Friday, June 23, 2017

Embrace the Wonder: My thoughts on Wonder Woman (2017)


I couldn’t not write about Wonder Woman. On a personal level, this film has been a revelation, a relief and an antidote. We’ve waited so long for this and it’s a huge moment, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. In terms of reading, the Greg Rucka return and run on the series this year has really reinvigorated my love for the character and I would definitely recommend the DC Rebirth Wonder Woman as a great place to jump on and learn about this character and see what she really is.

I was emotional from the second they announced the Wonder Woman film. I was emotional from the first trailer and the first reviews when I felt an enormous sense of relief and a huge weight lifted. Like many, I did not like Batman vs Superman. There were very few redeeming features in it (Wonder Woman was one of the only ones) and I do not like Snyder’s interpretation of Superman. There’s been very little heart, very little joy and substance to be found in the DC cinematic universe for a while.

In the 12 months leading up to the release of Wonder Woman, I felt a lot of fear and trepidation. This was also partly due to the response to Ghostbusters last year, a film which I actually enjoyed. In the comic book world, over the last few years, there have definitely been some moments of extreme antipathy towards new female characters and feminist messages and campaigns led against a few creators. So a lot felt like it was at stake, approaching this movie and the emergence of a female hero, one of the trinity, into the mainstream cinematic universe. If it failed, we could very realistically not have had another chance at a female-led superhero movie for decades, and the stigma around them may have evolved into this amorphous thing that few would be brave enough to back or tackle.

I grew up obsessed with Star Wars, obsessed with football, with Lord of the Rings and superhero stories too. I always knew they were male-dominated, but I think I didn’t quite realise what I’d missed until this moment. Until I came out of Wonder Woman and burst into tears. I am so happy that there will be a generation of little girls growing up now, who get to see this and grow up with this too – to have both. But this film is so important, not just for those little girls, but for the little boys. The little boys who can also grow up in awe of a woman and see a different hero who they can also aspire to be like. I know my younger self needed this movie so much.

I felt something similar about 18 months ago, when Rey wields the lightsabre in The Force Awakens, and here I got to feel it through 140 minutes of a feature-length film devoted to it. I left feeling so lucky, and then also a bit uncomfortable that I had to feel lucky in the first place.

I’m so happy that Wonder Woman has had such a brilliant critical response. Critics have overwhelmingly picked up on the ground-breaking positives in the film and it scored 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is stunning after the DC films of recent years. On top of that, it’s done brilliantly at the box office and hopefully brought a whole new audience to the character and the comics. But, it’s so much more than all this to me.  

This is the most colour, saturation and vibrance that we’ve had in a DC film for a very long time. Some of the shots, both the colouring and composition, are jaw-dropping. The palette is full of variety and contrast and there are scenes that you will just find yourself gazing at and getting lost in. This is a film that needs to be appreciated on the big screen and I wish I’d seen it in IMAX too. It’s not CGI heavy until the end (and the CGI is slightly over the top in that sequence), but the light and colour that cuts through the DC darkness is such a relief.

Chris Pine completely won me over as Steve Trevor. The movie presents one of the nicer versions of Steve from the comics. The chemistry between Diana and Steve was magnetic and the romance element never overpowers the plot or individual character arcs, and doesn’t impact Diana’s growth. They both learn from each other, and neither compromises anything about their character in the process. They are partners doing their own thing. The movie shows how men and women who respect each other, balance each other and work well as partners and individuals. With the world as it is right now, and some of the worrying backwards steps in the last year, this film and Diana’s message and character was just what I needed. It’s a reminder of how we should all aspire to be; how we should think about everyone, love everyone, and never stop trying to help, and empathise with, every single living being. Diana’s empathy, which Steve and others first cannot understand, is one of her most unique and wonderful characteristics as a hero. 

Gal Gadot plays this perfectly. While watching this film, it feels like she was born to play Wonder Woman. She IS Diana in these moments. She nails her naivety, her reactions to mankind, her horror, her joy, her passion, her flaws, her limitless care and determination. It’s a stunning performance in every way and an iconic one. I’ve seen it compared to Christopher Reeve as Superman, and there are some wonderful parallels, particularly in the glasses, her goofiness in negotiating London society at first, and shielding Steve from a bullet with her wrist (notice also the little tribute to Rosie the Riveter posters in this scene). Wonder Woman was the ‘badass’ highlight of the travesty that was Batman vs Superman, but thank goodness she’s a million times more than that here.

Patty Jenkins directed this film brilliantly and it’s a breakthrough of incredible magnitude. It’s the first female-led superhero film, which didn’t have to change for anyone or anything or compromise any of its heart and soul. It’s here now for little girls, and boys, to grow up and enjoy and aspire to and that hopefully will get them reading and creating stories of their own, and not being afraid to tell them.

Yes, there are some narrative clichés and the villains are probably the weakest element of the film. More could perhaps have been done to not solely vilify the Germans, and to illustrate the point that both sides used hideous poisons and gases, and that both were culpable in so many ways. It also went down The Book Thief route of having German accents, but not the language, which I always find a bit weird. For me though, this film gets so much more so very right than it gets wrong. It didn’t have to be perfect, it had to be sincere and it had to be good – and it is. Patty Jenkins has made what they said was impossible and I feel so much gratitude towards her and Gal, to the scriptwriters, the composers, the costume-makers, and those of the comic writers and artists who really properly captured Diana over the years – who helped bring the heart and soul and the art to this movie and made it more than just ‘another superhero movie’.

I want to relive this experience again and again. I want to take everyone I know, of every age and gender. I hope they’ll feel it too, and understand. Take your daughters and your mothers but also your sons, brothers and fathers and show them this is also for them.

