Before The Devil Breaks You

New York City. 1927. Lights are bright. Jazz is king. Parties and wild. And the dead are coming.

After battling a supernatural sleeping sickness that nearly eliminated two of their own, the Diviners have had enough. They’re more determined than ever to uncover the mystery behind their extraordinary powers, even as they face off an all-new terror. Out on Ward’s Island, far from the city’s bustle, sits a mental hospital haunted by the lost souls of people long forgotten – ghosts who have unusual and dangerous ties to the man in the stovepipe hat, also known as the King of Crows.

With terrible accounts of murder and possession flooding in, and New York City on the verge of panic, the Diviners must brave the sinister ghosts invading the asylum, a fight that will bring them face-to-face with the King of Crows. But as the explosive secrets of the past come to light, loyalties and friendships will be tested, love will hang in the balance and the Diviners will question all that they’ve ever known.

Heart-pounding action and terrifying moments will leave you breathless in the third book of the Diviners series by number one New York Times bestselling author Libba Bray.

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Well. This was quite a ride.

The Diviners series by Libba Bray is a commentary on the state of current American politics wrapped up in a 1920s paranormal thriller. Though the novels have always been explicitly political – the first looked at how the roaring twenties were a reaction to what many felt were the broken promises of the First World War and in the second, Bray addressed immigration by delving into the effects of the Chinese exclusion act, the first federal law implemented to prevent a specific ethnic group from entering the United States – in book #3, Before The Devil Breaks You (the first Diviners novel to come out in a post-Trump America), Bray is relentless.

Before The Devil Breaks You, ostensibly a book about a group of paranormally powered teenagers fighting to save New York from a horde of murderous zombie ghosts (they are definitely incorporeal but have been known to eat people), is actually a battle for the future of American society. Will we lean towards tolerance and inclusion, or away into fear, anger and violence?

Sounding familiar? It certainly should.

In book #3 our various factions are more divided than they have ever been. Trust has broken down completely between Uncle Will and the Diviners, leaving he and Margaret Walker excluded from the main events of the novel, which, honestly, is more than they deserve. Reliable liars from the start, whether they are truly evil or not – and the point of this book, if anything, is that question – Will and Margaret have been rumbled and the mistakes of their past have truly come back to haunt them. Literally. The city is swarming with ghosts. But the fact is, whether you agree with their actions or not – I’m leaning towards not – like everyone else in this shit show, Margaret and Will were only trying to build the America they wanted to see. They thought they were doing good, and whether they actually were is a question both of them – and the Diviners and us, the readers – are all still trying to answer.

Mabel falls into a similar trap. Her desire for personal glory – prefaced by a genuine need to do good in the world – leads her to join with an organisation called The Six. To many, The Six is an anarchist organisation and perhaps even a dangerous one, whereas to others, they are pioneers of human rights, fighting for those who don’t have a voice in society. Their methods veer into some pretty terrifying territory, and again as the reader we are prompted to ask: do the ends justify the means?

Honestly, it’s too soon to tell.

Before The Devon Breaks You is a great addition to a really noteworthy series. It’s not perfect – there are in my opinion too many primary characters at this point, and the close third person plot skips around a lot, sometimes focusing on multiple people in a single chapter, which I’m not crazy about. But the overarching themes of the series are so relevant and interesting, and the plot pacey enough that none of the issues bothered me too much. And my primary prolem with book #2, the serious lack of Evie, was more than rectified in this round.

Can’t wait for book #4, though past experience with Libba Bray means I am scared for everybody, and particularly any Diviners who may have ended book #3 in need of some redemption. We all know how you get that…

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Genuine Fraud

IMOGEN: is a runaway heiress, an orphan, a cook and a cheat.

JULE: is a fighter, a social chameleon and an athlete.

Imogen and Jule. Jule and Imogen.

An intense friendship. A disappearance. A murder, or maybe two. A bad romance, or maybe three.

Blunt objects, disguises, blood and chocolate. The American dream, superheroes, spies and villains. A girl who refuses to give people what they want from her. A girl who refuses to be the person she once was.

A girl who is a… genuine fraud.

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Spoilers ahead.

