Thursday, 20 October 2016

The Martian, by Andy Weir

It's highly likely that you have read this book and/or seen the film (Award winning Comedy film, The Martian) but I'm going to write it up anyway.

Mark Watney is an astronaut and a member of the crew of the Ares 3, a manned mission to Mars in a future near enough to be indistinguishable from the present, but distant enough for Mars missions to be kind of old hat. This Mars mission *is* Historic, but not because it's pioneering. About a week into the mission while out in a storm that's worsening by the hour, Commander Lewis makes the decision to abort. The wind is high and fast enough to compromise the return craft, so it's back to the MAV for everyone and an early 8 month return to Earth. In an intense, confusing, deadly instant, Mark Watney is hit by flying debris and flung into the fug- visibility is close to zero and his suit is recording no signs of life- Mark is dead- the first person to die on Mars.

This is where the book starts; with a battered, patched up and barely functional Mark Watney surveying his options. He's injured. Has limited food supplies. He's alone on Mars. He's pretty much dead.

The rest of the novel comprises of first person logs by Mark as day by day (or Sol by Sol) he battles against the odds and the never ending hostility of Mars to survive. Luckily as a botanist, engineer and all-round McGyer style scientist, he manages to overcome the most obstacles: growing food, creating water, making contact with Earth in miraculous feats of engineering and pluck. Reading this, I couldn't help but Imagine how I would handle the same circumstances- probably just de-suit and walk out of the airlock to certain, swift death. So I had to very much admire Mark's insane resourcefulness, determination and refusal to die, despite the explosions, depressurisation, flippings, tumblings and starvings that Mars threw at him.

This is one of the few occasions ever where I'm glad to have seen the film before reading the book as so much of the science went over my head. It was also handy to have pre-imagined faces to attach to all the names at NASA- characters that have some pretty amazing dialogue but as characters are kind of interchangeable. Having Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor's famous faces pre-loaded into my head really helped.

Though the NASA guys and the other astronauts are important supporting characters, we find out very little about them- it's very much the Mark Watney show. There's no big emotional reunion with Earth-bound family, no weepy fiancee on the news, desperately waiting for an update on their space stranded betrothed- which I found really refreshing. It wasn't a particularly emotional story, not a vast personal journey- just a really resourceful guy with a sense of humour as dry as his planet, trying not to die or drive himself insane with loneliness, bad 70s TV and disco music and barely managing.

It's pacy and funny and full of action- even if there's never really any suspense (even if you haven't seen the film, it's pretty obvious that Mark isn't going to die- even if he wanted to he probably can't even). It's basically Robinson Crusoe in Space, but funnier. And with more science. I'm pretty sure most of the world have read this- but if you haven't, it's definitely worth giving it a go. It's one of the most universally appealing stories I've read or seen in ages. The film is a really stellar adaptation of the source material, and the book just provides more of the same. More Mark, More Mars, more laughs.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Muse, by Jessie Burton

Starting in the summer of 1967, Odelle Bastien a Trinidadian expat 5 years in London, aspiring writer and current shoe salesgirl, applies on the off chance for a job at the Skelton, an upmarket art gallery. It's the beginning of a period of change in her life, one that sees her finally begin to feel at home in England- new job, the introduction of the enigmatic, glamorous Miss Quick, the gallery director and her best friend and room mate Cynth moving out and getting married. It is at her wedding reception that she meets Lawrence, the producer of the painting which will serve as the historical art whodunnit.

Lawrence brings with him a painting something inherited that may or may not be valuable- a grim, unnerving but beautiful picture of a girl, holding the head of another girl, with a lion. Ms Quick looks like she has seen a ghost and Odelle is immediately curious about what might connect Quick and Lawrence, who profess to have never met before and the painting.

The mystery of the painting and its provenance are gradually unravelled as the story sweeps back to Southern Spain in 1936. Here we meet the moony, romantic teenager Olive Schloss, a secret artist and daughter of a prominent Austrian art dealer (Harold) and a glamorous but mentally ill English socialite mother (Sarah). Olive has turned down a place at art school, perhaps due to a crisis of confidence, perhaps a lack of faith in her future as a female artist- perhaps because she feels that something else is planned for her. Olive's life diverges from her original intentions with the arrival of Isaac Robles and his half sister Theresa. Originally mistaking them for man and wife, Olive learns that they are in fact the children of a local landowner and partial gangster- they are soon integrated fully into the Schloss household, indispensable, essential. Though their intentions are unclear, their influence is palpable. 

