Sunday, 17 September 2017

A Review of Heartless

Heartless is a novel by Marissa Meyer, the author of The Lunar Chronicles. It is a reimagining of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland from the point of view of the Queen of Hearts, set before the events of Alice. Namely, when she was a teenager. Lady Catherine Pinkerton is the daughter of a Marquess. She loves to bake, and has dreams of opening her own bakery one day. However, the King of Hearts is showing an unwelcome interest in her, but it's his mysterious court joker that seems to be capturing Cath's heart...

I'm going to start by talking about the story, which is surprisingly dark for a YA-aimed book. What's rather interesting about this is that the conclusion is obvious when you start the story. For Cath to become Queen, things can't work out with Jest and she'll have to marry the King, who she dislikes. Somewhere along the way, her personality will have to change to become the Queen of Hearts we love to hate. As the book goes on, it becomes obvious that there is more going on than it seems, and the reader starts to realise exactly what might happen to Cath.

The worldbuilding here is brilliant. It is surprisingly tricky to tell a story, while remaining within the confines of someone else's world. The "Wonder" part of Wonderland comes through nicely. Animals can talk, plants sprout based on dreams and sport is played with animals. It gives a whimsical, kiddish feel that contrasts nicely with the more serious nature of the storyline. There are definitely some parts which came directly from the book - and Alice Through the Looking Glass is referenced, too. But Meyer adds enough of her own flair to her Wonderland to make it hold up in it's own right.

The characters are stellar, too, although this will surprise no-one who is familiar with Meyer's other series. Cath is a down-to-earth protagonist, much more than your average rebellious noble. She has a dream (and you know how I like it when  female characters have dreams) and it involves baking, making a nice excuse for mouthwatering descriptions of food. It also made for a great pun - not so much a Queen of Hearts as a Queen of Tarts. She is also contrasted with her friend, Mary Ann, a serving girl in her house. To Cath, owning a bakery is her dream, but she would have little idea of the work really required to put it. Waking up at 4am to bake the first batch of bread each day, and staying late into the night to clean probably wouldn't be the sort of life she'd imagine. Mary Ann has a much better idea of the amount of work something like that would entail. She's the businesswoman, and Cath is the dreamer. Cath isn't always likeable, either - she's a product of her upbringing, and sometimes behaves in ways which does remind you that she is the daughter of a Marquess. I did appreciate this as not entirely unrealistic. Jest manages to be very different yet wholly familiar from many romantic leads. He's the poorer suitor of the rich girl, but he also has a few tricks up his sleeve.

I would like to talk about how one of the people Cath knows in the nobility, Margaret Mearle, is almost completely unlikeable, and is also described as unattractive. Now, it would be one thing if this had been mentioned once, but she's never in a scene without her looks being commented on. The book is long, and can feel like the ending drags somewhat - maybe that's a consequence of a foregone conclusion? There is a lot of foreshadowing that not everything will go right for our protagonists, so don't read this one expecting a happily ever after.

You don't really need too much knowledge of Alice in Wonderland to read this book - I would recommend a refresher with the animated Disney movie - but if you liked Heartless, why not give the original a read? That way, you'll be able to see what concepts Meyer took from the original book. I recommend this for fans of Gregory Maguire - who Meyer says influenced the idea - and other untold stories, especially those featuring the villains.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Trust Me, I'm A Doctor (Who Isn't)

Trust Me was a series that ran on BBC a few weeks ago. It follows Cath Hardacre (Jodie Whittaker), an NHS nurse, who finds herself suspended from her job after attempting to blow the whistle on someone else. This was actually because there has been a few complaints raised against her, but we never find out the outcome of these. Cath takes on the identity of her friend Alison Sutton, a doctor and gets a job in a hospital in Scotland. As a doctor, under a false identity.

Whittaker, who is probably more famous already as the next Doctor, manages a stellar performance in what is at times a confusing and demanding role, tying the series together. Cath may be one of the most interesting roles written for a woman I have seen. She is a mother, but she is primarily defined in series by her career. While her love and dedication to her child is shown in the series, it is of secondary importance to the overarching story. In a role reversal, the two more important men in her life are more defined as "Cath's love interest" and "Molly's father" than by their own careers or personalities. One of the other prominent female characters, Bridget, is a complex character in her own right. She's revealed to have made a lot of mistakes on the job, is not above falsifying her reports, and has been drinking on the job. She actually shows off one of the downsides of the medical profession, which is known for putting a lot of stress onto it's employees. Cath and Bridget also pass the Bechdel test at several points.

It's possible to read Cath as a hero defined by circumstance, but if you ask me, she was the villain of the series who got away with far too much. Not that I think this is necessarily a bad thing - it is interesting to see a series where bad people do not get caught. However, in this case, I actually think the series would have been stronger if it had ended with Cath being caught, confessing everything in the face of overwhelming evidence. No-one forced her to take a false identity. No-one made her lie, and her motivations seemed to come more from anger at the NHS than desperation at her situation. It's easy to imagine a counter series where an astute young nurse investigates a seemingly-incompetent doctor, only to find out they were pulling one of the biggest cons of all time.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

A Review of 13 Reasons Why

13 Reasons Why is a novel by Jay Asher. Clay Jensen receives a set of tapes, which turn out to be from his classmate, Hannah Baker, who committed suicide recently. On these tapes, she details her list of reasons why she killed herself. There are thirteen. One for every person who she believes was one of the reasons why she did it.

