjective but also a larger-than-life politician and historian. Meticulously researched, In the Name of the Family both stick to the script and deviates where Dunant finds potential for something more. She doesn't give us a rigid history, but rather acknowledges that
'history is only and always the story of human nature in action, and that in an imperfect world, men who set out to make their mark must work with what is, rather than what they might like it to be.'
Dunant's writing style took me a few chapters to get used to, but before I knew it I was hooked. Historical fiction is tricky because an author has to find a balance between remaining historically accurate and yet not losing the fluidity and imagination of fiction. Switching between the viewpoints of her four main characters, and a few fascinating side characters, Dunant manages to constantly retain a sense of urgency and immediacy. The reader knows more than any of the characters in the book since they are privy to everyone's thoughts. The novel flits across Renaissance Italy with a swiftness that never feels rushed. There are a whole number of references, key dates, key battles and key places which are fed into the narrative in a very natural way. In the Name of the Family never feels cluttered, which reminds of Umberto Eco's brilliant historical novels. The author's, both Eco and Dunant's. obvious comfort within their chosen time period makes these types of historical novels feel like a breeze. I personally cannot wait to read more of Dunant's historical fiction. First on the list is Blood & Beauty: The Borgias which, as the title makes clear, is another epic novel about the Borgias. Also, this novel comes with an extensive bibliography which will make the heart of any history-nerd beat faster. I myself have already highlighted a number of books I want to try.

I give this novel

4 Universes!

Once you get into In the Name of the Family, the novel doesn't let you go. With history unfolding as rapidly as it does, with the stakes as high as they are, you won't want to put this novel down. And once it is finished you'll have gained a whole new appreciation for the Borgias. I'd recommend this to fans of Historical Fiction and Italian and European history.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Review: 'Treasure Island' by Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure IslandWhen I was young, I had an audio cassette (yup, somehow I am old enough to remember these fondly!) of Treasure Island. I hardly remember anything from it, except a lingering suspicion of Long John Silver and a certain fondness for this story I don't really know anything about. So when I found myself with a free space on my 'Currently Reading' shelf, I decided to dedicate it to Stevenson's classic. And yet I approached the novel with a sense of apprehension. Reading a classic for the first time that has already become part of popular culture to such an extent as Treasure Island comes with a special kind of pressure. On the one hand, you already love this book because it's a part of you, but on the other hand there is the very distinct possibility you will hate it because it's not what you expect. So with this dilemma in mind, I set myself to task reading Treasure Island.

Original Pub. Date: 1883
Original Publisher:v
The most popular pirate story ever written in English, featuring one of literature’s most beloved “bad guys,” Treasure Island has been happily devoured by several generations of boys—and girls—and grownups. Its unforgettable characters include: young Jim Hawkins, who finds himself owner of a map to Treasure Island, where the fabled pirate booty is buried; honest Captain Smollett, heroic Dr. Livesey, and the good-hearted but obtuse Squire Trelawney, who help Jim on his quest for the treasure; the frightening Blind Pew, double-dealing Israel Hands, and seemingly mad Ben Gunn, buccaneers of varying shades of menace; and, of course, garrulous, affable, ambiguous Long John Silver, who is one moment a friendly, laughing, one-legged sea-cook . . . and the next a dangerous pirate leader!

One of the first things you come to realise when reading Treasure Island is that it is a Young Adult novel mainly written for young boys in the late 1800s. Originally named The Sea Cook: A Story for Boys, Treasure Island is a coming-of-age story in which a young boy becomes a man, discovers his inner strength and conquers his fears. Part of what made Treasure Island so groundbreaking is its introduction of so many staples of the pirate genre. Long John Silver unironically says 'Shiver me timbers', he has a parrot on his shoulder, there is a lot of rum, 'X's marks the spot, and there's a whole variety of missing limbs. This was all completely new and instantaneously iconic in the 1800s. Reading Treasure Island now, in the 21st century in which TV shows like Black Sails take these tropes, make them gritty and sexy, it feels almost quaint.

Perhaps there is a very obvious reason as to why I felt a little bit detached from Treasure Island, and Stevenson himself has left a handy quote to explain that reason:
"[Treasure Island] was to be a story for boys; no need of psychology or fine writing; and I had a boy at hand to be a touchstone. Women were excluded... "
Now, Stevenson is not the first man to say his work was created solely for boys. George Lucas himself famously said that he created Star Wars for teenage boys, yet in his mind what those boys enjoyed never actively excluded women and he created at least one of the most iconic female characters in cinema. However, Treasure Island feels a lot more like simple boys store in which there is indeed something of a lack of depth. Stevenson does comment on social class, on the beauty of exploration and on violence, but it is more of an aside than anything else. Qualifying as a Young Adult novel, it could not be compared, for example, to fellow YA badge-carrier Lord of the Flies which is nothing if not social commentary. So while Treasure Island is a fun and entertaining read, it is not the most gripping of novels anymore. It's lack of "fine writing" means it hasn't aged as well as some equally ancient books have.

Robert Louis Stevenson is a very verbal writer. What I mean by that is that Treasure Island is full of conversations and mental monologues. We are constantly in Jim's head, accompanying him through every physical and mental twist and turn of his journey. As such, there is surprisingly little visual imagery described. Here I was, waiting for grand vistas of the seas, of new islands uncharted, tropical climates and outlandish animals. Instead it is all rather straight to the point. The novel starts of very exciting, as Jim's normal life gets interrupted by the sheer excitement of the idea of piracy. However, the plot slowly but surely drifts off afterwards and it became more of a struggle to keep reading. Although I am glad I read Treasure Island, I will more fondly remember the audio cassette than the book.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

I enjoyed reading Treasure Island, it was like a return to childhood. However, this return also left me slightly disappointed. Some of the magic was gone, yet  I'm still glad I read this classic. There is something rewarding in going back to the book that started it all, even if it's just to appreciate how the tropes have developed over time.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Review: 'The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman' by Angela Carter

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor HoffmanAngela Carter captured my heart and imagination the moment I was given 'A Company of Wolves' to read in school. After being enraptured by her fascinating and liberating take on Red Riding Hood, I quickly devoured The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, her collection of fairy tale adaptations. From there I went on to Burning Your Boats, a larger collection of her short stories, which gave me countless hours of dazzling bewilderment and enjoyment. But I had not yet found the time to sit down with one of Carter's novels, partially due to an ridiculous fear that the literary magic which was so palpable in her short stories wouldn't translate to a full-length novel. I should never have feared.