It has been so wonderful to witness the outpouring of love and solidarity from other directors, actors, writers and artists. They know what it means, and it’s such a tremendous show of unity and togetherness – and also so deeply individual and personal. I loved Greg Rucka’s tweet: ‘So much I love about #wonderwomanmovie but it comes down to this: @PattyJenks was sincere throughout. @GalGadot was sincere throughout. It’s a beautiful statement. It is an inspiring statement…’. And Gail Simone too – one of the most incredible comic writers to work on the book (and so many others) over the years: ‘I apologize for raving, but honestly, this is what I have been fighting for for years and I kinda feel like crying’ and ‘I get to go to bed knowing the Wonder Woman movie is in the world and is going to inspire kids for decades. BUT HOW DO I SLEEP NOW’. And so many wonderful people outside of the world of comics – who all found something in this movie too.

There’s over 7 billion people on this planet, people with different lives, different DNA, different circumstances and experiences. We can and should do our best to represent – but so much is so intensely individual that there will never be a perfect or fully satisfactory single representation. It doesn’t mean we can’t try to be sincere and still use imagination and empathy in fiction. There will always be faults, and things missed, but we can and should strive to acknowledge the beauty of a sincere creative effort, while always aspiring to do more and be better each time. The important thing is to keep creating and encouraging art and provoking thought and discussion. We can have hope and we can dream and do better and we can definitely stand up and applaud all those who aim to do the same.

Update:

I’ve now seen the film twice and just sat back and revelled in every frame the second time. I definitely appreciated things like the soundtrack even more and I bought it immediately after. The music is so powerful and deeply evocative in every scene. It’s beautifully composed and performed, to capture every nuance and flicker of emotion.

On second-viewing that no-man’s land scene absolutely stood out even more. It’s flawlessly done and in the trailer it was the bit that I thought might make me cringe, but the editing, the photography, the pacing and the performance is pitch-perfect. I sat there in wonder and awe. That and the village scenes are the pinnacle of the film. I grew to love the characters of Sameer, Charlie and the Chief - again all had their flaws but all also had their individual stories and experiences which gave little insights into history and different experiences of war. I also loved Themyscira and the Amazons, the comedic moments as Diana encounters London are so much fun, and then the emergence of her and Steve’s partnership and the way everyone around her grows to respect her difference. The third act becomes a bit more like a standard Snyder-verse DC movie, and the CGI battle at the end has some weaker moments, but there are still moments in it with so much heart, beauty and power that had me in tears.

I really hope there’s a substantial featurette on the DVD about the Amazons and the incredible women who play them. Watching it the second time, I revelled in Robin Wright’s performance even more. She is immense as Antiope and her scenes are breath-taking. She exudes power, wisdom, experience and beauty and I love that they show her scars, muscles and lines proudly.

Sadly there isn’t enough time in the story to give enough to the incredible Amazon women, but I appreciated every second we had with every one of them. Ann Wolfe as Artemis is a great example. She looks incredible; proud and strong, and I hope it shows young girls that strength, power and athleticism are beautiful and aspirational too. Wolfe is widely acknowledged as the best female boxer in history. I love that they didn’t necessarily choose actors to play the Amazons, they chose extraordinary people who embody their spirit already.

This incredible cast excelled at everything that traditionally has always been ‘male-dominated’ – women with spears, arrows, wrestling, kickboxing – and the camera worked to show it all in its glory (slow-motion was used so well in this film, and not enough to feel too gimmicky). Here are women being completely natural as warriors. These aren’t girls dreaming of being the next Hollywood star on the cover of a magazine, they’re athletes, fighters, horsewomen, there’s even a published scientist – champions and, above all, hard-workers - all with different body types (see http://thenerdybird.com/who-is-she-meet-wonder-womans-amazon-warriors/ for more about all these women!). Take notice, because no matter their screen-time, these women are such an important part of this film and what it’s about. 

All that's left is just to say how glad I am that this film exists and just thank you to Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins especially, but also to all the creatives who played their part in this journey and who were, in the words of Rucka, sincere. 


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Review: The Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh


Goodreads synopsis:
The daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has long known her place—she may be an accomplished alchemist, whose cunning rivals that of her brother Kenshin, but because she is not a boy, her future has always been out of her hands. At just seventeen years old, Mariko is promised to Minamoto Raiden, the son of the emperor's favorite consort—a political marriage that will elevate her family's standing. But en route to the imperial city of Inako, Mariko narrowly escapes a bloody ambush by a dangerous gang of bandits known as the Black Clan, who she learns has been hired to kill her before she reaches the palace.

Dressed as a peasant boy, Mariko sets out to infiltrate the ranks of the Black Clan, determined to track down the person responsible for the target on her back. But she's quickly captured and taken to the Black Clan’s secret hideout, where she meets their leader, the rebel ronin Takeda Ranmaru, and his second-in-command, his best friend Okami. Still believing her to be a boy, Ranmaru and Okami eventually warm to Mariko, impressed by her intellect and ingenuity. As Mariko gets closer to the Black Clan, she uncovers a dark history of secrets, of betrayal and murder, which will force her to question everything she's ever known.

Renee Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn duology was one of the fantasy debuts that I most enjoyed in the last two years. She has a deft touch with words and is great at creating the atmosphere of each world. She’s definitely a fantasy author to look out for over the next few years. There are definite parallels to Mulan in The Flame and the Mist, but very loosely. The Flame in the Mist is set in feudal Japan, as opposed to feudal China, but an obvious parallel is lead character, Hattori Mariko, adopting the guise of a boy in order to infiltrate the mysterious Black Clan. By doing this, she seizes control of her own future for the first time in a life that had thus far been sheltered and her destiny (marriage) decided for her.  

