Friday, 7 June 2019

A Review of the Out Of The Hitler Time Series

Out of the Hitler Time is a series by Judith Kerr, semi-autobiographically based on her own life as a Jewish refugee from Germany and coming to Britain. The three books are When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Bombs on Aunt Dainty and A Small Person Far Away. Anna's Jewish father has been writing anti-Nazi articles before Hitler came to power, and along with Anna's mother and her brother Max, they have to flee the country in 1933. The first book accounts their journey to Switzerland and France before taking up residence in Britain. Bombs on Aunt Dainty looks at the effects of the Blitz in London and the issues faced by the refugees from Europe. A Small Person Far Away has Anna return to Germany, now divided into sections after the war.

These books are the best books I've read about the Second World War. The first book especially can be enjoyed by children and adults alike. These are the books I needed as a child, learning about the Blitz and evacuees. Children have a different perception of time, and history can feel like events that took place a long time ago to people you don't know at that age, and historical fiction demolishes that barrier.

They also have a different perspective on Nazi Germany from that which is normally seen. Anna and her family fled in 1933. That is very early in terms of Hitler's power, before the Second World War even started, towards the end of the decade. As such, you see the fear and uncertainty hanging over them but also optimism at the beginning, as they think they'll be back home in six months.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is a great introduction to the horrors of Nazi Germany, and while the horrors of the Holocaust aren't discussed in detail, they aren't glossed over, either. The book has a remarkably light-hearted touch to it's subject matter, though. Much of this comes from the family's closeness, keeping each others spirits up. Happy-go-lucky Anna sees most of their travels as an adventure, like her hopelessly impractical father. But the difficulties of going from being an upper-middle class German family to penniless refugees are a driving force of the book, with Anna's mother being the one most often bearing the brunt of it.

Bombs on Aunt Dainty is most definitely more YA, focusing much more on Anna's personal relationships. She's at loggerheads with her parents more often than not. This book also deals with her relationship with a much older man. Sex is discussed. She's a teenager in this one, and it shows. She starts to get more in touch with her passion for drawing, while working to help her family. Many of the refugees from Europe in Britain at the time did not find it easy, with many of the public viewing them as the enemy. This book may not be suitable for children to read straight after reading When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, but that can depend on the individual.

A Small Person Far Away feels older still. Anna is an adult, visiting her mother in hospital in Berlin. Discussions on the ethics of assisted suicide even without an underlying medical issue are frequent in the book, and it has an air of nostalgia and longing for home that adults in particular will identify with. It hasn't quite got the tension of the first two that is inherent with being set during the war and is more of a quiet family story. It's also a vital look at how depression and suicide was misunderstood back then. Anna's mother's illness (explicitly named as depression in the narrative) wasn't caught or treated in the same way it might be now.

The question of ethical treatment of refugees is perhaps more relevant now than it has been at any point in the last 70 years. These books need to be pressed into the hands of everyone you know.

Sunday, 28 April 2019

Top 5 Marvel Movies

(Up to and including Endgame, but spoiler free!)

These movies have become a cultural phenomenon and defined my 20's almost as much as Harry Potter defined my childhood. In fact, it wasn't until recently that I realised they would have been a Harry Potter-like experience for many people, who started watching them at 10 would easily be 20 now.

I like positivity, so I don't rank all movies from worst to best. Instead, I like to pick my top five, the ones that stood out to me in some way over the rest. There are some movies in the MCU that I don't like as much as the others, but the fact that they all come together to make a cohesive universe is something to behold.

Also... this is my personal opinion on them! I shouldn't really need to say this, but if you think I left out a movie, write your own list. We all have different preferences, and that's okay, because that's what keeps life interesting!

5. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2.
Surprised to see Vol. 2 on this list but not Vol. 1? I actually prefer it. I think that as we knew the characters better in this one, they could get right on with doing what they do best - cracking jokes and snarking at each other. I love the soundtrack for both of these movies, too. And the bright colour palette, too. Proof that not all sci-fi needs to be in muted tones. I love movies that use a lot of colours in every shot, I think it makes them a real visual treat. And speaking of...

4. Black Panther
Every shot in this movie looks amazing. Many are shot in the daylight, and the night scenes are well-lit. I really like when movies show cities lit by several tiny lights. There's so much colour, too, in the clothing, the jungles of Wakanda, and even the Seoul scene. To add to that, this was the movie that gave us (Disney Princess) Shuri, Nakia and Okoye. And it does what sci-fi does best - becomes a way for us to reflect on our own world and the reality we live in.