Original Pub. Date: 1972
Original Publisher: Rupert Hart-Davis

Desiderio, an employee of the city under a bizarre reality attack from Doctor Hoffman's mysterious machines, has fallen in love with Albertina, the Doctor's daughter. But Albertina, a beautiful woman made of glass, seems only to appear to him in his dreams. Meeting on his adventures a host of cannibals, centaurs and acrobats, Desiderio must battle against unreality and the warping of time and space to be with her, as the Doctor reduces Desiderio's city to a chaotic state of emergency - one ridden with madness, crime and sexual excess. 
A satirical tale of magic and sex, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman is a dazzling quest for truth, love and identity.
Angela Carter was a genius. I often find myself praising authors on this blog and many authors are worthy of praise. The reason I love reading so much is because I find so many talented authors who are capable of putting into words the human experience in a way I never imagined possible. There's nothing as beautiful as looking up from a page and going 'Jesus, that's exactly how I feel... who knew'. So while I think there are many authors who can do this, not every author can do what Angela Carter does, both in her short stories and her prose. Carter creates a world which is entirely her own, which the reader is both only visiting and yet inherently a part of. For The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman you have to put aside what you know, what you expect when you open a book and what you think is acceptable. This novel is a meta-narrative, the ending is very much given away in the opening chapter, and the narrator constantly interrupts his narrative to comment both on his younger self, on the writing and whatever else he fancies. Carter either gives you too much, or too little, and yet you could never really complain about it because it's damn beautiful. There are things in this novel which may be difficult to read, Carter won't spare your sensibilities. But unlike in other novels, it doesn't feel like she's out to scandalise you, only, perhaps, shock you into a different kind of awareness.

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman is both an absurd and a deeply real novel, a satire that is also honest. It is a novel that no blurb could genuinely do any justice, which is why I'm glad I didn't see one before I started reading. (This is why I almost chose not to include a blurb in this review, but in the end a blurb is a place to start for those who my review doesn't convince this book is brilliant.) The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman is about a lot of things: desire, identity, love, sex, gender, violence, reality, fantasy, logic, the list goes on and on. It feels almost like too much for a single novel, or a single novelist, to handle, but Carter beautifully wraps up all these themes into the life of a man, thereby making each one's appearance valid and natural. See, a human's life is a complex thing, as I'm sure we're all aware. From day to day we struggle with the most basic questions (e.g. why do I not have a single pair of matching socks?!) as well as the most existentially puzzling questions humanity has ever asked itself (e.g. what are any of us truly doing here?). So when one wants to combine the simple and the baffling, why not do so by looking at a person's life? Especially the life of a person who lives in a world where reality no longer forms a barrier between our imagination and the world around us. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman is a difficult novel, and at times there are moments where you feel you might get lost in between Carter's words, but she is always right there to pull you back into the narrative.

I frequently lose count of how often I praise Carter's writing style. There is beautiful writing and then there is Carter's writing, to which I still haven't found a true equivalent. She is not the only brilliant author out there, of course, but she does something which language you don't see often. Carter doesn't spare words, rather she relishes in the possibility of words. When there are so many words up for grabs, why not try and use as many as possible of them? And she gets away with it. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, and any of her other writing, never feels long-winded, boring, repetitive or empty. Just because Carter uses a lot of words doesn't mean she's covering up a lack of meaning. With Carter, you get both quality and quantity. I would like to give the quote below as an example:
“Consider the nature of a city. It is a vast repository of time, the discarded times of all the men and women who have lived, worked, dreamed and died in the streets which grow like a willfully organic thing, unfurl like the petals of a mired rose and yet lack evanescence so entirely that they preserve the past in haphazard layers, so this alley is old while the avenue that runs beside it is newly built but nevertheless has been built over the deep-down, dead-in-the-ground relics of the older, perhaps the original, huddle of alleys which germinated the entire quarter.” 
Yup, that's a paragraph consisting of two sentences. And yet it is one of the most accurate descriptions I have ever read about old cities, of their timelessness that is yet a constant reminder of time itself. Throughout reading The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman I constantly found myself looking up words, rereading sentences, and lingering over words. Reading Carter feels luxuriant, like a midnight treat. I wish I could go back and read this novel for the first time all over again.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

From the first page, pretty much the first sentence, Angela Carter had me on the edge of my seat. I was amazed, shocked, disgusted, intrigued, enamoured, saddened, and everything in between. But above all, the novel enveloped me in beautiful language and wrapped me up in a story that never once let up. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman is a unique novel and I would recommend it to everyone.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Review: 'Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf' by Helene Cooper

I am always on the search for non-fiction reads that introduce me to amazing women I have never heard of or teach me about world history I definitely should already know more about. So when I saw Simon & Schuster's recent release Madame President I had to sit down for a second in shame, since I 1. hadn't realised that Libera has a female president, and 2. had to admit I new woefully little about Liberia's civil wars. After this, rather long, second of shame, however, I got right to reading Madame President and I definitely feel a lot more informed about the world I live in. Thanks to Simon & Schuster andNetgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 07/03/2017
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

The harrowing, but triumphant story of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, leader of the Liberian women’s movement, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and the first democratically elected female president in African history.
When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won the 2005 Liberian presidential election, she demolished a barrier few thought possible, obliterating centuries of patriarchal rule to become the first female elected head of state in Africa’s history. Madame President is the inspiring, often heartbreaking story of Sirleaf’s evolution from an ordinary Liberian mother of four boys to international banking executive, from a victim of domestic violence to a political icon, from a post-war president to a Nobel Peace Prize winner. 
Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and bestselling author Helene Cooper deftly weaves Sirleaf’s personal story into the larger narrative of the coming of age of Liberian women. The highs and lows of Sirleaf’s life are filled with indelible images; from imprisonment in a jail cell for standing up to Liberia’s military government to addressing the United States Congress, from reeling under the onslaught of the Ebola pandemic to signing a deal with Hillary Clinton when she was still Secretary of State that enshrined American support for Liberia’s future.
Sirleaf’s personality shines throughout this riveting biography. Ultimately, Madame President is the story of Liberia’s greatest daughter, and the universal lessons we can all learn from this “Oracle” of African women. 
As said above, I knew hardly anything about Liberia before reading Madame President. I knew Liberia had suffered through incredibly rough civil wars, that Charles Taylor was involved and that Liberia's debt had somehow been forgiven. But how the country came into existence, what its make up was, its resources, its culture, all of that was unfamiliar to me. Despite being a biography for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Madame President also goes into Liberia's history, from its creation for liberated slaves by the United States, through its internal racial struggles, its civil wars and its attempts at recovery, all the way to Ebola. Cooper combines the journeys of Liberia and Ellen, in an attempt to show the ground the two have covered in the past decades alone. Reading Madame President gave me a whole new sense of appreciation for the work done by women all around the world in some of the poorest countries in the world. As a white woman from Europe it is easy to appreciate your own freedom and "understand" the long road still to go for women in other countries. But it is so important for authors such as Helene Cooper, herself born in Liberia, to give voice to the stories and women of their countries so it becomes impossible for anyone to turn a blind eye both to the suffering and progress made by women in third world countries.

