Friday, 29 December 2017

December Book Haul!

I seem to collect more new books during the festive season than at any other time of the year. Between asking for a few for Christmas, and getting vouchers to Waterstones and Amazon, I get enough to last me until... oh, about February. It's one of the only times of year that it feels worth me doing a book haul, since most months I either don't really get enough, or don't remember what I bought. I'm going from the top to bottom, and talk about why I bought these particular books.

The first five were bought from Waterstones on the 28th of December, with my Christmas vouchers.

Love, Hate & Other Filters: I've heard a lot about this book. Contemporaries with a social justice slant are pretty much my perfect books. One of the reasons I love to read is so that I can appreciate the experiences of people who's lives are different from mine. I have finished this one already and I loved it, it's one that everyone should buy.
Orangeboy: This was an impulse buy, in the buy one get one half price offer. I am hoping this will be a good book to read.
Chasing the Stars: I used to love Mallory Blackman when I was younger (we're talking +10 years ago, here) so I thought it would be good to read her again. Hacker was the book of hers I still remember coming back to often.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing: I read the first chapter or so of this book in the library, and I can't quite remember why I didn't take it out, as I did enjoy it. Plus, it was nominated for the Man Booker prize, and I know that doesn't always mean it was good, but it does look good.
Artemis: I loved Andy Weir's The Martian, so this was an easy choice. I was impressed with how his female characters were handled in his previous book, but I just wished they had more page-time. I am happy that his main character is a woman, and I trust him to write her well.

These next five I bought from Amazon with a Christmas voucher. I tend to use Amazon to buy books that I haven't been able to find in the shops. Either they haven't been published in the UK yet, or I just haven't seen them.

The Dazzling Heights: I did enjoy The Thousandth Floor, so I wanted to give the sequel a try.
Orange is the New Black: As a fan of the Netflix series, I'm also hoping this book gives me an insight into a place I'll (hopefully) never experience myself - women's prison.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her own Making: I've had this book on my list since I first read it's way too long title. I mean, who doesn't want to read about fairyland and girls who can build their own ships? Boring people, that's who.
Lady Renegades: I've enjoyed the other two books in the Rebel Belle series, so I'm hoping this on lives up to them.
This Shattered World: Another sequel buy. I really really liked These Broken Stars, so this one has a lot to live up to.

The next three were my Christmas Day books. Essentially, they were the ones I pointed out to Dad, and he bought them and wrapped them up. I'm doing them as a trio, because it's a similar reason for all three.

Minalima editions of Peter Pan, The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast: Every year, I say I'm going to read more classics, and children's classics are as legit as any other sort of classic. Minalima editions are beautiful, with amazing covers, illustrations and interactive elements. The only one of these I've finished is Peter Pan, and I didn't appreciate what a racist and sexist mess this book was.

The last four I got a few days before Christmas with a Waterstones voucher.

Carve the Mark: I'm not quite sure why I bought Carve the Mark. It was another buy one get one half price follow-up. I have liked it from the cover for a while, so we'll see.
A Quiet Kind of Thunder: I loved Sara Barnard's Beautiful Broken Things, and I've had a few people I really respect say good things about this book.
What Light: It was a very Christmassy themed book, and it seemed like the perfect time of year to buy it. I was struggling to get into the Christmas spirit, so I needed it. I have read this one, and I found it to be an enjoyable cosy Christmas read.
Dorothy Must Die: I love retellings, have I ever mentioned that? I also really like The Wizard of Oz, so I'm looking forward to reading this one.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

London 22/12/17 - Christmas Markets, SUSHISAMBA and Aladdin: The Musical

On the 22nd of December, I went to London to meet up with a friend of mine. Our plans for the day were to look around the Christmas Markets and stroll down the South Bank, lunch at SUSHISAMBA and Aladdin: The Musical in the evening. As normal with us, we ended up finding many other things just while walking around! Pictures under the cut.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

A Review of What Light

...I prefer the other cover.
What Light is a novel by Jay Asher, the author of Thirteen Reasons Why. Sierra's family grow and sell Christmas trees. For as long as she can remember, her family have moved down to California for December to sell them to local people. However, because of finances, this might be their last year of doing this. She always looks forward these trips, but she also misses her friends, Elizabeth and Rachel, and Christmas events back home. Still, she has Heather, her best friend over there and others she knows. When she meets Caleb, it looks like this might be the most interesting year yet...

If you've read my review, you'll remember that I wasn't overly struck on Thirteen Reasons Why. This opinion will probably be unpopular, but I liked What Light more.

I loved how Sierra's family business really allowed us to get into the season. Her life seems odd to everyone else, but to her, it's normal. It's comfortable, familiar and what she's used to. The idea of doing something different would throw her, from something that has been so constant in her life, and so tied to it.

I remember going down each year to pick my tree, from a Christmas tree lot. It was much smaller than the one described in the book, but popular, and people from neighbouring villages would come to this one. We'd go on clear days (not much fun when it's raining) so it was always a bit colder and crisper than normal. It was one of those where you could choose your tree, and they'd chop it down for you. It was part of Christmas, and we'd bring it home and decorate it.

Another point that I especially liked was more supportive female friendships. I know that Hannah not having supportive friendships was a huge part of Thirteen Reasons Why, but I love to see girls just being friends, sometimes making mistakes but always coming back together.

