Thursday, 30 October 2014

Review: Misty Falls by Joss Stirling

Savants and an evil serial killer are hardly the stuff of realist fiction, but somehow, with her latest young adult novel, Misty Falls, Joss Stirling has created a book that is realistic while having plenty of elements that make it wildly fictional.

Misty's savant gift means that she is compelled to tell the truth (a little like Ella Enchanted, but not that bad) and she can also use her powers to make others around her more honest. Unfortunately, that's not always a good thing, and Misty's honesty has gotten her into trouble plenty of times. On a trip to South Africa, Misty meets Alex, who is gorgeous and confident, but who seems to dislike Misty on sight. But the pair have bigger problems - a serial killer is killing young savants around the world, and Misty and Alex are prime targets.

The heart of the story is Misty, who is both a Mary Sue - the perfect female character girls often write themselves as in (fan)fiction - and painfully realistic. Unlike a Mary Sue, Misty has many, many faults and insecurities, but that's exactly what makes her appealing, and what makes readers want to be her. Misty is first the insecure teenager we all were, then a savant, meaning we relate to her in spite of her powers.

In Misty Falls Stirling tells both a love story and a murder mystery, and combines them both seamlessly. Lighter moments, like Misty and her friends attending a summer camp and Alex and his schoolmates competing in a debating competition, sit alongside the darker parts of the storyline. And rather than splitting the book in two, the serial killer storyline is always in the background of the other action.

Misty Falls is the fourth book in Stirling's savant series, and characters from the previous three pop up, which I love since it offers familiarity, but also moves the story forward because this time round we get to spend more time with members of the Benedict family we haven't seen before ( and who doesn't love a Benedict boy?!). Stirling could continue expanding the savant universe (and she can because she's built up her mythology so well) and I would read every word.

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

Monday, 27 October 2014

Review: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

I could try and be clever and write my review for Dear Committee Members - a collection of fictional letters written by a professor - as a letter of recommendation (LOR), but author Julie Schumacher has done such a great job with her book that any LOR I write would look awful.

Jason Fitger teaches creative writing and literature at a small arts college. His ex-wife hates him, his ex-girlfriend's feelings towards him are not much above freezing, the economics department on the floor above his is having millions spent on a refurbishment, no one will give his star pupil Darren Browles a chance, and Fitger spends most of his time writing LORs for various ex-pupils and colleagues.

A collection of letters might not sound like a barrel of laughs, but from the opening missive (an LOR to a literary residency), Dear Committee Members is a laugh out loud read. There are constant references to the Seminar, on which Fitger based  the one book that made him momentarily famous, and where he made friends who would go on to become frustrated with him and his clearly nitpicky, slightly selfish ways. Fitger's letters, whether they be to the new head of his department (a sociologist), or to the dean of the college, or to a food company seeking to employ one of his former students, are full of humour, tinged with bitterness, and flavoured with exasperation.

But the reason Dear Committee Members is so good is because, even though Fitger is clearly an annoying guy, he's also a guy who really cares about (one of) his students, and who tries his hardest to get help for Darren. He may be ornery and stuck in his ways (email recommendation forms are one of Fitger's pet hates and this provides great amusement) but as the book moves forward you can see that beneath the bluster Fitger is a guy who cares. He may hurt people, but he doesn't intend to. It's just, you know, sometimes you end up sending an email to every member of college staff instead of just your ex-wife who you still love.

The art of writing letters is slowly disappearing, but Schumacher’s hilarious, heart-warming and, at times, sad, novel is a perfect illustration of the power of words written in ink on paper. Epistolary novels are difficult to pull off, but Schumacher succeeds, putting together a novel through which the voice and character of the protagonist shine through in every funny, painful, cringe-worthy and heartbreaking letter. In the course of dozens of letters, Schumacher gives us a character who is believable, exasperating, and dare I say it, loveable. I'm not writing a letter of recommendation, but if I was, I'd recommend you read this book.

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

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Avengers: Age of Ultron - thoughts (and feelings) on the teaser trailer

Broken. That's how I'm feeling after watching the teaser trailer for Avengers: Age of Ultron, and it's no surprise, since all the Avengers seem to be broken as well.