Cooper does not spare the reader from the harsh realities of what occurred in Liberia. The Liberian Civil Wars,which together lasted from 1989 to 2003, tore the country apart and created a generation of child soldiers who were abused, drugged and exposed to the worst humanity has to offer at too young an age. As a young child myself, Liberia's civil wars were a distant but present danger, a constant reminder that we in the West couldn't just pretend the world had entered a peaceful age. Cooper does not shy away from describing what happened day after day to the innocent people in Liberia, but also avoids the trap of using it for her own sake. Madame President is not sensationalist or exploitative of the civil wars, but addresses it head on. There is a sense in which it all feels almost impossible. That a country in which an estimated 75% of women has suffered rape and sexual abuse elects a female, Harvard-educated president, who then uses her whole strength and knowledge to get $4.6 billion debt relief, feels like a dream. How is this possible if a country such as America can't even elect the most qualified candidate for president ever because she's female? Cooper manages to bring a feeling of destiny to this journey, which makes Madame President, in the end, a very inspiring read.

Helene Cooper strikes a brilliant tone in this biography. I always find biographies challenging reads because the authors have to walk a very fine line. On the one hand their job requires them to make their chosen subject seem like the most interesting person ever. Why otherwise would anyone want to pick up the book and read about them? On the other hand, they can't glorify their subject too much either because readers will see straight through that. Cooper manages to walk that line. She combines Ellen's journey with that of Liberia, managing to cast Ellen both as a woman made by Liberia and a woman who made Liberia. By informing the reader of Liberia's history and Ellen's own life, Madame President is inspirational in showing how anyone can rise through circumstances to help their country and help their people, but also never attempts to only show Ellen's good side. Cooper's portrayal of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf remains human, flawed, strong, inspired, desperate, opportunistic and convinced. After finishing Madame President the reader both has an idea of what it took for Ellen to become and remain President, but also what it takes for anyone to gain and retain power in a country as torn as Liberia.

I give this biography...

4 Universes!

Reading Madame President gave me a lot. Not just new knowledge about Liberia, but also a sense of awe for the ability of humans to rise, struggle, fight and survive. The biography is incredibly well-researched and has left me with a lot of new regions and people to learn about and learn from. I'd recommend this to those interested in African history and Women's stories.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Review: 'Larchfield' by Polly Clark

Put together a poetess, a suffocating small town and a great poet's struggle with his homosexuality and you can have yourself a brilliant novel. However, you could also have a complete trainwreck, as an author tries to deal with too many topics at the same time. Thankfully Polly Clark weaves some beautiful magic in Larchfield, creating a novel that is both exhilarating and painful at the same time. Thanks to Quercus Books and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 23/03/2017
Publisher: Quercus Books
It’s early summer when a young poet, Dora Fielding, moves to Helensburgh on the west coast of Scotland and her hopes are first challenged. Newly married, pregnant, she’s excited by the prospect of a life that combines family and creativity. She thinks she knows what being a person, a wife, a mother, means. She is soon shown that she is wrong. As the battle begins for her very sense of self, Dora comes to find the realities of small town life suffocating, and, eventually, terrifying; until she finds a way to escape reality altogether. 
Another poet, she discovers, lived in Helensburgh once. Wystan H. Auden, brilliant and awkward at 24, with his first book of poetry published, should be embarking on success and society in London. Instead, in 1930, fleeing a broken engagement, he takes a teaching post at Larchfield School for boys where he is mocked for his Englishness and suspected - rightly - of homosexuality. Yet in this repressed limbo Wystan will fall in love for the first time, even as he fights his deepest fears. 
The need for human connection compels these two vulnerable outsiders to find each other and make a reality of their own that will save them both. Echoing the depths of Possession, the elegance of The Stranger's Child and the ingenuity of Longbourn, Larchfield is a beautiful and haunting novel about heroism - the unusual bravery that allows unusual people to go on living; to transcend banality and suffering with the power of their imagination.
At the beginning of this novel I have to admit something shameful. For an English Literature degree holder, I know woefully little about W.H. Auden. I knew he was gay, I had cried over his poem' Funeral Blues' in Four Weddings and a Funeral and have been meaning to read The Orators for a while. But I had never truly connected to him in the way I have to other poets. So when I found Larchfield I saw it as an opportunity to find my way towards Auden in a different way. And now, thanks to Polly Clark, there is a soft spot for Wystan in my heart, a connection to the sense of isolation and otherness that he felt, that echoes in his work. It's s great feat of Clark that she can bring someone like Auden into her novel without treating him as 'larger than life'. There is clear respect for him, but she doesn't hesitate to make him real, make him personal, flawed and thereby fascinating. She also doesn't sacrifice her own characters, Dora and Kit, for him, giving them as much time and personality throughout Larchfield. I found myself walking away from this novel really wanting to read more Auden, as well as return to Scotland, breathe sea air and connect.

At the centre of Larchfield sits Dora, a young woman, a poet, and new mother, who follows her husband to Helensburgh in the hope to start a new life that has everything. But Helensburgh is a small town, with means there are eyes everywhere, loyalties run deep and Christianity and motherhood are sticks to beat newcomers with. Clark paints the stifling closeness, the burden of expectations and the pressure of having to be, beautifully. The growing weight on Dora's shoulders, as she finds her world shrink to her house, then only to the safe spots where no one can hear her, and finally only to Wystan H. Auden. The pressures on Dora, her desperation to remain creative and productive, her fear of not being a good mother, her anger at her husband and her neighbours, and finally her helplessness at being confronted with the seemingly rigid world around her. All of it comes across very well and it all feels credible.They are recognisable burdens for many women and Clark manages to avoid the pitfalls that unfortunately comes from writing about women, avoiding many of the cliches and making Dora feel like a real woman. 

Clark lets the reader enter her characters' minds without forcing the characters to lay themselves bare. Dora's slow descent into utter unhappiness is so gradual and delicate that, although it doesn't come as a surprise, it still hits hard just how harsh it is. Larchfield is filled with characters that are troubled, that have burdens weighing on them, secrets to keep and fears to hide. Clark, by combining modern day Dora and past Auden, shows the continuing struggle of humans to feel included, to belong. Through Auden Clark is able to address the stigma that haunts homosexuals, both then and now, the crippling feeling of otherness and wrongness that pervades much of their lives. Through Dora Clark shows the pressures of modern day motherhood and womanhood, how nothing is every good enough and how the facade of happiness and perfection only deepens the cracks inside. 

I give this novel...
4 Universes!

