Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Badass Ladies of Literature - International Women's Day 2016

Today is International Women's Day, an important day in which we remind certain corners of the world, the internet and sometimes society that women are equal to men and deserve to be treated as such. In light of this, I'd like to share with you my favourite Ladies of Literature and why they're the best female role models for both men and women. Spoilers, ho!

Lyra Silvertongue from His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman
First and foremost of the made-up ladies, we have the star of His Dark Materials, Lyra. She's passionate, arrogant, cunning, occasionally violent and very often a liar - but above all else, she is brilliant. She’s not a sweet, well-behaved little girl (despite Mrs Coulter’s efforts), and she's certainly got her faults, but she's the most loyal friend you could ever have, and between her shape-shifting daemon and her armoured-bear protector, she's the kind of person you want on your side in a fight.

Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
It's easy to dismiss Pride and Prejudice as merely a romance novel, because it's hard for us to comprehend the fairly dire situation Eliza Bennet and her sisters were in. Their only option in life was to make a good marriage: careers were not an option for women in the Regency era, and with their father's estate entailed away to the male line, they were very much at risk of poverty (relative to their current situation) on their father's death. So in short, Elizabeth has no money to her name, no career prospects, and sisters that are both her allies and enemies in her search for a husband - and yet she still holds out a courageous hope that she will marry love.

Hermione Granger from Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling
No list on the best ladies of books about would be complete without Miss Granger. She;s known for being book-smart, logical and determined to get the best from her education, no matter how people try to shame her. But on top of that she's also fiercely loyal, extremely capable and - as shown in this Buzzfeed article – a #BossWitch who is clearly the actual hero of the Harry Potter series. No, seriously - read the books again and, excepting the incident with the troll, she basically bails the boys out every. damn. time.

Janie Crawford from Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
What I love about Janie is that, throughout a novel which looks strongly at identity, Janie never forgets hers. Even though her life is defined by her marriages to three different men - the older Logan, the ambitious Joe and the romantic Tea Cake - she always retains a sense of self, even when downtrodden and treated as a trophy wife. Her teenage ideals that marriage should involve love never leave her, and although her life is rarely easy, she always holds true to her ambition for herself - to love, and be loved, without agenda.

Delysia LaFosse from Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson
Next up, the anti-Lyra - Delysia is as (stereo-typically) feminine as you can get - flirty, flighty and beautiful. Throughout this rags-to-gladrags story she is unapologetic in both her sexuality and her ambitions, and won't be tied down by a man who is anything less than her equal, demanding their respect and putting her own career first. It's true that she does hope to settle down one day, but she'll have her fun in the meantime. In short, she's independent, career-minded and not willing to settle for anything but the best.

Jane Eyre from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
I have many issues with this novel - mostly surrounding Mr Rochester being a bit of a nob - but I have no issue with Jane. She spends an entire novel pretty much telling men to piss off - when her cousin and Mr Brocklehurst both try to stamp out her flame as a child, she fights back. When her rich, influential, besotted admirer tries to make her his mistress, she tells him where to get off. When her OTHER cousin tries to force her into a loveless marriage, she tells him where he can shove it.  Jane doesn’t compromise on her principles and refuses to be anything but true to herself.

She of infamous Greek Myth fame, Medea is another #BossWitch. She marries several different kings of Greece throughout her life, performs some miraculous spells, plays the politics game like a true pro - eat your heart out, Cersei Lannister - takes no shit from anyone and then flies off to heaven on a chariot pulled by flying serpents. WINNER.

There were a few other women I thought about adding to the list - Arya Stark, Minerva McGonagall and Flora 717 being just a few - but these have been my favourite badass ladies of literature. Any others you'd like to throw into the mix? 

