Roar

Have you ever imagined a different life? Have you ever stood at a crossroads undecided? Have you ever had a moment when you wanted to roar?

The women in these startlingly original stories are all of us: the women who befriend us, the women who encourage us, the women who make us brave. From The Woman Who Slowly Disappeared to The Woman Who Was Kept on the Shelf and The Woman Who Returned and Exchanged Her Husband, discover 30 very different women. Each discovers her strength; each realizes she holds the power to make a change.

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Roar, Cecelia Ahern’s short story offering is a selection of feminist tales that aim to explore the pressures, prejudices, joys and maddening frustrations of women’s lives. The stories weave magical realism into the modern day pressures of motherhood, marriage and aging in a way that was effective if occasionally a little contrived.

Overall, I found Roar to be a pretty mixed bag. I enjoy magical realism, but Ahern’s on the nose use of metaphor at times came across a little heavy handed. The first story in the collection, The Woman Who Slowly Disappeared sees a middle aged woman gradually vanish into nothing – making the point that women in middle age and beyond are ignored and maligned in society (particularly noticeably in the UK, where it’s generally accepted that women aren’t allowed to be on TV anymore once they hit 50). In The Woman Who Wore Pink, gender roles are enforced by a literal Gender Police that sees men and women fined and even imprisoned when they don’t adhere to the roles society has laid out for them. I’m not arguing her point, but there was a layer of subtlety missing in the collection that made me feel like she wasn’t so much showing me her opinion as bashing me over the head with it.

While overall I found this heavy handedness to be disconcerting, there were times when she used it to amusing and deeply satisfying effect. The Woman Who Guarded Gonads, about a world in which men have to appeal to a room of women to be allowed a vasectomy flips the narrative of bodily autonomy on its head and has men held to the same standards women have struggled against since forever. Lines like “And what about the lack of thought for the sperm? Why deny your sperm the right to life?” highlight the utter ridiculousness of the ‘pro-life’ position in a way that was as funny as it was cathartic.

What has left me so on the fence about this collection however was one particular story that left a bad taste in my mouth. The Woman Who Blew Away is the story of a millennial influencer who is obsessed with her Instagram likes, spends hours on her makeup, has plastic surgery and takes lots of selfies who one day “became so light, her head filled with too much nothing, she blew away”. This story was such an outlier – especially in such an overtly feminist collection – built on stereotypes, assumptions and the coding of things typically ‘feminine’ as stupid. In a book packed with complexly imagined women fighting guilt, insecurity and harassment this story of oh she likes makeup and cares about social media so therefore she must be stupid was a slap in the face. It felt very Rashida Jones #stopactinglikewhores level tone deaf and cast a bit of a shadow over the rest of the collection for me – and perhaps extinguished any patience I had kept for the aspects of Ahern’s writing that weren’t working for me.

While it definitely had some triumphant moments, overall Roar was let down by obvious metaphors and Ahern’s decision to give some women complexity and nuance while removing it from others.  It felt very feminism 101, which while still a good thing in itself, didn’t really say anything that was new to me.

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Strange The Dreamer

TW: Rape

Since he was five years old, Lazlo Strange has been obsessed with the mythical lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to go in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself – in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors – and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever.

What happened in Weep to cut it off from the rest of the world? What did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of a god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?

The answers await within Weep. But so do many of more mysteries – including the blue-skinned goddess who visits Lazlo’s dreams…

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Strange The Dreamer by Laini Taylor took me a full month to read, but my slow pace, for once, wasn’t because of a slump; I was simply savouring every second. It’s a well established fact at this point that nobody writes quite like Laini – magic dust coats every page as she crafts odd and enchanting worlds one can’t help but fall into.

“Lazlo felt as though the top of his head were open and the universe had dropped a lit match in. He understood in that moment that he was smaller than he had ever known, and the realm of the unknowable was bigger. So much bigger. Because there could be no question:

That which cast Weep in shadow was not of this world.”

Strange The Dreamer is about two young people trapped within small worlds they are absolutely desperate to escape from: Lazlo “The Dreamer” Strange, formerly monk-in-training now librarian and completely obsessed with finding the lost city of Weep; and Sarai, spawn of long murdered Gods, officially but not actually dead herself, doomed to spend her entire existence hiding in a ruined citadel floating above Weep from humans who would kill her on sight. She has blue skin, so flying under the radar isn’t really an option.

The novel switched effectively between Lazlo’s narrative and Sarai’s, on the ground in Weep and above it inside the citadel while establishing the history of horror suffered by the inhabitants of both.