I was completely taken in by Larchfield. Dora and Auden are wonderful characters that allow readers to join them on their journeys, even if only for a short while. There is both sadness and beauty to be found in Larchfield, and I think that's exactly how it's supposed to be. I'd recommend this to fans of Literary Fiction and Women's Fiction.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Review: 'The Beginning Woods' by Malcom McNeill

I love fairy tales and I love books about fairy tales. There is something about that whole mysterious world full of dark woods, dragons, princesses, talking frogs, wolves and witches that can fascinate me both as a child and an adult. So when I stumbled across a book that promised to delve into fairy tales in a very new and different way, I knew I had to pick it up and devour it. I'm talking, of course, about The Beginning Woods. It feels like a well-worn and trusted classic and yet is beautifully modern and complicated as well, which is a stunning combination. Thanks to Pushkin Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 1/09/2016
Publisher: Pushkin Press

The Vanishings started without warning. People disappearing into thin air - just piles of clothes left behind. Each day, thousands gone without a trace.
Max was abandoned in a bookshop and grows up haunted by memories of his parents. Only he can solve the mystery of the Vanishings.
To find the answers, Max must leave this world and enter the Beginning Woods. A realm of magic and terror, life and death.
But can he bear the truth - or will is destroy him?
Greater than your dreams. Darker than your fears. Full of more wonder than you could ever desire. Welcome to the ineffable Beginning Woods...

Clocking in at almost 450 pages, The Beginning Woods is a chunk of a book, which likes to take its time. Some reviews of this novel have taken an issue with its "slow pace", while also complaining about being confused by the plot. These two criticisms surprise me because they feel antithetical to me. The Beginning Woods takes its time, at the beginning, setting up various different plot lines for the reader to become adjusted to before the major story takes off. Rather than jumping from dramatic scene to dramatic scene, McNeill actually lingers on his characters, allowing his readers to sink into them and their minds. This especially counts for Max, the young protagonist of the novel. We get to know Max slowly but surely in the first 100 pages or so, and this kind of pace can be, I guess, off-putting to some who prefer to be dropped straight into the action. But for a novel like The Beginning Woods, which has so much to give for those readers who pay close attention, this kind of pace is a boon because it allows the reader to relax into the prose, be inspired and transported by it. Although it is difficult to maintain this kind of magic over 400+ pages, but for most of The Beginning Woods McNeill manages to bewitch.

At the heart of The Beginning Woods lies the importance and power of words and dreams. The Vanishings that plague the world, the Beginning Woods, Max's quest for his parents, the beautiful fairy tale-esque stories intertwined with the main plot lines; all this comes together to impress upon the reader how important it is to dream. Max comes into the world alone and is haunted by the desire to find his real parents. As the world becomes more and more paranoid about the Vanishings, Max is drawn to the Beginning Woods which seems to hold more questions and only few answers. Max is supported by a very interesting mix of characters, both magical and normal. Through these side-characters McNeill is able to pose some of life's most difficult questions and formulate some potential answers for the reader to figure out. Choosing a teenage boy as a protagonist comes with the same kind of dangers as picking a teenage girl, there is a lot of internal angst to potentially deal with. At times Max's worries and actions can be a bit annoying, but this is also natural for such a long and complex novel.

McNeill's writing throughout the novel is stunning, which made it very hard for me to believe this is his first book. As the plot moves along, there are some absolutely stunning moments and images which are incredibly inspired. I often find myself disappointed in Fantasy authors who copy without adding any new life to the old material. In The Beginning Woods there are witches, dragons, giants and ghosts, but the reader meets them in a completely new guise. It is incredibly refreshing to read a Fantasy novel that isn't lazy, that goes beyond and tries to create truly new and different ideas for the genre. Although this kind of experimentation can also go wrong every once in a while, overall I think that The Beginning Woods is a tour-de-force of fantastical experimentation. The Beginning Woods also isn't afraid to go dark and deep, whether it is in reaimagining fairy tale staples or having Max confront his most inner dark secrets. It's the kind of Fantasy novel you feel would inspire children, to read and to dream, and that is one of the best things any book could ever do.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

I really loved The Beginning Woods! Although there are lesser moments in the novel, overall it is a fascinating Fantasy novel that celebrates dreaming and imagining, reading and loving. I will most definitely be rereading this novel and trying to find a hardback to add to my Fantasy/Fairy Tale shelf. I'd recommend this to fans of both Fantasy and Young Adult.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Review: 'Miranda and Caliban' by Jacqueline Carey

I didn't read The Tempest until I got to university, despite starting my love affair with Shakespeare years earlier! Unlike most of his other plays, I struggled with The Tempest a lot, confused about many of the characters, the storyline, etc. It took me a long time to develop an appreciation for the play, and up until a few days ago I would have counted it as one of my least favourite plays. And then Jacqueline Carey's Miranda and Caliban happened. Her novel has given me a whole new appreciation for the play, for the different themes playing under the surface and for Carey's excellent writing. Thanks to Macmillan-Tor/Forge and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book!

Pub. Date: Macmillan-Tor/Forge
Publisher: 14/02/2017

A lovely girl grows up in isolation where her father, a powerful magus, has spirited them to in order to keep them safe. 
We all know the tale of Prospero's quest for revenge, but what of Miranda? Or Caliban, the so-called savage Prospero chained to his will? 
In this incredible retelling of the fantastical tale, Jacqueline Carey shows readers the other side of the coin—the dutiful and tenderhearted Miranda, who loves her father but is terribly lonely. And Caliban, the strange and feral boy Prospero has bewitched to serve him. The two find solace and companionship in each other as Prospero weaves his magic and dreams of revenge. 
Always under Prospero’s jealous eye, Miranda and Caliban battle the dark, unknowable forces that bind them to the island even as the pangs of adolescence create a new awareness of each other and their doomed relationship. 
Miranda and Caliban is bestselling fantasy author Jacqueline Carey’s gorgeous retelling of The Tempest. With hypnotic prose and a wild imagination, Carey explores the themes of twisted love and unchecked power that lie at the heart of Shakespeare’s masterpiece, while serving up a fresh take on the play's iconic characters.
Adapting any classic piece of literature is a momentous task. You have to find a balance between honouring the original but also creating something new that holds up on its own. And then there is the enormous legacy that comes with someone like Shakespeare, whose name has almost become synonymous with literary excellence. I myself have often felt disparaging towards adaptations or retellings of my favourite books, since I have such an attachment to the originals. Often I have been surprised by how much I ended up loving the adaptations. Since The Tempest has always left me rather confused, I wasn't sure what to expect going into Miranda and Caliban. Would this be a straight up love story that ignores many of the issues thrown up in the play? Would the novel explore these characters in a way the play doesn't? In the end the novel completely blew me out of the water. Carey deals with the opposition between good and bad, ignorance and innocence, servitude and freedom, and brings it all together in a beautiful tragedy. For those fearing a love story, this is not a romance. Love is a part of this story, but there is much more to it.