3. Captain America: The First Avenger
I love historical fiction, and this is almost a WW2 movie with a little alternate history thrown in. Also a catchy musical number. I love Peggy, and Cap is my favourite Avenger, so maybe this is slightly biased. But you can also see a lot of thought and detail put into things like the fashions of the time (Victory Rolls!) and it also introduced us to one of the overarching plot points of the whole MCU, the Tesseract. And there's a World Fair in it!

2. Avengers: Endgame
To be fair, I think focusing on a smaller group of people benefited this movie compared to it's predecessor, not needing to have 3,000 plot threads going at once. But it tied up the franchise amazingly well, taking risks I wasn't expecting it to. While there are a few minor quibbles, I think it was my favourite Marvel movie since 2012's Avengers. It certainly felt more like it, and showing a few scenes from that movie was a treat. There were some epic moments in the final battle, and even with the bleak premise, they managed to keep humour going throughout. This rank may be liable to change as time goes on, since it's still fresh in my memory at this point, but as of right now, this is where it stands for me.

1. Avengers (2012)
I think this movie is an absolute masterpiece of a team movie, and is the one I will rewatch more than any other. It's one of my favourite movies of all time. We get to see the Avengers come together, with help from Nick Fury and Agent Coulson. After a rocky start, they really gel. The chemistry between the original six just clicks. And the humour is bang-on, hitting just the right notes at the right points. New York is a very personal place to see attacked for a lot of people (I get the same way in Thor: The Dark World) which just drives home how terrifying a threat like this would be in real life. The movie was epic in scope, but it wasn't trying to top anything else. It did that on it's own, and set the standard for the other movies in the MCU. What a movie, what a franchise, what a cinematic experience.

Honorable mentions to Captain America: Civil War, Thor, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 and Iron Man 2. (Yes, 2. Yes I know. This is my list.)

Now, if you need me, I'll be working out how soon tickets for Spider Man: Far From Home will be on sale.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

A Review of The Princess and the Fangirl

The Princess and the Fangirl is a book by Ashley Poston, and the sort-of companion/sequel novel to Geekerella. Imogen Lovelace is a fan of Starfield, and campaigning hard to save her favourite character, Amara. Jessica Stone, the actress playing Amara, is just hoping she can put the blockbuster sci-fi flick behind her. As luck would have it, they sort of look like each other, and a chance meeting and a case of mistaken identity later leaves Imogen and Jessica swapping lives for the duration of ExcelsiCon.

I've never made any secrets about how much I love Geekerella, have I? However, if Geekerella was Poston testing the waters, this one is her cramming as much nerd culture in as she can, and it is glorious. One of the big reasons this works is because Poston knows her stuff, and her references are both varied and rather obscure, at times. I love seeing my favourite fictional things represented that normally never get mentioned in popular culture!

I'm starting to call this series my comfort read, like you get comfort foods. Seriously, it feels like friends. And I mean literally, I have a group of nerd friends who will debate sci-fi shows and quote memes at each other. Semi-ironically. This book feels like them.

Imogen and Jessica are two very different girls, which lets Poston get in two opinions and sides of the story. Imogen's experience with fandoms and conventions is very different from Jessica's experience with them. Imogen grew up in conventions but Jessica has only ever seen them as a work obligation that she dislikes. Imogen is impulsive, and Jessica can be aloof, coming across as mean. But they are both sympathetic individuals (the joys of a duel POV!) and with a great supporting cast around them. I would have sold my soul for more time with Imogen's family.

Poston doesn't shy away from representing the worst aspects of fan culture, too. If I could take one message away from both these books, it would be "love your nerdy fandoms with your whole heart, but be respectful about them." The big one that sticks out here is Jasper. He sticks out as an asshole from the first time we see him with Imogen, but he cements it when he meet-and-greets with Imogen-as-Jess. But it's also obvious that many of Jessica's cast and crew, the director especially, have little respect for her. Arranging a publicity stunt when it's her turn to speak is trash behaviour.

Vance Reigns is also asshole extraordinaire, cutting off Imogen opening up to him to tell her she is pretty, then proceeds to repeat synonyms for pretty during the rest of the conversation, since that's the only thing that he can ever imagine girls being, and the only part of her speech that he paid any attention to. However, Imogen is still on the naïve side, and doesn't notice the inherent condescension in how he brings it up, just her happiness about being called pretty. This is a realistic response for her situation, as girls are taught that being attractive to men is the most important thing they can be.

"Are you one of those girls who think girls who wear make-up are vapid?"
Yes. "No."

I'd like to talk about this response, from Imogen. And again, it is realistic! There are teenage girls who feel this way, I was one! To be fair, it was hugely hypocritical in my case, too, because it wasn't like I didn't wear some on occasion. And it is an attitude that needs calling out. Jessica points out that she wears her make-up as armour, and a lot of other women in the book are described as wearing it.

