Thursday, 19 October 2017

One Year of Blogging!

October marks the end of my first year of blogging. What a weird twelve months this has turned out to be. With some real high points, and some unbelievably shit ones. Let's look back on what I learnt about blogging and writing reviews over the year!
  1. I learnt to be personal - when I first started, I thought that including personal thoughts while reviewing would be unnecessary. I kept those to their own post, and tried to keep the focus of reviews solely on the book. But there's no better measurement for how good a book is as how it effects, personally. No two people will ever have the same reaction from a book, but the mark of a good book is being able to cause strong emotions in a person.
  2. I stopped doing silly titles - when I first started, I gave each of my reviews a silly title that played with their name and the word review. Trouble is, I was shoehorning the word review into them, in a lot of cases. I think it looks a lot better organised now I've stopped doing that.
  3. I've learnt to market - I've been using my twitter to participate in bookish chats and blogging hashtags. I've used my Instagram to tell people about my recent posts. And of course, people are more interested in your work if you display an interest in theirs. I've started commenting on other people's blogs if I enjoyed reading it.
  4. I learnt how to organise - when I first started, I would just throw all my thoughts together into one review. Now, though, I try to organise it into an introduction, my brief opinion, setting if necessary, characters, random thoughts and a conclusion.
  5. I learnt to be myself - well, not so much learnt as got more confident in being myself. The reason I liked blogging from the start was because it gave me a place on the internet where I could just be myself. However, I find it easier now to state my opinion and outright say if I disliked a popular book.
  6. I learnt to reply to comments - when I first got comments I was a little overwhelmed and didn't know what to say back. Now, I've decided to say a quick thank you when someone comments! I don't get many comments, and if people with 100+ comments per blog can reply to them all, why can't I?
What are the biggest things you've learnt since you started blogging?

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

A Review of Turtles All The Way Down

Turtles All The Way Down is a book by John Green. Unless you've lived under a rock for the last few years, you know what else he's written. Aza Holmes is a student at White River High School, Indiana. When local billionaire Russell Pickett goes on the run to escape corruption charges, Aza would really prefer to stay out of it. However, her friend Daisy, tempted by the reward offered, wants to investigate, and ends up dragging Aza along with her.

So, I enjoyed it. It varies slightly from the John Green standard - average male teen falls in love with quirky teenage girl, and he has a bunch of quirky friends - but still with the same Green charm.

As we all know, characters are Green's bread and butter, but these are different from the usual Green fare. Aza has a mental illness. And it's not a pretty, neat one she can treat easily. It invades her thoughts, constantly turning the narrative towards it. It effects her ability to live a normal life and do things that teenagers should. It's not easy to read about, and it's probably not easy to have, either. She is getting therapy and treatment, but they don't seem to make it better for her. That's one of the points that it can take a lot of effort to get to a stage where mental health is manageable, let along better. Just because one way doesn't work, doesn't mean you should stop trying. Daisy writes a lot of Star Wars fanfiction. That's the most stereotypical Green quirk of the lot. She discusses it using terms that go over my head, and I'm a Star Wars fan myself. Her love interest, Davis Pickett, is rich, and by that I mean extremely, but he's the good sort of rich. He has the common thing where he recites trivia, but the narrative never tells us he likes trivia. Normally, when that pops up a character will tell someone else "hey, I tend to recite trivia." Let's compare that to two other Green books - I think the first thing we learn about Colin from An Abundance of Katherines is that he can do anagrams. Similarly, the thing I remember most about Pudge from Looking for Alaska is his quoting of famous dead peoples' last words. But Davis is notable in that the narrative never tells us, only shows us.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I love how John Green writes teenagers. I was one of those teens with a good vocabulary and I can distinctly remember having philosophical discussions with my friends at lunchtime in school. But they still make mistakes, they misinterpret things, they fight with their friends because they don't understand their point of view. They have problems we can all relate to and problems that are more unique to them.

At a few points, Aza wonders if she's fictional. She feels like she is the sidekick to Daisy, but Aza... your last name is Holmes and you're in a mystery novel. I've never been a fan of this trope, actually. As soon as a character starts wondering if they're fictional, it takes me right out of the narrative, the immersion. It doesn't happen often enough here to really annoy me, thankfully.

You never really realise how many dead parents there are in fiction until it happens to you. Some of the ways Green describes it are spot on. The point where Aza says she still expected to see her father everywhere, months after his death? That's the point I'm still in, now.

Was the line explaining what Applebee's is in all editions of the books? As someone who has eaten at Applebee's, it was weird, and I don't think Americans would need a line explaining it.

