The Walls Around Us

The Walls Around Us is creepy, unapologetic, vengeful, sad and full of longing. It’s a great way to pass a lazy summer evening alone.

Violet is a ballet dancer. Her best friend Ori is dead, and it’s Violet’s fault. Ori died because of what happened in the smoking tunnel. If it weren’t for that awful day, Ori would never have been sent to the juvenile detention centre in the first place. She’d still be alive.

Amber is locked in Aurora Hills Juvenile detention centre indefinitely. She was sentenced for the murder of her step-father. Most of the other girls in the centre believe Amber to be innocent.

the walls around usAmber just got a new cell mate, Orianna. Orianna is different from the others, from Amber herself.

The Walls Around Us, by Nova Ren Suma is a ghost story. It deals in hauntings by the dead and by the consequences of actions. It’s full of unreliable narrators.

I love unreliable narrators.

The Walls Around Us is a book about guilt and innocence. It’s about girls who convince themselves of innocence, despite the obviousness of guilt. It’s about what it is to be perceived as innocent while guilty at heart.

It shows what destruction the presumption of guilt wreaks on the lives of the truly innocent.

The prose intrigues. Reading Violet, we are forced to unravel her lies, to view her from a distance even as we experience the workings of her mind. The girl is crazy. Nothing about her is likeable.

I loved every second of her.

It takes real talent to attach an audience to a character who is heartless, controlling, manipulative and selfish, but Nova Ren Suma does it seemingly effortlessly. A less delicate hand would have made her character over the top, but Suma has written her in such a way as to make her utterly believable. She’s an unassuming sociopathic ballet dancer, and I had great fun being disgusted by her.

The scenes taking place in the prison, from Amber’s point of view, were also wonderful. Each line echoed with the girl’s loneliness and anger and grim acceptance of the present. I really enjoyed the collective voice often used during Amber’s sections of the book, as if Aurora Hills were a character of itself. It makes sense, the building looms large in book both when it is full and empty.

There were times however, particularly toward the end, where I found events and revelations a little confusing. I also find reading books like this, where from the get-go we know that a character has died, a little difficult to read, as I’m so preoccupied by the ending that I find myself less focussed on the present. Even before I finished, I found myself thinking that such a layered novel would probably seriously benefit from some rereading.

The Walls Around Us is creepy, unapologetic, vengeful, sad and full of longing. It’s a great way to pass a lazy summer evening alone.

Rereading The Princess Diaries #2

Mia Thermopolis recently found out she’s the heir to the throne of a small principality in Europe called Genovia. And this isn’t her only problem.

Mia Thermopolis recently found out she’s the heir to the throne of a small principality in Europe called Genovia. And this isn’t her only problem.

She has to take princess lessons with her Grandmere, who’s primary hobby seems to be the torture of young princesses. Her mother is having her algebra teacher’s baby. And she’s in love her best friend, Lilly Moscovitz’s brother, Michael.

In this book, Mia has to deal with her Grandmere planning her mother’s wedding to her algebra teacher, Mr Gianini, without her mother’s permission. Helen Thermopolis doesn’t do anything that she doesn’t want to. Mia is convinced the whole thing is going to be a disaster. Her dad claims he has the situation under control, but she isn’t so sure.

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In addition to all this, Mia has started to receive anonymous love letters. She dares to hope that they might be from Michael, Lilly’s brother who she has been in love with since forever. But her admirer – to Mia’s extreme frustration – will not reveal their identity!

All Mia really wants is her relative anonymity back, but after her first ever TV interview she is dealing with more attention than ever. She’s uncomfortable and she often says stupid things – which down to her newfound princess status, are heard by more people than ever. She has to get through the awkward process of growing up under the scrutiny of New York celebrity culture.

Mia’s Best Moments

– When she freaks out and throws away all of the food in their apartment that could potentially be unhealthy to her mother’s developing foetus. Also when she tells her mother not to have ice cubes in her drinks – they potentially contain harmful parasites – for the same reason.