The worrying thing is, this teaser trailer comes in at just over two minutes. How an earth will I cope with a two hour long film? Well, partially by analysing and filling in the gaps and coming up with theories for what I think is happening, which is exactly what I'm going to do with this teaser trailer. Warning: I'm not a Marvel expert, just a big MCU fan, and this post will be fandomish as all get out...

For an evil entity, Ultron sure is appealing. Based on this trailer I wouldn't mind listening to James Spader read out the phone book. It would just be a very creepy phone book. 

We know that Ultron in the MCU is created by Tony Stark, and then the robot basically rebels and turns into a sentient being. Which clearly explains the narrative of this trailer, where Ultron crushes other robot suits and talks about having his puppet strings cut. It's frightening, but his words are also pretty poetic:

I'm going to show you something beautiful
Everyone screaming for mercy
You want to protect the world but you don't want it to change
You're all puppets tangled in strings
Now I am free
There are no strings on me.

The (old) Avengers
There is plenty to be worried about, based on the teaser, when it comes to Captain America, Black Widow, Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Clint Barton, and even Thor, who as a god from another world should be relatively immune.

Tackling them one at a time is easiest, although there clearly seems to be a common thread running through their story lines in Age of Ultron - that of either being reminded of their dark pasts, or having dreams/nightmares about their pasts.

The Black Widow is probably the character we know the least about (aside from Barton), even though we've seen her a lot. Worry no more, or a lot more, because some of her past is clearly going to be revealed. That glimpse of a row of girls in severe black ballet costumes seems to be related to Natasha - I don't know how accurate or based on the comics it is, but Natasha as a ballerina or as being able to dance is a popular trope among the MCU fandom. Whether we get to see the Red Room, I couldn't tell, althought there is a glimpse of what I assume is a hospital trolley and some surgical equipment right after a shot of Natasha in an empty office block.

Banner is so, so broken in this film. There are two glimpses we get of Banner in the trailer which frighten me - in both he is slumped on the floor looking like he's just seen his nearest and dearest torn apart, and like he's about to lose his mind. On the plus side, there was a glimpse of the Hulk kicking butt, so perhaps it's not all bad.

Stark is clearly feeling some guilt here, and not making friends among the Avengers, if we're going by the scene in which Thor picks him up by the neck in a fit of anger. Although Thor and Stark have fought before, so there may be nothing to read into there (I doubt that though). And could Stark's words - "It's the end, the end of the path I started us on" - be hinting at the Civil War storyline at supposedly will make up the second phase of the Marvel movies?

I can't comment too much on Barton/Hawkeye, since he's such an unknown entity - we didn't get to know him in Avengers Assemble since he was brain washed for most of the film. What I can tell is that he's got a new costume, and I really like it.

Thor is another hard one to pin down. He's got some anger, which I've already addressed, but the two standout glimpses we get of him are distressing - the look of pain on his face as he is borne out of the water (no idea what's going on there), and the fact that he drops his hammer. What could cause Thor to drop his hammer? The guy is not afraid of much, so it would have to be something shocking.

But let me be honest here, it's Cap I want to speak about the most. Already a broken man from the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it looks like things aren't going to get much better for Steve. He's in the midst of all the fighting scenes we glimpse, and is he looking for Bucky in that shot we get of him kicking down the doors the massive building that looks like it's somewhere in Eastern Europe? But it's that dream/nightmare scene we see, where Cap is in a 1940s dance hall, that has me worried. It's not a memory, because we can safely assume Cap never went to a dance hall in his new Cap body, but he did talk about it with Peggy, and with Bucky, in Captain America: The First Avenger.  What if this scene has Cap seeing Bucky, who he's been hunting for since The Winter Soldier (almost two years previous in the MCU timeline I think) and Peggy dancing together? My head canon is really making me miserable. 

But not as miserable as that shot of a limp hand by Cap's broken shield. I'd like to stick my fingers in my ears and shut my eyes and pretend that broken shield isn't real, since it's supposedly made of an unbreakable metal, and I can kind of believe that if I believe my theories about some other people in this film...

The (new) Avengers
So, Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch has the power to alter reality in unknown ways, which leads me to theorise that some of the scenes we see of the Avengers suffering could come from her. What if she's altering what the Avengers see and hear? Eventually, Scarlett Witch joins the Avengers, but the last time we saw her she was locked in a cell and under the command of Baron Wolfgang Von Strucker (presumably somewhere in Europe if we're going by his name).