The mystery part of the book isn't as big a part of it as the cover might make you think. If Green wants to make this a series with Aza and Daisy as teen detectives, I would be okay with that. I'd recommend this to John Green fans and also, since it is different from his usual fare, to John Green not-fans.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Why We Should End The Stigma Around Periods

In a list of problems to care about, the stigma around periods sounds like it would be one of the less important things. And perhaps it isn't as vital as ending hunger, but there are some good reasons why it is an issue. And it's not like people can't care about multiple issues at once.

Under a cut because I know some people are uncomfortable with period-based discussion, but that's their personal choice.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

A Review of Alex and Eliza

Alex and Eliza is a historical fiction novel by Melissa de la Cruz. It focuses the relationship between Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler. They Schuyler's are a rich family from New York, however some of their fortune has been lost recently. The three eldest children are the sisters Angelica, Eliza and Peggy, whose mother is attempting to set them up with suitable husbands. At a ball, Eliza Schuyler meets the dashing young Colonel Alexander Hamilton... while he's there to serve a court-martial to her father, so they don't exactly hit it off.

Historical fiction has a lot of requirements. It has to inform people not familiar with a subject about
the basic events, without boring people who know a lot about it. It has to educate. It has to stay within the confines of actual real life events. It has to add enough detail to make the reader feel like they were actually there, while not bogging the text down with description. Historical fiction can make a person feel like they have travelled in time. And it has to be interesting. One of the things that historical fiction can do well is keep the personal aspect of history in the forefront of peoples minds, which can get lost in a dry history lecture or textbook. Good historical fiction can encourage people to seek out more information about the subject at hand.

This book does a good job in invoking it's time and place. It's rather well-written in that respect, using language which feels historical, but is still a light read. It made me feel like I was there, which given that it describes a place foreign to me, is a plus. It uses descriptions of things like the particular smell of pomade lard to bring the reader into the story. Things like the feeling of cold (something a lot of people have experienced) can really help to bring people into a characters shoes. However, I feel I know little more about the American Revolution than I did before I read.

I know very little about the American history, for reasons I hope are obvious. And if someone asks
me about the civil war*, I'll assume they mean the one between Cromwell and Charles I. I've listened to a few Hamilton songs, but I haven't managed to see the musical live yet. And I haven't listened to it all the way through, because I haven't wanted to spoil the musical for me.

*pause while people who obviously know every historical event ever laugh at the idea of being spoiled by history*

Obviously, historical fiction may not always be perfectly accurate. No-one can know what was said between Alex and Eliza when they were in private. And many details of their relationship have been lost to history. This is something that everyone needs to bare in mind while reading this book, or indeed any work of historical fiction. I knew how their relationship develops after the time period covered in the book, and that made reading it a bittersweet experience to me.

Another issue with writing historical fiction based on real people is that many of them were truly awful. When I talk about the people in this section, I am referring to them as characters in this book, since obviously I don't know what they were like in real life. Eliza is very much the standard historical heroine model, and described as Not Like Other Girls a lot. She's prettier than her sisters, but she doesn't know it and tends to dress plainer, which only enhances her beauty. She's got no desire to dress in these overly-elaborate clothes her mother sets out for her. Besides, they offend her principles. While other women are happy to swan around balls, looking for a husband, Eliza is trying to support the Revolution's cause every way she can. However, the book doesn't decry that sort of behaviour, recognising it as a necessary way women conducted themselves in society. Angelica and Peggy are both characters in the novel, and both recognise the importance of finding a husband, especially for a family in hard times. Alex is nice, he shows respect to Eliza which stands him apart from her other suitors, he treats her like an intelligent and opinionated person. There is also a certain romantic charm in historical gentlemen that I feel goes somewhat missing in contemporaries. He treats everyone with diplomacy, until such point as they show they don't deserve it. He is also ambitious, however, as raising himself from nothing to become General Washington's right-hand man would imply.

Trigger Warning: One scene of sexual assault, quite late into the book.

I would recommend this book for people with little knowledge about the American Revolution to give them a brief overview of the events.

*I know the American Revolution and the American Civil War are different events.

If you've never listened to a Hamilton song (or even if you have) do yourself a favour and watch this video!

Monday, 9 October 2017

Stardew Valley and Jealousy

Stardew Valley is a game that came out for Steam in 2016, with later ports to Playstation 4 and Xbox One, and most recently to the Nintendo Switch. It's a farming simulator - think Farmville - based on games like Harvest Moon. However, there's less of a social aspect then with Farmville, and you restore your energy by eating or sleeping than by waiting or using your real life money to increase it. Multiplayer options are known to be coming in a later update. One of the other features of this game is the ability to romance NPCs (Non Player Characters) and marry them.

