Thursday, 28 August 2014

Review: The Art of Baking Blind by Sarah Vaughan

I can think of nothing more comforting than curling up with a hot chocolate, a thick slice of my favourite cake, and a good book.

So when I saw The Art of Baking Blind by Sarah Vaughan, my eyes lit up (and my stomach started rumbling) - a book about a baking competition? This caters to my great love of comfort reading, and my love/obsession with Great British Bake Off.

Eadens, an upmarket supermarket chain, is on the search for the next Kathryn Eaden. Kathryn's 1960s guide to baking is found in homes up and down the country, and the five bakers competing - Jenny, Claire, Mike, Vicki and Karen - are no exception. As they bake, they find their cakes and breads are not the only things they have to worry about perfecting

I was expecting The Art of Baking Blind to be a light, fluffy, sweet read, like a good Victoria sponge. I was completely surprised, however, to find that Vaughan has actually created something a lot deeper, and, at times, darker.

In the present we meet our five bakers both at home and in the competition venue. Matronly Jenny is finding it increasingly difficult to make her husband, who has taken up marathon running and seems to be turning increasingly more cruel, happy. Perfect Karen is clearly hiding some secrets behind her polished appearance. Vicki is struggling with being a stay at home mum. Single mum Claire is wondering how she'll measure up to everyone else, and Mike is bringing up his two children after the death of his wife. So far, so fairly typical - none of Vaughan's characters seem to have any problems you haven't seen before on the page or the screen. The inclusion of Mike seems to me to be to balance things out and include a token male (we don't spend enough time with him for me to really get to know or care about him), but apart from that, as The Art of Baking Blind progresses, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Vaughan has created complex characters whose problems aren't two dimensional, and who surprised me throughout.

Interspersed between the present day storyline is the tale of Kathleen Eaden, a seemingly perfect 1960s housewife. As she works on her baking book, which will become a classic, we find out that Kathleen is struggling to have children. Vaughan takes this into a much darker, more tragic direction than I expected. It makes difficult reading at times, but I found myself eager to get to the next stage of Kathleen's story. To be honest, I probably could have just read an entire book about Kathleen - I found her fascinating and liked and sympathised with her more than with anyone else in the book.

Wrapped as it is in a cover full of pastel colours and swirly white writing, it would be easy to dismiss The Art of Baking Blind as a frivolous book, but props go to Vaughan for creating something that has a lot of depth, and that will have you feeling emotionally wrung out in places. A slice of cake should help with that though.

How I got this: From the publisher, Hodder & Stoughton. This did not affect my review.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

TV recap: The 100 episode eight, Day Trip

Last time on The 100, the Ark and The 100 finally made contact, but the tidings from both sides weren't great. Clarke managed to save Finn's life, using torture of the handsome Grounder along the way. That handsome Grounder revealed to Octavia he can understand and speak English, changing the game for us as viewers. On the Ark, the population found out that earth is survivable, but the Council discovered that, in a Titanic-like situation, there aren't enough ships to get everyone to earth.

The Grounder is still tied up in The 100's drop ship, looking a tiny bit better than before. Bellamy's keeping guard, and when one of The 100 comes up after telling various people on the Ark their children are dead, Bellamy for once does the honourable thing, and says they're not killing the Grounder.

Meanwhile Clarke is talking to the Council, who are offering advice about how The 100 can try and survive the winter, which is apparently going to be very, very cold. Chancellor Jaha tries to appeal to Clarke to speak to her mother, but she's having none of it.

The 100 are preparing for winter by gathering and sorting what look like nuts, and flaying squirrels. One of the previously anonymous members of the gang, a strapping young lad named Dax, goes in to talk to his mum and instead faces that security guy who persuaded Bellamy to shoot Jaha. It seems he's now covering his back, and asks Dax to kill Bellamy in exchange for a prime job when the rest of the people on the Ark get to the ground.

Like all good brothers and sisters, Bellamy and Octavia are still fighting (how many episodes has this been now?). Unlike most siblings, the reason for their fight is that Bellamy is still holding the Grounder hostage. Octavia makes a good point - the Grounder is only dangerous because of what The 100 did to him. The Grounder looks tough, but he seems to have a heart of gold under all that tanned, muscled, tattooed skin (excuse me *fans self*).

Clarke appeals to Bellamy to come with her to find the supply store the Council has given her the coordinates too. She doesn't want to be near Finn (he's still recovering, and looking super cute while doing so), and Bellamy wants to get away from camp, so the two head off together, with Bellamy taking a suspiciously large amount of rations with him. Seeing them go, Dax grabs his knife and follows...

Quick to grab an opportunity, Octavia checks Bellamy is really gone and then wait until the guy guarding the Grounder steps away. She heads up to see the Grounder, and it seems she's intent on helping him escape at some point. She clearly has feelings for him - and he clearly returns them since he tells her he's called Lincoln - and I'm not sure it's going to end well. Which gives me a chance to talk to about ages again. I know I addressed it a few weeks ago, but Octavia can only be 17 at most. Lincoln is clearly not 17. Clearly. In fact, he looks way, way too old for her. We'll pretend, for the sake of sanity, that he's no older than 25.

Raven is confronted by Octavia over her part in the torture of Lincoln, but Raven is sticking to her guns, even when Octavia taunts her by telling her Finn has feelings for Clarke. Raven usually wouldn't be one to take this kind of thing lying down, but this time she chooses to. Sort of. She heads back to Finn and seduces him. The encounter is sort of romantic and hot, but mostly really, really sad, because Finn tries to confess to sleeping with Clarke, and Raven tells him she knows. Awkward.