Most of my complaints relate to characterisation. I don't feel I know all that much about Sierra, even after reading. Apart from her use of words that teenagers don't normally use, or at least, that Asher thinks teenagers don't normally use, and her thing with peppermint mochas. She's going to take over the family business, but is that what she really wants to do? Does she ever feel conflicted about her role, or want to do something else? Annoying enough, the book sometimes gets close to bringing up these questions, but always veers away from them. What does she do for fun? Does she read, draw, does she listen to music, what music, what movies are her special favourites? You can tell a lot about a character from their favourite media. Does she have any quirks? Does the chainsaw sound set her teeth on edge or does she feel like the pine needles will prick her eyes if she gets too close?

Caleb would be Mr Too-Perfect, if it wasn't for his backstory. He gets more character development and backstory than Sierra by far. He buys trees for people who can't afford them with the tips he makes. I am glad that him attacking his sister with a knife wasn't just something he did when he was five in play, which wouldn't be too big of a deal. It is still recent enough and was major enough that I can see why it became a rumour that would spread in that type of town.

Also, there's something about Asher's writing style that just feels off. Very matter-of-fact, almost telling. It doesn't feel right. There's still a good and cosy Christmas story contained within these pages, however, so I didn't let it bother me too much.

Best read at this time of year with a peppermint hot chocolate, perfect for fans of cosy Christmas reads.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

A Review of The Start of Me and You

The Start of Me and You is a book by Emery Lord. Paige's first boyfriend Aaron died about a year ago. With the start of Junior year, she makes a plan to get herself back into the world. Dating again seems ideal, and who better than her long-time crush, Ryan Chase? But when Paige starts talking more to Ryan's cousin Max, will he be the one to pull her out of her slump? Or is that something Paige has to accomplish by herself, with a little help from others along the way?

Lord is rapidly catapulting herself to the top of my list of favourite authors. I loved The Names They Gave Us, and I loved this one.

Max is dismissed by Paige in the narrative as a 'nerd' but if you ask me, Max is the cool one here. He can't fake interest in a party and would rather sneak off to read a book and raises his hands to answer teacher's questions. But Max shouldn't have to modify his behaviour in order to fit into school social groups. I have been Max, bullied for liking things too enthusiastically, and I have been Paige, trying to hide them so I fitted in better. There is nothing cool about playing down your interests so people will like you more. To it's credit, the narrative does imply how ridiculous this attitude is, but it does so in a way that still feels natural from Paige's POV, as a teenager who still, on some level, believes this. And Max wears a Firefly T-shirt at one point, and he and Paige bond over the show. My precious children. Oh, and Max and I also think the exact same way about airplanes. That just being on one can make a nine hour flight 'fly' by because you are literally in the air and it's the coolest thing ever.

Paige in fact, has rather a few nerdy traits herself. She corrects her friends grammar and loves reading. An early chapter when she and Max find themselves debating Jane Austen loudly in class is a gem. In fact, every conversation between them makes it so you can feel their relationship developing. And extra bonus points to Paige having a goal, which she is actively trying to make a reality already, despite still being in high school. She wants to be a scriptwriter, so she reads books on scriptwriting to improve and has a script that she works on. She also is applying to a summer program in New York, for screenwriting.

Supportive female friendships give me life, and writing them seems to be a particular talent of Lord's. It's not just one supportive best friend, either. All three of the girls in Paige's circle come together to help each other in a crisis. It's not just everyone gathering around Paige, either - there's a good few times when she needs to help someone else in her group.

If the blurb didn't give away the fact that Max would be the love interest, I feel like most people would expect Ryan to have the role, based on conventions of the genre. It is still refreshing in YA to see someone not end up with their long time crush, because how often does that happen in real life? Max and Paige have a chemistry which seems to be take them out of the pages of the book from even their earliest conversations, and you can see Paige's feelings start to develop gradually, avoiding instalove. And their third-act misunderstanding actually makes sense, too. She also writes teenagers having positive relationships with parents, with realistic issues, who solve their problems together, as equals.

Lord writes about loss and grief so well that she could actually write the pamphlet on it. At one point, Max says "I was pissed at cancer after my Grandpa died. It was Cancer, with a capital C. Like it was a person who I could punch in the face, if only I could find him." And that's exactly it. I want to take revenge on Stroke. I was raised on good-vs-evil, good guys win stories. But here, I can't pick up a gun or sword and strike it down. It's not a battle I can win, it's just a series of circumstances which were the worst possible chain of events for Stroke. Also, could quite happily take that chapter where Paige's Grandmother has a Stroke, and rip it up. If I never read another chapter about Stroke, I'd be happy.

While Lord's books are romance-orientated YA, they are also a fantastic study of humanity at it's best and a coming-of-age journey, in which her characters really grow and develop. Recommended for anyone with even a passing interest in YA fiction.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

A Review of Some Kind of Wonderful

Some Kind of Wonderful is a book by Giovanna Fletcher. Lizzy Richardson has been dating Ian Hall for ten years, since she was 18. When he gets cold feet during a proposal in Dubai and chickens out, Lizzy, while obviously sad, decides to look back over who she is and who she was supposed to be without Ian's influence.

I am not picky. I've read a lot of chick-lit, I like a good deal of the chick-lit I've read. Good chick-lit is fun, sweet escapism, and this was good.