I adore E Lockhart. There are very few authors who have been with me as long as she has, and many of her books were very formative for my younger self. I picked up The Boyfriend List when I was in my early teens, and it cemented forever my love of contemporary YA fiction. A series about the heartbreak of broken female friendships, mental health and first love, it was everything I needed at that point in my life. Then she released The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, which remains one of my favourite books to this day. The feminism, experimental writing – the way she manipulated language in that book really woke me up the possibilities of what writing can be – and complicated characters marked a shift in Lockhart’s writing career that she has expanded on in fascinating and often heartrending ways in subsequent novels.

Almost all of Lockhart’s work is concerned with female outsiders. Whether it’s Ruby becoming a social pariah after losing her boyfriend to her best friend, Gretchen Kaufman feeling like the only boring girl in art school or Frankie Landau-Banks tearing her boarding school apart proving her superiority to the boys who discounted her, all of her books are somehow concerned with women on the fringes – by choice or otherwise.

Then she released We Were Liars, and further built on her evolving writing style, creating a female outsider so alienated from everyone around her that even the reader didn’t realise she was lying to us until it was too late.

In Genuine Fraud, she’s done it again. Jule is perhaps the most unreliable narrator of them all, but unlike Cadence in We Were Liars, she isn’t trying to hide it. We know that Jule is a liar, it’s what she’s lying about that remains mysterious.

Genuine Fraud is a book told backwards, with fascinating consequences. To read it is to have constant whiplash, as every truth you’ve taken for granted is turned on its head, picked apart and then re-established as something else entirely. Jule tells stories about herself to craft an identity that she can live with, and has so completely assimilated with these adopted identities that it’s all but impossible to differentiate between the truth of Jule and the illusion she has thrown up for us and everyone else – but most crucially, for herself.

In her latest offering, E Lockhart has crafted yet another novel that keeps up guessing throughout. Her rejection of chronology creates a story filled with tension, manipulation and the occasional explosion of violence. It looks at how one snap decision to lie can change the direction of your entire life.

It’s quite an experience.

 

Her Body and Other Parties

In her provocative debut, Carmen Maria Machado demolishes the borders between magical realism and science fiction, comedy and horror, fantasy and fabulism. Startling stories map the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited on their bodies, both in myth and in practice.

A wife refuses her husband’s entreaties to remove the mysterious green ribbon from around her neck. A woman recounts her sexual encounters as a plague spreads across the earth. A salesclerk in a mall makes a horrifying discovery about a store’s dresses. One woman’s surgery-induced weight loss results in an unwanted house guest.

Bodies become inconsequential, humans become monstrous, and anger becomes erotic. A dark, shimmering slice into womanhood, Her Body and other Parties is wicked and exquisite.

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Does anyone else really dread reviewing certain books? Please tell me that it’s not just me.

Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado came to me, like so many of my reads, through the Belletrist book club. I found this genre-bending short story collection challenging, confusing, disturbing and often beautifully expressed.

I would classify the reading experience as: uncomfortable.

This collection of erotic horror fairy tales isn’t made for a passive reading experience. As the title suggests, Machado’s collection is intimately concerned with women’s bodies in their desires, peculiarities and wounds. It isn’t for the faint of heart – or stomach. From the first story, called ‘The Husband’s Stitch’ (if you live in a world where you don’t know the meaning of that term, I can only advise you remain that way and don’t Google it), Machado unflinchingly studies the violence women’s bodies undergo by society, partners and themselves – there is more than one very sensory depiction of squeezing out a puss-ey lesion in this collection. Think Josh Chan’s recent staph infection on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. But worse.

Machado uses her collection to engage with the various ways that women’s bodies are under attack. In ‘The Husband’s Stitch’, we see much of the narrator’s life, from meeting her husband and falling in love, to having a child and in turn seeing him grow up. She’s consumed by passed along tales of woe of women who tried to step outside the boundaries of the roles ascribed to them by their gender only to have it all end in disaster, and self-polices her own desires accordingly. She considers her marriage happy – if interspersed with moments in which her husband’s lack of respect becomes clear. Their marriage has only one real conflict. The narrator has worn around her neck for her whole life a green ribbon, and she will not allow her husband to touch it. Though she shares herself with him in every other respect, he cannot get over the fact that he is not allowed to touch this green ribbon. He can’t allow her to be the sole owner of even one single part of herself, and when she finally gives in and allows him possession of the thing she so desperately wished to keep as her own, horror ensues.