Friday, 12 February 2016

Books for 2016

It’s shaping up to be a banner year for reading, a banner year. Already I’ve got a pretty hefty hit-list of books-to-read in 2016, and here are some that I’ve been looking forward to the most:

Stiletto by Daniel O’Malley (Publishing June 2016)
I’m not convinced on this publishing date because it’s been bumped around a lot – believe me, I know, I’ve been waiting for this book for ages – but I hold out hope. A sequel to The Rook, this picks up on my favourite amnesiac bureaucrat, Myfanwy Thomas, the Rook in a super-secret chess-based organisation called The Checquy that protects Britain from supernatural threats. This latest turn focuses on The Grafters, a time-old foe of the Checquy that started to rumble in the distance at the end of the last book (that’s not a spoiler, not really) and is now flexing its muscles once more. The Rook was a good mix of humour, action and mystery, with the supernatural element slotting in perfectly into our world, and I'm hoping for much of the same but with more world expansion.

Fool’s Quest by Robin Hobb
This came out last summer, and usually the lure of another FitzChivalry Farseer novel is so great, I normally would’ve read this already. However, I’ve been put off by the high ebook price – it’s been hovering around the £9.99 mark and I don’t think I’ve ever spent that much on an ebook. I’ve elected not to buy the hardback either because a Robin Hobb averages around 690 pages, based on the 8 books of hers that I’ve read so far, and that’s just too hefty for me these days. So, regrettably, thus far my only option has been to wait for the paperback to come out (July 2016) and the ebook price to drop accordingly. Time has lessened my desperation to read this book, but Hobb is so consistently excellent with her stories, characterisation and settings, that I know as soon as I start reading this next volume in the Fitz and the Fool trilogy, I’ll  be hard-pressed to put it back down.

The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch (Publishing June 2016)
Due out in November last year but for some reason pushed back to June 2016, I’m especially impatient for the latest instalment in Peter Grant’s supernatural crime-fighting series (he’s in no way related to the Checquy – though that’s a cross-over I’d welcome). Moving the action back to London after a rural turn in Foxglove Summer, Peter is investigating some blood-based magic haunting the mansions of Mayfair, near where the Tyburn Gallows once saw London’s criminals dance their last. I’m hoping for a return from Lady Ty, goddess of the Tyburn River, maybe another look at the Faceless Man, who was ominously absent from the last book, and much more Nightingale.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
Going to start on a tangent here but I will get back on subject soon, trust me: one of my favourite scenes in the Harry Potter novels comes in The Deathly Hallows, when Harry, Ron and Hermione return to Hogwarts and hear what the rest of the school has been doing in their absence: even crowd-fleshing characters like Terry Boot get a name-check, and it’s one of those moments when you realise it isn’t just about the trio, everyone is fighting this war – it just so happens that Harry, Ron and Hermione have better tools and more knowledge about how to win it. So Ness’ story, which focuses on a group of friends who live in the same town as a similarly-gifted group, but have no powers themselves, really appeals purely because it’s not about the superheroes, but about the people who, in another story, by another author, would be assigned the one-liners and bit-parts.

The Ballroom by Anna Hope (Publishing February 2016)
I can’t quite recall why, or indeed when, this title made it's way on to my radar, but since I’ve picked up on it I've begun to think it might be a prize-contender. Set in a Yorkshire asylum in 1911, the male and female inmates are kept separate from each other except for one night a week when they come together in the ballroom to dance, and this is where the principle characters, Ella and John, meet. On the surface I think it sounds like it might be primarily a romance, but the setting suggests there will be more to it than that, and I’m expecting it to be unsettling and haunting.

The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown by Vaseem Khan (Publishing May 2016)
I listened to the first book in the Baby Ganesh Agency series, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, at the end of last year on audiobook and I just loved it – the setting, the characters and the plot were not exactly revolutionary, but put together so well that the lack of originality - bar Ganesh the elephant - wasn't missed. As my mother perfectly summed up, it’s inoffensive, simple, good fun, and sometimes that’s all you really want from a book. I’m particularly looking forward to this next instalment, which will see Inspector Chopra investigating the seemingly-impossible-but-nevertheless-accomplished theft of the Koh-i-Noor diamond, with his elephant companion to assist in the case-solving.