As was her brother Quicksilver, who in this trailer is the least angsty of the characters we've seen. Sure, he's shouting angrily alongside Scarlet Witch in a scene which Ultron narrates but mostly we see him moving very fast and fighting robots (at one point with Cap seemingly by his side/nearby).

Perhaps the scenes in Europe are where the Avengers find the Maximoff siblings, who I'm sure are good at the core, but who maybe don't start out that way. I don't think they're bad, but perhaps a little cautious, which makes them not trust the Avengers at first.

Everyone else
SHIELD has still not recovered, by the looks of it, although that won't keep Fury down. And I definitely caught a glimpse of Rhodey in the scene we see of the Avengers on the bridge. There's also a third female there I can't make out (Black Widow and Scarlet Witch being the first two, I think), possibly Maria Hill? Please be Maria Hill. And I'm sure someone said they saw the Vision in there somewhere, but I can't make him out yet. And I'm not sure what the creepy silver robots were, but they're not good.

Around the world
We've got some massively creepy looking castles, definitely in Europe somewhere, and also some scenes in snowy landscapes (Russia? Fits with the whole Hydra thing), and also in what is possibly South Korea (Cap having cars chucked at him). It seems the Avengers are truly going global in Age of Ulton.

Basically, I've been broken since I saw the trailer, and there are a lot of reactions like mine out there. Here is one of my favourites though (and although this isn't a post about diversity, Bim Adewunmi has a point at number five...)

So what have we learnt from the first teaser trailer? Well, that Avengers: Age of Ultron is going to be painful. So I'm hereby setting up a support group. Let me know in the comments if you'd like to join - there will be lots of flailing, use of exclamation marks and swear words, and some cracking of hearts.

Review: Nobody's Child by Kate Adie

As a journalist, Kate Adie has a knack for interviewing people, and getting them to open up, and it's knack that's displayed in Nobody's Child from the get-go.

Partially a memoir about Adie's own upbringing as an adopted child, partially a history of foundling children, adoption and fostering, and partially a collection of interviews, Nobody's Child is shot through with humanity.

Adie frames each chapter of Nobody's Child around a question, from the opening "what is your name?" to the closing "do you have a criminal record?". Some questions may seem like they're easy to answer, but Adie's purpose is to explore what these questions mean for people who don't have access to those pieces of information that we so readily attribute to being part of someone's identity.

I really liked the social history Adie dotted throughout Nobody's Child, looking at the different ways in which church, state and society at large, in a variety of countries, tried to deal with abandoned, unwanted and orphaned children, most of the time unsuccessfully or with a cruelty they did not seem to acknowledge.

In between this, and her own story, come the stories of various people Adie has interviewed, nearly all of them foundlings. And it's with these stories that the book becomes less like a book, and more like watching someone be interviewed. In most cases, Adie chooses to reproduce entire conversations with her interview subjects, which often are monologues. It's unconventional in a narrative book, and unlike anything of Adie's that I've read before, but it's powerful reading when it comes complete with rhetorical questions, awkward comments, half-told jokes and more.

Nobody's Child is a moving read, at once both the personal story of Adie and her interviewees, and also a damning account of the difficulties foundlings have faced, and still continue to face. It's a book to make you angry, but also one filled with hope.

How I got this book: Bought

Monday, 20 October 2014

Review: The May Bride by Suzannah Dunn

The reign and life of King Henry VIII always provides great fodder for books, television and film, and Suzannah Dunn taps into that fascination for her novel, The May Bride.

Not that Henry VIII makes much of an appearance in The May Bride - this is firmly a book about Jane Seymour and her life in the years before she went to court. When she is 15, Jane's brother brings home his new wife Katherine Filliol. Older than Jane and more wild than anyone in the Seymour family, Jane finds herself drawn into an intense friendship with Katherine which burns brightly for one summer, before fading out. Two years later, Katherine's husband makes an accusation against his wife that will change the Seymours forever, and that will inform the way Jane acts when she becomes part of the court of Catherine of Aragon.