For me the true power of Miranda and Caliban lies in how Carey liberates her two main characters from the characterisations they have been stuck in. In Shakespeare's play Miranda is very much a side-character to the Prospero-show, the kind of girl who is calm and quiet and falls in love with the first prince she sees. Caliban, on the other hand, is as close to the 'noble savage' archetype as a character can get. He is a monster, the child of a witch and a demon, and Shakespeare himself seems torn between representing him as an unjustly mistreated wretch and a cunning and sly opportunist. In Carey's Miranda and Caliban these two characters are fleshed out, given colour and life and motivations. The novel starts with a six-year old Miranda observing her father's magic, lonely on the island but aware there is a boy out there. When Caliban is lured into the house by Prospero's spells, the novel really takes off as Miranda becomes Caliban's teacher. As they grow up, they both start to strain against Prospero's tight hold over their lives and their realities, as well grow aware of each other and themselves in different ways. Carey really manages to evoke a sense of the loneliness and isolation of the island, as well as the conflicting forces pulling on both Miranda and Caliban. I want to just quickly go into some details regarding both of their characterisations.

Carey turns Miranda into a fully-fledged character. We get to witness her growing from child to woman, becoming more aware of the extent to which her father controls her whole life.  Whether it is her life before the island or the physical realities of becoming a woman, Miranda lives her life constantly in the dark, waiting for Prospero to declare her "ready". I have seen the word 'Stockholm-syndrome' floating around and in a way that does describe Miranda's relationship with her father rather well. She loves him, but that is because he is all she has. She tiptoes around him, yet hangs on his every word. By teaching Caliban, Miranda is given the chance to consider everything around her anew, to attempt to take control of her own life. Carey does the same for Caliban, imbuing his chapters with a painful awareness of his position. His chapters start out as three-word sentences, but as he learns more his chapters grow to become very insightful and beautiful. Carey addresses a lot of the themes that have made Caliban a controversial character. His origins are a point of contention for him, constantly being used to abuse him and put him down, as is his appearance. Carey's Caliban is a very deep and interesting character, who is full of emotions and conflict. As a reader you can't help but ache for both of these characters, who are so deprived and yet struggle to find silver linings.

Carey's writing in Miranda and Caliban is masterful. She captures the fluidity and eloquence of Shakespeare's language without making her writing feel or sound archaic and stuffy. Shakespeare never underestimated the power of words and this is a major theme in The Tempest, which finds a beautiful reflection in Carey's writing. A highlight is Ariel, who is the only character to retain a Shakespearian way of speaking. The novel is saturated with beautiful phrases like the one below:
"Thou art the shoals on which Caliban wilt dash his heart to pieces." 
With language like this it shouldn't come as a surprise that Miranda and Caliban is heartbreaking. As in any tale that is doomed from the start, there is a sense of dread mixed with hope that grows and grows while reading this novel. There is the hope that Miranda and Caliban will free themselves, that what you know must happen won't. In that sense Carey has well and truly mastered the art of retelling a famous story. Even though everyone knows what will happen, it doesn't matter for a single minute because the reader is too caught up in her version of the story. There is not a moment you will get bored of this novel and when it ends you'll wish it hadn't.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

I absolutely loved Miranda and Caliban. It is a beautiful novel and a masterful retelling of a Shakespeare classic. Carey infuses her characters with a sense of life they didn't have before and you'll be sorry to see them go at the end of the novel. I'd recommend this to fans of Shakespeare, retellings and literary fiction.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Review: 'The Roanoke Girls' by Amy Engel

If ever there was a book I didn't put down then it's The Roanoke Girls. Fascinated by the blurb I requested it months ago, but then somehow it ended up at the bottom of my TBR pile. Then, on a whim, I started it on a random Tuesday in February and I didn't put my Kindle down till the very last page had been read and devoured. Sometimes a book just hits you at the right time, resonates will all the darkest and best places in you. This happened with The Roanoke Girls and I absolutely loved it. Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 09/03/2017
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

A gripping, provocative thriller about the twisted secrets families keep, perfect for fans of The Girls.
Beautiful.Rich.Mysterious.Everyone wants to be a Roanoke girl.But you won't when you know the truth. 
Lane Roanoke is fifteen when she comes to live with her grandparents and fireball cousin at the Roanoke family's rural estate following the suicide of her mother. Over one long, hot summer, Lane experiences the benefits of being one of the rich and beautiful Roanoke girls. 
But what she doesn't know is being a Roanoke girl carries a terrible legacy: either the girls run, or they die. For there is darkness at the heart of Roanoke, and when Lane discovers its insidious pull, she must make her choice…
Quite some time has passed between reading The Roanoke Girls and now reviewing it, which is good because reading Engel's book had my head swimming. There are certain novels out there which simply have the ability to make you sit back and go ' way. I mean, right? That did not just happen.' The Roanoke Girls is definitely one of those books. I had to go rant and rave on Twitter straight after reading it and there is still a part of me that simply wants to screech about it. I'm guessing it's quite obvious that I loved this book, although it s very difficult for me to pin down exactly why. So please follow me in the paragraphs below as I try and make sense of it!

At the heart of Engel's novel are the three generations of Roanoke girls. The novel largely follows Lane's story, intermingling her present with moments from her past, but also takes little forays into the lives of the other Roanoke girls that have come and gone. It was quite fascinating to see Lane's present through the prism of her own past and the lives of the other girls, as each new addition made everything make a little bit more sense. Lane is a very interesting character, clearly deeply scarred by things that have happened in her past but also unwilling to face those demons. On returning to Roanoke, however, it becomes impossible for her to avoid these demons since they're all around her. Without wanting to spoil anything, I think it is fair to say that the trauma at the heart of this novel is not for the fainthearted. The lives of the Roanoke girls are incredibly fractured and complicated, with a lot of darkness and misery. Combine this with the relative isolation of rural America and you have the perfect recipe for a high-intensity novel that packs an emotional punch.

Engel's writing is perfect for this novel. Her characters come to life in a way that feels gritty and real, yet she also never tones down on the drama that makes this novel so addictive. Dialogue in novels can feel forced sometimes, especially if an author wants to get across a character's complicated feelings. The way Engel addresses some of the quite, to extremely, controversial topics in her novel, however, never feels forced or awkward. Sure, it's shocking and there is also the excitement of reading something scandalous, but The Roanoke Girls never feels like an exercise in sensationalism. Engel manages to combine the stories of the Roanoke girls with a whodunnit-story, which keeps the pace high and means you never get tired of exploring Lane's mind and history. This is the perfect book to get yourself excited again, to feel the rush of wanting to turn every single page and miss absolutely nothing.

I give this book...