Olive quickly becomes at home in Spain, encouraged artistically by the enthralled Theresa and politically awakened by fellow artist and political aggressor Isaac, the man that Olive is, incidentally, infatuated with. The coming Civil War and its obvious early warning signals are steadfastly ignored by the Schloss clan. Olive, knowing that she is at risk of being returned to England and in pursuit of a pure creativity free from the burden of acclaim, hatches a plan with the Robles': they will trick art man Harold into securing the patronage of wealthy american collectors to launch Isaac onto the scene. 

Juggling the two time periods, the two narratives and the two casts expertly, Jesse Burton paints a picture of the burden of creativity, its hidden rules and the double edged sword of public acclaim.  Theresa secretly exposes Olive's talents, while Quick does much the same for Odelle, putting her short story in a literary magazine, also without her knowledge. The success is valuable, but at what cost? The author asks some incredibly complex questions about the creative process- can success extinguish creativity? (With the immense success of the Miniaturist it's not hard to see where this theme might have emerged from!) Does an artist produce for themselves, or for public consumption? When a piece of art/writing/etc is unleashed into the world, does its meaning change? Does the artist ever truly own it after that? What is art actually for?

It's a passionate, fierce novel, filled with themes of identity and creation. The act of expression and the alchemy of painting are explored in a way that is both relateable and very evocative. Both time periods seem to come alive, they are richly written, texture-filled places that are inhabited by entirely real creations- as a reader I felt more drawn to the Spanish narrative not because it was more fully formed, or more realistic, but because the act of painting featured here, an act that seems so vital to the character and to the plot. I loved the detective researcher element of the London story, but the actual act of putting paintbrush to canvas and the feelings released in the process was rendered so fully in this novel. I enjoyed too the not-so-subtle rage-flow of feminist fury at the persistent, even to this day, suggestion that anything produced by a woman is inherently inferior to something produced by a man.

The Muse is a beautifully written and lovingly crafted novel, thoroughly researched so, mercifully, not prone to fall into some of the rookier traps of Historical Fiction. Themes of identity, the elusive nature of creativity and inspiration, love, politics, gender, race and the role, value and purpose of art are combined and gathered into a fascinating mystery, unravelled by a lovable, canny and endearing protagonist- a writer, turned typist turned amateur sleuth. I enjoyed this thoroughly and wish Jessie every success with her next venture and with the TV adaptation of the Miniaturist. That genie is well and truly out of the book bottle now.

Goodbye Stranger, by Rebecca Stead

Really, really enjoyed this, and I can see it becoming quite the go-to Middle Grade book for quite a catalogue of events and issues.

Set in contemporary New York, Goodbye Stranger tells the story, in the first person, of Bridge Barsamien,a 7th grader, car accident survivor and medical marvel. It also occasionally jumps forward several months to another story, in the second person, of an older teen, an unnamed girl who is skipping school in an anxious attempt to avoid the consequences of a terrible mistake.

But first Bridge. Convinced she survived her earlier accident for a reason, Bridge is having a bit of an identity crisis- why is she here? What does she bring to the world? Who is she, really? A bit of an oddball, she has recently started wearing cat ears to school. Best friends Tab and Em think it's a bit odd, but whatever- both have their own things to deal with. Em is now a rising soccer star and the recent owner of some new curves that are starting to get her noticed by older students. Tabs is busy excelling at languages, getting into human rights and civil disobedience and gobbling up a (somewhat outdated, 1970s flavoured) feminist agenda from her worshipped teacher Ms Burman. Bridge is quite confused and put out by the focus and talents of her friends, and find herself drifting to the Stage Crew as an after school activity where she meets Sherm, a kid she lives really close to, goes to school with yet has somehow never actually spoken to.