Lizzy had been with Ian since the first week of university. That's a long time, and I don't think she was unreasonable in expecting a proposal. I dare say people change more in their three years at university than they do between the ages of 13-18. You are not a perfectly mature adult at 18. As Lizzy says, she still doesn't know who she is. Her personality was so affected by him during some, shall we say, adult formative years? Ten years together is a long time, and it would be ridiculous not to expect him to influence her a little bit. Much of her stuff is left with memories of him, except for the things he had no interest in. However, she would have naturally grown up and changed over those years, with or without him. One of the best parts is Lizzy modifying Ian's interest in exercise into something which works for her, and redeveloping a healthy relationship with food.

I love that, even though Lizzy is understandably upset, her first reaction is not to fall apart or concentrate on finding a new man, but to use being single as a positive to find out who she is. A lot of this book does show how good it can be to be single, whether that's just eating what you want without judgement or being able to enjoy yourself independently at a party. As someone who has found that single > relationships, I loved this. And there is a lot of girls supporting girls in this book, too! And there is also a lot of girls messing up, making insensitive mistakes, and not thinking things through.

I also don't think Ian is completely to blame. He's been trapped almost by expectations, everyone wanting him to propose and holding on to a relationship that doesn't make him happy any more, mainly because of how long it's been. Just, maybe you could have found a better way to tell her than during what she thought would be a proposal? Also, he's the sort of pretentious that makes me want to shake someone and ask if they've ever had any fun.

This book also makes a point about how the concept of defining your entire life around one person isn't healthy. Don't even get me started on the term other/better half. You are not less of a person because you are not in a relationship, and being in one shouldn't complete you. You are whole without someone else, and while a relationship can enhance your life, it shouldn't become the only thing in it.

The romance is hugely rushed, and that disappointed me because I was hoping for Lizzy and Natalia. Still, it's a refreshing change in chick-lit to have the protagonist realise she's okay by herself. Also, if I could never again see Ross and Rachel or Bella and Edward held up as ideals of perfect couples, I'd be happy.

Recommended for any chick-lit fan, and as quite a lot of it takes place in December and as it's so pretty, it would make a great present!

Monday, 4 December 2017

Movie Review: Battle of the Sexes

Battle of the Sexes is a 2017 biopic about the famous tennis match of the same name between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. It stars Emma Stone and Steve Carell, and was directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. King (Stone) is one of the top players in Women's tennis, but the ageing Riggs (Carell) claims he could beat any women at the sport. With the upcoming match looking to be one of the most important in the sport, the pressure is on for both of them.

With a movie like this, the characters are it's heart. Stone plays King with charm and vigour - she's really started to show her range in her last few films, and why she is known as one of the greatest actresses of her generation. Carell plays Riggs as someone who you might almost feel sorry for, so comedic that you can't take him seriously and with a surprising depth in how he interacts with his wife and youngest son. It's hinted - almost outright stated - in the film that the male chauvinist pig thing is an act for the cameras. The other female tennis players featured in the film are well-cast and work together well as an ensemble. It is pointed out in the film that even though they compete on the pitch, off the pitch they are supportive of one another. Honestly, I wish they could have had more screentime.

I have to dedicate some portion of this review to talk about King's relationship with who was in the film her hairdresser, Marilyn, since it is almost as important as the match itself. I am not the person to comment on whether it was good representation, however. I didn't know that King liked the same sex, and her work for LGBT rights. From what I understand, they largely embellished the relationship.

I can't quite put my finger on it - maybe it's just the technology and fashions of the time giving it this style - but the movie feels like a film from the 70's. Not just one that was set then, one that was made and shot then. Also, the staging of the tennis match makes it feel like a epic real-life tennis match with the boring bits cut out, where you don't know the outcome. I found myself wanting to jump up in my seat and cheer.

In fact, if this movie has a fault, it is the fact that the result of the match is both known to history and so obvious in the film that it can take some of the tension out of watching. But it still works as a "how we got here," to the point where the movie could have opened with news of King's victory.

I've talked before about how the circumstances in which you watch a movie can influence your perception of it, and this was the first movie I ever watched on my own at a cinema. I found that I could really get lost in the movie, and I wasn't worried about whether the person next to me was enjoying it.

I would recommend this movie to professional sports players, and aspiring professional sports players and tennis fans. However, I am not particularly a fan of any sport myself, so this is by no means the only groups this film might appeal to.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

A Review of Moxie

Moxie is a young adult novel by Jennifer Mathieu. Sick of the way her high school's football team treats girls, Vivian Carter starts a small "zine" that she calls Moxie, inspired by Riot Grrls. As more problems in her school become apparent, Vivian creates more issues of her zine, asking the girls to do small things to protest. As it catches on with more girls and starts handling tougher issues, Vivian realises this thing might be bigger than she ever imagined.

I've always thought that the best sort of books are ones that can teach us things, and I knew next-to-nothing about Riot Grrrl culture until reading this book. For many people, it could serve as an introduction to modern feminism, or a reminder that other people feel the same.