5 Universes!

I loved The Roanoke Girls and I still can't quite do it justice when I talk about it. Engel creates fascinating characters and a story that grips you by the throat and doesn't let go. The last page is both a relief and a disappointment. I'd definitely recommend this to everyone who like mysteries and thrillers and don't mind taking a trip to the dark side.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Short review: 'Erté's Theatrical Costumes in Full Color' by Erté

Erté's Theatrical Costumes in Full ColorI have a bit of a passion for the ballet and the opera. I remember the first time I went to the ballet and saw Carmen. I was absolutely taken in by the vibrancy of the movements and, of course, by the costumes. And yet I'd never heard of Erté and his stunning designs. So when I saw Dover's book of his colour designs I knew I wanted to peek into this fabulous world behind the curtains. Thanks to Dover Publications and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 19/10/2016
Publisher: Dover Publications

A fan-bearing slave girl, a worshipper of Horus, the wife of a Russian boyar, Ceres, a mermaid, and a gypsy dancer are among the 49 theatrical costumes selected for this tribute to the work of the Russian-born, Paris-bred designer Erté (Romain de Tirtoff). Spanning the years 1911 to 1975, these extravagant, imaginative designs include costumes for well-known personalities, Folies-Bergère shows, editions of George White's Scandals, and ballets.
Many exotic and historical fashions include Egyptian, Chinese, Persian, Japanese, Russian, and French styles. The lavish, flowing costumes are complemented by different colors to create different moods: deep, lustrous purples, reds, and browns for dynamic, vibrant figures; ochre, sienna, orange, and beige for more formal characters; and pale blue, lavenders, greens, grays, and blacks for people of mystery and hidden powers. As dazzling as Erté’s color graphics and as witty as his fashion designs, this compilation merits the attention of costume designers, artists, theater people, costume aficionados, and all who appreciate the treatment of costume design as a fine art.
Erté's Theatrical Costumes in Full Color is a great coffee table-book, in all the best ways. Coffee table-books are often ridiculed, as if being placed on a coffee table implies a sense of neglect or 'I don't really care'-attitude. In our house, the books placed on the coffee table were treated with a completely opposite attitude. These were the books you enjoyed looking through, whose illustrations could capture your attention until your coffee was long cold. They were also the types of books you'd enjoy guests looking through, always with a sense of 'look at the beautiful things I read'. It is in that sense that I call Erté's Theatrical Costumes in Full Color a coffee table-book.

I absolutely loved looking through the illustrations in this book. Ranging across the world for inspiration, Erté's costumes are incredibly vibrant and stunning. What I loved was how all of it looked so elegant and intricate and yet so fluid at the same time. With no stretch of the imagination could I see these costumes in motion on the stages of ballet and opera houses. At the same time these costumes had a theatricality to it that I would like to see in more movie costumes. Especially the Octopus costume was brilliant, in that it both actually looked like an octopus while still being a costume. I know that sounds like a stupid statement but you have to see the sketch to know what I mean. Naturally this is a book only for those who enjoy costume design. If it is not your thing of course you won't enjoy this, but if even the slightest part of you also loves the theatre you will get some pleasure out of this book.

I give this collection...

3 Universes!

Overall this was a great collection of prints. Although there is a lack of information to them, regarding when they were designed and for what etc., they are stunning on their own. I would love to own a hardcover of this book. 3 Universes is due to how selective the readership for this collection is and that it is largely a photo collection.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Review: 'Lying in Wait' by Liz Nugent

I love me a good thriller, especially if it is all wrapped up in dysfunctional family relationships. Thrillers can, unfortunately, be very repetitive, especially with how many thrillers are saturating the market at the moment. Sometimes stories stand out, however, with how different or interesting they are. I've been blessed enough to read, and see, some brilliant thrillers in the last few months and I'm definitely adding Liz Nugent's Lying in Wait to that list. Thanks to Penguin Books and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 29/12/2016
Publisher: Penguin Books UK

The last people who expect to be meeting with a drug-addicted prostitute are a respected judge and his reclusive wife. And they certainly don't plan to kill her and bury her in their exquisite suburban garden.
Yet Andrew and Lydia Fitzsimons find themselves in this unfortunate situation.
While Lydia does all she can to protect their innocent son Laurence and their social standing, her husband begins to falls apart.
But Laurence is not as naïve as Lydia thinks. And his obsession with the dead girl's family may be the undoing of his own.
One of the best things about Lying in Wait is that it grips you right from the beginning with a brilliant opening line:
'My husband did not mean to kill Annie Doyle, but the lying tramp deserved it.'
Not only does it put you right into the mess of the situation, it also immediately gives you a good idea of the characters you will be dealing with. Nugent has split up her novel into separate chapters with separate narrators: Lydia, Laurence and Karen. Having different narrators can both work for and against a novel. On the one hand it will give you a number of  different perspectives upon the same event, priceless in thrillers, but on the other hand it can also distract from the story the novel is trying to tell. I'm sure we've all read novels with multiple narrators where we ended up hating, at least, one of the narrator's chapters passionately. Thankfully no such thing happens in Lying in Wait. Rather, Nugent masterfully crafts her narrative through her characters, never forgetting she is the one who is telling the story in the end. What one character reveals the other shows us unknowingly, what one feels the other senses, while what one does the other completely misinterprets. Being stuck inside three different heads makes for a surprisingly claustrophobic read.

Nugent deals with a lot of different themes within this novel. Of course there is the main story (the whodunnit of sorts), but around that swirl story lines about gender and class. Set in the Ireland of the last century, the women in Lying in Wait find themselves dealing with the expectations of others regarding their behaviour, looks and future. Whether it's sex, pregnancy, marriage, divorce, or simply having a job, Nugent addresses these issues in the stories of Lydia, Annie, Karen and Helen. What makes their portrayal different from other novels depicting women's issues, however, is that Nugent doesn't avoid to discuss class as well. Whereas Lydia is upper class and expects to be treated as such, Annie, Karen and Helen are working class. This divide expresses itself in much more than just the gross outlines of their characters, it colours their journeys throughout the book and shapes their actions and psyches. Although it used to be easy to forget about class as a major Issue, what between feminism and racism being major conversation topics, but with recent events such as Brexit and Trump, it has come right back to the forefront of our social consciousness and it is rewarding to see authors having already brought it back in their works as well.

Liz Nugent is brilliant at slowly but surely developing her characters over hundreds of pages. None of her main characters are the same towards the end of the novel. As I said above, part of this novel is about dysfunctional family relationships, at the heart of which lies love. Whether it is mother-son, husband-wife, sister-sister, once it comes to loving and living together, every reader knows relationships can become difficult. A good author doesn't just know this, but knows how to use it for their novel. Nugent does the latter, the family relationships becoming central to how characters act. The murder, which happens even before the start of the novel, is like the match that sets of the fuse in all the characters' relationships. Nugent's novel covers a range of years, yet never does her story loose its immediacy. Her writing is gripping, not letting the reader go until the last year and then just dropping them into nothing. Lying in Wait is a roller coaster of a read that never really lets you go.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

Lying in Wait genuinely had me by the throat for a few days. Even when I put it down and walked away it was right in the back of my mind. Nugent has definitely won a fan in me with her thrilling writing and great character development. I'd recommend this to fans of psychological thrillers!