Clarke and Bellamy are "bonding" during their walk in the woods. It's not going well - Clarke is hopeful that Jaha will pardon Bellamy for shooting him, Bellamy is not so sure. Clarke finds a door - just in time, because Dax was getting ready to pounce on Bellamy and kill him. Our intrepid leaders head into the bunker with only lamplight for illumination. Romantic (by The 100's standards). The bunker isn't as fruitful as the pair hope, as supplies have mainly gone. And then Bellamy finds an oil barrel full of guns. Because what The 100 need, after torturing Lincoln, is to get their hands on real weapons.

At camp, Monty and Jasper, who had been sorting nuts for ration packs, seem to be incredibly high. Jasper heads outside and starts hallucinating, but thankfully Octavia puts two and two together, comforting him and realising that it's the nuts that have hallucinatory properties. We think Octavia's being nice, but she uses the problem to her advantage, giving a supply of nuts to Lincoln's guard and waiting for him to get high.

Bellamy's happy to have found the guns - and he's eating nuts, which I'm sure will come back to haunt him later. He tells Clarke she needs to learn how to use a gun, and DID YOU SEE THAT? Did you see the look on his face when he was behind Clarke? He clearly has realised he likes her - yay!

And then Bellamy drops a bombshell. He's not going back to camp, he's going to run away. He figures Jaha will kill him when the people from the Ark get to earth, and since Octavia hates him there's no point sticking around. The confrontation between Clarke and Bellamy doesn't go well, so Bellamy heads outside for fresh air, and sees Jaha in front of him. Yep, that would be the nuts making him hallucinate. Fake Jaha basically says out loud all the things Bellamy has been dreading hearing.

In the bunker, Clarke is also high, probably for the first time in her life. She sees herself back in her cell on The Ark, and then her dad appears. Fake dad comforts Clarke, giving her the parental support she's been craving. But even high, Clarke realises what she's seeing isn't real, although it doesn't stop Clarke and fake dad talking about Clarke's argument with her mum, and whether or not Clarke should forgive her. And then fake dad turns into the very real Dax, who knocks Clarke out.

Now that the whole camp (bar Finn and Raven) is high, Octavia takes the opportunity to break Lincoln out of his shackles and help him out of camp. And just before he escapes, Lincoln kisses Octavia. Guh. It goes from hot to funny fast, as we see Raven trying to keep Monty calm by telling him he's "the most beautiful broom in a broom closet of brooms" (winning line of the series so far). Heh. And Finn is chucking all the rest of the nuts in the fire and comforting weepy, high girls when he spots Lincoln making his way out of camp. Pacifist that he is, Finn nods his head at him and just lets him go.

In the forest, Bellamy's fake Jaha has been joined by the hundreds of people who died on the Ark after Bellamy destroyed the radio. He might have been tough up to now, but it's clear that the deaths of the 300 people on the Ark has been haunting Bellamy for a while. He begs for death, but fake Jaha tells Bellamy (while beating him up) that he has to fight back, and earn his life. And then Bellamy wakes up to find Dax standing over him. As he points a gun at Bellamy, Clarke comes out of nowhere and points a gun at Dax, and we have a stand off. Bellamy comes to his senses as shots are fired, and manages to beat Dax up, before stabbing him in the neck. One more to add to Bellamy's death count, but this one was entirely justified and in self defence.

And finally, finally, Clarke and Bellamy really bond. Bellamy spills his heart out to Clark, telling her he's a monster. Clarke tells Bellamy she needs him, that all of The 100 do. She tells him she forgives him, and her words seem to get through. Bellamy has a lesson for Clarke too - she needs to face her mum. Making my heart happy, Clarke and Bellamy finish their chat by sitting in silence together, and just being.

The camp discovers Lincoln has disappeared, just in time for Bellamy and Clarke to reappear, with their sack full of guns. Training starts the next morning, but before that there's enough time for Bellamy to reach out to his sister, who isn't quite ready to forgive him just yet, although she is softening. And Bellamy faces another of his fears by talking to Jaha, with Clarke by his side. Bellamy uses his bargaining chip - if Jaha pardons him, Bellamy will tell him who gave the kill order.

Having bonded with Bellamy, Clarke is now a bit more reluctant to listen to Finn, who tries to persuade her guns aren't the answer. Finn tells her she's leading them down a dangerous road and that she should have spoken to him first, and in a perfect comeback Clarke tells Finn there's a lot he should have spoken to her about. Burn.

On the Ark
Not many scenes on the Ark this week, but the few that there are prove crucial. We see a brief glimpse of Diana and Jaha having a disagreement, and then revisit the Ark towards the end to see Kane arrest the guard who ordered Bellamy to kill Jaha.

And then, AND THEN, Diana vists that guard in his jail cell and gets one of her cronies to kill him. Woah. I knew she was bad from the moment I saw her.

Solid ground?
On the Ark, this week's episode succinctly moved the game up a notch, and into more dangerous territory as we learnt of Diana's plan to off Jaha, while the same happened on the ground. With the hallucinations and the fact that most of the characters spent the entire time on screen high, this week's episode could have been ridiculous. Instead, we got some really lovely moments, which helped bring characters previously apart together in a meaningful way. For me this episode was about Clarke and Bellamy bonding, and anytime my ship is happy (relatively speaking) I'm happy.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

TV recap; The 100, episode seven, Contents Under Pressure

Last time on The 100, we found out a lot more about Bellamy, including that he would do just about anything for his sister Octavia, and that he was employed to shoot Chancellor Jaha by one of the guards aboard the Ark. And as we found out more about a character we've known the whole series but didn't really know, we also got introduced to a new one - a handsome Grounder full of contradictions, who helped Octavia, kidnapped her, and then let her go.

Well, hasn't The 100 taken a turn for the dark, and wasn't that turn down to the one character you least expected it from? After weeks of a slow burn and the odd flashes of violence, this week The 100 engaged in flow blown torture, of an innocent man no less, and that torture was mostly down to Clarke, who has spent the series so far urging The 100 to stay calm and not lose their humanity. So how did Clarke get to this point?