It's a beautifully written book, with gorgeous, evocative prose that washes over the reader. Though not terrible plot driven, it is incredibly realistic and does an excellent job of showing what it must be like to be 12 or 13 in the modern era. The three central girls are working out who they are and what matters to them, whilst trying to navigate the rough seas of adolescence. The book asks some really interesting questions about identity and what makes a person *them*- can you be the same person now that you were 5 years ago? Will your future self be the same person? Can you be two people at once, one that dud something terrible and regrets it, and simultaneously one that understands and would probably do it again?

A lot of middle grade fiction has the trials and tribulations of friendship at its core. The way that friendships can break apart, evolve or become toxic and damaging. We get to see that via the unnamed second person voice, how friends can change and become people that seem like strangers. Bridge's trio fare better throughout the book. Though they have their ups and their first downs, the girls' friendship seems to weather the storm of the 7th grade.

Though not an issue driven book, Goodbye Stranger still offers the opportunity for valuable conversation around important issues in the lives of modern tweens. There is the perennial issue of friendships being made and broken and how to deal withe the emotional fallout, embarrassing, fraying or broken families and the stresses of school, but we also see the emergence of more modern issues- 'sexting', slut shaming (though neither terms are specifically used) and the way girls in particular are expected to behave, scrutinised and judged. There's a lot to unpack for such a short book- I particularly liked how Em's picture being leaked was presented as quite a complicated thing. She was mortified, rightly or wrongly, but still liked the picture and how she looked in it- something that Bridge is baffled by . Em explains "the bad part wasn’t that everyone was looking at the picture. I mean, it was weird and not great. But the bad part was that it felt like they were making fun of my feeling good about the picture. Of me liking myself". It's a big thing to have to think about, surrounded by sub themes of consent, self love and agency.

All in all, it's a wonderful, dual story that points out that age does not always come with wisdom and that older kids make mistakes too,  Nobody is infallible. Some friendships will survive and some will go bad. New friends eventually become old friends. Past and future are mysteries. Teachers will always spend their own money to make things that they care about a success. Girls and boys will, however unfairly, be subjected to different treatment.

Monday, 5 September 2016

The Foolish King, by Mark Price and Illustrated by Martin Brown

This book aims to inspire the next generation to become champion chess players- a game that is apparently played by 500 million people in 167 countries! Who knew?! It's part story, part learning the rules, part mock-up game- there is an accompanying iPhone app too which I guess gives the player chessy scenarios to figure out, but being an android bod I wasn't able to check this out for myself unfortunately...

The book frames the game within a fairytale narrative- A just and beloved leader, who was very into produce and insects and biodiversity generally has just died, leaving his foolish, selfish and greedy son in charge of the kingdom. Under his rule, the crops wither, the people go hungry and the essential pollinating micro-beasts leave the kingdom for more fertile climes. It is up to the Royal Gardener's kids, Holly and Pip, to pursue the fleeing insects to their forbidden underground world, master the game that they play to keep their insect society in order and bring the essential invertebrates back to the kingdom.

The creepy crawlies, creeping away

Once hidden in the insect world, Pip and Holly witness a game played out between the daytime insects and the nighttime insects, in lieu of actual battle. It is a complex game, with lots of specific moves and maneuvers, and some of the insects end up in a kind of prison..

The insects take on the role of chess pieces, Ron Weasley Style

Pip and Holly learn the rules of this game, traversing several training grounds to learn the rules and moves of each piece. Here the Grasshoppers and Crickets are fulfilling the roles of Knights, hopping in L-Shapes around lily pads.

The instruction ends with an illustrated, step by step game played out in stages, with each of the moved explained and justified.

It's a novel idea- something that I think will work very well alongside the app, which will hopefully offer a real-time animation of each move and provide puzzles and scenarios to solve. Where the book could spark interest in the game, the app may take the actual skills of the player further until they are brave enough to battle the board for themselves.

I liked how the game was framed within a fairytale narrative, but I did get a bit lost with which insects were what pieces and had to keep checking back to make sure! The story is fun and engaging, with a nice additional message about the importance of biodiversity...The illustrations are excellent, Martin Brown's brilliant and familiar wide-eyed and characterful figures jump off the page, bringing an otherwise quite obscure game to a new audience- the instructions are manageable and introduced at a pace that is not overwhelming, and examples of all the moves are included. An interesting and unusual mixture of fiction and non fiction! Unfortunately I can't say as I will be taking up chess though- as a terrible tactician and reckless player of most games, it is simply too tactical for me!