– When the Duchess of York and Catherine Zeta Jones help her adapt her bridesmaid outfit into a Halloween costume so she can go to The Rocky Horror Picture Show with her friends.

– When she accidentally tells the world her mum is pregnant with her algebra teacher’s baby on television.

– Anything involving Mia, Lilly and Lilly’s foot fetishist stalker, Norman.

Michael’s Best Moment

‘… Michael, who ended up standing beside me, waiting for his turn to get into the car, went, ‘What I meant to say before, Mia, was that you look… you look really…’

I blinked up at him in the pink and blue light from the neon Round the Clock sign in the window behind us. It’s amazing, even bathed in pink and blue neon, with fake intestines hanging out of his shirt, Michael still looked totally –

‘You look really nice in that dress,’ he said, all in a rush.’

Michael, you slay me.

Nineties Kid Nostalgia

Lilly’s public access TV show, Lilly Tells It Like It Is.

Obviously it wasn’t normal for any of us to have our own television shows, but there is still something nostalgic about a time before Youtube.

The Alchemist

I am preoccupied, right now, with the idea of success. Obviously this has a lot to with my final year of university, during which I was told – on multiple occasions – that I am never going to succeed at the thing that I want to do.

(writing).

A few months ago my school ran a career day called Working with Words. It was a series of lectures with people working in publishing, journalism and radio. I went to a talk about the process of getting published. The first thing that happened was a man from a small publishing house based in the city told us that none of us would ever make a living from writing.

Believe it or not the day only got more discouraging from there.

But it’s not just the whole writing issue that has left me so preoccupied with the notion of success. It’s not just the likelihood of failure the well-meaning people in my life keep reminding me of.

What I eventually realised was happening when I would leave each career event, my heart tying itself in ever more complicated knots in my chest, was that was realising that I didn’t really have a definition in my head for what success even was.

But I was beginning to think it wasn’t the kinds of jobs I was being told it should be. It wasn’t living in London. It wasn’t throwing myself into the strong currents with the competitive people I was surrounded by who did their first internship when they were nine or whatever.

I was not interested in any of that shit.

It’s only been a couple months, but getting out of that environment has given me some much needed headspace. It’s given me the opportunity to think about what I want to do without the influence of the girl behind me in the lunch queue who just can’t wait to tell me about the job she has lined up at Penguin this summer.

The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, is a book about success. It’s a fable about a shepherd boy called Santiago who has a prophetic dream that there is treasure buried for him at the Egyptian Pyramids.

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Spoiler alert: it takes him a while to find it.

Coelho describes the process of success as a literal and spiritual journey. Each part of the literal journey contains a spiritual lesson. It’s based in religious teachings – Coelho is Catholic – but not in such a way as to be alienating to the less religious types. He describes the difficulties that must be overcome in pursuit of success. He describes unlearning your childhood lessons about the inevitability of failure and of going forward fearlessly in the face of discouragement and defeat.

All of my own thoughts on success have led me to one solid, but unfortunately cringe-worthy when articulated conclusion. Following your heart is the way forward, even when it feels like your heart has no clue what it’s doing. The lesson at the centre of The Alchemist is the same. Follow your heart at the world will do what it can to aid you.

Another feeling I took from reading this book – and one that I am self-aware enough to realise is probably unique to my current time of life – is that success doesn’t have to be a burden. There is a quote in the book where it is said that all people eventually come to believe the biggest lie of the world – that eventually everything is determined by fate. And even at my age I have believed that at times. When I’ve been stuck talking with my peers about their publishing internships and the graduate scheme they just got an interview for while nursing my wounds over a rejection from an arts administration placement I didn’t even want, I have found myself thinking that it’s already over –  that I’m already this massive failure when I haven’t even started yet.

To remember that there is no fated outcome and everything is subject to change is a good attitude to take going forward, I think.