Vivian is no expert in feminism and feminist issues. She learns about them and develops as the book goes on. She's also delightfully awkward around people she doesn't know. And I don't mean just cute-awkward, actual awkward. Claudia is unconvinced by the whole idea of Moxie at first, but certain events bring her round. Her friend Lucy is more confident, a big-city fish out of water in small-town Texas. It's easy for Lucy to step in and take charge, but she often has to be careful that she doesn't take over. One of the things that I liked was the diversity in the types of girls who responded to Moxie's message. From every different clique in the school, some of the girls did something. I will admit that when cheerleaders were first brought up, my reaction was "oh, no." But the biggest theme here is girls supporting girls, so my initial thoughts were off. I can't finish off my round up of characters in this book without bringing up Seth. He asks if he can kiss Vivian, and is genuinely willing to learn from her about what her life in East Rockport is like as a girl. He's not perfect, however, trotting out "not all guys" pretty often.

Sometimes, parts of American culture in books are hard for me to understand. Through books and other media, I often think I've picked up a lot of information about the American high school system, but something often throws me. Here, it was the way the entire town shuts down for high school football games. I know high school sports are a huge deal, but that would seem ridiculous in the UK. I don't even know of any secondary schools with a dedicated sports team.

I actually went to two different secondary schools. My first one had a clique system that isn't far off the one I see depicted in US media, with the popular crowd, but my second one was really too big for such a system to develop. Vivian's school experience doesn't line up exactly with anything I went through, but the thing is that no two schools are the same. School is a bubble, and if something catches on, it can spread through the school like wildfire.

Dress codes are another thing I don't get, seeing as I had to wear uniforms. My schools were on the "No jewellery! Hair up! Black shoes! No nail varnish no individuality no fun" end of the spectrum, too. But I think being called out for wearing a strappy top is ridiculous, especially seeing as it's Texas. It would be better if the rules were consistent, but calling a girl out of class to measure the length of her skirt has it's own level of problems. What someone is wearing is not more important than their education. Personally, I'm starting to think that a uniform might be the best solution, but allow students to wear a little jewellery and accessories to personalise it. High and secondary school is where people really start to figure out who they are, so give students the freedom to experiment.

Moxie's (the zine) influence is small. It's not going to change the world, even as it does obtain a wider influence towards the end of the book. But then Vivian isn't trying to change the world, just her small Texas high school. It's distribution is also a learning curve for Vivian. Things that worked on a national level for the Riot Grrrls in the 90's may not have the same effect in a single small town. She and her friends also learn about feminism and feminist issues from the chain of events Vivian starts. It's a lovely way to show that something small can turn into something big.

The editing in this book could have used some extra work. Page 67 in my copy contains the line "I guessed I shouldn't any questions." Some sentences have way too many commas in them and could have done with being rewritten. And there is this event: "I spot Lucy Hernandez in the front row with a copy of Moxie in her hands ... I almost don't notice that Lucy has a copy of Moxie sitting out on her desk." I would have made that second sentence "I almost don't notice that Lucy has left her copy of Moxie sitting out on her desk."

Recommended for fans of Holly Bourne, Moxie is a book about the effect that something small can have over a wider community.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

A Review of It Only Happens in the Movies

It Only Happens in the Movies is a novel by Holly Bourne, author of the Spinster Club series. Audrey is in the second year of sixth form, and a new job at a movie theatre. She's coping with her parents divorce, and her ex-boyfriend dumping her after their first time having sex. Her brother has moved to University, and she's feeling increasingly distant from her friends. When she meets Harry, she assumes he's trouble, and everyone else tells her that, too. But he could be just the type of trouble she needs.

This was my first Holly Bourne book, and this was the book I needed five, even ten years ago. So much of my life mirrors Audrey's. A dropped interest in drama? (Mine was because of a bad teacher, but still.) Painful first-time sex? An impending move of my parents when I went to Uni? (Mine was because of them moving voluntarily, but it was still so weird to come home to a different house in a place I didn't know, and just feeling so uneasy with something they were so excited about.)

Audrey has a huge, justified, hate of romance movies, but she also obviously did like them once. Many fans of these movies know they are unrealistic, but enjoy them as a form of escapism. Audrey never does assume fans of these movies are idiots themselves, so I'll give her credit for that. And I like her point that they give as unrealistic an idea of women as they do of men. In fact, I'd love to see a romantic movie with a protagonist with the insecurities that she lists. I think it could be a way to give more rounded characters in them. Also, I love that she has a passion, but she dropped it because of her ex-boyfriend. Ehh... She loved drama and wanted to go to RADA, obviously with a dream of acting professionally. Why would she give this up because of a arsehole like her ex?

Because he is, in fact, a total arsehole. The first word Audrey uses to describe Harry is "fuckboy" but this applies more to her Milo. He dumped her for after they attempted to have sex for the first time, which they stopped because it was too painful for Audrey. And the manner in which it happens is almost sexual assault. Sure, Audrey does say yes but her body language starts saying no during it. This is why we need education on consent in schools - to let people know that they should check in with their partner throughout sex, and be aware of their physical cues during it. Even if this wouldn't stop Milo, Audrey would realise that what he did was just awful. But she still displays attraction to him in the first part of the book? Surely, as soon as someone does this, that is grounds for "fuck him, I'm just going to try extra hard to enjoy life to make him suffer."

Alice, Becky and Charlie are Audrey's best friends, who exist to be her best friends. Alice gets some decent development, and manages to be the most supportive best friend ever. Leroy is Audrey's other best friend, and is well fleshed-out for a side character. He has a boyfriend, also into drama, and is a gaming YouTuber with a specialism in Mario Kart.