Friday, 26 August 2016

Broadway book Club Discussion of Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

As with all the best books, or at least the ones that make for the best discussions, feelings were very much mixed about Jeffrey Eugenides’  Middlesex. Those in attendance were split pretty evenly- 3 for very much yes, 3 not so much, and 1 undecided. We were universally disturbed by how quickly Desdemonda and Lefty, brother and sister, in 1922 decided that they’d get married. Obviously this is the Big Bang moment of the whole story, and everyone’s lives are subsequently affected by this decision- but we all agreed that they were both far too up for it far too quickly. Just no. When your Husband is your brother and it looks like your son is about to propose to his cousin, one needs to intervene. More grandparents are necessary in a family.

Firstly we talked about the narrator, Cal, and their omnipotence- the way they could confidently and with detail tell a story in 1922, 60 years before their birth, how they could definitely impart the thoughts and feelings of characters they were nowhere near, divine reasons for behaviour known only to the person involved. We discussed why this could be off putting, even annoying, and on the other hand why it might separate Middlesex from other multi-generational family sagas that we’ve read. We also talked about the narrator’s Dickensian, flowery language and their choice to address the reader directly, float up and down stairs and point out that this is what they are doing. Also could be considered annoying.

One of the most consistently voiced and agreed upon faults was the book’s odd pacing. Cal spends literally hundreds of pages building his backstory, then undergoes the transformation from Callie to Cal in about a page. The book from that point- San Francisco, the Father Mike debacle, the tying up at the end- seems very rushed for such a lengthy, epic narrative. Even those of us that loved it could not deny that this is kind of the case. The transformation itself we discussed briefly, and it was raised by one member that there was a concern that the intersex/trans experience might not really do justice to such an experience and that it wasn’t handled particularly sensitively- the San Francisco section in particular felt a bit box-ticky “This is the exploitation bit, this is the bit where they’re beaten up in the park” etc. The idea of the intersex experience was barely discussed in any depth- but then Cal does make it clear that he isn’t very involved with the movement and tends to keep away from the whole thing. We had all expected gender identity and intersexuality to be a more fundamental part of the story. We all liked how Cal, as adult Cal, could look back on their life as Callie without any anger or disgust or bitterness. Callie was kind of allowed to live on in memory and was recalled quite fondly by Cal. He allowed Callie to sort of exist in her own time and context, which we all thought was a nice touch.

We talked about Eugenides’ prose and about the bits that really worked that the reader could see came from personal experience- for example, he’s from a partially Greek background, so the big, busy Orthodox Greek family and the 2nd and 3rd generation immigrant element was really believable and immersive. We felt that the city of Detroit was rendered really well (despite the not particularly involving riots), as Eugenides hails from Detroit himself. However, the parts that he obviously had no personal experiences with really stood out as being a bit out of his depth. Namely the intersex experience, which felt a bit haphazard and his borderline hilarious depictions of menstruation, or anxiety about unforthcoming menstruation. It’s not exactly uncommon though- male writers just can’t do periods properly and it’s perhaps unsurprising.

We briefly talked about the very indistinct sexual encounters that Callie has with the Object and the Object’s brother, neither of which seemed particularly consensual. Like many of the book’s other themes, it was very ambiguous.

One of the aspects of the novel that was considered universally effective was the author’s use of duality as a theme throughout the book, demonstrated in a number of ways. Most of the characters experience displacement and duality at some point- Cal/Callie belongs within neither gender. They are neither one thing nor the other. Lefty and Desdemonda aren’t wholly husband and wife, nor are they brother and sister any longer. Ancestrally Greek, born in a part of Turkey contested fro centuries by both nations, the Stephanides family is not wholly Greek, nor are they Turkish. The whole immigrant experience is shrouded in Duality- first generation immigrants rarely feel fully at home in their adopted nations, but neither can they remain completely loyal to their old world. 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants belong to their home nations more successfully, but are obliged to feel the tether of the ancestral home. Sourmelina lives a dual life as a wife and mother, and as a closeted lesbian. Middlesex is a novel full of duality, and we all agreed that this was done particularly well throughout. One member suggested that it’s more realistic for a person to be composed of contradictions, to be fluid and changeable that it is to be the same, unfaltering person day after day, using the disastrous Father Make and his permanent niceness and geniality as an example. He was definitely the worst character.