In another story, ‘Eight Bites’, a woman has weight loss surgery only to find the removed fat assembles itself into a creature that lives in her house. The creature has no eyes or ears or nose or mouth and when the woman comes into contact with it for the first time, she attacks it – kicking it, stabbing it, ripping it to pieces.

“I find myself wishing she would fight back, but she doesn’t. Instead, she sounds like she is being deflated. A hissing, defeated wheeze.”

This violence against the self – first more ethereal before becoming painfully, flinchingly literal is familiar to us all as we are bombarded everywhere we look of images of the ‘ideal bikini body’, where weight loss isn’t a cause for concern but for praise. I always remember this one time when I went to see a Katherine Ryan stand up show; she spoke about her divorce and how the trauma of it caused her to lose a ton of weight. When she saw herself in the mirror she thought she looked like she had a horrific disease. Everyone else? Well, they complimented her on how great she looked so skinny.

Her Body and Other Parties is a haunting collection of mostly horrifying stories built on the truths of patriarchy. From the episode-by-episode rewrite of Law and Order: SVU – a show which creates entertainment out of sexual violence against women – Machado tells the haunting tale of a detective followed by the ghosts of murdered women, to ‘Real Women Have Bodies’, in which women across the country are becoming incurably incorporeal – the faded women haunt the streets of cities and have themselves sewn into the seams of designer dresses – she tells the disturbing tale of what it is to be a woman in a world in which your body is forever under attack.

Not all books are supposed to be comfortable, and Her Body and Other Parties definitely took me to my limits of self-inflicted anxiety. It’s a strange book that I find difficult to recommend, exactly, but would encourage you to read anyway.

Bridget Jones’s Diary

Meet Bridget Jones—a 30-something Singleton who is certain she would have all the answers if she could:

a. lose 7 pounds

b. stop smoking

c. develop Inner Poise

“123 lbs. (how is it possible to put on 4 pounds in the middle of the night? Could flesh have somehow solidified becoming denser and heavier? Repulsive, horrifying notion), alcohol units 4 (excellent), cigarettes 21 (poor but will give up totally tomorrow), number of correct lottery numbers 2 (better, but nevertheless useless)…”

Bridget Jones’ Diary is the devastatingly self-aware, laugh-out-loud daily chronicle of Bridget’s permanent, doomed quest for self-improvement — a year in which she resolves to: reduce the circumference of each thigh by 1.5 inches, visit the gym three times a week not just to buy a sandwich, form a functional relationship with a responsible adult, and learn to program the VCR.

Over the course of the year, Bridget loses a total of 72 pounds but gains a total of 74. She remains, however, optimistic. Through it all, Bridget will have you helpless with laughter, and — like millions of readers the world round — you’ll find yourself shouting, “Bridget Jones is me!”

Summary from goodreads

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I’m not a big New Year’s Eve person. I never have been. So, rather than going out, I have always been in the camp of people who stays home, watches movies and drinks mulled wine. NYE for me and my tribe tends to mean British rom coms from the early 2000s, specifically Love Actually followed by Bridget Jones’s Diary. So long as Hugh Grant is either fighting or dancing, we’re in.

I’ve read Bridget Jones’s Diary before, but years ago when I was still in my teens. I figured I was well overdue for a reread – especially now that I am, sort of, an adult.

Though it is an 90s as can be – at one point Bridget is battling with her VCR, and there’s a lot of discussion about calling 1471 to see if you’ve missed a phone call while you were out (landlines! Lol!) – Helen Fielding’s comic take on middle class single womanhood remains very funny in 2018. It’s kind of like Georgia Nicholson, but for adults.