Written by an older, wiser, Jane who is about to marry Henry VIII, it is clear from the beginning of The May Bride that something truly terrible has happened to the Seymour family, and that Katherine is at the centre of whatever went wrong. From almost the very beginning of the first chapter, we see Jane blaming herself for not having seen Katherine properly. Dunn's book is not about revealing what Katherine has done as much as it is about Jane coming to terms with her role in what happened, and the guilt she feels. As the book progressed, I found myself more fascinated with Jane's actions and reactions than by finding out what Katherine's role was, perhaps partially because I could guess the gist of Katherine's deed from close to the beginning of the novel.

Where Dunn's book really shines is in the portrayal of the friendship between Jane and Katherine. As an impressionable 15-year-old, Jane is enamoured with Katherine. It might be difficult for anyone living in the 21st century to imagine such a relationship forming, but it's easy to understand Jane's feelings when you consider how isolated she was and how normal the Seymours' existence was until Katherine arrived like a whirlwind.

The May Bride is a slow burn book, which builds to its central revelation gradually, and then crests slowly downward, and into more familiar territory to those of us who learnt about Henry VIII's wives at school - but this is a book that puts women in the centre, and marginalises the famous king, although his relationship with Jane hangs over the entire novel. Dunn gives a voice to Jane, and, although we never hear from her directly, to Katherine as well, who despite her bravery and brightness is the person most without a voice in the novel.

Dunn's novel is all fiction, but it's based on real events, and is an interesting take and filling of the gaps on a story we think we know the most important part of. Reading The May Bride made me realise that it wasn't Jane's marriage to Henry that was fascinating, it was her past that made her the woman she was.

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

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Feminism and The 100 - part two

I've already dealt with leadership in The 100, which I think clearly shows the show's feminist credentials, but there's plenty more going on, and we'll start with something that often defines women in television...

Mothers are vulnerable, right? They're either too busy being emotional wrecks because of their children, or sacrificing themselves for their kids, or childbirth is making them physically weak, right? Wrong. The 100's depiction of motherhood (and parenthood) is that it is something completely normal, with the mothers on the programme actually stronger than many of their male counterparts. Motherhood is rarely used as the main defining characteristic of any of the women in The 100, but it is a large and important part of the show, in a positive way.

Feminism and The 100 - part one

The 100 - a teen drama full of gorgeous people, carefully crafted settings, a lot of drama, and a good dash of romance? Well, yes. But somewhere along the way, as I watched season one of The 100, I realised it's also something more.

Somehow, The 100 went from being a piece of dystopian fun (I use the word fun loosely) to being a teen show that totally rocks it on gender equality and its presentation of females. Not only does The 100 present women as powerful, it also presents them as equal, and that, my friends, is what feminism is all about.

Feminism is often misunderstood, with people thinking that it's about women wanting to supersede men, to somehow be better than them, and for men to be under their command. But it's not, or at least not for me, and I think not for The 100. Feminism is about equality, about men and women being treated the same, offered the same opportunities, and criticised in the same way.

Season two of The 100 is about to hit our screens, so here's a quick look at how this seemingly popcorn show is one of the most gender balanced, feminist programmes currently on television (in my opinion), which is all down to the writers, directors and so on. Warning, I'm not a scholar of feminism, so these are just my opinions. And another warning, spoilers for season one ahead...

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Man Booker Prize 2014 - shortlist reviews