Far from the magical place of opportunity he had envisioned, Lazlo finds the city crumbling beneath the weight of its painful, bloody history. The central tension of the novel on both sides – Lazlo and the people of Weep and Sarai and the Godspawn of the citadel – is how to move forward. Both groups are defined by the atrocities of the other. For the humans living down in Weep it’s the centuries spent as slaves to the Gods, disappeared, killed and raped at will before being cast back down to Earth when the Gods were finished with them. For the Godspawn, it’s the massacre of the Gods – and most of the Gods’ children – by the humans. Minya, one of the surviving Godspawn is so trapped by the trauma of that day she simply never grew up – she is stuck as the six-year-old girl she was on the day the Gods and their babies were violently murdered in front of her. Meanwhile the citizens of Weep, years after the murder of the Gods, live in literal shadow – the citadel that was (and unbeknownst to them, still is) the home of the Gods hovers above them, forever blocking out the sun.

Strange The Dreamer is a novel about trauma, and how we deal with it as individuals and societies. For the humans, the only way forward they could conceive of was the complete eradication of the Gods, even the babies, who they refused to imagine could grow into anything other than the monsters that their parents were. Equally, the surviving Godspawn can only see the humans as murderous. Survival means revenge and the eradication of the monstrous other.

Well… mostly. There is a level of exhaustion with violence among certain characters in this book. A hope, small at first but growing, and, I think, contagious that there might be another way. But the other way is buried under so much rubble it’s hard to know if those hopefuls will ever manage to uncover it fully.

Strange The Dreamer is a rich, layered novel that explores the grey areas of life. For every character that seems on the face of it villainous, there is a level of complexity within them that prevents the reader from seeing them as purely monstrous (apart from maybe Drave. It’s hard to feel any real sympathy for that guy). The world is magical, curious and tragic in all the ways we have come to expect from Taylor’s work, and the characters – even those we can’t help but dislike – engaging. While very long, the book keeps you hooked throughout – though I could have done without Lazlo and Sarai’s long shared dream sequence – until the shock ending that will have you desperate for book two.

I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Top 5 reads of 2018

Boiling down my favourite books of the year to a list of only five was a difficult task. While 2018 was, in many ways, an odd reading year for me (I read way less than I have in years. I was always reading something, but it took me a lot longer to finish books than it used to), I did get around to picking up several absolute stunners, so choosing the top five of a pretty spectacular bunch was not an easy thing to do.

But I love an end-of-year round up, so I struggled through.

5 To Kill a Kingdom – Alexandra Christo

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This hate-to-love adventure between a siren and heir to the crown of the sea and siren-hunter and heir to the crown of the land was thrilling, silly and a much-needed distraction during a very stressful few weeks. Expect murder, romance and pirates – all the good stuff, basically.

4 The Belles – Dhonielle Clayton

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In a world in which beauty equals power, you might believe as the only truly beautiful people in the land, the Belles would be running the show – but instead they are little more than slaves, sold to royals desperate for a slice of the beauty the Belles are born with. I ADORED this dystopic story of a group of women groomed their entire lives for royal servitude growing to realise all is very much not as it seems. Bonus points for having a Stern Man as a love interest. I love me a Stern Man and I can’t wait to watch Camellia run rings around him in book two.

3 Redefining Realness – Janet Mock

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Picking my favourite memoir of the year was a painful task, but when I got really honest with myself I found that the title could only ever belong to Janet. In her gorgeous and unique prose, Janet describes in searing detail growing up mixed race, poor and trans in Hawaii. Her story is one of survival and fighting for self-definition that opened up a world I have never experienced first-hand while also really speaking to my personal struggles.

2 An Absolutely Remarkable Thing – Hank Green

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Hank Green’s debut novel was one of my most anticipated of the year and it did not disappoint. A heart-wrenching, funny and cringe-inducing portrait of our brand-influenced, perpetually online times, it tells the tale of what happens when a person sacrifices their sense of self (and safety) for their brand. Also, robots.

1 Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

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This funny, bleak, brutal, heart-breaking and utterly life-affirming novel about abuse, isolation and, eventually, finding a way to re-engage with the world was the absolute highlight of my reading year. If you’ve ever felt alone in the world (so, everyone), you should read this book. Eleanor’s story proves without a shadow of a doubt that there is something better for everyone, if only you can find the strength to reach for it.