It was mentioned that the book was very dense, the characters and the themes sort of fighting for space with too much going on. Some readers wanted more time spent on Milton and Tessie’s courtship (cousins, uh-oh) which seemed to jump from having a clarinet played on her to marriage. One member mentioned also that for a book about family and relationships, it was lacking in feeling and actual emotion, perhaps because of the over ambitious timescale or the disjointed structure.

I think there were elements of this novel that impressed everyone (not always the same ones) and elements that frustrated. Though opinions were mixed, we mostly liked Cal as a character and the dense, tangent ridden, meandering Greek epic of his family narrative. Though in places it was missing details, and in places embellished with far too much- though we were occasionally frustrated by his style or his insight, Cal wasn’t the worst storyteller. Though some readers will not be rushing to pick up JE’s other books, Middlesex (despite it's bad punny title) made for an interesting discussion about structure, family, gender, consent, duality, identity and, unavoidably, the very Classical Greek ingredient of incest.

We took the opportunity to select the next four titles which will take us up to the end of 2016(!) and have gone for a nice mixture of sci-fi, war, historical fiction, YA fantasy and book club classics.

Just in case the picture won't load, they are;
September- Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut (given a C grade by its own author)
October- All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr (Pulitzer winning)
November- Half A Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Orange Prize winner of winners)
December/January- His Dark Materials Trilogy, by Philip Pullman (Whitbread, Carnegie and Guardian Prize Winning)

The latter of which is the only series that has ever come close to dethroning Harry Potter as my most beloved series of all time. Can't wait.

We will be meeting on Thursday September 29th at 7.00pm to discuss Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World, written and illustrated by Kate Pankhurst

I love this book so hard. It has literally everything. It’s beautifully crafted, lovingly illustrated, educational, inspiring and fun to read, even when you’re 28. I’d never heard of Gertrude Ederle or Agent Fifi! Now they’re up there with Harriett Tubman and Hermione Granger as my feminist heroes.

Firstly, the illustrations and text are amazing. The sheer quantity of calligraphy and typography involved in this publication is staggering- it seems so personal and handcrafted and just adds so much flavour and style to the pages- it's one thing to be informative, but being very stylish and gorgeously presented, while being informative is always going to be better. The illustrations are simply beautiful. Lushly colourful, doodly, full of detail, character and personality, each woman is surrounded by a relevant palette of colours. They are adorned with items and accessories of their pursuits, maps, bones, science equipment, cacti- whatever bits and bobs enhance and colour that particular person’s contribution to history. Pankhurst’s illustrations are joyously coloured, strikingly vibrant and infinitely appealing to any reader lucky enough to get a copy of this book in their hands.

The layout too is brilliant- each fantastic woman gets a double page spread and the reader’s eye is directed across the page, tracking the journey of the woman’s discovery, invention, life or achievement. Arrows help to guide the order in which we are supposed to read, as each page features a main story, then additional facts and snippets of biographical information or key terms. The arrows help to keep everything moving in the right direction and in the right order. I loved too how the layout alters to fit each person- going to use Mary Anning as an example because I am a huge dinosaur nerd and she was one of the first Palaeontologists of any gender or nationality- though she was largely uncredited due to her tiny woman brain and lack of scientific credentials.

Three major dinosaur types discovered by one woman! AND all before the term "Dinosaur" was even coined (1842)

So who do we learn about in Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World? Some are rightly famous, some are undeservedly obscure or scandalously forgotten. The full roster of remarkable ladies is; Novelist Jane Austen, Channel swimmer and Olympian Gertrude Ederle, Fashion designer and businesswoman Coco Chanel, Artist Frieda Kahlo, Nobel Prize winning chemist Marie Curie, Palaeontologist Mary Anning, Nurse Mary Secole, Aviator Amelia Earheart, Secret Agent Fifi, Translator, navigator and explorer Sacagawea, Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, Civil Rights campaigner Rosa Parks and diarist Anne Frank.
The full set of Fantastic Women, part 1
It must have been really hard to choose who to feature in this book- I really hope there’s a follow up featuring more great women (Elizabeth Fry, Maria Sibylla Merian, Harriett Tubman, Laura Trott, Malala Yousafzai, Irena Sendler, Annie Oakley, Bess of Hardwick, Ada Lovelace, Martha Graham) please please please do a MORE Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World!