The Most Beautiful by Emily Hauser
I only just found out about this the day before it published and I can’t believe it took me so long to clock it, because it’s RIGHT up my street – a new retelling of the Trojan War, but this time from the perspective of women in the story. Now I’ll be the first to admit – there’s no end of re-imaginings of the Iliad knocking about (just off the top of my head – Troy by Adele Geras, which looked at sisters living inside the palace of Troy during the war; The Troy Trilogy by David and Stella Gemmell, and The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, which was about the fabled love story of Achilles and Patroclus). But there are so many retellings because it’s such a fantastic story – a Trojan prince carries off the wife of a King of Greece, refuses to give her back and so begins a war that lasted a decade and ended the age of heroes, and I’m not tired of them yet.

Hidden Bodies by Caroline Kepnes
This was an entirely unexpected sequel, which makes it all the more appealing to me - I thought we were finished with Joe, the anti-hero of 2014's You. Joe  has decided to leave New York after all the, hmm-how-shall-I-put-it, unpleasantness with Beck, and has moved to LA after falling madly, obsessively in love with a new woman. But has Joe met his match in the anti-Beck? I’m hoping – I’m certain – that we won’t get a rehash of You, but I am definitely intrigued to see just what happened to Joe after the events of You, and if he really got away with it all. Incidentally, if you haven’t read You yet, get on it immediately – it was one of my favourites of 2014, and there are few books out there that will unnerve you as much, or make you more paranoid about Twitter.

And finally...
The Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansen (Publishing November 2016)
Anyone who reads this blog regularly (hi guys *waves*) will already have noticed I am a BIG fan of the Tearling series, and I am – quite frankly – devastated that I have to wait until November before the concluding volume comes out. The blurb on the early pre-order pages isn’t giving much away, and the cover hasn't been revealed yet - not that the covers of the first two books reveal much as it is - but from the sounds of it, the action will pick up where The Invasion of the Tearling left off, which means that the Mace – Queen Kelsea’s right-hand man – is going to have a lot of work to do. 

Friday, 29 January 2016

Worst of 2015

As I was once taught by Merlin in Disney's The Sword the Stone, opposites make the world go round, and having shared my best reads of 2015 with you last week I can only restore balance by telling you the ones I did not enjoy. It's a shorter list than last year so I've obviously chosen my books more wisely this year, but just as controversial in some places...

 The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger (1951)
I’m probably going to get a lot of stick for this, I know, but the truth is, I didn’t like it. I read the whole thing, and came to the conclusion that – as I have always suspected – I read this at least 10 years too late. On one hand, I could sympathise with Holden’s fear of the unknown, his desperation to be taken seriously as an adult, his nostalgia for childhood. On the other, I found him whiny and a constructor of his own misfortune. Maybe he reminded me of me as a teenager, and that’s why I didn’t get on with it: perhaps I recognised too much of my teenage self in Holden, and didn’t like what I saw. Or maybe he was just a really annoying, moody little so-and-so with too much entitlement and not enough compassion for anyone besides himself and Phoebe, I don’t know. But sorry, Caulfielders – I’m not a fan. I am, however, a fan of this tweet:

This was the first of several disappointing books in 2015, particularly given Watson’s shocking debut Before I Go to Sleep, which was nigh unputdownable and still gives me the willies. Naturally, after reading such a stonking good thriller, I was pretty excited about getting my hands on a second offering. However, this tale of a woman investigating her sister’s murder quickly became bogged down in unnecessary red herrings, difficult-to-follow twists and unremarkable, unlikeable characters. The biggest crime it committed though, was to be forgettable: there was nothing, in my opinion, that made this book stand out for any reason – so much so, I had to look up the blurb in order to remind myself what the book was about. Hardly a glowing recommendation. 