The Lively Show

In the months since I have been gearing up to finish university, every day I have wavered between panicked planning, extreme pessimism and shy optimism. Listening to The Lively Show helps feed the shy optimist in me.

At the moment I’m basically obsessed with self-development. When I look into the future, the only thing I see is a big old question mark, but around that are small bubbles of definite wants. Happiness. Travel. Stories.

In the months since I have been gearing up to finish university, every day I have wavered between panicked planning, extreme pessimism and shy optimism. Listening to The Lively Show helps feed the shy optimist in me.

the lively show

Jess Lively is all about living with intention. If we design our lives around values based intentions, she believes, everything good we want will follow. An intention is a way to live your life rather than a goal. It isn’t something you finish so much as something that you cultivate.

The Lively Show is a variety of interviews, mostly with people running their own businesses, about how they gain enrichment and self-knowledge from everything that they do. She talks to people who have written other self-help techniques, started fashion blogs or moved to New Orleans because they needed a new adventure.

This blog pretty much exists because of The Lively Show. It is a remarkable motivator.

As a piece of advice to recent graduates – or anyone lost in the unknown future sea – I would recommend listening to shows like this. People like Jess Lively are all about owning your own existence. When I listen to the show I feel like I am taking back a tiny bit of control over my life.

All the shows so far are available on itunes. They are all wonderful and worth a listen, but here are my top 5:

5. Overcoming death, debt and depression with Hal Elrod

This podcast covers the remarkable story of Hal Elrod, author of self-help book The Miracle Morning. He’s all about how to make the most out of your day. Good motivation for creative types.

4. Accepting and embracing our talents with Brooke White

Brooke White is from Girls with Glasses and American Idol. In this podcast she discusses the massive insecurities she has suffered while trying to cultivate her art. She talks about how to deal with the constant: but what if I suck?! Throughout this entire show I was just like she gets me!

3. Facing fears and slowing down with Joy Wilson

I love Joy the Baker. Who wouldn’t? The story of how her blog came to be is a great motivator. Plus she moved to New Orleans for a better life which is a dream I go to in my head from time to time.

2. The surprisingly simply truth about extraordinary results with Jay Papasan

This episode is all about building up your 10,000 hours. For anyone who doesn’t know, that’s supposed to be the amount of time it takes to cultivate a creative skill. Again, a wonderful one for motivation, especially for when you start to feel like producing your art is like shouting into a void.

1. The art of relaxation and creativity with Jen Gotch

Jen is the creator of Ban.Do, beautiful accessories I can’t afford. Her story is fascinating. She bounced around a lot before she eventually found what she loved to do. This again is a really great listen for anyone feeling a little lost. It gave me that light at the end of the tunnel sensation.

…And there are so many more! The Lively Show is definitely qualifies for binge listening. I quite often have it on when I am getting ready in the morning. It makes for a very positive start to my day!

Isla and the Happily Ever After

Reading Isla and the Happily Ever After was kind of like finding out about a friendly acquaintance’s right-wing proclivities. I try to rationalise that this shouldn’t affect our relationship, but it kind of does anyway.

I think that sometimes you’re just not compatible with a book. I think that, sometimes, even if the writing is good and by someone you have previously liked, it is possible to read something and feel utterly grossed out. I have this experience whenever someone who seems nice reveals they actually voted Conservative.

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Reading Isla and the Happily Ever After was kind of like finding out about a friendly acquaintance’s right-wing proclivities. I try to rationalise that this shouldn’t affect our relationship, but it kind of does anyway.

Isla and the Happily Ever After spans the beginnings of Isla’s relationship with Josh, a boy she has had a crush on for three years. It takes place in the familiar grounds of Stephanie Perkins’ Paris School for Loaded Americans. Shortly after the beginning of their relationship, Isla and Josh have to figure out how to proceed after being forcibly separated by circumstance.