Honourable mentions (because I am a cheat)

All The Single Ladies – Rebecca Traister

Never World Wake – Marisha Pessl

No One Tells You This – Glynnis Macnicol

Love, Hate and Other Filters – Samira Ahmed

Children of Blood and Bone – Tomi Adeyemi

Vanishing Twins

For as long as she can remember, Leah has had the mysterious feeling that she’s been searching for a twin – that she should be part of an intimate pair. It begins with dance partners as she studies ballet growing up; continues with her attractions to girlfriends in college; and leads her, finally, to Eric, whom she moves across the country for and marries. But her steadfast, monogamous relationship leaves her with questions about her sexuality and her identity, so she and her husband decide to try an open marriage.

How does a young couple make room for their individual desires, their evolving selfhoods, and their artistic ambitions while building a life together? Can they pursue other sexual partners, even live in separate cities, and keep their original passionate bond alive? Vanishing Twins looks for answers in psychology, science, pop culture, art, architecture, Greek mythology, dance and language to create a lucid, suspenseful portrait of a woman testing the limits and fluidities of love.

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Vanishing Twins: A Marriage, Leah Dieterich’s deliciously written and intimate memoir is consumed with questions of identity, love, queerness and establishment of self – in other words, all of the good stuff.

Dieterich approaches the tension between her identity and her relationship through the metaphor of Vanishing Twin Syndrome – a medical phenomenon in which one twin “consumes” the other in the womb. Dieterich sees herself as the remaining twin, arrived into the world as one half of an as yet unfulfilled pair, charged with searching the world for one who mirrors her perfectly.

She finds it in Eric, marries young and readies herself to live her life in perfect twin-ship with him. Eric is her life, her ambition and the centre of her universe – they agree on everything (turns out it’s not so hard if you are really determined), inspire each other every day and appear to be moving in a perfectly symmetrical trajectory.

Until, suddenly, they’re not.

For Dieterich, the problem of the vanishing twin is constant and evolving. When she finds her twin-ship, creates a “womb-like” life for herself and Eric where all that exists is each other, she risks herself becoming the twin that is consumed.

It’s like we’re the same person. We finish each other’s sentences. This is what we’ve been taught to desire and expect of love. But there’s a question underneath that’s never addressed: once you find someone to finish your sentences, do you stop finishing them for yourself?”

Dieterich spent so much of her young life looking for her “twin”, she forgot to look for herself. In her search she found herself in intense relationships with her female friends – friendships where lines blurred, became sexually charged. She doesn’t want to lose Eric, but as she grows she finds herself desperate to explore her sexuality.

They make the decision together to open up the marriage to other sexual partners. Leah starts a long distance relationship with an artist, Elena, while Eric moves across the country to pursue his artistic career. In their non-monogamy, and subsequently making the choice to no longer live together, both find that they can establish their identities in a way that seemed impossible in their monogamous state. In spending time apart, and with others, it opens up a sense of self independent of the other that neither had had – not since they had been in a relationship, and perhaps ever.

It’s painful and complicated. You question, along with Dieterich, whether the relationship can possibly survive, if independence and monogamy are mutually exclusive states, what her queer identity means when she’s in a relationship with a man and how it can be expressed (and the tension that expression creates).

We are not supposed to live our lives in exclusive pairs. That’s not to say I think monogamy doesn’t work, but that our entire lives can’t, and shouldn’t, be built around one person. What Deiterich discovers through her sexual relationship with Elena, but also her creative partnership with her work colleague, Ethan, is that one person can’t fulfil all of her needs. With Elena she explores her queerness and her art, with Ethan she creates a successful working and creative partnership, and with Eric she grows and changes – pulling apart and drawing together but, ultimately, never letting go.

Through Vanishing Twins, Dieterich explores identity as not just one thing, but a tapestry of elements that evolve, switch and move over time. And that’s okay. That’s as it should be.

November favourites

Don’t even talk to me about where 2018 went. Somehow, it is time for some November favourites.

This month I turned 26. I also lost my job. Swings and roundabouts, I guess?

(If you know anybody UK-based hiring for an editorial assistant/feature writer please hit me up. I lost my position because of budget cuts. I’m actually really good at my job. That’s what makes this whole situation so. Fucking. Upsetting.)

Despite the epic low point that is my life right now, I have some very fun stuff coming up in the form of a couple of trips away (booked when I still had a job, OBVIOUSLY. But mostly already paid for, so that’s something, right? Right? …Right?) One to Edinburgh to see the Christmas market and the giant pandas and another to Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of Shakespeare to see… A Christmas Carol.