It's an easy enough question to answer - Finn. Injured during the group's encounter with the Grounder, Finn is, it's no exaggeration to say, in mortal peril. His wound is beyond Clarke's healing skills, and she desperately needs Raven, herself upset over her boyfriend's injury, to set up a connection with the Ark as soon as possible so Clarke can get medical guidance from her mum.

In a show of solidarity, Clarke and Raven come together to help heal Finn, the former offering the latter the reassurance she needs to get on with the job. It can't be easy, since both of them can see the dirty great dagger sticking out of Finn's chest. But Raven, because she rocks, succeeds.

And Clarke speaks to her mum for the first time since finding out she was responsible for the death of her father. It's tense, and becomes tenser still when Clarke has to tell Chancellor Jaha that Wells died. She giveth with one hand and taketh away with the other.

Bellamy and co return to the ship with the Grounder, tied up like a Christmas turkey and having about as much fun. While the women (Clarke, Raven and Octavia) are saving lives, the men are upstairs tying the Grounder up and trying to extract information from him. Octavia confronts Bellamy, but she's no match for her brother's anger. While it's clear the Grounder feels some affection for Octavia, he's not giving much else away (and Bellamy is too caught up in himself to realise that perhaps having Octavia be nice to the Grounder might be a better way to get the information he needs).

Downstairs, Clarke and Raven are trying to pull the knife from Finn's chest, and they, against the odds, succeed. It's not pretty, but it works. Just in time, because a huge gust of wind jolts the whole ship, causing Finn to go flying. The moment increases the respect Raven has for Clarke, bonding the two women who were previously 'enemies'.

Bellamy's still trying to get the Grounder to talk, and he only becomes more determined when he discovers that the Grounder has drawn multiple pictures of Octavia. Uh oh. Big brother is getting protective again. Clarke heads up to see Bellamy, arguing to him that torturing the Grounder will only make their enemies hate The 100 more, not less. Bellamy is talking of wars, while Clarke tells him they're not soldiers.

Pulling that knife out of Finn's chest isn't quite enough, he seems to have caught some sort of infection, and since there's no medicine and the connection to the Ark has dropped in the storm, Clarke needs another solution. And then she realises the knife that was used to stab Finn with was poisoned, and she leaps upstairs to confront the Grounder. The Grounder refuses to speak, even when Octavia pleads with him. So Bellamy offers torture as a solution, and Clarke endorses it, and watches. Suddenly Clarke has morphed from a healer into a soldier, the very thing she told Bellamy they were not.

The Grounder is not giving up his secrets, and Bellamy decides to escalate the torture (and it gets pretty gross). In a little twist, Bellamy tells Clarke she can leave - is our brooding hero developing feelings for Clarke? Please yes. His protective nature is extending to cover Clarke, not just Octavia, but it's a different kind of protection (the romantic kind). That doesn't work, and then Raven gets involved, rocking less than she did earlier, using electricity to torture the Grounder while screaming about how she needs Finn and he's all that she's got. And that doesn't work.

So Octavia, more in tune with human emotion than any of the others, does the only thing that does work - cuts herself with the poisoned knife to get the Grounder to reveal which vial in his kit is the antidote. AND IT WORKS.

So Finn is saved, which is about the only good thing. As he heals Clarke breaks down, finally overcome by all that she's gone through, and caused. She finally talks to her mum, but it doesn't go well, with Clarke confessing she knows Abby was responsible for her dad's death.

Remorseful, Clarke goes to clean up the Grounder, who is having none of it. He lets Octavia help, giving the two women the chance to talk. Octavia is not letting anyone who helped torture the Grounder get away with it, and he knows. Despite being covered in blood and completely black and blue, the Grounder and Octavia have a moment, and he thanks her. HE CAN SPEAK ENGLISH. It's a secret that Octavia is more than willing to keep.

Finn wakes up and he and Clarke have a moment while Raven sleeps nearby. Clarke decides to give up on Finn, realising Raven needs him more. It won't stop the longing looks between Clarke and Finn though.

Outside, the storm has passed and The 100 are clearing up. Clearing away the memories of the knight are not going to be so easy, but Bellamy's advice to Clarke is that who she is and who she needs to be to survive can co-exist. Finally, Clarke understands that being a ruler doesn't mean being good all the time.

On the Ark
Abby is put on trial in front of the Council for her plethora of crimes, but Kane and the Council decide her medical expertise is needed. While the Council chats, a crackle comes through the communications systems, but it's only momentary.

Determined to get the Council to listen to her, Abby says the group need to investigate the flares that she saw, but Kane tells her she's pedalling in false hope. It's false hope that's turned upside down when Raven finally gets a signal through to the Ark, telling the whole ship that The 100 are alive.

And wait, who's this blonde woman knocking at Jaha's door? A former Chancellor, Diana seems to have fallen from grace and is now the confidante for the Ark's poorest. She's here to advocate on their behalf, but to be honest, I don't like her. Her power play is ill-timed, but she also clearly knows what she's talking about and has the ear of the common folk. She offers herself as a sounding board, and it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end, and not in a good way.

Kane heads back down to see his mum, who has set up a vigil for those on the Ark who sacrificed themselves. Kane is full of remorse, and it's the most feeling we've seen out of him since the series started. He's gone from being a one-sided villain to a complex character who is deeply flawed but very human and, dare I say it, likeable. And we find out that Kane's actions have all been because he wants to help.

Jaha confesses to the people of the Ark that the Council sent The 100 to the ground, and reveals that the earth is survivable. The news is greeted with disbelief, and it's Jaha's heartbroken confession that he lost Wells that gets the people on side. That, and Diana, who swoops in with a speech to appeal to the masses. And with that, she's ingratiated herself with both the Council and the people. This cannot end well.