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2005)
Before I get into my reasons for including the immensely popular The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on my Worst-of 2015 list, I just want to say two things: firstly, I enjoyed a lot of this book. Secondly, it was my first audiobook, and I struggled a bit with the format, which I admit did have a negative impact on this book. Now that’s out of the way, I can get onto my main disappointments: for example, the very gripping and interesting main story – of Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander’s investigation into the messed-up Vanger family – was buried into the middle of the book, flanked on either side by a lot of filler. The first third was spent establishing that Blomkvist was a rogue journalist who had been out-manoeuvred on a damning-but-unprovable article he’d written, and that Salander was as messed up as she was proficient in hacking. I’m no writer, I’ll be the first to admit, but I don’t think it should take a third of a book to establish your principle characters. Then there was the bizarre ending that took up the last third – obviously Larsson was setting up for another book, but it took a long time to wrap up and involved what seemed to be a very un-Salander-esque act that jarred with how I knew her as a character. Finally, I took umbrage with a ‘character-building’ episode involving Salander. It was, in my view, entirely gratuitous and yet another example of an author using assault as a means to show the strength or courage of a character, whilst simultaneously cementing another’s evil. I recognise it's important to discuss rape and not shy away from it in media, but in this case it just came across as a vehicle to demonstrate Salander's strength and difficult life, and having her brutally attacked can't be the only way to do that.

We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach (2015)
The premise of this YA novel was, to me, promising: when the news breaks that an apocalyptic meteor has a 30% chance of hitting the earth, five teenagers re-evaluate their feelings towards life, love, friends and family as they deal with the possibility they may soon all be dead. It should be a refreshing take on what can be viewed as a tired genre – most apocalypse novels tend to focus on the immediate aftermath, with some stretching a bit further forward, sometimes leaping back, but this one focuses solely on the weeks running up to the will-it-won’t-it meteor either hitting or missing the planet. However it quickly devolves into now-or-never romances, parental rebellion and general sticking-it-to-the-man. I don’t really know what I was expecting, but I had hoped it would be a bit less John Green.

The third in my little triumvirate of 2015 Disappointments, this was a huge one for me - I was looking so forward to it, so maybe (as I've done before) my expectations were just too high. I won’t go into too much detail here because I already reviewed this, but essentially I felt this story of a young girl kidnapped by a man claiming to be her grandfather posed too many questions that went unanswered.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Best of 2015

2015 was a really good year for books - I read less than in 2014, but enjoyed more of them, so I figure it balances out. It was actually quite hard to pick my favourite finds of last year - it started out as a huge list - but I've whittled it down to the these seven, which I would recommend to everyone and anyone. Yep, fewer than last year, and the year before that - I'm getting more discerning in my old age.

It’s no coincidence that two of the four books I read twice in 2015 were Erika Johansen’s Tearling books – they’re utterly fascinating, with The Invasion of the Tearling having only the slightest of edges on its predecessor (in my opinion). It’s ostensibly about a young queen, Kelsea, reclaiming her throne from her corrupt uncle and waging war on his seemingly-immortal ally, but there are many more facets to this story than such basic fantasy fare and it is certainly a lot darker and uglier than I expected it to be. I’ve not found another novel this year that blindsided me so much, in that it defied every expectation without disappointment. The best way I can think to describe it is that it’s got the strong female protagonist of Throne of Glass, mixed in with the murky morals and power-struggles of A Song of Ice and Fire, finished off with a dash of The Handmaid’s Tale – quite a potent mix, I’m sure you’ll agree.