The pivotal moment, after she has apparently been attacked by the Black Clan and is threatened by a stranger, comes with this line:

‘I will not be bandied about by men any longer. I am not a prize to be bought or sold.’

With that, and the actions she follows it with, she reclaims her agency and sets the events of the story in motion. Ahdieh’s novel explores gender roles, and class, in feudal Japan (with definite relevance to the modern day too) and Mariko comes to stand out to the reader as a feminist mouthpiece within the culture of the book. When it seems sudden and forced, it is because there is not so much insight into her internal life (and can come across as being ‘told’ rather than ‘shown’ – this also goes for a few of Mariko’s other traits, such as her ingenuity) before the pivotal moment of her seizing control, but it becomes an invaluable part of who she is and will definitely be of value to readers, especially teen girls and boys who are reading fantasy for the first time.

The feudal setting of Japan is rich and detailed and was a joy to read about. It is a slow-burner and definitely a world that you grow into, but it’s very much worth it and is rich, vibrant and elaborate. My main reading experience of Japan has come through Haruki Murakami – which is obviously very different – so this was a new experience for me and Ahdieh drew me in masterfully. There’s definitely still a lot to be revealed about the characters’ pasts so I’m looking forward to that. Nothing about the book was predictable so I was genuinely riveted and eager to unravel the mysteries while reading. I am not a big fan of the romance angle that seems obligatory in YA fantasy, but the romance in The Flame in the Mist is very much secondary, a slow-burn and the element of disguise and mystery between the characters is very compelling. They are certainly interesting characters in their own right, with their own paths to follow – and very much equals, though I felt the male character did suffer from the brooding anti-hero trope.

The magical/fantastical elements are used sparingly in this book, and a little vaguely, but perhaps they will have a bigger role to play in the sequel. Mariko’s brother, Kenshin, also has some POV chapters and this provides a good foil – though we don’t get so much insight into his internal life. It will be interesting to learn more about Mariko’s family and their goals, and whether they’re all as honourable as she believes. I want to keep reading already. 


I would recommend this to anyone even loosely intrigued by the premise. I think there’s much more to come from Ahdieh and I will certainly read on with interest. I really admire how she’s willing to dive into a variety of cultures and create such rich stories with many layers of mystery and intrigue that need time to be unpacked fully. 

Quotes:

  • “We are so much more than what we do!” Mariko drew closer, as if nearness could invoke a sense of truth. “We are …” she searched her mind for the right things to say. “Our thoughts, our memories, our beliefs!” her eyes dropped to the dying boy. To the evil tree, slowly draining him of life. “This tree is not the forest,” she said softly. “It is but one part.”
  • I don’t want you to be a hero. And I don’t need anyone to save me.’
  • 'Mariko nudged the handle of her spoon with a bound fingertip. “Are you ever angry you were born a woman?” Yumi sat back on her heels and studied Mariko for a spell. “I’ve never been angry to have been born a woman. There have been times I’ve been angry at how the world treats us, but I see being a woman as a challenge I must fight. Like being born under a stormy sky. Some people are lucky enough to be born on a bright summer’s day. Maybe we were born under clouds. No wind. No rain. Just a mountain of clouds we must climb each morning so that we may see the sun.’
  • 'Mariko supposed it was possible all women and men were forced to wear their own kind of masks’


*Thank you to Hodder and NetGalley for a chance to read an eARC of the book.

Monday, May 1, 2017

'Find out what you might become' - Review: Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray


Goodreads synopsis: 

Noemi is a young and fearless soldier of Genesis, a colony planet of a dying Earth. But the citizens of Genesis are rising up - they know that Earth's settlers will only destroy this planet the way they destroyed their own. And so a terrible war has begun.

When Noemi meets Abel, one of Earth's robotic mech warriors, she realizes that Abel himself may provide the key to Genesis' salvation. Abel is bound by his programming to obey her - even though her plan could result in his destruction. But Abel is no ordinary mech. He's a unique prototype, one with greater intelligence, skill and strength than any other. More than that, he has begun to develop emotions, a personality and even dreams. Noemi begins to realise that if Abel is less than human, he is more than a machine. If she destroys him, is it murder? And can a cold-blooded murder be redeemed by the protection of a world?

Stranded together in space, they go on a whirlwind adventure through Earth's various colony worlds, alongside the countless Vagabonds who have given up planetary life altogether and sail forever between the stars. Each step brings them closer - both to each other and to the terrible decision Noemi will have to make about her world's fate, and Abel's.

I hadn’t read any of Claudia Gray’s books before this year, though I’d heard them recommended. I actually read Bloodline, my first Star Wars novel, back in January and really enjoyed it. I was still mourning Carrie Fisher and it was such a deft and impressive insight into Leia as a Senator and politician. It captured her spirit perfectly and cemented Claudia Gray as someone to look out for.


So when I heard about Defy the Stars, I thought I’d see what it was like.

It could have fallen into many a cliché if it had gone down the full-blown romance route, but it’s actually a deftly-handled look into the complications of a sentient AI and the romance angles are limited and I think you're meant to feel conflicted about them - I suppose for reasons that were also portrayed in the brilliant Westworld series this year. 

Noemi and Abel are both strong characters on their own and are both relating to their circumstances in very different ways. Noemi is a soldier for her planet, Genesis, which is resisting an invasion by Earth and Abel is a lost mech, the most advanced android in the galaxy, stranded in the middle of nowhere – lost to his master/father figure.

Mechs are designed to be disposable, to risk their lives where humans cannot, while Naomi has to come to terms with her role as a Genesis soldier – also expendable for the ‘greater good’ and the consequences that has for her faith. The story is really about them both finding their individual sense of purpose and liberation and learning how to make their own choices. I believe it’s going to be a duology and that the worlds will be fleshed out and it’s certainly left perfectly poised.