Elle's cameos were good to have. She's basically my literary best friend, so it was nice to see her. But there are a lot of cameos from other characters from Geekerella, and they did feel slightly gratuitous. This novel could have been a vaguely related standalone, but I would honestly have to say that you'll get more out of this one if you read Geekerella first, especially as this book spoils the first one slightly. To the extent that you can spoil a Cinderella retelling, anyway.

And, uh... didn't the first book confirm that Elle's father started ExcelsiCon when she was, like, 7? So how is this the 25th annual ExcelsiCon? Minor, but it bothered me. (Also, I picked Geekerella up to check this fact, and happened to spot that the Amara's original actress in that book was called Ellen North, not Natalia Ford. I'm sorry! I know this is such a picky complaint.) (And in looking it up, I did realise that my original memory was wrong, and the ExcelsiCon when Elle was 7 was just the first one she could remember. Maybe I just need to reread Geekerella!

Recommended for everyone who loves fandom and nerdy things. And please, give me a short story where Harper introduces Jessica to the original Starfield series.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

A Little Bit of Love for The Babysitter's Club

These book series, with many volumes, probably did more for literacy than people give them credit for. Getting teenagers to read and keep reading is a common topic, but these volumes were one in which teenagers could pick up voluntarily and read for themselves. My series of choice for this was The Babysitter's Club, facilitated by easy access to a large rotating shelf of them in my local library. I begged Mum if we could go into other libraries, just so I could see if they had any ones I hadn't read. I do remember reading at least one Sweet Valley book, and loving Nancy Drew when I could get my hands on them.

The Babysitter's Club showed a group of distinct, different girls being close friends, leaving aside a few books showing the sort of arguments you would expect from early-teens. Plus, they also ran a business requiring a huge amount of responsibility, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't think these had some influence on my work ethic now. Put aside whether this is realistic for 13-year-olds, and see them more as role models.

Each of the girls were so different that you could distinguish between them in writing. A Claudia book sounded nothing like a Dawn book sounded nothing like a Mary-Anne book. My favourite, the character I reached for primarily, was Stacey. I loved the descriptions of her clothes, and I also loved how they showed someone can be both fashion conscious and smart. I can also credit these books with teaching me that diabetes wasn't just "something fat people have."

Another big thing this series showed was different types of families. From divorces, remarriages and one of the earliest good portrayals of step-families that I can remember, all were represented. This was true for the Babysitters, and their charges, too. It also had it's fair share of issue books, some of them dealing with family issues like these.

The diversity in these books can be considered tokenist, but I wouldn't like to comment on it, personally. I have read comments from Asian-Americans who really identified with Claudia as a Japanese-American who wasn't a nerdy stereotype, and I wouldn't like to invalidate anyone's experiences there. I will say that it was more so than other series within the same time period, but 'better than the rest' doesn't necessarily mean good.

If you haven't read them for a while, pick up a few and spend a nice afternoon getting reacquainted with old friends. Most libraries still have several copies! If you have someone in your family at just the right age, why not introduce her?

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

A Review of the Firebird Trilogy

The Firebird Trilogy is a series by Claudia Grey, containing A Thousand Pieces of You, Ten Thousand Skies Above You and A Million Worlds with You. Marguerite Caine is the daughter of two genius scientists who have come up with the most important invention of recent times. The Firebird, a device which allows people to jump into other dimensions, will revolutionise the world. But when Paul Markov, her parents' protegee, kills her father and runs off with the information, Marguerite gives chase with him into other universes, her parents' other student Theo Beck at her side. But she quickly learns that everything was not as it seems...

This trilogy had no right to be as enjoyable as it was. I loved that much of the plot revolves around Marguerite being the one to save her 6 foot 2, genius boyfriend. And I loved her parents being good parents (in most universes) and the fact that it was her father who gave up his career to support her genius mother. And her sister Josie is an thrill-seeking adrenaline junkie with a science brain, and I'm sad that we didn't see more of her, and I would have loved to spend more time with her Russian brothers and sister too.

Grey rather quickly sets her limits on what her technology can do - the need for reminders and the need to have a version of yourself in the universe where you are going too. It's body-swapping alternate dimensions, so worlds where Marguerite has never been born or has died young can't be visited by her.

So it's sci-fi, but seems to take place in a universe not far off our own - many of the brands are the same as ours, for instance. This does work, because I've never seen why our brands would be completely forgotten about in the future - with how the world is, I feel that some will survive. But this world is also not quite ours - instead of iPhones, they have tPhones. Marguerite's time line is pretty much an alternate version of our exact world, but our world is one of her alternate dimensions, too.