Harry is a total flirt, every movie cliche rolled into one. However, he knows when to tone down his teasing based on the tone of someone's voice. And at one point, he pulls "you're not like other girls, are you?" on Audrey, leading her into a rant that everyone needs to read. But after she explains how it's "sexist bull..." he apologises. And no "I'm sorry if," a genuine apology. I was rooting for you. However, thinking back on it now I can see a lot of things he did were problematic, and I don't think he and Audrey would have worked long term, even if he hadn't cheated.

There are some problematic terms used in this book, but I think it's more Bourne drawing on her own experiences about what teenagers say and think. Also, there is a lot of girl hate in the book. I actually don't mind a slight amount of bitchiness, since there are some nasty people in the world, and teenagers should learn how to deal with that. But I wanted to find out that Jessie feels guilty about splitting up a family and that's why she acts cold towards Audrey and Dougie. I was expecting Courtney to find out how Milo treated Audrey, after which she dumps him. I want to hear that Rosie doesn't automatically see Audrey as competition. I want to know about Mariana's hourlong commute from a poorer area and the large family she has to support, which is why she's determined to run such a tight ship, so she keeps her job. In real life, everyone is going through things you know nothing about. I know that books can't develop every minor character that exists, but I like to imagine how their lives are when we don't see them on page.

I think I would recommend this book to people who like movies, even romance movies. Like I said, there's no judgement from Audrey about people who do like them, and the book itself is more of an affectionate parody. I also think this is one book where the target audience of teenage girls will get a lot out of reading it, not that it can't also be enjoyed by people outside that demographic, either.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

A Review of Ink

Ink is a novel by Alice Broadway, and it is short-listed for the Books Are My Bag 2017 Reader's Award in the Young Adult category. In Leora Flint's world, everyone is tattooed when they have a significant event in their lives. When you die, your tattoos are preserved forever in your skin book, if you are deemed to have lead a worthy life. If not, you are forgotten, and your skin goes up in flames. People without tattoos are called blanks, and they were exiled long ago to a different part of the land. Upon the death of her father, Leora starts to learn that her world is not as simple as she always thought.

This is the first of a planned series, but I want to review this book on it's own because I'm a rebel against my own rules. Well, they're more guidelines, really.

Ink had a cover that caught my eye instantly, and a blurb that put me off. It made it sound like a standard YA dystopia. However I gave it a try and learnt an important lesson: judge a book by it's cover, not it's blurb. Okay, that was tongue-in-cheek, but I swear that for me covers are a better way of telling if I'd like a book than the blurb.

My first credit is for Leora having an ambition, and it's one that actually makes sense in her world. She wants to be an inker, someone who designs and applies people's tattoos. However, women inkers are rare, and people express doubt that a man would want to be inked by a woman and question her feminine style. If there is something I would like to see less of, it's sexism even in a fantasy or future world.

Leora has a good relationship with some of the men in her life. I know that we need to show more girls supporting girls, but I think it is also important to show people that boys and girls can be friends. She gets on well with her mentor, Obel, is friendly towards her friend Verity's brother Sebastian and has a burgeoning crush on Oscar. Romance in general is not at all important in this book, a refreshing change. She also has a good if rocky relationship with her mother, and a supportive friendship with Verity.

It's one of only a few dystopias I've seen give a large amount of attention to school. Leora hangs out and revises like any normal teenager might. Obviously, school is an important way that dystopias brainwash people into believing their line of thinking. During one of Leora's school exams, she's asked to describe how life would be different if the blanks still lived among them. Isn't that telling? Leora writes that "society would be divided. It would be hard for such diverse groups to live together without conflict." If human history has shown us anything, it's that there is truth in that, but if some cities in recent times are taken into account, it's that it doesn't have to be. The future that I would like to achieve and work towards is one where diverse groups can live side-by-side.

Bad points - there is about a two long paragraph section where Leora describes herself that wouldn't be out-of-place in a young adult contemporary. You know the sort - "Who would want me? I know for a fact I've never [turned anyone's head]. I've got to be the only sixteen year old on earth who's never been kissed by anyone. I'm not the right kind of pale... I'm more of a dull grey. My breasts are too small to be curvy and I'm sure my bum is too large to be skinny." I won't quote the whole thing, you get the idea. Credit where credit is due, though, she doesn't have the whole world telling her she's beautiful while she thinks this. I understand that insecurities are part of growing up and a teenage protagonist who doesn't think she is pretty is good for girls to read about. But one of the things she complains about it her mousey brown hair, and I just have to wonder how reading that so much makes people with that hair colour feel. Some of the prettiest people I've ever seen had hair of light brown. I remember how I used to feel when protagonists described their brown hair and eyes as boring. I feel like it would be better if we could point out the positives about appearance-based attributes.

There is also a story in their world that functions as a fable or fairy tale, about why they have their marks. In it, there a two sisters, and one is "as beautiful as she is good" and people travel from miles around to see her, and she marries a prince and her marks appear magically on her skin. People often forget that her sister exists, because she's not as pretty as her sister. Of course, she turns out to be a witch and curses a large part of the land. Also: Leora is descended from the sisters in the story. Is that not the most overdone twist in fiction?