I think everyone and their mother has heard about this book at this point, so I'm sure that synopsis won't come as a surprise. However, it might surprise some people to know that this book and show do a very bad job of educating people about suicide.

This is trivial compared to most of the problematic aspects of this book, but the prose is odd, not helped by the dual narrative style. "I did this, then that. Then I did this." Hannah tells us what happened to her, then Clay tells us what he did and where he went. And why did Hannah record her thoughts on tapes? Surely any teenagers nowadays knows several other ways to record herself? Privatised YouTube videos, for example? She'd be in as much risk of those leaking out to the general student population as she is with the tapes. At least the TV show tries to explain this, somewhat. However, it just comes off like Asher has no idea how central technology has become to the lives of teenagers. Also, so much girl hate. I can't think of one positive female relationship that Hannah has in this book.

The reasons why someone commits suicide are much more complex than this book seems to think. They can't be broken down into thirteen easily defined reasons. There aren't really "reasons" why someone kills themselves, in a lot of cases.

Telling a group of teenagers, who aren't professionals with any training in this at all, who are also trying to figure out where they stand in the world, and how to relate to each other, that they are somewhat at fault if a classmate commits suicide is awful. Suicide is no-ones fault, but people who know someone who kills themselves can carry guilt that they didn't do more to prevent it. The book spends so much time showing where people went wrong, that it never stops to show what people can do to help. A better message would be showing people trying to reach out to Hannah, encouraging her to talk to them.

And the thing is, this had the potential to do good. It discusses objectification and sexual harassment, and shows how even a nice guy like Clay can play into it, without even meaning to. It could have opened up an interesting discussion about suicide and depression in teenagers, showing that even teens considered pretty with loving families can experience it. The only times the world "depressed" is mentioned in this book is to snark about Holden Caulfield. The part where Clay was surprised that Hannah wore make-up - girls can wear make-up because it's fun, even if you think we didn't need it, and honestly, we really don't care if you think we need it or not considering that it's not for you - should be taught to all teenagers. But none of this really helps when the basic premise of the show is outright implausible.

And the less said about the Netflix series, the better. The worst thing that could have been done was taking this book, making it more inaccurate and more accessible to people, particularly the group most at risk from the subjects discussed in this book. At least in the book, Clay has the decency to listen to the tapes over the course of a night. But I guess they had to stretch it out into 13 episodes somehow. With a lot of unnecessary filler, too.

For further reading, try googling "problems with 13 Reasons Why." I especially recommend you check out Emmareadstoomuch's "Thirteen Reasons Why I Hate 13 Reasons Why" which discusses the problems with this book better than I ever could.

I wouldn't recommend this book for teens with depression, and I wouldn't recommend for teens trying to help someone with depression, either. I've yet to read a young adult book I would recommend to either of those groups. I'm also not counting All The Bright Places, which uses suicide as a plot device for romantic angst.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

My Mum Passed Away Recently...

Last weekend, we were camping.

On Tuesday, we went to a Zoo together.

On Wednesday morning, she had tea with my dad at 9am, and got up at 9:30 to take a shower. I was still in bed. Dad went downstairs to make breakfast.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Everything You Know About Lolita is Likely Wrong

As people may have noticed from my Goodreads account, I have been reading Lolita on and off for a few months. Because of the subject matter, I have often found myself needing to take a break from it. Mum saw me reading it recently, and asked. "What are you reading?"
"Lolita," I said.
"What's it about?" She said. I hate being asked this question about anything I am reading, but with a book like this especially.
"Um, it's about a man who wants to have sex with a pre-pubescent girl. Like, it's not presented in a good way, he's the villain, but he's also the protagonist."
"Oh. But she's really the villain?"
"Um. No? She's twelve, and a twelve year old girl is never at fault for a grown man wanting to have sex with her."
"Oh, but you hear girls described as Lolita's all the time." As if that makes it okay? Just because something is so normalised in culture that it's accepted, doesn't make it okay.

Also, the protagonist is horrible. Like, this isn't a man creepily watching a young girl from afar. This is a man starting a relationship with someone to get close to her daughter, and touching himself in secret while he's talking to her. I don't know how much worse it gets, yet.

I would also ask you to think of any cover you've ever seen of this book. Did it have a sexualised young girl on the cover? Nabokov explicitly stated that “There is one subject which I am emphatically opposed to: any kind of representation of a little girl.”