The 2014 Man Booker Prize is awarded tonight and I've been working my way, slowly, through the six shortlisted books. Here are my thoughts on each, in the order I've read them, and which I think should win this year's prize.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
I guessed the 'twist' of Fower's novel because of my habit of flicking to the back of books to see how many pages there are, but it didn't spoil my enjoyment of the book. By far the quickest and easiest read on the shortlist, I thought the book had plenty of depth, and its central character, a woman struggling with guilt and the demands of family, was interesting if an unreliable narrator. Although Rosemary had a very unusual upbringing, I thought she was relatable – her issues with her family, her strange frenemy style relationship with Harlow, and her uncertainty about what to do with her life are all things we’ve lived through. She was made more interesting by the fact that her family was told purely through her eyes, meaning the reader has to take everything she says with a pinch of salt, although she's just unreliable not dishonest. Families are at the centre of the book, and I loved the spectrum Fowler showed, from  poor Todd’s terrible, terrible father to Harlow’s sweet and unappreciated parents to Rosemary’s own misunderstood family. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is an easy yet thoughtful read, but much as I loved it, I don’t think it’s this year's Man Booker Prize winner.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris
I also don't think To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is this year's winner, and it's my least favourite of the six shortlisted. I really, really struggled with this book the entire time I was reading it, and it took me far longer to read than it should have. I found the main character, Paul O’Rourke, grating, and his habit of calling a mobile phone a “me-machine” reminded me of something a four-year-old might say. Paul was implausibly awkward, and his behaviour was never fully explained – I’d have liked to have delved more into his upbringing, which clearly moulded him, but Ferris kept those visits to the past very brief. Everything about baseball and dentistry went over my head, and I found all the religion stuff really dense and difficult to understand. I found myself in a cycle with this one - I didn't understand it so I didn't enjoy it so I didn't want to read it, and because I didn't want to read it, I didn't enjoy it and I carried on not understanding it. I did think the second half of To Rise Again... was better than the first, and the strongest part, for me, was the last third when things really started coming together and people moved (physically and metaphorically). But it's a no from me for this one.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
This is my pick for what I think should win. I picked it up thinking it would be the story of a prisoner of war, and put it down after having read something completely different. Like Ali Smith's How to be Both (see below), The Narrow Road to the Deep North plays with timelines, and is split into a number of sections. Its main character, Dorrigo Evans, is at once unlikeable, yet honourable and with many redeeming qualities, and I grew to eventually like him, while still deploring many of his actions. Flanagan creates a multitude of heartbreaking moments in the POW camp - during one scene I felt more than a little sick to my stomach, and I'm not at all squeamish - and contrasts these with lighter, hazier moments capturing Dorrigo and his one true love as they meet and fall for each other. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a novel about heroism in its many different forms, as well as love, and it focused on a part of Second World War history I barely know anything about (to my shame). I left this book feeling like I'd read something that would stay with me for a while, and that's one of the many reasons I think it should win. 

J by Howard Jacobson
A former winner of the prize, I had high hopes for Jacobson's J, which has been described as unlike any of his previous works. Unfortunately, I just didn't click with this book. I liked the dystopian world, where an event known as What Happened, If It Happened has coloured everything from the economy to the behaviour of the populace to people's names, but Jacobson chose to keep What Happened, If It Happened deliberately vague. Some people may like this as a device, and it was fine for a while, but I felt knowing more about it (besides the odd things I guessed later on in the book) would have helped me understand the characters and characterisation more. As it is, I found both Kevern and Ailinn, the central couple, lightly drawn, with their relationship constructed using stereotypes. I also had a hard time working out if some parts of the book were satirical, and a comment on current society (an exchange about domestic violence particularly springs to mind here). Like Ferris's To Rise Again... I thought the second half of the book was stronger, but the ending was, to me, devoid of hope, and depressing because of that.

How to be Both by Ali Smith
Structurally, this is the most interesting of the shortlisted books, comprising as it does of two separate but linked stories of a girl in the modern day and a renaissance artist in the 1460s. How to be Both is clever, but it's also immensely readable. My copy came with the modern day first (others come with the 1460s section first) and I loved getting into George's head. The flickering between past and present, which Smith does without signposting, was clever and shows a writer who has faith in her readers' ability to work out what's happening. The second part (my second part) is a whirlwind, and the writing shouldn't work, but it does. As a slight criticism, I'd say you can see he technique at play here, I didn't lose myself in the book and was always aware of Smith's narrative style, her play on words, and her structure. But it's a slight criticism, this is a very clever book, annd the half set in the 1460s is particular readable. Smith, shortlisted twice before for the Man Booker without winning, would be a worthy winner.

The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee
As I write, I haven't finished this book, so my comments here are based on the fifth that I have read. Mukherjee's book is intricate, from its construction to its characters to its setting. It features a vast cast of characters (so much so that I'm constantly having to flick to the family tree at the beginning to remember who I'm reading about) and its subject matter, of a family at a crossroads in 1970s India and a political movement that changed the country, is also expansive. Mukherjee handles it well, and his book is clearly well researched and beautifully written. He's the favourite to win this year's prize, and I can see why.


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