‘Conflicts are the price of sentience […] assert your own will. It’s the first step toward being something more than a machine. Find out what you might become.’

I definitely think the U.S. cover is stronger and more accurate to the book. The U.K. one is quite misleading and looks a little like a space-erotica. Which this book is not – at all. It does it a disservice. The book is very action heavy but the strongest moments are Abel’s moments of introspection and his relationship with his creator – Burton Mansfield – Earth’s leading scientist and the designer of androids for the purposes of war. The truth about Burton is something that the reader suspects naturally (recognising those self-seeking human qualities) but there is no reason why Abel should, so it is still emotionally compelling to see him discover the truth for himself and to have his innocence shattered. So much of his character is built around his loyalty to and what certainly seems to be affection for his creator, who he really sees as his father. It is all he has ever known to want – to be reunited with Burton. But his programming has been evolving while he has been stranded, and the narrative becomes him learning that there are other things to want.

‘Burton Mansfield’s greatest sin was creating a soul and imprisoning it in a machine’

Noemi, on the other hand, is intensely passionate, committed to her faith, though also questioning it, racked with guilt over the death of her friend, and determined to save her world, no matter the cost. These two personalities clash but also inform each other and come to teach the other the qualities that it is lacking. It’s very carefully portrayed and built up throughout.

There is definitely room for the narrative to go deeper (perhaps exploring the morality around human and AI nature and interaction even further, as Westworld did) and the political situation to be explored, and hopefully these are things that will be addressed in the sequel. It was a fast-paced and engaging read, even though it didn’t break any new ground in the genre, it certainly avoided its trappings and never fell into over-sentimentality. I’m interested to see where these two characters go and hopefully it only gets more complex. 

Thank you to Hot Key Books and NetGalley for a chance to read an eARC of the book. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

'Not all of us receive the ends that we deserve.' - Review: The Muse by Jessie Burton


GoodReads description:

‘A picture hides a thousand words . . .

On a hot July day in 1967, Odelle Bastien climbs the stone steps of the Skelton gallery in London, knowing that her life is about to change forever. Having struggled to find her place in the city since she arrived from Trinidad five years ago, she has been offered a job as a typist under the tutelage of the glamorous and enigmatic Marjorie Quick. But though Quick takes Odelle into her confidence, and unlocks a potential she didn't know she had, she remains a mystery - no more so than when a lost masterpiece with a secret history is delivered to the gallery.

The truth about the painting lies in 1936 and a large house in rural Spain, where Olive Schloss, the daughter of a renowned art dealer, is harbouring ambitions of her own. Into this fragile paradise come artist and revolutionary Isaac Robles and his half-sister Teresa, who immediately insinuate themselves into the Schloss family, with explosive and devastating consequences . . .’

I appreciated Jessie Burton’s award-winning, bestselling The Miniaturist. I spent a Christmas hand-selling it at Waterstones and it was a well-written, well-crafted novel. But I loved The Muse. I engaged with it and its characters, heart and mind. They’re both great books, but The Muse is the one I’d go back to and the one that personally hit the spot. It had me from the selected quote before the story even began:

‘Never again will a single story be sold as though it were the only one.’ – John Berger

This is an epigraph which has been used in many well-known, acclaimed novels – it seems to have a track record of success of its own. John Berger is understandably part of most undergraduate studies in literature but it’s a quote that has so much resonance in so many fields of study, and life. At my university, we were shown Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk on the ‘Danger of a Single Story’ – and I’ve mentioned it before on this blog.

Jessie Burton’s The Muse certainly draws upon this idea of the single story – about the different ways things can be perceived, the way that different angles can convey different meanings, and the way that narratives can be controlled to include and exclude. It is, at its heart, about art in all its senses and incarnations – about responsibility, representation, power, dignity and consent:

‘It doesn’t matter what’s the truth; what people believe becomes the truth.’

Burton’s parallel narratives depict two women in different eras, both talented and creative, and yet both – partly because of circumstance, and partly by choice – hiding their gifts or holding back. Originally from Trinidad, Odelle Bastien (1960s) still feels an outsider- she explains:

‘I was – both by circumstance and nature – a migrant in this world, and my lived experience had long become a state of mind’

Burton navigates these angles of migration and ethnicity sensitively and thoughtfully, exploring how it feels to be away from your country of birth and trying to forge an identity in a place where – whether by virtue of gender or race – you may not be taken so seriously, and may feel compelled to hide away.

Marjorie Quick becomes a sort of mentor, as well as employer, eager to unlock Odelle’s talents and encourage them. Back in the 1930s, a young woman named Teresa seeks to do the same for Olive Schloss, the daughter of an art collector (also living away from home, in Spain) who paints secretly and brilliantly (better than Teresa’s artist half-brother, Isaac). The parallels and the way in which Burton toys with the seams of both stories and characters is delightful and utterly compelling. Each tiny twist seems to raise the stakes until the simple truth becomes the ultimate and most quietly devastating prize.

The dynamic between all the characters held me captivated. Like Odelle, I was fascinated by the enigmatic nature of Marjorie Quick and I loved that the bonds between women – between Odelle and Marjorie, and Olive and Teresa - are the most complex and intriguing. Both go beyond the connections that Odelle and Olive feel to the men in their lives and endure in a much stronger and more meaningful way.

The Muse is a book that is so cleverly layered that I feel I want to reread it again and again and to look at these characters from all angles. For now, these are just a few introductory thoughts on a novel I admire more each time I think about it.