I’m going to give copies of this book to everyone I know with small children for Christmas, boys and girls alike, because all kids need to know that it’s ok to explore their talents, be brave, ask questions and discover new things! Girls need to know from as young an age as possible that they *can* do whatever they want, and boys need to know, equally, that they can also do these things, but they’ve got competition.
Favourite page <3
Thanks so much to Lizz Skelly, (who I finally managed to meet at YALC- yay!) for sending me a review copy of this amazing book. I love it.

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World, written and illustrated by Kate Pankhurst is out on September the 8th. The kids in your life deserve to read this book!!

Thursday, 11 August 2016

The unboxing of my first #Illumicrate

After seeing this bountiful crate of goodies all over twitter last spring, I was fairly confident that this time around I was going to get myself a piece of that. I'm new to subscription boxes in general (unless you count my brief flirtation with Graze, where I just ate everything in one go and realised that's not how it works, thus; cancelled)

This livened up a pretty dull day of waiting in for a guy to come and do a survey on the house and waiting for the BF's shoes to get delivered. I know- calm down Leanne, with your wild hedonistic ways. What a timely little dispatch to relieve me from literally the dullest day of summer holidays in all of time.

Unspoiled and full of dreams

Naturally, one goes for books first. One is not a heathen. I was super mega chuffed to see The Graces, by Laura Eve, which I had coveted at YALC last week, wistfully gazing at the one promo copy they had on their stand. Seriously, they had a whole stand just for one book, such was the scale of the torment. The samplers, if anything, just heightened the lust for this book. Not normally into Witches, but there are things in life for which we must make exceptions. The other book is a thoroughly attractive Hardback called Nevernight, by Jay Kristoff. I must admit, I'm unfamiliar with this book, not being a huge fantasy reader. I shall go in blind. Also, bookplates!

There were several hints dropped by Daphne, the brain behind Illumicrate on Twitter that there would be a Gilmore Girls inspired item. If I hadn't already subscribed, that would've been my cue to get on it. I bloody love Gilmore Girls. LOVE IT. So. Imagine my joy to find this beast. I love a tote bag. Who doesn't love a tote bag? But this is a GG tote bag you guys. An Illumicrate exclusive, so if you see a fellow toter of the totebag out in the world, congratulate them on their excellent taste.

I'm still not fussed about the comeback series though. Pleased for everybody that's excited and all, but it's just never the same. Look at Bridget Jones. Look at Bourne. Look at David Brent. Look at Jurassic World. Even when it's good- it's not the same. *Looks for Gilmore Girls S1 on DVD. Remembers sister had them. Cries.*

I know right, I KNOW! These are Illumicrate exclusives designed by the amazingly talented @taratjah. I'm one of the very, very few hardcore PotterHeads that is 100% not bothered about seeing or reading either the Cursed Child or Fantastic Beasts- it ended, I'm happy with how it ended, now excuse me wile I read HP for the 382nd time. At least I'm consistent, right? BUT. That being said. I am TOTALLY on board with black Hermione. I love these to depictions of my all time favourite trio. True story, the first time I read HP when I was like 13, in my head Hermione was brown haired Smurfette. I don't know why. So nobody's brain can really claim the definitive, one true Hermione. I love her illustrations. I love how cute they are. I am so, so impressed with a person's ability to imagine something in their head, translate it through arms, hands and eyes, and capture it on paper. What a superpower.

So there you have it! So much swag delivered to your door. Sorry if I seem a bit down on revivals of existing things. I'm absolutely not saying that they can't be enjoyed- go for it! But I'm more of an 'I'll stick to what I know' kind of person. I'm still in denial of the existence of a 4th Indiana Jones film.

Thankyou to Daphne, @WingedReviews on twitter, for being the curatororal force behind the happiness of the YA community this week. Mwah!