Now, first I'll note: this game is highly recommended. Don't think that it isn't! It's a very relaxing game, good to play for a short while to chill yourself out. And then look around, realise you've been playing for several hours, and wonder your evening went.

However, I would like to talk about one of the weirder mechanics of this game, one I don't particularly like - jealousy.

So, on my first playthrough, I met all the NPCs, while focusing on other aspects of the game, such as farming and exploring the mines. I got to know them all, and their unique and individual personalities. One of the best features I've found about this game is while it doesn't have a huge story, all the characters are well developed over the course of heart events when you build up enough friendship with them.

Anyway, I decided to marry Elliott. He was a writer, and came with a bookshelf for my farmhouse. Seemed like the perfect match for my bookish self, and my in-game avatar. I gave him gifts, talked to him often, and danced with him at the Flower Dance. Eventually, I gave him the Mermaid Pendant, and we were married and he moved in. Happily ever after, right?

Wrong! I can't remember when, but I must have given one of the other romanceable characters a gift for some reason, probably their birthday. I mean, I still wanted to be friends with them. And having a good friendship with villagers is needed for 100% completion.

At first, Elliott just suddenly turned cold to me. I didn't know what I'd done wrong. I still talked to him every day. I gave him gifts often. It felt like when a real-life friend suddenly goes cold to you for no apparent reason. A few days later, he said “So, I heard you secretly gave (An NPC) a gift today. Do I have to be suspicious of you?” And I clicked that this game must have a jealousy mechanic, which I then started looking into.

I read the other romanceable NPC's dialogue, to confirm if they all did it. They do, but there is one in particular that stood out. Abigail will say that she won't talk to any guys/girls at certain festivals. Any marriage where you feel like that is a requirement isn't a healthy marriage at all. And I do understand that giving gifts to NPC's that aren't romanceable doesn't cause jealousy, but it's the romanceable ones that tend to have better backstories and more developed events.

I must admit, I was surprised, then confused. I felt like telling him "What, don't you trust me?" But he's only a few pixels who can't talk back, so there was no chance of a healthy conversation about this "relationship." Because that's what jealousy is - an unhealthy emotion that shouldn't be present in a functional relationship, not to any great amounts. You should be able to talk over any feelings with your partner, and discuss a rational way to deal with them. Obviously, this isn't going to be possible with a video game character. But instantly jumping to a suspicious mindset isn't a good place to be. Whether it's suspicions because your partner is late back from work, or because of rumours, if you don't feel you can discuss it with your partner, or if you don't feel like you can trust them, there is likely something worse in your relationship than simple jealousy. At it's most extreme, jealousy can cause some abusive traits. Constantly checking in on someone and not letting them see other people are not signs of love, they're signs of control.

Also, so that we're clear: I know it was a video game, and not real life. But games don't exist in a vacuum - things like this can lead to people expecting this sort of behaviour in real life, or even thinking it's an appropriate way to act themselves. Every piece of media ever made reflects society.

So, what would I have done? I may have seen this idea somewhere else, so I apologise. But I would have made a friendship bracelet item to give to NPCs to signal that you just want to be friends with them. This would unlock a different ten heart event to the romantic one, and would mean your spouse doesn't get jealous.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

A Review of The Names They Gave Us

The Names They Gave Us is a Young Adult novel by Emery Lord. Lucy Hansson, pastor's kid, is looking forward to a good summer at the church camp run by her parents. However, her Mom's cancer returns. Instead of helping there, her Mom suggests she takes the summer to help at another camp for disadvantaged children. While there, Lucy discovers more about the campers, other counsellors, and herself than she ever thought possible.

This novel has a strong start. Two girls in the bathroom are convincing another that the guy she came with is not worth her tears, and touching up her make-up for her. I really do like scenes showing the positive side of female relationships. In fact, to this book's huge credit, not one of the girls she meets is bitchy towards her. She makes friends with a good group at the camp, and I loved reading every scene of them hanging out. They felt like people I could hang out with, and reminded me a lot of my Texas group of friends.