Adichie’s ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ TED talk quotes:
  • ‘I realised that I had become so immersed in the media coverage of Mexicans that they had become one thing in my mind, the abject immigrant. I had bought into the single story of Mexicans and I could not have been more ashamed of myself.’
  • ‘So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become’.
  • ‘There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is "nkali." It's a noun that loosely translates to "to be greater than another." Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they're told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.’
  • ‘The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.’

The Muse quotes:
  • ‘Not all of us receive the ends that we deserve.’
  • ‘This is what she taught me: you have to be ready in order to be lucky. You have to put your pieces into play.’
  • ‘That if you really want to see your work to completion, you have to desire it more than you’d believe you have to fight it, fight yourself. It’s not easy.’
  • ‘It doesn’t matter what’s the truth; what people believe becomes the truth.’
  • ‘In the end, a piece of art only succeeds when its creator – to paraphrase Olive Schloss – possesses the belief that brings it into being’

 *Thank you to Picador and NetGalley for the chance to read an ARC of The Muse

Monday, August 8, 2016

'Not a horror. But a girl. Just a girl.' - Review: Nevernight by Jay Kristoff


GoodReads Description:

Destined to destroy empires, Mia Covere is only ten years old when she is given her first lesson in death.

Six years later, the child raised in shadows takes her first steps towards keeping the promise she made on the day that she lost everything.

But the chance to strike against such powerful enemies will be fleeting, so if she is to have her revenge, Mia must become a weapon without equal. She must prove herself against the deadliest of friends and enemies, and survive the tutelage of murderers, liars and demons at the heart of a murder cult.

The shadows love her. And they drink her fear. 

The first line lays it out how it is – this book is going to hold nothing back:

‘People often shit themselves when they die, did you know that?’

There will be no holding back.

The first chapter is very cleverly composed, and Kristoff hooks you immediately with his skill. There is a brilliant linguistic and syntactic equation of acts of sex and death in these opening paragraphs. For the reader, they happen simultaneously and simultaneously they are opposites and the same. They echo and mirror each other in so many ways and are contrasted only by alternating italicised and roman paragraphs. Reading these opening scenes is a visceral experience, and incredibly immersive.

The parallels between love and death re-emerge throughout the book. On her way to earn her place at the Red Church, the training school for assassins, Mia meets future fellow-student and friend, Tric. When he sees her fighting for the first time he notes that she and opponent move ‘like first time lovers – hesitant at first, drifting closer until finally they fell into each other’s arms, fists and elbows and knees, block and counters and strikes’. There are sharp moments of foreshadowing and the whole narrative is a puzzle coming together, twisting into a hugely exciting, adrenaline-fuelled conclusion. The final third is impossible to tear yourself away from. In a twisted way, I appreciated and welcomed its brutality. It lures you into a false sense of security and then shatters it, which I felt it was something it really needed to do to avoid falling into certain clichés.

Mia’s full character and past is unveiled to us slowly and in snatches but it is worth the wait and the whole story is better for it. Mia is different to the other assassins-in-training – she is Darkin, and has an intriguing relationship with and degree of power over, shadows. Her constant companion is a very mysterious shadow cat named Mister Kindly. He consumes her fear and helps her sleep through the night – for reasons revealed as you read. I think there is much more to come from him as he is very much an enigma in this first book but their relationship is very unique and one of the more intriguing and different elements of the story. There are many books with training academies, trials, teens set against each other, assassins etc. but Kristoff knows how to write fantasy and he infuses Nevernight with enough other elements – foreshadowing, shocking twists, and stylistic flourishes that it embeds itself in your conscious as you read and remains long after – leaving you wanting more. I’ve pre-ordered the black sprayed-edges edition from Waterstones and look forward to learning more about Mia and Mister Kindly in particular.

Reading a digital ARC, without proper formatting, did make the footnote element of the narrator’s voice a bit disruptive. I’m reserving judgement on the narrative voice until I’ve read more but at this stage it feels an unnecessary extra, ‘telling’ things rather than allowing them to come up naturally in the story. It’s tone is sometimes a little cloying – but reading a finished copy may be a different experience in that regard and I’m sure it’s purpose will be clear further down the line.

I do have one more spoiler-y point to raise for discussion or general musing: I did have qualms about a certain practice in the Red Church (and Mia consenting to it) – and that is essentially the plastic surgery (weaving) they have to go through – to be made physically alluring (bigger breasts etc). In some respects I thought the controversial, more complicated aspects of this were glossed over, as Mia, and even Tric (who initially has reservations) go along with it mostly without comment. In some ways, it’s a shame because Mia is someone initially described as plain, small and scrawny – but someone who has so much power and is so talented that her appearance has never mattered. On the other hand, this could equally be more of a commentary on the morally contentious nature of the Red Church and what it wants to transform people into. It’s something to consider again once the series is finished perhaps.

‘You are luckier than you know. You were born without that which most people prize their loves for. That ridiculous prize called beauty. You know what it is to be overlooked. Know it keenly enough that you paid a boy to love you…’

After all, the Red Church is all about fashioning a new type of being; a complete assassin, and will remake those it needs to. The stakes are high and only the strongest will prevail and be accepted.
  • ‘Forget the girl who had everything. She died when her father did … Nothing is where you start. Own nothing. Know nothing. Be nothing.’
  • ‘It may not be right,’ Aalea said. ‘It may not be just. But this is a world of Senators and Consuls and Luminatii – of republics and cults and institutions built and maintained almost entirely by men. And in it, love is a weapon. Sex is a weapon. Your eyes? Your body? Your smile?’ she shrugged, ‘weapons. And they give you more power than a thousand swords. Open more gates than a thousand war walkers. Love has toppld Kings, Mia. Ended empires. Even broken our poor, sunburned sky.'