Short Review: 'My Cousin Rachel' by Daphne du Maurier

My Cousin RachelI was never a big fan of Hitchcock's The Birds, partially because of the on-set stories and the fact I always found it a little bit boring. But then I read a collection of Daphne du Maurier's short stories and that all changed. Her writing gripped me in a way that this film by "the master of suspense" never did. That is when I decided Rebecca and all of du Maurier's other works were due a read. I've slowly worked my way through her work but had never heard of My Cousin Rachel until I saw a trailer for its upcoming adaptation, which sent me on a frantic reading spree.

Original Pub. Date: 1951
Publisher: Doubleday
Orphaned at an early age, Philip Ashley is raised by his benevolent older cousin, Ambrose. Resolutely single, Ambrose delights in Philip as his heir, a man who will love his grand home as much as he does himself. But the cosy world the two construct is shattered when Ambrose sets off on a trip to Florence. There he falls in love and marries - and there he dies suddenly. Jealous of his marriage, racked by suspicion at the hints in Ambrose's letters, and grief-stricken by his death, Philip prepares to meet his cousin's widow with hatred in his heart. Despite himself, Philip is drawn to this beautiful, sophisticated, mysterious Rachel like a moth to the flame. And yet... might she have had a hand in Ambrose's death?
After finishing My Cousin Rachel I wondered why so much of my du Maurier reading is tied up with the cinema. Upon giving it some thought I realized that it stems from the power of du Maurier's writing. Although she is classed as a romantic writer, her novels and short stories are full of suspense and a broody, dark atmosphere that translates beautifully onto the screen. Her characters are full of secrets and undisclosed desires, her landscapes and mansions come alive for the reader and her stories ring with an echo of the normal and paranormal. It makes for an engrossing read, every single time. Her short stories is what really turned me towards her, since writing good short stories is an art of its own. My Cousin Rachel falls somewhere between a short story and a novel, not as deep as her novels yet also too involved for a short story. In the end, My Cousin Rachel is a rather quick and straightforward narrative which gives a hint of du Maurier's power, yet I think it doesn't give a full taste of all she is capable.

My Cousin Rachel is, in many ways, quite a straightforward story. Written in hindsight, its main character Philip Ashley warns the reader about the unhappy story ahead of them. With its lush Cornwall setting and its purposefully quaint portrayal of the landed gentry, du Maurier sets a sharp contrast between what we see and what is at the heart of things. Everyone might have a secret agenda and ulterior motives, while some of us may also just be fools. The cousin, Rachel, is without a doubt the most interesting and mysterious person in the novella and it is one of my few petty gripes with the story that we never fully get to know her. Of course this is fully on purpose, giving the reader a sense of Philip's despair. Aside from Rachel, there are a fair few of fascinating side characters, some of which may be a little bit flat but still interesting.

I give this novella...

4 Universes!

I really enjoyed reading My Cousin Rachel despite its brevity. du Maurier is a masterful writer and I'm definitely continuing my mission to read more of her work. I'd recommend this to those who want to get a taste for du Maurier but aren't big fans of short stories. I leave you with the trailer that inspired my reading.


Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Review: 'Faithful' by Alice Hoffman

FaithfulMore frequent readers of my blog know that I have always had a soft spot for Alice Hoffman's writing. There is something magical about how she blends the ordinary with the extraordinary which makes reading her books both soothing and exhilarating at the same time. Hence every time I start a new book by her I am both excited and nervous. What if this is the book that falls flat for me? What if the magic is not there? Thankfully Hoffman never disappoints, especially with her latest, Faithful. Thanks to Simon & Schuster and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 01/11/2016
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
From the New York Times bestselling author of The Marriage of Opposites and The Dovekeepers comes a soul-searching story about a young woman struggling to redefine herself and the power of love, family, and fate.
Growing up on Long Island, Shelby Richmond is an ordinary girl until one night an extraordinary tragedy changes her fate. Her best friend’s future is destroyed in an accident, while Shelby walks away with the burden of guilt.
What happens when a life is turned inside out? When love is something so distant it may as well be a star in the sky? Faithful is the story of a survivor, filled with emotion—from dark suffering to true happiness—a moving portrait of a young woman finding her way in the modern world. A fan of Chinese food, dogs, bookstores, and men she should stay away from, Shelby has to fight her way back to her own future. In New York City she finds a circle of lost and found souls—including an angel who’s been watching over her ever since that fateful icy night.
Here is a character you will fall in love with, so believable and real and endearing, that she captures both the ache of loneliness and the joy of finding yourself at last. For anyone who’s ever been a hurt teenager, for every mother of a daughter who has lost her way, Faithful is a roadmap.
Not many books can make me cry but Faithful managed to have me sobbing in the middle of the night. It's easy  to want to write about tragedies, about loss, heartbreak, love and forgiveness, and many authors do try. It's incredibly difficult, however, to create that fine nuance that can make these literary disasters come to life for the reader. Hoffman has perfected the art of writing about human life, and especially about human women. Whether it's her unnamed protagonist in The Ice Queen, Shelby in Faithful or the magical Owen sisters in Practical Magic, Hoffman writes women who live, dream, fear, hope, doubt and believe. Perhaps it is the fairy tale element in many of her books that makes them feel so real, because they are given a struggle. Their life never passes them by, they are never spectators to the happenings in their own inner selves. Novels about women often fall into self-help traps and there was a part of me that was worried Faithful would go there as well. Although this novel does lay out a "roadmap", as the blur above says, it is never pedantic, patronising or preachy. Rather, it is an inspiration.

At the heart of Faithful is Shelby, a teenage girl whose life is derailed by a car accident. Although her friend is the one in a coma, Shelby's life comes to a sharp stop. Grief, survivor's guilt and a whole series of bad events see Shelby reduced not only to a husk of her former self but to, in her own words, 'nothing'. Deeply cynical and yet secretly hopeful, Shelby is straight up lost and she knows it. As the reader follows her journey, Shelby encounters others in the process of finding themselves. This story could so easily have devolved into platitudes and cliches, yet Hoffman tells Shelby's story with an honest kindness. She doesn't leave anything in the dark, yet also never forgets her subjects are human. Shelby grows enormously throughout the novel, finding herself capable where she never expected, broken where she hopes to become fixed, and saved when she least expects it. Although she has an angel watching over her, it is Shelby who travels this road. It is she who makes her choices, who finds herself making choice after choice when she never thought she would be capable of choices.