On the opposite side of the smarmy Diana is the lovely Kane. I know I said this a few weeks ago, but remember when Kane was a villain? He's definitely not anymore, and I completely love him. Also, his newfound loveliness provides me with a new ship - Kane and Abby 4eva.

In a day of bad news and to end the episode, Jaha and Diana tell the Council that there are not enough ships to carry all of the Ark's population to the ground. Dun dun dun.

Solid ground?
This was a week where everything got turned upside down.

It was a week for powerful women - on the ground Clarke, Raven and Octavia were saving lives and/or destroying them, while on the Ark, a woman was making a play for power while another found her faith justified. The 100 definitely isn't afraid to have its female characters standing tall and in the centre, acting as leaders, healers, soldiers and more.

But of course, the most interesting aspect this week was the descent of the rational characters into irrationality. It's Clarke who proves the greatest surprise, and we see a side of her character that we never suspected existed. Having time and time again stopped The 100 from descending into chaos Clarke finally breaks. Her feelings for Finn override her sense of good and bad, and she becomes someone who sees a piece of information she needs, and only one way to get it. It's brutal to watch but really fits the character, and also makes the viewer question what they would do in the same situation - torture is undeniably wrong, but if someone you loved was dying and another person refused the information you knew could save them, how far would you go to get it? It's an uncomfortable question, but I love that The 100 is not afraid to ask it.

Finally, let's take a moment to appreciate the way The 100 uses the earth and the crashed spaceship to its full advantage, and the composition of the scenes on the ground. The stormy, rain soaked night is the perfect backdrop to the tense goings on, and the spaceship is a great setting - claustrophobic, heightening everyone's emotions in an already tense situation. The bright lights used in the room where the Grounder is being held captive shine a light, literally, on The 100's wrongdoings, with every wound on the Grounder's body cruelly visible. Down where Finn is being treated, the dim lighting would, in another situation, be romantic, but it's disturbingly the complete opposite. And in the final scene on the ground, the metaphor of the rain washing everything clean is cruelly used, because you know Clarke and Bellamy will never feel clean again after what they did.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Review: Hand to Mouth by Linda Tirado

It's easy to judge people less well off than yourself, to comment on why they might be on benefits, or to wonder why they spend money on cigarettes when they can barely feed themselves.

Our television screens are full of programmes about people living on the breadline, but many of them (the programmes) present a one-sided, often snide view. Linda Tirado's Hand to Mouth: The Truth About Being Poor in a Wealthy World is the counterpoint to all those reality shows, offering intelligent, well-thought out and firm arguments about why poor people are poor, and how society is hard-wired to make it difficult for people to lift themselves out of poverty.

Tirado's book came about after she replied to a question on a forum asking why poor people did things that seemed so self-destructive. Her response, which is used in the introductory chapter of the book, took on a life of its own, as people responded (well and badly).

In Hand to Mouth Tirado expands on her arguments. She uses examples from her own life to illustrate how poor people are maligned every day of their lives, and how behaviour which passes without comment or judgement when wealthy people do it is seen as terrible when a poor person partakes.

Work takes centre stage, with plenty of commentary about Tirado's past jobs and the difficulties, and horrors, she suffered - from being propositioned by bosses and customers, to the nightmare that is trying to balance two (or four) jobs, none of which pay well and none of which have bosses who will accommodate the other. From the off, Tirado quashes the stereotype of poor people not wanting to work or being hard workers - it's clear that she is not the exception when it comes to people in poverty and their struggles with work.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book was that about healthcare, even though, as Brits, we are lucky enough to have the NHS at our disposal and so don't have the same difficulties accessing healthcare as Americans. Not only does Tirado talk about the expense of healthcare, but she also takes it one step further and shows how a lack of healthcare leads to things like not being able to get good jobs, which spirals into not having enough money and so on. It's a connection I, naively, never really thought about.

The best thing about Tirado's book is the humour shown throughout, and the wonderful voice. Tirado is not afraid to use the odd (sometimes more) swear word, or tell it like it is, and that's refreshing. My favourite part of the book was towards the end, when Tirado writes a letter to rich people, which is so on the mark it's funny (I had a job where I sat through meetings like the ones she describes and she's spot on).

Tirado's book doesn't have all the answers, in fact, it's not really a book about answers. It's a book about questions and about highlighting problems, and about trying to make people understand. We all saw (and perhaps took part in) the Occupy demonstrations, we've signed petitions against the cutting of legal aid or against the bedroom tax, but it's only by reading a considered book like Tirado's that I've come to have the slightest understanding of what problems are faced by such a large number of people every day. Hand to Mouth is required reading for everyone.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Virago. This did not affect my review.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Review: Far From You by Tess Sharpe

Obsession - is it ever healthy for you, and if so, at what point does it become dangerous?

For Sophie in Tess Sharpe's Far From You, her obsession with finding out who caused her best friend's death is dangerous from the beginning, because Mina was murdered. Everyone believes it's because OxyContin-addicted Sophie was looking for a hit, and Mina was murdered by a drug dealer, but Sophie's clean, and she knows the truth.

As Sophie struggles to find out who killed Mina, she must also piece her life back together - get her parents to trust her again, get Mina's brother Trev to see her in a new light, and, most importantly of all, Sophie must learn to let go of Mina.

Far From You is a murder mystery brilliantly nestled in the centre of a book examining loyalty, love, friendship, guilt, and obsession. Sharpe takes us deeply into the world of a teenager who has suffered extensively - Sophie was in an almost-fatal car crash when she was 14, Mina's brother was driving - and then piles some more misery on her protagonist. The result is a story about human resilience.