Lucy has three hobbies, which are treated with equal levels of respect from the text. She loves make-up, and runs a fairly popular YouTube channel. She played piano when she was young and very well, but has fallen slightly out of doing it. She's also on the swim team and will be captain next year, which she likes because her Mom used to do it. Three hobbies, and some books fail to give female characters one single interest. Add to that her religious background and her flaws, and she feels like a real person. She hasn't quite got the charity part of the bible down - she acts like helping at a camp for disadvantaged children will be the worst thing ever - but as time goes on there, she grows as a person. She's not so good at the love thy neighbour part, either - she judges Tara when she first meets her. However, over the course of the book, she develops as both a character and a person. And she has her heart in the right place, at least, when she helps Anna out, even if she's not always sure of what to do.

Lukas isn't awful, except he is. He doesn't exactly tell Lucy she shouldn't wear her dress and make-up, but he does show he's not entirely happy with it, either. In Lukas's mind, Lucy completes him. She's the perfect high-school romance pastor's daughter complement to his aspiring doctor. But he doesn't see her as her own person, with her own thoughts, feelings, problems and dreams. As soon as she starts showing a side he considers less than perfect, he tells her he wants to take a break. Compared to Lukas, Jones seems overly perfect, but it is obvious throughout the book that he is dealing with his own demons.

The Names They Gave Us is a very interesting title. Obviously, most people are given their name by their parents, so Lucy is Lucy Esther Hansson. However, we are all given different names by different people. Many people at the camp have probably been called all sorts of awful names, based on their race or parentage or perceived sexual conduct. However, we also often get nice names, nicknames from friends and names we make for ourselves. Anna doesn't like people using her last name, since it's hard to pronounce, but that was given to her, too. However, as she says, she likes being called Anna. The last name is just an excuse. She has probably been called by the incorrect name she was given at birth many times before. To illustrate my point, I will quote my favourite lines from the book. "I'm not Pastor Dave's daughter right now, and I'm certainly not Lukas's girlfriend. Not Bird or Swim Team Captain or even LucyEsMakeup. But I don't have a name for who I am. Lucy, obviously, but a Lucy that I'm only starting to figure out. Maybe I'm a little in love with her, too."

I love how Lucy had such a strong relationship with her family. It's nice to see, especially in YA fiction, a good model for how families are supposed to be. And her Mom shows that someone without a stable home life can still grow up to be a successful adult. I recognised so much of my own family in hers. Saturday nights were our movie nights. Girly evenings with just us when Dad was away for work were our thing. With recent events in my family, this book was a hard read. I don't know what it's like to have a mother with cancer. I don't even know what it's like for everyone going through the death of a parent. I can only say what it was like for me to go through, when my Mum died. So much of what was in my head, I recognised in Lucy's narration. I also related to the way she was around her friends. That feeling of finding the one place you fit in. Finding the place where you can be yourself, just yourself, and that's enough, and these people would like you no matter what.

Lucy deals many with a group of 8-year-old campers. I felt that their age ranges were never consistent. One point, they felt more like 5-year-olds, the next they're talking like teens. At one point, one of them can't recognise a fox, calling it an "orange dog." Although maybe that would be realistic, for children who've gone through as much as they have? One thing I wish is that we got more backstory on each of them, to find out why they are here at a camp for disadvantaged children. It's obvious something horrible has happened in the past to them, but the book sort-of glosses over this aspect.

I loved the story of Posy and the Wishing Tree, and if I had the ability, I would get it made up as an illustrated book. For children, adults or teenagers who need it. It might seem a dark subject to represent with a picture book, but I think it could work. I'd put a content warning on the cover, of course, but I do believe people underestimate the ability of children to deal with dark things. And you never know what little child may need a story like that as a push to come forward with an issue like that which may be bothering them at home.

An awful lot of this novel deals with faith. Lucy is a pastor's kid, but starts to question her beliefs after her Mom's news. I'm not religious, but I understand that it is a major part of many people's lives. I do enjoy reading about it in books as long as it doesn't turn preachy, which in my opinion it never did here. With so much of it juxtaposed with her Mom's illness, it drove home how little many religious phrases helped me in my similar situation. We got a few of these in condolence cards, and for me they did not help any. I do understand that faith can be a huge help to some people in these type of situations. Just that for me, it didn't help. The one thing I did appreciate was the phrase "you're in my prayers." Even as an atheist, I understand the sentiment behind it.

Side note: who on earth can't recognise daisies? Lucy, apparently. "Anna slowed us down by picking roadside flowers. She calls them daisies, but I think they might be fancy weeds."