Hoffman is, rightfully, heaped with praise for her writing and there is not much that a fledgling blogger like me could add to it. Her writing is magical because she finds the extraordinary moments in life, whether it is noticing a shaking hand or a dog's loyal nature. It was these moments which broke my heart because they are true. I was crying at the kindness of strangers, the love of mothers, the trust of children, and the beauty of a starry night. I was also soothed by these exact things. Life can be heartbreaking and heartwarming, it both breaks you and make you, and Hoffman always finds that balance. Although my life has been a lot less tragic than Shelby's, I could identify with her need for forgiveness and for a reason. A reason for everything, for all the things, all the people, all the moments that become a part of your life and not someone else's. It is painful to read someone writing about your emotions, your thoughts, but there is also something rehabilitating about it. Reading Faithful, reading all of Hoffman's books, brings me that healing pain which makes you stronger at the end of a book. It is something I've never found with any other author and it is why I will always treasure Hoffman's books.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

Faithful stunned me, broke me and then put me back together. Yes that sounds dramatic, but I walked away from this novel with an incredibly amount of hope. I will be rereading Faithful numerous times and it will join the list of books that changed me. I'd recommend this, naturally, to fans of Hoffman but also to those who are looking for the magic of writing and the beauty in an ordinary life.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Review: 'Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives' by Leigh Gilmore

As some of you know, I am very interested in women's voices and women's narratives. Although my expertise largely lies in medieval English narratives, I also busy myself with reading up more current explorations of the roles of women within our contemporary world. Thanks to the recent rise of interest in feminism, more books are now seeing the light of day exploring the different ways in which this world is skewed against women. When I read the blurb for Leigh Gilmore's Tainted Witness I knew it was the type of book I wanted to read straightaway. I enjoy academic reads, hence my never-ending desire to stay at universities, especially when they're well-researched and well-written. Thankfully both are true for Tainted Witness and it has been an incredibly enlightening and fascinating read. Thanks to Columbia University Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 17/01/2017
Publisher: Columbia University Press
In 1991, Anita Hill brought testimony and scandal into America's living rooms during televised Senate confirmation hearings in which she detailed the sexual harassment she had suffered at the hands of Clarence Thomas. The male Senate Judiciary Committee refused to take Hill seriously and the veracity of Hill's claims were sullied in the mainstream media. Hill was defamed as "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty," and Thomas went on to be confirmed. The tainting of Hill and her testimony are part of a larger social history in which women find themselves caught up in a system that refuses to believe what they say. The Anita Hill case shows how a tainted witness is not who someone is, but what someone can become. 
Why are women so often considered unreliable witnesses to their own experience? How are women discredited in legal courts and in courts of public opinion? Why is women's testimony so often mired in controversies fueled by histories of slavery and colonialism? Tainted Witness takes up these questions within a rich archive, including Anita Hill's testimony as well as Rigoberta Menchú's account of genocide in Guatemala; Jamaica Kincaid's literary witnessing in Autobiography of My Mother; and news coverage of such stories as Nafissatou Diallo's claim that Dominique Strauss-Kahn raped her. Bringing together legal, literary, and feminist frameworks, Leigh Gilmore provides provocative readings of what happens when women's testimony is discredited. Throughout, Gilmore demonstrates how testimony crosses jurisdictions, publics, and the unsteady line between truth and fiction in search of justice.
In Tainted Witness Gilmore casts her eye over a number of high-profile cases and books which caused controversy and saw female witnesses become "tainted witnesses", disbelieved and vilified, hounded and abused. The desire not to believe what we wish wasn't true means that many victims find themselves abused again as witnesses. Seemingly there are stories every day of victims of sexual assault being victim-blamed, of perpetrators being saved by their class, position and race. Look at how Donald Trump responded to the women who accused him of sexual assault, how the media chose a side and how even "Pussygate" had hardly any impact and then tell me there is no need for a book that looks into why we don't believe female witnesses. But Tainted Witness doesn't just look at sexual assault, it does much more than that. Below I want to give a short description of what Gilmore's book covers since I want to show how much work Tainted Witness does, how much it connects and what it tries to do.

Gilmore's first chapter looks at Anita Hill's testimony during the 1991 Senate confirmation of Clarence Thomas in which race, gender and sexual abuse in the workplace came together. While he was confirmed, she was defames. Gilmore makes an interesting case both for the role race played as an all white hearing questioned the African-American Anita Hill, as well as highlighting the absence of awareness regarding sexual abuse in the work place, for which a legal definition and framework now exists. In her second chapter Gilmore explores the case of Rigoberta Menchú, whose testimonio I, Rigoberta Menchú shed light on the conflict in Guatemala and the massacres of indigenous people. Similarly to Hill, Menchú found her narrative and personal life investigated, her motives questioned and her ideas spurned. The third chapter focuses on the memoir and self-help books, moving from a book such as The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison, which chronicles an incestuous relationship with her estranged father, to Wild by Cheryl Strayed, which tells the author's journey of survival and self-help. Gilmore highlights how some women who tell their stories don't fit how we want victims to look (like Kathryn Harrison) or how self-help books eradicate personal history and background for a universal humanity. Chapter four revisists Mortensens' Three Cups of Tea as well as Jay Kristoff's Half the Sky and how the stories of underpriviliged or "other" girls (read: non-Western girls) are used by humanitarians to sell a story. In the guise of telling the witness' story, Gilmore shows how their stories are, in a way, appropriated and abused. The picture of a girl in a hijab has become a rallying cry, for all the wrong reasons. The final chapter looks at the testimony of Nafissatou Diallo, who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of rape and was vindicated in the Bronx court, as well as Jamaica Kincaid's novel The Autobiography of my Mother in which her perhaps unlikeable main character grows up loveless, as well as with the burden of her homeland's (Dominica) colonial past. These two women allow Gilmore to contrast a witness in court to a literary witness. Diallo was equally vilified, if not worse, as Anita Hill and her case allows Gilmore to analyse the he said/she said formula which somehow still always ends up in his favour. In her conclusion Gilmore explores the feminist roots of #BlackLivesMatter and how its activists make themselves knowing witnesses, publicising that which others would like to remain secret.

The role of witness is a difficult one, since it often involves personal morals, prejudices and expectations. Since women already receive less credibility than men, thanks to centuries of writing on "men's superior intellect", it makes the position of a female witness a very difficult one. Gilmore covers a whole range of subjects, yet her writing on sexual abuse victims/witnesses is what struck me most. Between 2 and 10% of reported rape claims are found to be false, which is both an incredibly small number and a terrifying number considering about only one out of 10 rapes is reported. The dangerous thing about rape culture and the narratives we build around rape cases is that many of us become a part of it. The famous he said/she said formula is one we all use and all recognise, yet it is one which is fundamentally skewed because it opens up both the victim and perpetrator to the same level of scrutiny. Female witnesses are tainted by this scrutiny in a way male witnesses often are not, and Gilmore's precise and detailed research into the above cases really brings this home. Although Tainted Witness is dense and at times complicated, it is a very rewarding read. 

I give this book...
4 Universes!

Tainted Witness is very dense but it has a lot of important things to say. It is a fascinating insight into the role of witnesses and how the legal framework works regarding female witnesses. Although one would like to hope female witnesses have it easier now, statistics as the one above regarding reported rapes show that the fear of being tainted still stops many women from reporting crimes. I will be looking for a hardcover version of this book because I want to reread it and highlight it, write notes and thoughts, comb its bibliography for more books to read and borrow it to other people ready to be enlightened.