In fact, there are stories periodically inserted into the novel, telling some of the myths of the land. Many are creative and interesting, but one is literally Sleeping Beauty. However, it does end with the line "She told him he shouldn't kiss sleeping girls." I'm so happy that was included!

Here is a good article from the Guardian that details some of Broadway's mindset as she came into writing this novel. It's an interesting read. The ideas of faith, religion and questioning your beliefs are done subtly, but they are also important to the story and handled well.

I recommend this one if you like dystopias. Many of the standard tropes are at play here, so if you generally dislike dystopias, nothing here will change your mind. However, if you do enjoy dystopias, you may like this.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

A Very Potter Day - Harry Potter: A History of Magic at the British Library and the House of MinaLima! 3/11/17

At The British Library, from 20th October 2017 to 28th February 2018, there is an exhibition going on about Harry Potter and the History of Magic. It's main focus is how myths and legends from our world influenced Harry Potter. So, I didn't expect to be able to go. But long story short, an advert for it appeared in Dad's paper, and I talked him into it like the mature 25-year-old that I am. Although it didn't take much talking. I'm not dragging him along, here. He hides it well, but he's almost as into Harry Potter as I am!

Under a cut due to a large amount of pictures! I didn't get many from the exhibition itself, for reasons I explain below, but I did get some nice ones from the House of MinaLima!

Sunday, 29 October 2017

A Review of The Island at the End of Everything

The Island at the End of Everything is a middle grade novel by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, who also wrote The Girl of Ink and Stars. Amihan Tala has lived her whole life on Culion Island in the Philippines, with her mother, who has leprosy. After a decision is made to turn the island into a dedicated leprosy colony, Ami is sent away to an orphanage on a nearby island. There she meets Mariposa, a girl named for butterflies, and the two of them set off to return to her island.

My word, how is this a book for children? It's about a colony for people with leprosy, that was an actual place! I don't mean that because children shouldn't read about things like this, because they absolutely should. I just mean that if you're expecting a light fantasy adventure more in line with Hargrave's first book, you're in for a surprise. And a treat, because this book is exceptional, even better then Hargrave's first.

After loving The Girl of Ink and Stars, I admit I overlooked this one slightly in shops. I assumed that it would be more of the same. An island, a corrupt government official, a girl on an adventure home. I also assumed there would be fantasy elements, even though that is not stated anywhere. But it couldn't be more different, showing Hargrave's range as a writer, but also her style is coming through.

As in Hargrave's first novel, female friendships are important. Mari is the first person on her new island, and possibly one of the first in her life, to treat Ami kindly, something which throws Ami off at first. There's a lack of any romance here, implied or otherwise, and I couldn't help but wonder is something might be between Ami and Mari when they get older. And I did like how this one focuses on a relationship between mother and daughter, too. The one thing about Hargrave's characters I really like is that they act like children. They make mistakes, they get things wrong, they get irrationally angry at things.

Butterflies are often used in fiction to symbolise a lot of things. Death, love, rebirth, chaos theory. Here, they symbolise many things at once. Mr Zamora likes to keep them on display behind glass, symbolising his love of order, and showing what he'd like to do to the island - make a museum of it. The overall idea for the children of Culion is to take them somewhere where they can have a better life, giving them rebirth. Of course, the definition of better life is subjective and doesn't include the opinions of the children themselves. In it's way, Ami's journey home was her own rebirth. And at 12 years of age, they are very much in the chrysalis stage of their lives - growing and changing into who they will be. Mari's name symbolises her kind nature. And taking the children from Culion was the trigger for the rest of the events in the book - rather like the theory that a butterfly flapping it's wings in Mexico can cause a hurricane.

Absolutely recommended for everyone from confident younger readers up to adult fans of historical fiction. If any book has ever defined the term "universal appeal" it would be this one.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

A Review of There's Someone Inside Your House

There's Someone Inside Your House is a book by Stephanie Perkins, author of the Anna and the French Kiss trilogy. Bit of a difference, huh? Makani Young has been moved from Hawaii to Nebraska, to look after her grandmother. She's beginning to settle in, when a series of horrific murders start, centred around the students of her new high school. Her crush, Ollie Larsson also happens to be a suspect in the eyes of the student body.

Horror is an odd genre for me to read. I've read a little Steven King and that's about it. It's not a genre I reach for, not because it scares me too much, but because it doesn't often scare me, at all. I often find supernatural aspects too unrealistic to be believable, and therefore scary. However, that's not the case here. Someone inside my house is an actual, tangible fear. It's something that worries me. This book isn't keep you up at night scary, but it is sort-of look over your shoulder creepy. It's really more of a mystery than a horror.

It does feel weird to add a trigger warning to a review like this, which is about a book already dealing with a gruesome subject, but some people are fine with one thing and not okay with another.

Makani is a fish out of water in Nebraska, and she misses home massively. It should resonate with anyone who has moved house. She's half African-American and half Native Hawaiian. Back home, she used to be a diver, but after a bad event alluded to briefly until about 3/4th of the way through the book, she doesn't anymore. Ollie is a loner who wants to leave the small town himself. At home, he has an odd family set-up. Owing to the deaths of his parents, his older brother is head of the household. Actually, the character and romance-driven moments, as is Perkins's speciality, are the strongest parts of the book. Her wider friends circle also included Darby, a trans man and Alex, a goth. I am sorry, but that is all we learn about them over the course of the book. Perkins was so good in her previous series in giving all her characters dreams and interests or in the case of Isla, explaining why she didn't have one yet, that I was a little disappointed with the lack of it here. In fact, it's the minor characters who die off that seem to have more fleshed out hobbies and goals.