Bridget Jones’s Diary is a masterfully crafted satire that takes shots at everything from the self-help industry, to feminism and TV news and, most of all, dating. The book manages to be even more ridiculous than the movie – at one point, Bridget’s mother is on the run from the law – and though he isn’t in it as much as I would like, Mark Darcy somehow even more attractive. If you’re into the whole stern man thing, which I very much am.

The book chronicles Bridget stumbling through successes, failures and embarrassments (favourite moment: when Bridget runs into her recently ex-boyfriend, Daniel at an art exhibition and tries to escape by running into a portaloo that turns out to be part of the exhibit ‘I burst into the cubicle and was just about to get on with it when I realized that the toilet was actually a moulding of the inside of a toilet, vacuum-packed in plastic. Then Daniel put his head around the door. “Bridge, don’t wee on the Installation, will you?” he said, and closed the door again.’ ).

It’s a sweet, funny, cringe-worthy and relatable read that I would recommend to any women I know. Lately it’s been difficult being a female-identifying person. The news is full of stories of sexual harassment, assault and coercion, and, of course, the inevitable #MeToo backlash, that the world can feel like kind of hostile place sometimes. It was really nice, in between cocktails with friends having the is it all men though? I know it’s supposed to be not all men but it’s really starting to feel like all men conversations, to pick up a book whose only real aim was to make me laugh.

Sometimes the best thing you can do is to let yourself laugh, and Bridget Jones’s Diary will certainly help you do that.

PS I also highly recommend The Edge of Reason. I haven’t read it since I was 19 and working in Caffe Nero, but I remember it clearly because one day I missed my bus to work because it was making me laugh so much. That was a fun one to explain to my boss.

Wonder Woman: Warbringer

She will become a legend, but first she is Diana, Princess of the Amazons. And her fight is just beginning….

Diana is desperate to prove herself to her warrior sisters. But when the opportunity comes, she throws away her chance at glory and breaks Amazon law to save a mere mortal, Alia Keralis. With this single heroic act, Diana may have just doomed the world.

Alia is a Warbringer – a descendant of the infamous Helen of Troy, fated to bring about an age of bloodshed and misery. Diana and Alia will face an army of enemies, mortal and divine, determined to destroy or possess the Warbringer.

To save the world, they must stand side by side against the tide of war.

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I picked up Wonder Woman: Warbringer a little while back on the theory that if Bardugo wrote it then it must be good, but despite that, found myself lacking enthusiasm to actually read the thing. What would it be, I asked myself? Would it just be a straight up retelling of the movie? Don’t get me wrong, I liked the movie, but I couldn’t see the point of reading it again in book form. Then I’d wonder, how does a comic book translate into a novel?

Eventually I started actually reading and realised the truth I had known all along: always trust Leigh Bardugo. She knows exactly what she’s doing.

Wonder Woman: Warbringer in many ways satisfied me in all of the areas that the movie didn’t. Far from being a rehash of the plot I was already familiar with, Bardugo took the story in a completely different direction. While there were some similarities between the two, where the movie leaned towards romance and the only girl in the gang thing (after the first fifteen minutes of the Wonder Woman movie, Diana didn’t spend a lot of time with other women, and I never saw Justice League but it looked much the same) – Warbringer was an ode to female friendship and power in various forms.

Diana has spent her whole life feeling like an outsider. Born of the earth of Themyscira, a kind of heaven for women killed in war, she is the only Amazon not to have earned her place there through battle – and death. Her mother, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, hopes that Diana will one day take over her rule, but a question mark hangs over whether she’ll ever be ready. Or worthy. Diana has never known battle or sacrifice. She isn’t as strong as her fellow Amazons.

None of them will let her forget it.

So yeah, Diana is a woman with something to prove. Problem is, when you live in what is essentially heaven there aren’t a whole lot of battles to fight, so she’s stuck desperate to prove herself but unsure how to do it, until one day fate intervenes, and Alia Keralis’ ship explodes right as it passes Themyscira.

Alia has also spent much of her life feeling like an outsider. After her parents were killed in a car accident a few years ago she was separated from her peers by her grief, and then her overprotective older brother, Jason, who became convinced that someone was trying to assassinate them both. She’s one of only a few brown girls in an overwhelmingly white school of kids who won’t stop asking her if she’s a scholarship student. And she’s kind of the embodiment of the apocalypse, which causes people to literally start beating the shit out of each other simply because she’s nearby. She’s the Warbringer, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.