Sharpe structures Far From You with chapters told chronologically in the present, as Sophie leaves rehab and tracks down Mina's killer, alternating with chapters told out of order from the past, covering the period after Sophie's car crash to the period just after Mina's death. Originally, I thought I wouldn't have much use for the chapters from the past, but they actually give a huge insight into not just Sophie, but also Sophie and Mina's friendship.

And goodness, is that friendship intense. It's built not just on two girls getting on, but also on shared experiences (Mina was also in the car crash that hurt Sophie), possibly a bit of guilt, and a bit of possessiveness and obsession. As we flit back and forth through the lives of the girls, we see the things that bind them together, and the things that could possibly pull them apart, and come to learn why Sophie feels it is on her to find Mina's killer.

Sophie is an interesting character. She's likeable in parts, and in other parts just barrels into the reader with her forcefulness, so you can't help but be swept along with her, and trust in her completely. She is, in some ways, acting towards the reader like Mina acted towards her. The times I didn't like Sophie as much were when I felt she was hurting Trev, because I absolutely loved Trev. He's a wonderfully sweet, vulnerable, secondary character, the complete opposite of Sophie. He's suffered as much as she has, just in different ways, and his love for Sophie is built on a bed of guilt.

In addition to being a character study, Far From You is a deft murder mystery which had me guessing until just before the big reveal, when the pieces clicked in my mind as they did in Sophie's. Sharpe weaves together two crimes and brings them to a satisfying conclusion, even as Sophie knows that finding Mina's murderer does not give her the immediate closure that's good for her.

Far From You is a very, very well-written YA book, which has depth of character and depth of emotion. It'll leave you feeling a bit like you've been through the wringer and will stay with you, but, like Sophie, you'll be able to take a deep breath at the end and start letting go.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Indigo. This did not affect my review.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

TV recap: The 100 episode six, His Sister's Keeper

Last time on The 100, Raven made it to earth, but Bellamy destroyed her radio, meaning The 100's attempt to contact the Ark came too late - 300-odd people volunteered to be killed to prolong the survival of the others in space in a highly emotional episode. Meanwhile, Octavia ran off after arguing with Bellamy, and knocked herself unconscious, only to wake up in the cave of a grounder.

Bellamy's on the hunt for Octavia, but Clarke is intent on making him feel guilty for destroying the radio which could have saved hundreds of people on the Ark. Much as I love Bellamy, I'm glad it's not been forgotten that he broke the one thing that could have allowed easy communication between The 100 and the Ark. Clarke soon becomes concerned about Octavia, but still manages to be mean to Bellamy, telling him she's only helping because of Octavia, not because of him.

Octavia wakes up in the Grounder's cave and discovers her leg is hurt. The Grounder comes in with a burning hot sword, and uses it to suture her leg. Yikes.

At camp, Bellamy sends out search parties for Octavia, and Jasper, who hasn't been out since Grounders shot a spear at him, is determined to go. Bellamy also wants Finn as tracker. In this time of emergency, Finn is getting his hair cut by Raven. On the one hand, it's a really silly thing to be doing, on the other, while it makes him look a little less like Prince Caspian, the haircut does make him hotter. Finn doesn't look very enthusiastic, but he's clearly trying to keep on Raven's good side ahead of confessing to her about his tryst with Clarke (who he tells he has feelings for).

Just before the search parties head out, the group spot what looks like a gorgeous meteor shower. Raven says it means the Ark didn't get The 100's rocket-fuelled message. Bellamy doesn't understand, until Clarke points out that the beautiful lights are actually a funeral - the bodies of the Ark's dead being released into space. Raven stays behind to try and fix the radio to communicate with the Ark, and Clarke stays to take her to the "art supply store" to see if they can find parts. Uh oh, Clarke taking Finn's girlfriend to the scene of Clarke and Finn's crime. Not good.

Octavia wakes up again (hopefully she'll get something more exciting to do this episode) and discovers her leg is mended (I think, it's hard to tell, the cave scenes are super dark). She tries to climb/crawl her way out of the space, while Bellamy and the search party come across a ripped bit of her clothing on a branch (I think, this bit is really dark too). And then they find signs of blood, and see footprints that definitely aren't Octavia's.

Although Bellamy doesn't know it, Octavia is far from dead, still trying to  figure out a way out of the cave. She manages to find a really narrow, horrible tunnel and drags herself through it. The search party, meanwhile, finds a warning from the Grounders to stay away - skeletons strung up in the trees. The younger Blake is making her way through the tiny tunnel - obviously having flashbacks to her time spent hiding under floors while on the Ark (which has a one-child policy, it seems).

Clarke and Raven fail to bond while on their way to the art supply store, especially when Raven talks about how Finn used to help her on the Ark. Still, it's not as bad as what's happening with Bellamy and co, who are being picked off one by one. The group start running off, although first we get a scene where Raven finds the necklace Finn made for Clarke, and realises that her boyfriend slept with Clarke. While I'm enjoying the drama of the love triangle, the most interesting part is obviously the battle between the Grounders and The 100, so to move away from that is annoying.

Octavia makes it out of the cave, and is promptly faced with the Grounder who captured her again (hello, guy from Hollyoaks). He sweeps her off her feet (actual sweeping off of feet) and heads back to the cave with her. She tries talking to him, but his lack of response leads her to believe he can't understand her. This time, when they return to the cave, the Grounder ties her up so she can't escape.

At least she's only dealing with one Grounder - Bellamy and the rest are being chased down by lots, all armed with weapons and intent on killing them. And then suddenly, a horn rings out, the warning that acid fog is approaching. The gang hide, but the acid fog doesn't appear - could someone have blown the warning horn to help them?