I didn’t dislike everything about this book. Initially I liked Isla. I liked that she was shy and insecure, but had this quiet confidence in herself, her friendships. Her sex life. She seemed acutely aware of the difference between the way she was viewed by her peers and the way that she saw herself. Who hasn’t experienced that? Particularly when you’re young, people have a habit of telling you what you are, which for some of us doesn’t quite fit. It’s uncomfortable. Isla got that, and I appreciated it.

I also tried to appreciate Kurt. It’s really rare to see characters in YA (in general!) with disabilities. I know this because my brother has high functioning autism and a while ago in a bookshop he asked the guy at the counter if he sold any books about people like him. Spoiler alert: he did not (although to be fair, I do accept that most people don’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of autistic characters in literature. At least not one that extends beyond The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time). So when I picked up on what she was doing with Kurt with the hand flapping and the blunt reasoning, I was initially kind of impressed.

Initially.

Because not long after Josh’s entrance into the book, Kurt started to feel like kind of a placeholder. There were long sections of the book where he dropped out of the narrative altogether. I don’t necessarily feel that using minorities as incidentals in stories is helpful. It isn’t telling a new story so much as reinforcing a boring, outdated old one: you are easy to ignore.

Yeah. Kurt’s storyline pretty much sucked for me.

His absence for the majority of the book mostly had to do with Isla’s stunning self-absorption. Throughout, Isla never showed interest in anything outside of her own drama. There’s this one scene where she’s home for thanksgiving and seeing her older sister, Gen for the first time since the summer, and Isla doesn’t even ask how she’s been. When Gen shares that she has just broken up with her girlfriend, Isla barely even acknowledges her. While she’s off with Josh, Kurt makes other friends and Isla says herself that she hadn’t even noticed the additions to his life. She says this with no acknowledgement of the fact that this is entirely down to her own totally self involved behaviour.

Isla complains several times as well throughout that she doesn’t have any friends, to which I could only think no wonder. Making friends requires showing interest in other people, something Isla fails at. Epically.

I kept finding myself wanting more from Isla. I wanted her to want something in life other than Josh. I wanted a sense of her desire to go to Dartmouth (a college near where Josh was planning on going, and not her original plan) even when Josh wasn’t in the picture, but I never did. Does anyone else remember when Jessica Darling first went to Columbia? I guess I wanted to see some of that enthusiasm for the future in Isla. Enthusiasm that wasn’t just about Josh. I’m all about a bit of independence, and I didn’t like the way that, by the end, Isla’s identity and future was entirely wrapped around Josh. At eighteen years old it doesn’t seem healthy.

Speaking of too young – Anna and St Clair getting engaged. I’m not even going to touch that because the whole thing was too gross.

I know that a lot of people loved this book. But I could not connect with Isla at all. It occurred to me that perhaps I’m just a little too old? I have found, and I know a lot of my friends share this experience, that the older I get the less tolerance I have for people who thrive off of their own drama.

I wanted a conclusion where Isla addressed her own shitty behaviour, but that never happened. Reading the book was frustrating experience for me.

Rereading The Princess Diaries #1

The Princess Diaries were the books of my teens. Mia was my fictional best friend. She was a tall, nerdy worrier fighting a continual battle with her hair. When I was fourteen this was exactly like me. Even now I’m 22, me and Mia are still on the same page*.

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The Princess Diaries #1 sees us introduced to Mia through the journal her mother has given her to work out her anxieties in. Her anxieties are as follows:

  • She’s flat chested.
  • She’s failing algebra.
  • Her mom has just started dating the algebra teacher who’s class she’s failing.
  • Josh Richter doesn’t even know she exists.

And that’s before she even finds out about the whole princess thing. Then on top of that there are princess lessons with her heinous Grandmere, who’s determined to make her life a total misery under the guise of teaching her how not to cause an international incident. And there’s keeping the whole princess thing a secret from her best friend Lilly Moscovitz, who is a pretty passionate anti-royalist and teenaged genius. Lilly and her brother, Michael are both teenaged geniuses, actually.