H Is For Hawk by Helen MacDonald (2014)
The only wholly non-fiction title on this year’s list is one I almost certainly would not have read, given that I’m generally not a fan of non-fiction, and (until I read this) I had precious little interest in birds of prey and how to train them. Nevertheless, I was drawn to it early last year because I heard that it was mostly about the author grieving for her father after his sudden death, and – at the time of reading – I knew I was about to lose a close family member. Whilst I can’t say I expected any tips on how to handle grief (something I’ve been privileged enough to not experience often), the subject matter did strike a chord that normally would not have existed, and was an unexpected source of comfort, as well as knowledge. MacDonald does not sugar the pill here – she can be quite stark - but her impeccable writing and a knack for striking phrase makes this an honest but beautiful book to read.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chobsky (1999)
What I love about this book is the gentle optimism: Charlie, the titular wallflower, is a shy freshman with a lot to be sad about – his best friend committed suicide before the beginning of the book, his favourite aunt has died, and Charlie himself is suffering from an unspecified emotional trauma. Yet his befriending of the older siblings Patrick and Sam shows him that he has something to offer to the world, that life can be lived wholly and happily, despite what it might throw at you. It’s a novel full of heart and feeling, carefully eking out its secrets for maximum impact without ruining the overall redemptive feel. Comparatively, the only book to make me feel as bittersweet in recent times as Wonder by R. J. Palacio.

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen (2012)
I make no apologies for this inclusion. Yes, it’s a picture book for children. Yes, it’s only 40 pages long. That doesn’t make it any less entertaining or clever, and there are several books I have read this year that were much, much longer and much less interesting than this. A bear has lost his favourite red hat, and so goes asking around his woodland pals if they have seen it without much luck. Hope is lost, and the bear is desolate, until a deer helps him recall a rabbit that was acting rather suspiciously… It’s really quite dark for a kids’ picture book, and it doesn’t surprise me that a lot of the reviews on Amazon mention that whilst some children don’t think much of it, the adults certainly do. Personally, I think it’s hilarious, beautifully illustrated and very clever.

I’d been warily circling this novel for some time before I read it: my recently discovered love of crime novels had lead me to it, as had the tantalising pull of a novel researched and written with the assistance of Harper Lee, but its status of ‘true-crime’ put me off (I’ve never been a fan of those kind of books). Eventually though, with the urging of an author I admire, I took the plunge and immersed myself in the novelisation of the true, brutal murders of Herbert Clutter and his family in Kansas, 1959, and the subsequent hunt for the killers. This is a confusing book to read: on one hand, everything – including blatant suppositions and questions on the truth of certain events – is presented as fact. On the other, the story-like narrative makes for compelling – and distancing – reading: it’s all too easy to forget that these are not characters but real people, real murderers and real victims. I read this compulsively, constantly having to remind myself to not take Capote fully at his word, and spent several hours after finishing reading about Truman Capote, the Clutters, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. 

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan (2015)
This is the only audiobook on this list: I’m still tentatively listening to them, but on the whole I find that unless I’m allowed to pay as much attention to them as I do a print or ebook, they can be forgettable and confusing (not to mention more expensive). This, however, bucks the trend, and I do have a theory on this: the author was the narrator, which meant she had a deeper understanding of how the novel should be read than any other voice-actor. She knows the characters, the dialogue and the world better than anyone else, and that shines through in her narration, making it a pleasure to listen to. Even so, the tale of a girl called North, her bear and a floating circus in a world swallowed by water would be beautiful no matter what format you experienced it in.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mantel (2014)
This came out towards the end of 2014, and swiftly became one of the most talked about books of 2015 with good reason. Set in the immediate weeks before, and the years after, an apocalypse, there are comparisons to be made with Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy - not least Mantel's chillingly casual turn of phrase. However, her approach is refreshing in that her vision of a post-apocalyptic world spreads much further forward in time than you might expect – instead of focusing on the immediate aftermath, the survival instincts and the tentative attempts at rebuilding society, her attention is on a society already rebuilt (albeit rudimentary) and functioning. The main action is in the vein of a thriller, with a troupe of Shakespearean actors incurring the wrath of a so-called Prophet on their travels around settlements, but the bits that really hooked me were those casual, almost Atwood-esque references to the terror of the plague, which I'll end this post with: 

"Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city."