Since there is a mystery aspect, I can't discuss much of the book without spoiling, so: I can't be the only one who thought for a time that the killer would be Makani's grandmother in a sleepwalking state, can I? The mystery isn't so much solved as the answer is given to us, which does feel like an unsatisfying conclusion.

Good book for Hallowe'en, recommended to first-time horror readers as an introduction to the genre.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

A Review of Invictus

Invictus is a book by Ryan Graudin. Farway Gaius McCarthy lives in 2370's Rome, the son of a famed time-traveller and an Ancient Roman gladiator. He was born outside of time, on a time machine. Wanting to follow in his mother's footsteps, he takes the course to become a time-traveller himself, but something goes wrong in his final exam simulator. Finding himself stealing expensive historical artefacts for a smuggler, trouble finds him again in the form of Eliot, mysterious girl who interferes with his mission on-board the Titanic...

Well, this book is fun, but that's all it is. Style over substance. I guess if you're looking for a romp through time with a pet red panda and a basis in Rome, it's right here. And you might learn something about various time periods while doing it, but you're not going to figure out the meaning of life or anything.

Rome is a fun place to base any novel. The old architecture and the new, and the required amounts of gelato are consumed. I also enjoyed the slight futuristic touches - explanations of how time-travel effected society and simple things like a lack of bees. So, if the book is based in Rome, why do so many characters have distinctly English names? Wouldn't a slight tendency towards Italian names be the norm, with a larger variation from centuries of globalisation?

Obviously, we don't spend all our time in Rome! Other places include Ancient Rome, libraries of Alexandria and the Titanic. However, I personally think the book is at it's best when it's in one of three locations. On the Invictus, in Rome 2354, or the section in 2020's Las Vegas. The historical periods always have too much going on and move too quickly for me to really get a sense of the place and feel like I'm there. But in the future (to us, at least) I feel like I'm there with the characters.

Characters! Farway is a typical leader. Always likes to seem in control, and somewhat cocky, but his crew is his family. Imogen, his cousin, is a knowledgeable Historian. This means she knows how best to blend in with the time period they're in. She'll pick the outfits they should wear for any trip, but this is much more involved than that sounds. She likes to colour her hair with different hair chalks every day. This is never explained beyond "I like colour and colour likes me." And perhaps it doesn't need a reason. Not everyone in real life dyes their hair as a symbolic way to show they are trying to hide something, so maybe characters don't need to, either. Priya is the ships medic, good at her job and a love of music from every time period. Gram, ship's engineer, huge geek and loves video games. At one point we are informed the group went to the 90's to find a replacement part for his NES. I wish the book had focused more on his games, rather than just Tetris. And Eliot... I don't want to get too into Eliot, for fear I might spoil something.

One thing I did like is that Farway and Priya were in a committed relationship from the start of the novel. Romance isn't a major focus here, with so much else going on. It gives our characters a grounding influence, and shows us a healthy relationship which I think is beneficial for people to see. And we still got a will-they-won't-they relationship from Imogen and Gram!

As with most time-travel stories, paradoxes arise pretty quickly. Going into some of the biggest paradoxes will spoil it straightaway, so: if the group stops Farway from being born on the Ab Aeterno, there's no Fade, therefore there's no reason to stop it. And surely there are other universes with very slight differences that have lead to a different Farway being born on the Ab Aeterno? Surely then, the Fade would still be there?

Props to Graudin for keeping the story contained to one book. I could easily see this been stretched into a trilogy in someone else's hands.

Recommended to anyone who's looking for a book that is just plain fun. Also, if done well, it would make for a movie that would be just too much fun.

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!

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

A Review of Side Effects May Vary

Side Effects May Vary is a book by Julie Murphy. Alice Richardson is diagnosed with cancer, and makes a list of all the things she wants to put right before she dies. She takes her childhood friend Harvey Poppovicci with her on her adventures. Many of these involve revenge one someone who has wronged her in some way. However, when she enters remission, she realises that her actions may have consequences that she never considered. Alice must learn to live with herself, in a world she never thought she'd see.

This book is an entry into the YA Cancer books genre that has become popular in the last few years. I wanted to try and review this book on it's own merits, but I couldn't help looking up it's publication date compared to The Fault in Our Stars. TFioS: 2012 SEMV: 2014. It almost reads as a John Green checklist - dying girl, revenge list, the boy she drags along on her wild schemes, theme park break-in.

However, if you're expecting anything quite like TFioS, you might actually find yourself disappointed. I was expecting a cute contemporary romance with a background of cancer. Alice and Harvey are childhood friends, which is one of my favourite set-ups for YA, because it means it doesn't feel rushed and avoids insta-love. However, this actually feels more like the movie Mean Girls than anything else I've read.