I find myself intrigued by this world that Kristoff is weaving and I’m certainly going to read on. I like the darkness, the mystery and the brutality; too many fantasies get bogged down in over-bearing, contrived romance plots and it seems that Kristoff is dodging that trap for the most part. It’s got its own distinct character but has many of the things I enjoy in my favourite fantasies (Throne of Glass, Game of Thrones…) and is certainly unafraid to push the boundaries of your expectations. I respect that Mia is a complex, layered, character who – by her own nature and belief- may be hard to love, and I look forward to learning more about her and her shadow cat (‘who is not a cat’). I want to see this world and mythology grow even more into its own in the sequels to come and anticipate them eagerly. 

Some other choice quotes:

  • 'Listen, girl,’ Aelius sniffed. ‘The books we love, they love us back. And just as we mark our places in the pages, those pages leave their marks on us. Indelible as the ink that graces them. I can see it in you, sure as I see it in me. You’re a daughter of words. A girl with a story to tell.’
  • ‘A few thought her some thing from the abyss; some daemonic servant of the mother set on their trail. Others mistook her for a horror from the Whisperwastes; some monstrosity spat into being by the dark pull of twisted magiks. But as she wove and swayed among them, blades whistling, breath hissing, the swiftest among them realised she wasn’t a daemon. Not a horror. But a girl. Just a girl. And that thought terrified them more than any daemon or horror they could name.’ 

Thank you to HarperVoyager and NetGalley for letting me read a digital ARC in exchange for honest review. Nevernight is published on 11th August.

Monday, May 16, 2016

'To be forgotten is to be free, you know that, don’t you?': The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North (Review)


Claire North is certainly one of the authors I admire the most. She takes on some of the most technically challenging and fiddly subjects to write about and is very versatile. Yet Touch, Harry August and Hope all tackle that human desire to leave a mark and to mean something. To mean something as a human being/life-form and what it is about yourself that is memorable and can leave an impression. She always challenges you to think beyond the bounds of the physical and the corporeal. In her books she has tackled the limits of gender, sexuality, time, memory and more. She is unafraid and quite unique and because of all this, I will pick up her books without hesitation.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope, a bit like Touch, is part globe-trotting thriller and part existential crisis/analysis. The focus of the plot (or one of them) is an app called Perfection which sets goals and rewards for people to ‘better themselves’. I read The Circle by Dave Eggers just a month or two before this and they definitely both explore this technological dystopian theme very well. While you’re reading, you only have to look up and around you to recognise how precariously balanced society is and how easily it could slip into something quite frightening. What Perfection is actually pushing is conformity – a very static set of ideals based on money, body-image and the like. Both The Circle and The Sudden Appearance of Hope touch upon the idea of the end of privacy, the constant need to share, the setting of goals and the reward schemes that only reward certain, approved behaviours – a subtle brainwashing and defining of worthiness. The chasing of targets and the relentless measuring of your life by strangers and trend-setters, telling you what it is to be worthy and when you deserve reward is juxtaposed with Hope’s innate condition of forgettability. The moment she turns her back, she is forgotten – by her family, her ‘friends’, by anyone she meets – except technology. The only path she leaves is digital.

Hope cannot have a job, cannot own property, cannot live in the ways society usually deems meaningful – she cannot legally exist as she is forgotten within a minute. Hope survives by becoming a criminal – an international jewel thief. It is as she sets out to steal a jewelled bracelet that Hope and Perfection are set on a collision course. Shaken by the death of someone connected to it and seeing the sinister potential of its elements of mind control, Hope sets herself a meaningful mission – to take it down.

Interestingly, Hope does meet someone like her, a fellow ‘forgettable’, who it seems becomes memorable by following the scheme of the app and letting it change him and help him conform. This leaves Hope with a heart-breaking choice – should she adopt the app herself and become memorable and known to her family, but as someone else, or honour them in retaining her own sense of integrity and difference? What if the cure is something worse than the disease? The only person who remembers Hope fully is her little sister, who has a form of brain condition.

Yet the process of writing her story is also a way of enacting meaning and leaving a trace. ‘I write this to be remembered.’ is one of the opening lines of the novel: ‘Whoever you are: these are my words. This is my truth. Listen, and remember me’. To cope Hope takes it upon herself to talk to scholars and monks ‘men and women who’d been held in solitary confinement for ears on end. You find the happiness you can, one said. Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes you gotta dig deep, but it’s there, the thing inside that you can be content.’ For Hope’s condition is a life sentence of its own – her world can only be a long solitary confinement with fleeting instances of connection.

Alone you can lose yourself, or you may find yourself, and most of the time you do both’.

One of the main repeated encounters Hope has throughout her quest is with a lady called Byron, someone who seems somewhat envious of Hope’s condition – telling her that ‘to be forgotten is to be free, you know that, don’t you?’. And this is another interesting discourse that unfolds throughout the narrative – the definition of freedom, and how people would live without inhibition,  knowing they could never be caught, they could do anything, get away with anything. Byron is excited by the prospect, wanting to live without limits, not understanding Hope’s discipline (‘you have no need to conform, what’s the point? No one will thank you for it, no one will remember you.’) – but Hope comes to realise that freedom also means honouring the freedom of those around her – that self-discipline is crucial and she must impose her own limits and meaning (the idea that freedom that impinges upon the freedom of others is wrong). To some extent – you have to ‘permit yourself to be defined by the world that surrounds you’. The whole exchange and the relationship between these two women is written brilliantly – in some ways they are so similar and yet there are fundamental philosophical differences that are unpacked very neatly and effectively.

‘I impose disciplines upon myself, discourse, reason, knowledge…’
‘To fill the place where society should be?’
‘Yes. And to keep me sane. To help me see myself as others might see.’