Both Diana and Alia were strong in different ways, and watching them go on their journey and develop separately and together made me so damn happy. It’s rare we get to see super-powered woman hanging with their female friends. Yes, Jessica Jones changed things up a bit, but The Defenders took things right back to the status quo. I get the feeling that often creators don’t know how to integrate the ‘super’ element with the ‘is a woman’ element and so balance out her superness by surrounding her with masculine energy. Seeing an alternative, the friendship of two burgeoning badasses made this such a joyful read for me.

Wonder Woman: Warbringer is a pacey adventure and coming of age tale about strong women fighting for what is right and the evil that might be lurking in those closest to you. It’s a super fun read and a worthy edition to the evolving canon of Bardugo. I’m glad I finally got around to reading it.

Bonfire

TW Sexual exploitation/revenge porn

It has been ten years since Abby Williams left home and scrubbed away all evidence of her small-town roots. Now working as an environmental lawyer in Chicago, she has a thriving career, a modern apartment, and her pick of meaningless one-night stands.

But when a new case takes her back home to Barrens, Indiana, the life Abby painstakingly created begins to crack. Tasked with investigating Optimal Plastics, the town’s economic heart, she begins to find strange connections to a decade-old scandal involving the popular Kaycee Mitchell and her friends – just before Kaycee disappeared for good.

As Abby tried desperately to find out what happened to Kaycee, troubling memories begin to resurface and she starts to doubt her own observations. And when she unearths an even more disturbing secret, her search threatens the reputations, and lives, of the community, and risks exposing a darkness that may consume her.

With tantalising twists, slow-burning suspense, and a remote, rural town of five claustrophobic miles, Bonfire is a dark exploration of what can happen when your past and present collide.

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Bonfire by Krysten Ritter – actor, writer, dog owner and knitter extraordinaire – is a hair-raising, sickening, intriguing, dark and compulsively readable thriller. Consumed with corporate crime, sexual exploitation, abuse and cover ups, it makes for a deeply unsettling and memorable debut. While I was reading it I found myself thinking… So Krysten gets to be good at everything?  The worst part is I couldn’t even resent her for it. I was enjoying myself too much.

There is a lot to unpick in Bonfire. The mystery is enthralling and wide ranging. Our MC, Abby’s home town of Barrens is all but owned by a plastics corporation called Optimal. Though Abby left Barrens when she graduated high school and vowed never to return, the spectre of the place and, particularly, the ominous role that Optimal played within it had never truly released its grip on her. During her final year of high school, three girls in her class got sick. It started with the school’s it girl – and Abby’s primary tormentor – Kaycee Mitchell one day collapsing and having a seizure during a school assembly. Then the sickness spread through all of her friends. After a few weeks of fear and madness the girls all said they were faking, and shortly after that, Kaycee Mitchell disappeared for good. But Abby saw Kaycee’s sickness, and she never bought the idea that it could possibly be a lie. Abby’s theory was always that the sickness that overtook her high school was connected to Optimal somehow, and ten years later, she’s finally come home to prove it.

Unsurprisingly, this turns out to be easier said than done. Optimal has infiltrated the lifeblood of the town, not only providing the main source of employment, but funding for local schools and infrastructure. It’s hard to find anyone to speak against the company, and impossible to coax anyone to speak about what happened to Kaycee Mitchell all those years ago. The town only wants to forget – but Abby Williams refuses to let them.

One determined woman against a for-sure evil corporation determined to uncover the truth about a years old mystery by itself would have had me sold, but Bonfire, as it turns out, is about a lot more than that.

Abby’s relationship with Barrens is a complicated one. She was severely bullied throughout high school, and the torment didn’t end when she went home. Her conservative Christian father only brought violence and shame into her life, and his behaviour worsened after her mother passed away at the end of a lengthy and gruelling battle with cancer. Her childhood and teen years were characterised by loneliness, anger and grief and hard as she has tried – she has built a successful life as a lawyer in Chicago – she has been unable to let go of any of those feelings. Throughout the course of the novel they take over completely and ultimately they fuel her quest for the truth. Who could be more determined to uplift the voiceless than someone who spent years trapped herself?