Back at camp, Raven is working on fixing the radio. Clarke tries to talk to her, and Raven confronts her about sleeping with Finn. Clarke confesses under very little pressure. Finn doesn't know it, but he's lucky he's in the forest being chased by Grounders. The girls have a minor fight, but it's refreshing that it doesn't end in bitch slaps. In fact, it's rather mournful - Raven's question of whether Clarke feels something for Finn is answered by Clarke's "I hardly know him".

Finally, finally, Bellamy and co find the cave Octavia is in, and free her. But that's not enough, they wait for the Grounder to come back and beat him up - what a way to make friends. In the kerfuffle, Finn is injured. Bellamy manages to get him back to camp, but it's not good. Clarke can only do so much, she needs to advice of her mother to get Finn through this.

The whole episode is predicated on Bellamy searching for his sister, but the pair end the episode fighting yet again. Octavia blames Bellamy for everything - Finn's injury, her imprisonment, their mum's death. I know Bellamy isn't a saint, but we've seen he cares deeply for his sister. He doesn't do himself any favours though, telling Octavia in anger that his life ended the day she was born. And so she runs off again. And we're right back where we started.

On the Ark
Flashbacks were at the centre of this episode, and finally gave us an insight into Bellamy's psyche, and his relationship with Octavia. The episode opened with Bellamy's mother giving birth to Octavia, and telling him Octavia is his responsibility. No pressure there for a young child (Bellamy looks to be aged around eight). It's clear from the off that Bellamy takes his mother's words to heart, and makes her a promise that he'll protect her and not let anything bad happen to her.

In more flashbacks we see Octavia (now about 10) and Bellamy (I'm guessing around 18 and played again by a clean-cut Bob Morley) hanging out, while their mother sews. A beeping noise leads their mum to say "it's time". Time for Octavia to hide under the floorboards while Bellamy and his mum pretend to the guards everything is okay. Mum's official job is seamstress, but it's clear from her interactions with the guard that she's also prostituting herself to save her family. Bellamy, noticing that Octavia isn't completely hidden, almost jeopardises his own future, acting rudely towards the guard who could possibly give him a job in the future. However important work is, Bellamy clearly sees his first job as protecting his sister.

Still, Bellamy makes it to a guard position (thanks to his mum). He heads back to his home to get an (older) Octavia, and tells her that she can leave the flat for the first time in her life to attend a masquerade ball. Obviously, nothing bad is going to happen here. In sweet scenes, we see Bellamy guiding Octavia out into the world, and Octavia in awe of the everything in the Ark and having fun dancing (cute moment where Jasper sees Octavia and immediately fancies her). And then it all goes to pot, as the guards discover Octavia, and arrest her, despite Bellamy begging his boss for mercy.

Octavia is imprisoned, her mother floated, and Bellamy is demoted to the position of cleaner. Returning home, he is visited by his former boss, who has been promoted. Turns out, the Commander wants Bellamy to kill Chancellor Jaha. Woah. Didn't see that coming. These flashbacks have brought us full circle. The Commander promises Bellamy that he'll get him a place on the ship if Bellamy shoots Jaha. Questions, questions - was the commander working alone? Who is his boss? Is it Kane?

Solid ground?
What an episode. This is the second time we've had a flashback heavy episode, and it worked a lot better this time round. I loved seeing a completely different side to Bellamy, and it was interesting and insightful to see how he became the person he is in the present. There's clearly a good guy underneath, but he's been betrayed many a time, and had to abandon his childhood once Octavia was born, and it's turned him into a dour older brother, from the fun-loving, caring guy we saw in the flashbacks.

While it was important for us to get that insight into Bellamy, what this episode was really about was setting up The 100 and the Grounders as enemies. Or was it? The one Grounder we saw properly was actually pretty nice (apart from the whole tying Octavia up in a cave thing). The others, well, they're probably just reacting to strangers being in their territory. It's not right, but could there be more to the Grounders? They seem pretty advanced, something The 100 would do well not to ignore.

With Finn injured, next week we're sure to get a heartstopper of an episode.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Review: The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

As soon as The Queen of the Tearling arrived on my desk, beautifully wrapped in brown paper and string (thanks Bantam Press), I knew it was going to the top of my to-read list. 

And that was before I read that it was being turned into a film, with Emma Watson and Harry Potter producer David Heyman on board. It's fair to say, then, that this book had some expectations to meet.

Kelsea Glynn has grown up in the forest, her only contact her foster parents Barty and Carlin. She's always known she is the Queen of the Tearling kingdom, and at last, her dead mother's guards have come to collect her and take her to the Tearling to claim her throne.

But for Kelsea, learning to be a queen means earning the trust and respect of her guard, fighting off all those who want to kill her, and coming to terms with the reality that her mother, Elyssa, was far from a noble, philanthropic, strong queen.

The Queen of the Tearling's best point, and the one that has to be addressed first, is its protagonist. Kelsea is inspirational, frustrating, mature, childish, heartbroken - in other words, she's a really well formed, very realistic character (as much as a fictional queen of a fantasy world can be). She's idealistic, and as soon as she sees wrongdoing knows she must set it right, but she doesn't fully consider the consequences and lets her heart guide her. She's tough and a fighter, but still harbours a very female desire to be seen as beautiful as well as clever and brave (which is very honest, it's okay for feminists to want to be pretty). And she perseveres in the face of disappointment after disappointment, knowing she has a responsibility to her people.

One of the things I love most about Kelsea is that she has to prove herself. Often, heroes are mostly full formed when you meet them. Yes, they might have to overcome some adversity, but they almost always immediately display all the heroic characteristics needed to succeed. Kelsea is different. Johansen gives us a character who is far from a queen at the beginning of the novel, despite all the work Barty and Carlin have done with her, and over the course of the book thrusts her into situations where she is likely to fail, and up against people who would do her down, or who don't believe in her. It's up to Kelsea to work out what needs to be done, to toughen herself up, to know when to show compassion, and to battle through even when those closest to her are against her. And as she does that, she becomes more and more queenly, so that by the end of the novel, we as readers fully believe in her power.