Some of the most poignant passages come in Hope’s longing to mean something to her family and the brilliance of North’s writing shines through in one of the descriptions of Hope’s mother:

‘Mum comes in. Her hair is bright white, cut down to the surface of her skull, and age has made her face something extraordinary. Each part of it needs an atlas to describe; her chin is many chins, still small and sharp but etched with muscle and line, layered one upon the other. Her cheeks are contoured bone and silky rivers of skin, her eyebrows waggle against great parallels of thought on her forehead, her mouth is encased in smile lines and pout lines and scowl lines and worry lines and laughter lines and there is no part of her which is not in some way written over with stories’.

Hope can see all the markings of experience and all the imperfections and find beauty in them – a kind of beauty that Perfection would never recognise. She knows that her mother could never love the being that Perfection would make of her.

As a character, you pity Hope, but at no point does the book make an emotional spectacle of her tragic condition – it productively explores the nature of it and draws up on it poignantly when it needs to. The parallel plot involving the jewel heist and Perfection balances the narrative and paces it, while also cementing the relevance of these timeless, universal questions in the modern, digital age. An age in which we leave a constant digital trail but long, enduring, meaningful engagements are in decline and under threat. 

The only thing I do find with some of North's book is that it's sometimes hard to engage with, keep track of and remember the wide variety of secondary characters (if you’re not careful, you  might find yourself a bit lost) but do persevere and revisit – it’s worth it in the end and you will find yourself wanting to go back to this book again. Touch was one of my Books of 2015.

Fittingly, The Sudden Appearance of Hope is unforgettable.

*Thank you to Orbit of Little Brown Book Group UK and NetGalley for letting me read a digital ARC in exchange for honest review. The Sudden Appearance of Hope is published on 19th May 2016. 

Further quotes:

  • The past was just a present that had been, the future was a present yet to come, and only now remained, and I stood by the sea, recovering my landlegs from the road, and wept.       
  • Knowledge. What should I do with this place inside me where experience – tears of joy, shrieks of laughter, the anxiety of work, the warmth of friends, the love of family, the expectations of the world – what should I do with that place which was never filled? I put knowledge there. And in knowledge, I find myself. This sounds like an intellectual void where heart should be, but look and you may find…
  •  Look for the words “perfect woman” and you find bodies. Diagrams, explaining that the perfect face belongs to an actress with smoky eyes, the perfect hair comes from a princess; the perfect waist is barely narrow enough to support the generous breasts that balance on it; legs disproportionately long, smile that says “take me”. Photoshopped features combining the faces of movie stars and models, pop idols and celebrities. Who is the perfect woman? According to the internet, she is a blonde white girl with bulimia; no other characteristics are specified.
  • Know thyself, and know everyone else. Having no one else to know me, having no one to catch me or lift me up, tell me I’m right or wrong, having no one to define the limits of me. I have to define myself, otherwise I am nothing, just a … liquid that dissolves. Know yourself. But finding definition without all the… the daily things that give you shape…’





Thursday, April 7, 2016

Review: The Map of Bones by Francesca Haig (The Fire Sermon #2)

*This review may contain spoiler for the first book in the series, The Fire Sermon, and minor spoilers for The Map of Bones.

So when I reviewed The Fire Sermon, the first book in this series, I wrote this:

‘I really want Haig to give the reader more in the sequels. More insight, more internal life, more complexity, more basis for how the world is, more believability, more emotion’

And in book two, The Map of Bones, she delivers. It feels unburdened and able to breathe more freely following events at the end of the first book and Kip’s death. Cass now comes into her own as a character and we get to know her as she goes through grief, and without the distraction of romantic interests for now. There is much more interiority and the prose blossoms in these moments. There is also more travelling and journeying but it doesn’t feel like filler, events unfold naturally and there are certainly big game-changing ones that occur.

We get to know more about Zoe, stripping the layers away as the book goes on, but Piper is still a slightly more one-dimensional character – I haven’t quite got a hold on him yet. The villains (Zach and co.) are also quite limited but mainly because there isn't really a chance to spend much time with them. I enjoyed this as a sequel – and second books are probably the hardest to get right in a trilogy. If some of those secondary characters develop more in the third then I think we’re onto a winner.

The Map of Bones, perhaps even more so than being a dystopian quest-narrative, is a solemn, bleak meditation on memory and grief, and what it is to really know someone. Haig comes into her forte with some of Cass’s and Zoe’s reflective moments and inner struggles – for example, this beautiful line on the way we remember someone after they’re gone:

“…but I betrayed her, too, when I only remembered the bad parts. I should have remembered her properly, even though it’s harder.”

It’s a deeply moving moment and a cathartic one both for the characters and the reader. The journey they go on in this book is as much mental and emotional as it is physical, and you do feel like they’ve travelled a long distance in both by the end.

The gradual revealing of more and more about the blast and the Before is also very effective. It is implied that the people of the Before advanced too far with their machinery and technology, all leading to a nuclear disaster. Hence the intense mistrust of tanks and other machinery by the residents in the After (except for Zach and some of the other Alphas who want to use it for their own cruel purposes).

"It’s always said that everything’s broken, since the blast,” [Piper] said. “And we both know there’s plenty that’s broken enough.” There were so many different kinds of brokenness to choose from. The broken-down mountains, slumped into heaps of slag and scree. The towns and cities from the Before, the bones of a world. Or the broken bodies he’d seen, too many to count.

“…what good ever came out of the Before? The one thing that we know for certain about these people is that they, and their machines, destroyed the world. They brought about all of this.” – The Ringmaster

The pacing and the subtlety is much stronger throughout the narrative and, a true poet, Haig’s imagery is incredibly powerful and memorable.

‘I was a walking emissary of the deadlands, spreading ash wherever I went.’