This book came out in 2000. I remember my mum picking it up and reading the part where Lilly talks about how she would only have sex with a guy if he was wearing at least two condoms (younger readers: don’t do this!!) and being slightly horrified that her nine year old was reading them (though in my defence they were in the bookshelf at my primary school).

I was probably thirteen or fourteen when these books became the great comfort and influence they have been in my life.

One of the biggest takeaways from this book (and the whole series, actually) is the sense that ultimately, a person can deal with most of what is thrown at them. Mia deals with learning that when she grows up she will have to rule over the country of Genovia. She deals with her terrifying Grandmere. She deals with everyone finding out that she’s a princess, and the bodyguard and press scrutiny that come with that.

Don’t get me wrong – the girl is freaking out plenty – but there is never a moment where something happens that she can’t cope with. Even when she feels like she isn’t, she is.

Nostalgia for the Nineties kids

– Dial-up internet is a big presence in this book. Mia is always having to go online and ask Lilly’s brother Michael to go offline so that she can call her. Remember when you couldn’t have the phone and the internet at the same time?

– Britney Spears comes up a few times.  I’d forgotten what a looming presence she was in my childhood. It makes me think of the days before we had Taylor and realise how much better things are now.

*Yes, that is a book pun thank you.

Sequel Watch: The Diviners

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The second book in The Diviners series comes out soon. With this in mind, it seemed like The Diviners #1 was worth a re-read. I absolutely love Libba Bray. I think she writes fascinating female characters who are deeply engaged with the frustrations, limitations and possibilities of whichever time period she has chosen to write in. She constructs immersive worlds that weave easily through fantasy and reality. (Go read her entire back catalogue and come back to this review when you’re done)

the diviners

An evil force has sprung up in New York. Heinous murders are committed and bodies missing limbs are left covered in mysterious symbols. Meanwhile a young flapper run wild – Evie O’Neill – is banished by her parents from Ohio to stay with her uncle at his Museum of the Creepy Crawlies (occult studies, etc) in New York as a punishment for her behaviour. Her parents believe that she has been spreading slanderous rumours about a local young man, but Evie knows everything she claimed is true. When Evie holds an object and concentrates, it tells her its owner’s secrets.

Life starts for Evie once she arrives in New York. She’s clever, a drama queen and seeking fun over all else. She wants to dive headfirst into all that life can offer her, so New York is the best thing that could have happened. I loved getting to know Evie. She’s complicated. Her brother, James died during the First World War and her family have never recovered from his loss. She’s often torn between being the confident, dramatic, snarky personality that she is and being the good, quiet girl she knows that the people around her would prefer. She can be selfish, and some of her actions in the book made me cringe as a result.

She wants to be famous and is at times ruthless in the pursuit of that goal. She strikes up a very ill-advised deal with a journalist. She knows how to take advantage of a situation.

Horrifying occult-style murders happening across the city? An opportunity to get more tourists into the museum. If that opportunity also means getting herself in the papers? All the better.

There is a real sense of the abandonment of the values of the previous generation running throughout the book. Theta, a young dancer has run to New York away from her abusive husband. She’s moved in with her best friend, Henry (he’s her brother, as far as the landlord is concerned), a piano player and gay. Memphis has turned away from the church he was brought up in because he can’t see the relevance of it in his life. He writes poetry about the future he wishes to have.

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Libba Bray writes about navigating a world ruined by the very people who were supposed to save it: A world in which traditional values are seemingly meaningless in the aftermath of the grief and loss of the First World War; where you never know when the rug is going to be pulled out from under you so you may as well dance on it. A world in which the present can barely stand under the weight of its own history – and in fact may be destroyed by it. Evie and co. must fight the forces of evil threatening to take over the city while negotiating their own pre-ordained fates. I can’t wait for the sequel.