There really is nothing better than wrapping up warm on a cold winter night, pouring yourself a cup of tea – or wine, depending on your inclinations – and immersing yourself in a thriller. I can think of none better than the claustrophobic, intriguing and disquieting world Ritter has created.

Moxie

Look who’s BACK.

(me).

Happy 2018!

TW sexual assault, harassment

Vivian Carter is fed up. Fed up with sexist dress codes. Fed up with gross comments from guys during class. Fed up with her high school teachers who let it happen! But most of all, Viv is fed up with always following the rules.

Viv’s mum was a punk rock Riot Grrrl, inspiring Viv to create Moxie, a feminist zine that she distributes anonymously to her class mates. She’s just blowing off steam, but other girls respond and begin to spread the Moxie message: Moxie girls fight back!

And before Viv knows it, she has started a girl revolution.

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Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu is a delightful but fierce feminist call to arms for teenage girls everywhere. I loved it. It reminded me of being sixteen and reading The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks for the first time. Like it was formative, somehow.

Much like Frankie, in Viv we meet a girl who is torn between desperately wanting to fit in, and dying to disrupt the status quo. She attends what might actually be the Worst High School Ever (reading this book made me weirdly grateful for my own high school for the first time. Growing up in a place where teachers included feminist and gender theory in nearly everything and where posters that said things like ‘Some people are gay. Get over it.’ hung in hallways and classrooms was something I for sure took for granted as the norm at the time). Her school is completely ruled by the boys’ football team. The boys on the team are allowed to behave with impunity – whether they harass and bully girls or defy school rules, their actions never seem to come with any consequences. It doesn’t help that the captain’s dad also happens to be the principal.

All of this is to say that the patriarchy is in operation in full force in Viv’s school. When girls speak in class boys often respond with ‘make me a sandwich’, and should the girl stand up for herself it is often she who is punished for her ‘bad behaviour’. Similarly, girls are targeted by the school for dress code violations (which sometimes boil down to simply: having breasts), while boys are allowed to come to school wearing shirts bearing sexist slogans with no repercussions.

There was so much to love in the multiple feminist awakenings that happen in this book. For Viv, creating Moxie came from the values she’d grown up around but suppressed because, in the words of Bridget Jones, there is nothing quite so unattractive as loud feminist ranting. Seeing the combined forces of her own brewing anger and her friendship with Lucy, a new girl at the school and loud and proud feminist push Viv out of the teenage girl zone of wanting to be liked and into feminist activism – albeit secret feminist activism – made me so god damn happy.

There was something deeply authentic about the various reactions to the brewing feminist activism at Viv’s high school. One of the most potent storylines for me was how Viv’s best friend Claudia responded to the cause. Claudia is not into it. She feels weird about taking on the boys, and alienated from her best friend who has suddenly embraced a cause, and a new friendship that she doesn’t understand. It’d be really easy to hate Claudia, but Mathieu’s skillful storytelling uses her journey to illustrate the resistance to the idea of feminism that so many girls experience – the but I like men group, if you like.

While Moxie wasn’t perfect – I don’t think the perfect feminist novel exists – Mathieu did a really fantastic job of introducing the concepts of feminism to a teen audience. While she doesn’t expand on it as much as I would have liked, she introduces the concept of intersectional feminism – when Moxie first starts, Keira, a black girl in Viv’s class asks her whether or not it’s just a white girl thing, and it is mentioned on several occasions that the school has a race issue – though it doesn’t really go into it in a particularly deep or interesting way. In a book about a white girl though, the concept of intersectionality is present and something she and the other women in her life – at one point her mother criticises the overwhelming whiteness of the Riot Grrrls – are conscious of and learning about, so my final impression of the book was an inclusive and positive one. Also there’s a feminist reading list in the author’s note, for which Jennifer receives full points from me.

This was one of my favourite YA reads of 2017. I’ve never read a Jennifer Mathieu book before, but I intend to read all of them now.