The Queen of the Tearling is a character driven novel. As well as Kelsea, there are some brilliant secondary characters including Mace, her guard; the mysterious Fetch, a thief; and of course the enemy Queen of Mortmesne, and her Tearling "representative" Thorne. But alongside the character, a good fantasy needs a well-formed world, and I think Johansen mostly achieves this. The Tearling, Mortmesne and their surroundings are well described, and you can picture the forests and fields that Kelsea journeys through, as well as imagine the Tearling and its many different neighbourhoods. 

Where The Queen of the Tearling slightly falls down is on some of its mythology. This isn't just a fantasy, it's an alternative history (or future?) fantasy. America, Britain and the rest of earth existed, as did all mod cons like drugs, but then something happened and there was a Crossing, which resulted in the world of the novel. The Crossing isn't very well explained, and I'm hoping that Johansen comes to address this in future novels, and make clearer what happened. During the first novel, mentions of Britain and so on felt a little jarring, and took me out of my fantasy mindset for a moment.

However, that's my only complaint. Putting that to one side, The Queen of the Tearling is a wonderful novel. If Johansen carries on the way she does, the series is sure to be well deserving of the epic fantasy tag. And if Kelsea carries on the way she does, she'll become one of those characters in literature we all want to be.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Bantam Press. This did not affect my review.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Review: Land of Second Chances by Tim Lewis

Cycling has been undergoing a resurgence in the last few years, thanks to Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins et al, but my faith in the worldwide cycling community is still pretty shaken from Lance Armstrong's "misdemeanours", shall we say. Or, you know, his drug-taking, bullying ways.

But Land of Second Chances: The Impossible Rise of Rwanda's Cycling Team by Tim Lewis has restored some of my faith. The story of how one of the poorest nations in the world became known for its cycling, and not just for the genocide there in the 1990s, is inspiring.

Lewis focuses his story on two people - Adrien Niyonshuti, a child of the genocide who in 2012 represented his country at the Olympic Games (and is currently at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow); and Jock Boyer, Team Rwanda's coach and a man trying to rehabilitate himself and his reputation. The American inventor of the mountain bike, Tim Ritchey, also plays an important part in the beginning of the tale, but its Niyonshuti and Boyer who provide the compelling narratives.

Land of Second Chances is bracketed by Niyonshuti's appearance at the London 2012 Games, the climax of the cyclist's career (so far). But Lewis takes us much deeper into the story of Team Rwanda than just its preparations for the Olympics. We get an overview of the genocide, with a focus on the Team Rwanda cyclists, and also of Boyer's life. I'd not heard of Boyer before, so there was a moment in the book that left me completely stunned. It did taint my view of Boyer's actions - he clearly, in my opinion, went to Rwanda to improve his image - but Lewis is good at not judging.

That non-judgemental attitude was frustrating at times for me. For example, Lewis addresses the issue of doping in cycling, and there are mentions of Armstrong at various points throughout. At times, I found Lewis's measured approach stifling - as someone clearly invested in cycling I wanted him to rail and rage against Armstrong's wrongs. But Lewis made the right decision in keeping fairly neutral - this is not a book about politics or the politics of cycling, and Lewis does well to keep the focus on Team Rwanda and not let it shift into other issues (no matter how many names I want to call Armstrong).

While Niyonshuti and Boyer are the focus of this book, the real narrative is about the creation of a team of cyclists. At times it's sad and frightening, hearing the stories of how the genocide completely changed the lives of so many people or how people live in fear from criminals. At other times the book shows how maddening it must have been, both for Boyer, who found the cyclists just wouldn't listen to him on some things, and for the cyclists, who I think found it hard to have someone come in and expect them to change culturally. 

Mostly though, Land of Second Chances is beautiful and uplifting and heartwarming, a story of hope that reaches far beyond sport. It's a book that'll have you cheering for cyclists you'd never previously heard of, and will restore your faith in fair competition, and in the human race.

How I got this book: In a goody bag

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

TV recap: The 100 episode five, Twilight's Last Gleaming

Last time on The 100, Charlotte, feeling guilty for murdering Wells, jumped off a cliff to save Clarke and Bellamy from being attacked by Murphy. Determined to institute a punishment, The 100 decided to banish Murphy (baaad idea), and, overcome with grief at the unfairness of Charlotte's death, Clarke and Finn slept together. While Finn's girlfriend Raven hurtled to earth in a spaceship she'd fixed herself. And Abby got arrested for her plan to get to earth.

Clarke and Finn are all happy and post-coital. I predict that's going to last about five minutes. It doesn't stop Clarke declaring her affection for Finn, who should take this as the opportune moment to confess that he has a girlfriend. He doesn't, and they head out to share a romantic moment, in time to see the ship carrying Raven crashing through the atmosphere.

Bellamy has also seen the ship (well, other people saw it and yelled for Bellamy who was in bed with two women), and, terrified that contact with the Ark means he's going to get punished for the murder of Chancellor Jaha (he still thinks Jaha is dead) makes a concerted and successful effort to get the pod ship first. Encountering an unconscious Raven, he acts like a true gentleman, providing mouth-to-mouth and bringing her round. Nope, sorry, that's what he should have done. Instead, he rips out the radio and chucks it in the river. Never mind the bleeding girl in a coma Bellamy. Got to say, this is the stupidest thing Bellamy has done since arriving on earth, and he's done some stupid things - hanging Atom (I thought his name was Adam!) from a tree, telling a teenage girl to kill her demons, and sleeping with a harem of women.

We've known since the beginning that Bellamy would do anything to save Octavia, but this is the first time we're seeing him desperately trying to save his own hide. It's a real show of vulnerability, and Bellamy acts more like a child in those few moments where he chucks the radio than any of the kids on the Ark.