As a non-religious person, I feel odd about recommending a novel about faith to people. As someone who hasn't faced many of the issues handled in this book, I feel odd about recommending it for them, either. I'll just say that if anything in this book sounds like something you'd like to read about, give it a try.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

A Review of Wonder Woman: Warbringer

Wonder Woman: Warbringer is the first in a new series of books based on DC characters. It is authored by Leigh Bardugo, and later books are planned to be written by Marie Lu, Sarah J. Maas and Matt de la Peña. Wonder Woman deals with Diana, Princess of Themyscira as she saves a life. This simple action has further-reaching consequences than she could ever imagine. The girl she saved, Alia Keralis, is a Warbringer, someone with the ability to ignite conflict by her very presence.

My history with comic books is limited. Growing up, I didn't live near anywhere that sold them. I didn't get into them until I found I much enjoyed the recent movies based on them. I've been trying to catch up on the years I spent deprived of comics since, but that's a lot of history to catch up on. Also, please don't suggest that makes me any less of a geek, considering I can school anyone in a room on Pokémon trivia. It just means I wouldn't necessarily call myself a comic book geek.

The book is a separate canon from the comics, and the recent film. It deals with a Wonder Woman who has yet to prove herself to the other Amazons, despite being set in our modern day. She also feels younger - by Amazon standards, that is - and less sure of herself. I don't know how closely it follows the original comics, and I don't see that as a bad thing. The deal with comics - I would even say one of the best things about them - is that they can be reimagined and reinterpreted. In fact, they have, several times. Comic book characters have entered our consciousness in the same way that myths and legends have. Many myths and legends - Roman, Greek, Viking - have also been rewritten over the years, in some cases by these very comic books. And where's the good in any piece of media if it can't be updated for a different time period, or even just experimented with by different people?

The characters in this book are fantastic, and very varied in their personalities. Diana can seem invincible at times, but this book really goes into her doubts and insecurities, which I appreciated. She has Maeve, a good friend within the Amazons, Rani, a rival who she still looks up to and Tek, and someone who does seem to strongly dislike her. This book proves the adage that if you have enough female characters, you can afford to give them a wide range of personalities. Alia, the girl she saves, is a mortal, not as physically strong as the Amazons. However, she is a science geek, more brains than brawn. Once they get to our modern world, it is Alia who really has to take the lead and show Diana how the world works. Alia's best friend, Nim, is also a brilliant designer, who is interested in clothes. You have a girl who likes fashion, a girl who likes science, and a girl who's better at physical things. Despite this, they never feel like they're just "beauty, brains, brawn" - all three are more than that, and well-rounded characters in their own right. The growing friendship between them is one of the best parts of the book.

The book is also amazingly feminist, and intersectionally so. Alia is Black, and the book deals with the issues she faces as someone of her race in New York City. As I mentioned above, the female characters have a wide range of personalities. The relationships between women are at the forefront of this book, particularly the positive ones. Amazons, because of their backstory, can come from anywhere. Nim, Alia's best friend from New York, is Indian and described as "gay, maybe bi. She's figuring it out." In the same discussion, Diana mentions of the Amazons that "Some like men, some like women, some like both, some like nothing at all." Normally, in discussions like this, Aro and Ace people aren't even mentioned, and I had the biggest smile on my face at this point.

I also feel obliged to comment on how well-written this book is. It throws you into the story on page 12. It's decently long, and the font is small, but it never feels slow, it never drags. While reading it, I could imagine it as a film, and was disappointed that it most likely wouldn't ever be made into a movie. As I mentioned above, the characterisation, particularly on our three leads, shines off the page. They feel like real people you could meet on the street - even, especially and most impressively, Diana. Despite focusing on her human side, the book never loses sight of her 'super' side, either. Alia is also flawed - because of her upbringing, she has an easy talent for deception. I'm sure everyone will find something in these characters that they can relate to.

With all the good I have to say about this book, it's a shame I do have a few complaints, but there is an entire sequence with a plane where Wonder Woman catching up to it while it is moving is the most realistic thing about it. The plane, a proper jet, lands and takes off in the Great Lawn, and is known to Air Traffic Control. In a world that is already on tenterhooks for some kind of attack, the thing would have been shot down the second it had gone off course. I'll give Bardugo credit that she does at least acknowledge the unrealism of her scenario in the Author's Note.

I wouldn't say you need a large knowledge of the comics to read this book, and since it is a separate canon a person could read this with little knowledge of the books. However, I would recommend watching the 2017 movie, either before or after reading, so you give yourself a visual reference. Bardugo has set a very high bar for this series, something I am worried that the later authors will not be able to meet. I think I also should mention that I absolutely would recommend it to fans of the comics, too. This book is easily one of my favourites of the year. This was actually my first Bardugo book, and now I'm wanting to read more of what she's written!