Another thing that I don't seem to find as much in sci-fi is characters having passions. Here, Marguerite, and most of her alternate universe selves, are artists. She's looking into going to college for art restoration, but would love to study fine art and make a living drawing portraits. And it's such as small detail to see characters in sci-fi having the same concerns we would, but of course they would. This may just be in comparison with the rest of the characters, but Marguerite's not the most book-smart character, (and say it with me - not everyone in books has to be) although she does read and uses books to quickly get her bearings in her new universes. She's intuitive, though, good at picking up on small clues from other characters about who they are to her alternative universe self and how to interact with them. This may come from her artist background, observing people in order to paint them. And apart from a few little places where her personality is described, this is mostly shown to us rather than told.

I found I read the first book super quick, but the second one dragged in the middle - there's more romance and love-triangle stuff in that one, and less of the Russiaverse, which I loved. But then the second book throws so many twists and turns at you in the ending. The third book, however, pulls out all the stops, with some real gems of a scene. The Conclave of the Marguerites will go down in my mind as one of the most amusing scenes in any work of fiction ever.

I will put in a love triangle warning, however I felt like there was never any question of Marguerite's feelings towards Paul, and Theo is an interesting way to show how you can love someone without them loving you. I do wish he'd dropped his friendzoned attitude, though. If you truly love someone, you never try and make them feel guilty about not loving someone else. I felt like maybe the series would still have worked if her partner had just been her best friend, platonic male or female.

And we've finally got an American author who did her research - Marguerite winds up in Cambridge, and everything from the Bridge of Sighs to Marguerite riding a bike was familiar. Grey even bought up British brand names, such as Boots. It's almost enough for me to forgive Marguerite laughing at the funny accent in the first book.

I would give up my soul for a book like this which doesn't just handwave the language issue, however. Language acquisition is subject to much debate about the innateness of it, and there's no reason surely why Marguerite should be able to speak Russian just because a version of her can when inhabiting that body. This also features in the third book, where a version of Marguerite is deaf, likely from a bout of meningitis as a child, and our Marguerite innately knows sign language while in that body.

Highly recommended for those after a fun, enjoyable, quick book in the combined sci-fi/romance genre.

Friday, 22 February 2019

London 17/02/19 - God's Own Junkyard and the Florence Nightingale Museum

A friend of mine from the USA came to London for a visit, so we had to find time to meet up! Since the meet-up wasn't until dinnertime, I of course decided to go in early to London and make a day of it. I went to God's Own Junkyard, a neon sign art gallery, the Florence Nightingale Museum, which is very much about the history of nursing and ate at HipChips and Maxwell's!

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

A Review of On The Come Up

On the Come Up is the second novel by Angie Thomas, the author of The Hate U Give. Brianna Jackson is the daughter of a hip-hop artist killed before he made it big. She wants to make it on her own, but his shadow hangs over her every time she performs. With her Mom and brother in financial trouble, Bri sees rap as her way out.

Second novels are often full of pressure, particularly when coming after a book that was as hyped as The Hate U Give. I sometimes feel like books that get delayed, like this one did, aren't going well to being with, so an author just slaps an ending on the book to get it over with. But this book is the one which really defies both trends. You can really feel where Thomas has applied everything she's learnt over the past two years to this lovingly crafted book, and where they delay may well have lead a better story because of it.

In my eyes, this book is a masterpiece in showing, not telling. You can't rely on what you're told in this book - for example, Bri is often labelled as aggressive. But there's nowhere that I can point where I'd call her aggressive. She's impulsive, reckless and always speaks her mind. The fact of the matter is, that if a white boy called people out for the same things she does, he would be recommended for the debate team and receiving advice on a career in politics.

I also find it is hard to show a character with performing skills in books. You need to be told that someone is good at singing, for example. But rap is as much about the rhymes as the rhythms. It's poetry, and poetry can find a home on page. We see all of Bri's thought processes while she writes her lyrics, and I found myself saying her lyrics out loud under my breath to hear them with a beat and make me feel like I was there. Thomas shows us her skills.

Parents seem to be the glue which holds Thomas's books together. In this one, Bri's Mom Jay is a recovering heroin addict who would do anything for her children. She stands up for herself and for them and will make you cheer along with her. Bri's father Law, although we never meet him, is also influential on the plot. Bri is trying to get away from his shadow, but she can't deny that he's more present in her life than she'd like to admit.

My experience with rap is limited - it's mostly Hamilton, and what they play on the radio. But Thomas's books have inspired me to seek it out more!

Thomas's books should be required reading. Well, not required reading as I know the very concept can put people off, but people all over the world from all walks of life need to read these books. Americans should read them, of course, but it's also important for us from other countries to keep ourselves informed of life of people abroad. Especially in a country like America, which does in many ways influence the rest of the world.