Both beautiful and two of my favourite places in the world AND great distractions from the gigantic question mark that now hangs over my future.

(Be thankful I skipped blogging last week. If this seems bleak, you shoulda tried talking to me then. Except you could not have, because I was in my bed of despair, not sleeping because worry)

A selection of if-my-heart-doesn’t-seem-in-it-that’s-because-it’s-not favourites:

Oatly Oat Drink Barista Edition

oatlyI switched away from dairy milk a couple years ago in an effort to be more environmentally friendly (I’m not vegan, but I figure plant milk on my cereal gives me free reign to eat as much cheese as I want to come the weekend with minimal guilt) and have been an almond milk convert for a while now. Recently however (I’ll be honest, because of The Good Place) I learned that almond milk really isn’t all that great for the environment itself, so I have switched again to oat milk. Specifically Oatly’s Barista Edition and it is a Game Changer. It is 100% creamy goodness that I am so far enjoying far more than I ever liked almond milk. Or regular milk, honestly. It’s amazing in coffee, great in tea and really delicious over your Cheerios – the first plant milk I have felt is tasty in all three.

To read:

This heart breaking, soul crushing Bryan Mealer piece in The Guardian about the so called ‘immigrant caravan’ heading toward the US across Central America. It is a compassionate, frustrating and painful account of humanity fighting for survival and to have their personhood recognised in a vicious, self-centred media environment. The US doesn’t want to share resources and these people don’t want to die. No one who reads this could possibly be unaffected but I’ll warn you that if you love anybody with a disability or have been in a caring role at any point in your life reading this is going to really hurt, but you should read it anyway.

To Watch: Beyond Bullied

This sweet but, again, pretty heart breaking Soul Pancake series sees epic future adult, Kheris Rogers, who was bullied at school for her dark skin talk to other young people who have gone through bullying about how they came out stronger. Kheris is such a sweet, compassionate little kid and an enigmatic host of this interview series all about compassion winning over ignorance and hate. Some of the episodes are difficult (this one in particular. When I heard this girl’s story I wanted to go to bed forever because what the actual fuck), but they are ultimately uplifting and sweet and a reminder that there is still decency in the world despite OVERWHELMING evidence to the contrary.

That’s about all of the favourite I can muster right now.

Onwards and upwards. Hopefully.

Children of Blood and Bone

Zélie Adebola remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls.

But everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, magi were killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope.

Now Zélie has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must outwit and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good.

Danger lurks in Orïsha, where snow leoponaires prowl and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to control her powers – and her growing feelings for an enemy.

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I’ve owned a copy of Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone for a while now. I put off reading it – it was super long and, as I have mentioned approximately 10,000 times during the life of this blog, I’m not much of a fantasy person. I was worried that, at 525 pages, it wouldn’t hold my attention.

Wtf is wrong with me? Did I not consider Adeyemi’s six figure advance? The movie that was optioned, like, IMMEDIATELY? The entire blogosphere’s ecstatic reaction to this story? 

Once again it was proved to me that I should really listen. Children of Blood and Bone is so good. SO GOOD. So good that, even though, as is standard for me at the moment, it took FOREVER to finish, every time I opened the book I was immediately hooked. The kids on the train, the strange gentleman who keeps asking me out on the bus and the biting cold of waiting around for whatever the next public transportation I was catching fell away. There was only Zélie, Amari, Tzain and Inan and their quest to bring back magic/destroy magic in Orïsha.

In many ways, Children of Blood and Bone is nothing incredibley unique. Even in my limited engagement with the genre I could see all of the hallmark tropes: family betrayal, forbidden love (written to sexy, heart breaking perfection I should add), a magic system I will never completely grasp (I thought I had a handle on who did what but then those cancer guys showed up?!), but the West African setting (Adeyemi is Nigerian-American) – for me, anyway – totally refreshed the narrative.

The richly imagined world of Orïsha utterly captivated me – even as it broke my heart. A shadow of its former self, we enter at a time of immense pain. The evil King Saran stole magic from his people, and murdered any adult magi who might fight him in the process. Left are destroyed families with children who were destined to become magi (but can’t now, cause magic is gone, apparently forever…) who are dealing with the dual grief and sorrow of losing a parent – and witnessing the violence and horror of their deaths – and the loss of the future they had been raised to expect. Add to that the steep taxes expected of these families to further punish them for their previous magical affiliations and you have poverty-struck, grief-ridden people struggling to survive and process their trauma in a world that is hostile to their existence.