‘This was how violence worked, I was learning: it refused to be contained. It spread, a plague of blades.’

‘Words were bloodless symbols we relied on to keep the world at bay.’

More forces and perspectives are coming to play and the world is both deepening and expanding. The language and imagery is very evocative and visual and I’m beginning to see how it could be compared to The Road by Cormac McCarthy in terms of atmosphere and landscape. I now have high hopes for book three. Some readers may struggle more with this one as the pacing is slower than other recent offerings in the genre, but there are key moments of action and reveals are measured and gradual. I personally found this much more rewarding than frustrating – where book one was a bit more hit-and-miss with pace, this one finds a consistent balance. 

If you've read The Fire Sermon and, like me,  weren't sure, then I definitely recommend you give this a read as it adds much, much more and Haig stylistically hits her rhythm. This trilogy is beginning to lay its own ground and I look forward to reading more.  
Discussion Point: 

I guess there is a certain discussion point that did spring to my mind when I was thinking about these books: Haig certainly makes the Omegas our heroes – and defines them by deformity, and yet the protagonist/hero that she gives us is one who is an exception – who does not have a physical deformity and is ‘special’. What does this say in the climate of diversity? Is it a missed opportunity or is there a more intricate exploration of the mental health of someone with Cass’s powers? I’d be interested to hear what others think. I think it’s very complicated given the premise of the novels but I found The Map of Bones a good and thought-provoking read nonetheless and trust Haig’s intentions and knowledge of the world and characters she is building.

I like that there is a very interesting choice that the characters are faced with by the end *potential spoiler alert*: is it better for everyone to be equal, although all with a degree of 'deformity', or for the Alpha-Omega twin-death bond to continue? It's going to be very interesting to unpack in the next book as it certainly complicates the endgame of the different parties.

Further quotes:

-          “…although you like to think you’re so far above the assumptions and prejudices of the rest of the world, it turns out you’re not so different from them after all.” - Zoe

-          'Hope was not a decision I made. It was a stubborn reflex. The body squirming toward the air. The taking of the next breath, and the one after that.'

*Thank you to Gallery Books (US) and HarperVoyager (UK) for letting me read a digital ARC in exchange for honest review. 


Saturday, April 2, 2016

Review: Passenger by Alexandra Bracken



GoodReads description:

Passage, n.
i. A brief section of music composed of a series of notes and flourishes.
ii. A journey by water; a voyage.
iii. The transition from one place to another, across space and time.

In one devastating night, violin prodigy Etta Spencer loses everything she knows and loves. Thrust into an unfamiliar world by a stranger with a dangerous agenda, Etta is certain of only one thing: she has traveled not just miles but years from home. And she’s inherited a legacy she knows nothing about from a family whose existence she’s never heard of. Until now.

Nicholas Carter is content with his life at sea, free from the Ironwoods—a powerful family in the colonies—and the servitude he’s known at their hands. But with the arrival of an unusual passenger on his ship comes the insistent pull of the past that he can’t escape and the family that won’t let him go so easily. Now the Ironwoods are searching for a stolen object of untold value, one they believe only Etta, Nicholas’ passenger, can find. In order to protect her, he must ensure she brings it back to them—whether she wants to or not.

Together, Etta and Nicholas embark on a perilous journey across centuries and continents, piecing together clues left behind by the traveler who will do anything to keep the object out of the Ironwoods’ grasp. But as they get closer to the truth of their search, and the deadly game the Ironwoods are playing, treacherous forces threaten to separate Etta not only from Nicholas but from her path home... forever.

This was an intriguing adventure-romance which delves into history and time travel with care and detail. As a novel, it explores issues of family, race and identity in different time-contexts. 

Bracken's knowledge and historical detail is one of the strongest aspects of Passenger. I enjoyed the construction of each world, and wish we could have spent longer in each time to really see these primary characters adapt, develop and relate. Their adventure and romance sometimes felt a bit too rushed, despite both Nicholas and Etta being interesting individual characters. The romantic tension did feel a little forced and too detailed, leaving little time for the chemistry to build somewhat independently of the text itself. Nicholas is a very guarded character, understandably so given his time and origins as the child of a slave and her master. It is understandable for him to be guarded from Etta and those around him in the story, but with a two-character alternating narrative, Bracken perhaps could have let the reader in a little more. We don't get many private moments with him, whereas we really benefit from the opening chapters with Etta. 

I really enjoyed the opening chapters as we get to know Etta and what drives her and her love of music. Bracken writes these scenes brilliantly and really gets in Etta's head, and introducing the key relationships in her New York 2015 life. Similarly, there are some really nice moments with Nicholas on the ship, in his own time, with his sort of surrogate ship family. I would have loved to see these play out a little longer before the protagonists are thrown together. 

Again you don't really get a strong sense of the character of the villain - Cyrus Ironwood - but the history of the families is bound to be expanded upon in the sequel and I am looking forward to learning more - those family/surrogate family elements were some of the things that really hooked me. At this stage, Cyrus just exists to impose a sense of threat and a ticking-clock to carry the plot forward in this first book. 

Overall, it's a slow, careful and intriguing build (except for the romance angle, which I found a little too forced and rushed). It would have been nice to see the chemistry and relationship between Etta and Nicholas develop more organically, but the writing is very much 'telling you' it's happening. In terms of plot, the pace zooms into overdrive in the final few chapters and the ending is a whirlwind of a cliff-hanger which should fire nicely into the sequel and shake things up a bit. I'm intrigued by this world, particularly the negotiations of different cultures and the time-travel concept that Bracken is building and will pick up the sequel with interest when it arrives.

Thank you to Quercus Children's Books for a chance to read an eARC via NetGalley. This book is out in the UK on the 7th of April!