This book is actually a completely different story to how it seems. I guess the most important thing to tell people is that Alice is not a nice person. And I don't mean not nice in the way that Cancer Teens can get away with - she's just generally an unpleasant person to know. Not every YA protagonist has to be nice, or has to be a good role model. Sometimes it's important to read about the kind of person you don't want to be. Points to her having a passion with ballet, though. Harvey is a teenage boy in all senses of the word - still immature, idolises Alice without really knowing her, lets his hormones think for him. I really don't think their relationship would survive college. College is where we start to find out who we are and where we stand, away from the people and places we've known all our lives.

As for more minor characters, her best friend Celeste is described on page 2 as "more of an enemy than a friend and always wanted what I had." It's a shame, because I would love to read about a friendly competitive rivalry between two teenage girls who are still there for each other when the chips are down. Is it too much to ask for supportive friendships in YA? However, we do see points where Celeste displays traits other than just being the bitchy ex-best friend. Later, Alice's mother, talking about said best friend says "Girls can be barbarians." I've never understood this attitude. I always had a worse time with teenage boys than I did teenage girls. The one character I did like and wanted to read more about was Dennis. He reminded me of people I know, being into video games and films, yet still having a life outside of them.

There is a lot of girl hate in this book, but I wonder if Murphy might have just been making a point about how internalised misogyny can make us perceive other girls. Much of it comes from Alice's POV, who is predisposed to see other girls as competition or threats. It is a thing that does happen, and I won't complain about it's use in fiction, since it does need to be addressed.

One of the things I liked was that Alice's physical description came from Harvey. The overly flowery way he describes her is fitting for a love-stricken teenage boy. It doesn't gloss over the bad parts of her appearance, either. Her dancer's feet are described in full detail, and her puffy face and falling-out hair from chemo are also covered.

I also thought the story might flow better if the chapters were ordered chronologically. All the "Then" chapters first, and the "Now" chapters later.

I guess, if you've enjoyed other YA cancer books, you might like this one, however it doesn't do anything groundbreaking with the genre. It's also a cancer book I would say is readable for those who don't like cancer books. However, if you're looking for something sweet and feel-good, with likeable characters, this is not the book you are looking for.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

A Maelstrom of Emotions

I got a nice new dress today, and I was happy about that.

Then I felt guilty for being happy, so soon after Mum's death. Then I felt sad about that. Then, I berated myself for being sad, it's a few weeks since and I'm not the only person in the world who has lost a parent. Then, I realised the dress had pockets, so that made me very happy. Then I wondered what other people might think about me, being happy about something so shallow and materialistic so soon after Mum's death. Then I decided I didn't give a damn about what people would think.

This hasn't been an isolated incident, either. Every time I've been happy over the last few weeks, I've gone through a storm of emotions. One second I'm up, and the next I'm down. I haven't been sad all the time, and I feel guilty. I've been happy and sad at the same time, even. I've also reminded myself that Mum would not want me to be sad all the time.

I've been angry at the stroke, and annoyed that it's not really a person I can take it out on. I've unfairly blamed the NHS, who did as much as they could and treated Mum and us with the utmost respect. I've felt guilty that it happened early, and I was awake but lying in. I heard Mum breathing oddly, but thought maybe she just had a cold. Even though the doctors said that a few minutes wouldn't make any difference, I have wondered if I just found her those few minutes early, if things could change. Maybe if we hadn't gone to the zoo the day before, she wouldn't have been so tired and maybe the stroke wouldn't have happened. If I could turn back time, could I make her go to the doctors and ask them to check for a blockage and take it out before it happened? At the very least, could I tell her everything I should have told her, before she died?

I can't remember the last thing I said to her. I can't remember the last time I told her I loved her. I made bargains, I wouldn't sigh and roll my eyes if she needed help with technology and I'd do more for her around the house and I'd stop doing the puppy-dog eyes "buy me stuff" that at 25-year-old really should have grown out of.

The one thing I've noticed is that I've been concerned about how my grief appears to other people.

During Mum's funeral, me and a friend started talking about Pokémon Go. This was nice, a small way in which I connected with the various people there. I also remember how, since the game came out, Mum would roll her eyes when she saw me playing it, but always asked "catch any rare ones?" Since then, I've been wondering what other people thought about me, discussing something like that at Mum's funeral. Then I decided I just don't care.

There have been times where I've wanted to talk to people, but I haven't, because no-one wants to hear someone going on about their dead Mum all the time. So I've been telling people I'm fine. I've had people respond with "That's good," and "You're doing well." Now, I've been wondering if people thought maybe I wasn't acting sad enough.

Now, I've decided I just don't care about other people perceive it. Everyone deals with grief differently. Any emotion I experience is acceptable and valid, but not always reasonable. Sadness is reasonable, happiness is reasonable. Blame and guilt are not.

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.

The overarching message of the book "be nice to people." Hannah killed herself because people were horrible to her, and that can certainly happen. However, the book and show seem to imply the opposite is also true - that if you are nice to someone, they won't kill themselves. There is a quote from the show "if one of us had been the friend she needs, Hannah would still be here today." But the thing is, you can't say that for definite. So now I feel like friends of people who commit suicide are going to wonder what they did wrong, even more than that already happens. When the reality is that sometimes, you don't do anything wrong, you can do everything right and still not manage to prevent a suicide.

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.

*Edit: I thought the book had been published later than it was. At the time this book was written/published, technology and social media wasn't quite as ubiquitous as it is nowadays. However, it does make the books seem dated to modern readers.