Young girls, weird disconnected body parts and sexualised fruit.
However, if you have avoided this book because of the reputation it has, think again. It's not a book that glorifies that sort of relationship. The common misconceptions about it fly in the face of what Nabokov was actually intending to portray.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

A Review of The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Sorry for the movie cover.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a Young Adult novel by Stephen Chbosky. Set in the early 90's, Charlie, a freshman at High School, attempts to come into his own teenage life. Charlie makes friends with a guy called Patrick, and through him meets Sam, Patrick's stepsister. Over the course of the book, Charlie has to come to terms with some traumatic events that happened before the story starts.

I have never liked letter-based books. I'm not sure why, especially considering I like diary-based books, which are structured very similarly. This book kind of straddles the line between both, all letters being written from Charlie's perspective. I just find this kind of framing disjointed, but just because it doesn't work for me, doesn't me it will be the same for you. The letters are addressed directly to "you," the reader, so it is a good way of engaging people immediately with the story.

We are told a lot about Charlie's personality. He's also described as "intelligent beyond his years" on my blurb, but his letters read as if they were written by someone much younger. I'm choosing to believe this is a stylistic choice, representing how Charlie is sorting out his problems. He also seems very naive for a high-school freshman, but maybe that's more realistic for teens in the early 90's then it would be now, in the era before internet was widespread. He seems to mature a great deal over the course of the book, understanding sex and drug references better towards the end then he did at the beginning. Maybe this is the influence of hanging out with a group of older teenagers.

And there are a lot of issues dealt with, or should I say touched upon, over the course of the book. Some are handled with all the subtly of a sledgehammer, and others are given more nuance. I'm not sure if I would have preferred the book to focus on fewer in more depth, or if the approach it takes works. I do like how it shows the importance of getting help with mental health problems from professionals, and how talking with friends or family can do the world of good.

It also happens to be very quotable. "We accept the love we think we deserve" and "In that moment, I swear, we were infinite" are well-known, but I found my favourite quote a little later on. "You shouldn't tell her she looks pretty. You should tell her how nice her outfit is, because her outfit is her choice whereas her face is not." I have never been able to articulate why I hate generic "you're pretty" compliments, but love it if someone says they like my clothes.

I know most people have probably heard of the movie, which I remember mostly for the presence of Emma Watson. As an adaptation, it's very good, but as a movie on it's own, I find it forgettable. I have only seen it once, back when it first came out, so that may be a factor. In fact, losing the letter format means you lose a lot of Charlie's personality that comes through in the book.

I think this is one of those books I'd have to recommend on an individual basis to people I know well.

Friday, 4 August 2017

A Review of Lydia

Lydia: The Wild Girl of Pride and Prejudice (also published as The Secret Diary of Lydia Bennet) is a novel by Natasha Farrant. It is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from Lydia Bennet's point of view. Lydia is the youngest of the five Bennet sisters, bored with living in the country, and dreaming of adventure and romance. While her older sisters are courted by the charming Mr. Bingley and the handsome Mr. Darcy, can Lydia discover her own happy ending?

I have long had a soft spot for Lydia Bennet.

She's fifteen during the events of Pride and Prejudice. Who can say they didn't do silly things at fifteen? Let alone the thought that your family's future rests upon your behaviour at that age! For one mistake, did she deserve to be forever married to someone like Wickham? Their relationship was developed over the course of the book, as was Lydia's personality. She customises her clothes - a respectable and no doubt practical skill for a lower-middle class woman of the period, but she also seems to enjoy it and do it well, to the point where I thought she could make a living from it. She talks a lot about marriage, but in as much as she sees it as her only way out. If she could go on adventures by herself, without marriage, I have no doubt she would. She also goes through some character development over the course of the book. She starts out liking the idea of marrying a rich man for money, but as events come to light, she starts despising the whole system.

I personally don't think she is stupid, she just never got the chance to become educated, and wasn't so into the whole learning from books method that worked for her sisters. She prefers to be outside, and picks up things like horse riding and swimming quickly enough. Some of her points of ignorance will cause a titter from modern viewers - Silly Lydia, not knowing where India is - but I can't decide if it's realistic for a sheltered country girl in her time not to know. India was under the British Raj, and surely she would have heard it discussed? I did raise an eyebrow that she can recognise Indian fabric or a South Indian palace but not place the country on a map.

While Lydia's flightiness and self-centred parts of her personality comes through on these pages, through her eyes her three older sisters can seem sanctimonious at times. It's actually an interesting point, applicable to real life, that someone's attitude can seem totally different, depending on whom is telling the story. I like how the story kept the personality points of the sisters intact from the original novel, while still seeing them from a new point of view.

The language used is more readable for today than in the original novel, and the characters talk like everyday teenagers, too. I am not saying this is a bad thing. It makes the book accessible to a wider group of people. However, the historical fiction aspect of the book is somewhat lost when you can see Lydia pulling out a phone and uploading her Outfit of the Day to Instagram! The whole book is done in a diary format, too. I've always liked diary-style books, but I know some don't like that setup.

I would recommend some familiarity with the story of Pride and Prejudice before reading this book. If you have previously struggled with the novel, try the 2005 film for a quick review. It's a nice way of introducing teenagers to Jane Austen, and I would recommend it for people aged 12 and over.