Adeyemi says in the afterword of Children of Blood and Bone that she wrote the novel as a way of dealing with her own anger and grief at the violence black people experience in the US at the hands of the police. You see this clearly in Zélie’s story as she navigates the discrimination and structural inequality she suffers as a result of her divîner heritage. In addition to the unimaginable trauma she deals with every day after her mother’s horrific death, she lives in a society where violence (including threats of sexual violence) and sexual harassment are daily possibilities at the hands of the kingdom’s guards. The stocks – prison camp, essentially – are an ever-present threat if her father is unable to continue paying the obscene taxes expected of divîner families. In one of the most striking scenes of the book, Prince Inan, (son of King Saran, alternately the best and the worst. It’s complicated.) after a life of privilege and relative protection is forced to physically feel the weight of Zélie’s pain. He is made to understand, in no uncertain terms, that she is afraid all of the time. In much the same way as Zélie cannot escape King Saran, for people of colour there is no escape, no relief from violence (or the threat of violence) and systemic racism – in the US and elsewhere. There is so much emphasis, particularly in the latter half of the novel about the pain Zélie carries with her and this was such an effective – and completely heart-rending – way of illustrating the psychological cost of structural inequality and violence.

What was so striking about this book though, and what ultimately kept me so engrossed was that in addition to being plot-heavy and deliberately political, Children of Blood and Bone was also populated with complex, emotional and unique characters driving the story ever forward. Adeyemi tells the story through multiple perspectives – again, something I usually dislike but here was executed perfectly – of Zélie, Princess Amari and Prince Inan. Each coming together from very different circumstances (Amari and Inan may be siblings but it’s a long time since they’ve seen eye to eye on anything) their distinct voices and journeys add another level of complexity to this already rich story.

Also – the ships. Good lord. Somehow in amongst the trauma and war and magic there is also sexual tension for miles as these characters crash together before, inevitably, they are torn apart. It’s a war, remember? Nobody gets out unscathed.

All of which is to say… book 2, please, Tomi. The sooner the better. Like, I literally can’t wait much longer. WHY have you done this to me?!

26

I turned 26 on Friday.

It’s been a funny weekend. I’ve had a lovely time with my family and friends celebrating against a backdrop of a lot of important things in my life being totally up in the air – and all the anxiety that comes with that. A couple of people have asked me what I want out of the next year, but I’m at this strange moment where I can’t really make any decisions. Whatever is going to happen will happen, and when it does I have to figure out what to do next.

I do not handle limbo well.

So this morning, as I woke up and once again confronted the anxiety that is ever-present as I go through this odd in-between time, I decided to make a list of things I do know – some of the knowledge I have accumulated during my 26 years.

1 Balance is hard to find and very easy to lose

2 But that’s okay, you always have the option to course-correct

3 Have tampons, always. Even if you don’t wind up needing them you might save someone else’s day

4 Learned behaviours are fucking hard to put down when they stop serving you, but acknowledgement is the first step

5 You are on your own timeline. Yes, this can mean you get to things a little slower than everyone else, but you always get there in the end

6 Hiding at home instead of going out with your friends is rarely the right decision

7  Do the best you can with what you have. Be as environmentally friendly as you can, shop as ethically as you are able and eat as healthily as possible, etc. You get it

8 Talking about all of the things you hate about your body is a conversation that only leads down

9 You’re okay by yourself. Letting other people join you is the part you have to work on

10 Not everyone is out to get you

11 Letting go is hard. Holding onto anger is probably harder in the long run

12 Having angry, one-sided conversations with people in your head leads nowhere

13 This behaviour also leads nowhere

14 When heading out onto the moors, always take one more layer than you think you’ll need (this is a bit specific to where I live but I think the point stands)

15 Always wear sunscreen

16 Always take off your make up at the end of the night

17 Bring snacks – you’re never going to regret it

18 There will be long stretches of time when you feel like a garbage person living in a garbage world with a garbage future. As much as it feels like forever at the time, this feeling will pass. You can survive it

19 Sometimes you will feel so panicked about something you have to do that you’ll become convinced you’re going to die. So far you haven’t, so odds are you probably won’t

20 Always be more patient than you feel

21 The people who failed you made you a resourceful person, and there is beauty in that. Even when it doesn’t feel like it

22 When someone tells you who they are, believe them

23 Parents are humans too

24 It isn’t your responsibility to fix everything

25 Some things can’t be fixed

26 Most lessons you have to learn over and over again