And while I've mentioned it, let's discuss the age issue. On the Ark, prisoners were killed as soon as they turned 18, which means all The 100 who were in jail were under 18. Bellamy, however, is clearly an adult. We know Octavia is a good few years younger than he is, and from the look of Bellamy, he's definitely over 21. It's a little strange, but I'm assuming for the purposes of this show, and sanity, that Clarke is almost 18 (remember how she shouted about it not being her birthday yet in the first episode?), as is Finn. Octavia might be a bit younger, but let's call her 17 too, although a just-turned 17. And Raven? I think she's a little older than Finn.

Talking of, Clarke and Finn turn up at Raven's pod ship after Bellamy does, and to both their shock they find Raven (who has regained consciousness). Clarke gets to Raven first, and is shocked and amazed that someone has survived the journey. And then Finn rocks up, and is surprised because Raven's his girlfriend and he just slept with Clarke. Oops. Awkward. Clarke's shock turns to horror when she realises Finn and Raven are together, but like the true stoic she is, she betrays no hint of her emotions to anyone but Finn.

Also, can we take a moment here to consider the pairing of Finn and Raven? I like Finn - he's cute, funny, a gentleman and honourable (when he's not cheating on his girlfriend). But I can't be the only one who thinks Raven is out of his league, right? She's super clever, hot, and just generally a bit more grown up than Finn. I wonder if we'll find out what brought the two of them together.

Anyway, Raven has shot down to earth bearing bad news - unless she can communicate with the Ark and tell them she, and members of The 100, are alive, 300 people are going to die when their oxygen is switched off. Ah Bellamy, you're so pretty, but well stupid. Maybe you should have considered the consequences of not being able to contact the Ark before you hurled the radio into the river. 

Clarke and Finn immediately guess that Bellamy has destroyed the radio, and they and Raven go after him. They all fight, and Raven and Bellamy have a showdown (during which Raven tells Bellamy Jaha isn't dead). The fight results in me thinking Raven is the most kick-arse person on earth. After confessing to what he did, the group search for the radio (giving Clarke and Finn the chance to have a heart to heart, ouch) and find there is no way to repair it. The 100 despair, until Raven comes up with a solution (see, way more clever than Finn). Talking to the Ark is the ideal, but really, she just needs to let them know The 100 are on earth. And that can be done by setting an absolutely massive bonfire with rockets.

I've got to say, not sure I buy this. Is a bonfire, however massive, really going to be seen by the Ark? Then again, there's a lot about The 100 that doesn't make sense, and it's unfair of me to pick this as the thing to highlight.

Triumphant that something has at last gone right, The 100 breathe and relax. A little too soon. Earlier, Octavia and Bellamy argued, and then she ran off and fell and hit her head? Good news is she wakes up at the end of the episode, bad news is that she's in a cave, face to face with a Grounder (in case you don't recognise him, it's Ricky Whittle. Yes, him from Hollyoaks). Dun dun dun.

On the Ark
Jaha visits Abby in her prison cell to tell her that oxygen levels are falling faster than thought, and that the council has approved Kane's population reduction plan. There are just 12 hours until 320 (where did the extra 20 come from?) people are killed. Meanwhile, Jaha lets Abby out to treat people suffering from oxygen deprivation.

Kane tells Jaha the death of the people of Section 17 will look like an accident. But Jaha, in a continuation of last week's theme of sacrifice, decides he will die with his people, leaving Kane in charge as Chancellor. Kane, in a show of humanity, pleads with Jaha to save himself, but Jaha tells him the Ark needs him, since Kane is not burdened by sentiment.

This prompts Abby into action, and she reveals to the whole of the Ark that the ship is running out of oxygen, the very thing she stopped Jake from doing. Scared that it's going to cause a riot, Jaha, Kane and the council are surprised to find that instead, they have these gloriously brave people volunteering to be part of the 300 who will die. It's a really, really moving, sad, moment (especially the father who volunteers so his daughter can get better) that can't really be summed up in words, and again, goes back to the theme of sacrifice that has been so prevalent in The 100 in the recent episodes.

Kane persuades Jaha not to sacrifice himself in Section 17 - the Ark needs someone with humanity to lead it. Remember when Kane was a bad guy? He's really transforming this episode, showing that his previous horridness has been down to his concern for the Ark.

But forget Kane and Jaha, because this episode was all about the largely nameless people of the Ark who head to their deaths. Watching them shake Jaha's hand after handing over their IDs was moving. Watching them calmly take their places in a room which would be their coffin was heartwrenching. Watching them fall asleep never to wake up was virtually impossible through the tears clouding my eyes. I know it's a silly teen show, but goodness, The 100 just provided one of the most powerful moments of television I've ever seen in my life.

Too late, back in her cell while having a chat with Jaha, Abby sees the bonfire lit by The 100. A small piece of good news that absolutely can't mitigate what has happened.

Solid ground?
In some ways, this was one of the more melodramatic and silly episodes of The 100 so far, but in other ways, it was definitely the most moving episode we've seen so far. Bellamy's actions, the Clarke-Finn-Raven love triangle, and the bonfire plot were all slightly ridiculous. 

But the events up on the Ark were devastating, and marked the first time I was more fascinated by what was happening in space than on the ground. The sacrifices made by the adults on the Ark also showed The 100 turning into a darker corridor, one I didn't think could be topped after Charlotte last week killed herself. And we've not even discussed how, really, the deaths of those on the Ark is Bellamy's fault (something to explore later in the season?).

It's good that this week the Ark proved so fascinating, because if the narrative is going to continue to be split between earth and the Ark, both need to be compelling. The challenge now is for The 100 to have both parts be equally compelling at the same time. Fingers crossed for next week.


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