September Wrap-Up

In less than two months, I will be twenty-four. I do not feel good about that number.

(No, I didn’t take ageing into account when I named this blog. But 24 is still young adult, right? Right?!?!)

Ahem. Anyway.

This month I read…

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Hollow City – Ransom Riggs

Feelings: A totally immersive read that might even top its predecessor in imaginative storytelling.

I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith

Feelings: A YA classic that should be read by every girl who has ever sat with a diary and pondered the meaning of her existence.

Lies We Tell Ourselves – Robin Talley

Feelings: A powerful read about desegregation, race and sexuality that I’m sure will be a set text in schools before long.

I also wrote about…

Hay-On-Wye: An Actual, Literal Book Town

The Only Girl on the Gang

Feminist TV Shows

Back to School: a non-fiction TBR

How NOT to be a dick on the internet

Dumb Things Bookworms Do

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Hollow City

September 3, 1940. Ten peculiar children flee an army of deadly monsters. And only one person can help them – but she’s trapped in the body of a bird. The extraordinary journey that began in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children continues as Jacob Portman and his newfound friends journey to London, the peculiar capital of the world. There, they hope to find a cure for their beloved headmistress, Miss Peregrine. But in this war-torn city, hideous surprises lurk around every corner. And before Jacob can deliver the peculiar children to safety, he must make an important decision about his love for Emma Bloom. Like its predecessor, this second novel in the Peculiar Children series blends thrilling fantasy with vintage photography to create a one-of-a-kind reading experience.

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I went into Hollow City, the second book in Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series with some trepidation – second book syndrome is real, people – but my nerves were totally unwarranted. Hollow City is so freaking good.

Riggs uses the sequel to build on the peculiar world he introduced in Miss Peregrine #1, creating an atmosphere so richly imagined that to start reading it was to leave my own life altogether. There wasn’t a single occasion on picking this book up that I wasn’t instantly sucked into the drama playing out in its pages. And I am a pretty distractible person, so this was a big deal. I have talked before about how the Harry Potter books have this specific ‘feeling’ for me. There is a piece of me that I can access in the Harry Potter books that I don’t usually, even though I read a ton. Reading Hollow City was the closest I have come to getting that feeling outside of the wizarding world. It is an immersive experience.

This is in part because the novel consists largely of the peculiar children lurching from one disaster to another. Riggs doesn’t give us much in the way of breathing time before thrusting the children in the way of the next life threatening event, whether that was the Hollows, gypsies or running through London during a World War Two bombing. And, to throw another curveball their way, for the first time in years, the children are coping with all of this relatively alone. Miss Peregrine, after the attack of the Wights, is unable to revert to human form. With their matriarch and protector trapped as a bird, the children are for the first time leaderless. With no safe time loop to live in, no Ymbryne to care for them and evil forces getting ever closer, the situation is only set to get bleaker (which of course, it does).

After being initially put off by the Miss Peregrine problem (they went through so much to save her! How could Ransom Riggs do this?!?!?!), it was actually quite relieving watching the children operate without her. Characters who were somewhat side-lined (Olive and Bronwyn I LOVE YOU) in the first novel were allowed to come into their own. They’re forced into taking risks that Miss Peregrine would never have allowed them, and in doing that, their characters are finally allowed to develop. Which, after literally living the same day over and over for eighty-odd years, is a pretty big deal.

It was particularly interesting to me, toward the end of the novel, when the children are somewhat under protection again (not for long though….), how something about it felt… off. As if they are being forced back into a box in which they no longer fit. I hope that this theme is one Riggs will have time to explore further in the final book of the series.

Obviously I can’t end this review without talking about Jacob. Despite being over main character, and the voice through which we view the story, Riggs does a really good job of not making him into a special snowflake. I suppose that is an inevitable result of being one peculiar among many.

I think what makes Jacob’s introduction into peculiar-dom so un-annoying has to do with the slow release of his ability. There is nothing obviously peculiar about him. For much of the first novel he didn’t realise he was peculiar even as he was doing it. In this book he has to try and get a handle on his ability. And he has to do it while being responsible for the lives of his friends. And then there is the whole living in the shadow of his hero grandfather thing.

Oh yeah, and his parents think he is missing or even dead, and he doesn’t see himself getting back to them any time soon.

After falling into it in pursuit of answers in the first novel, it is during Hollow City that Jacob has to really choose the peculiar life. He has to decide to sacrifice everything he knew before – his parents’ sanity even – to save this world and people he has only just discovered even existed. He has to get over his grandfather’s ghost and embrace his ability as his own, rather than seeing it as an unfortunate inheritance. He has come a long way from the self-proclaimed whiny rich kid he used to be.

If you’re looking for some fantastical escapism, the Peculiar Children series is for you.

Hay-On-Wye: An actual, literal book town

I recently went to the bookworm’s paradise on earth. It was, somewhat unexpectedly, located in a small town in Wales: Hay-On-Wye. If you live in the UK, you likely know the name, due to its famous annual arts festival. If not… well, I recommend adding it to your ‘must see’ list.

Hay-On-Wye is a tiny town that is ninety percent book shop.

Yep. You read that right. They are literally everywhere you look.

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penguin-shop

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There are so many bookshops that some have their own specialities, like crime, poetry or cinema.

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Hay-On-Wye wasn’t always this way. It all started in the seventies, with a man, Richard Booth (who, from what I can gather from Wikipedia, is quite eccentric – he has referred to Hay as an independent country – and himself as the king of it – and issued passports), getting sick of watching people grow up and move away to big cities. Hay, he decided, needed a trade. Being a rich kid with a recently inherited estate, he decided that trade may as well be books. In the seventies, a whole bunch of American libraries were closing down, so Booth and his friends went over to pick up a load of books on the cheap. Back in Hay armed with a plane-full (probably it wasn’t that many, but it sounds good), Booth opened his bookshop. The trend caught on, as he hoped it would, and thus the Town of Books was born.

I didn’t feel like I had nearly long enough in Hay-On-Wye. After spending my short few hours rushing from bookshop to bookshop, I had barely enough time to investigate the rest of what the town had to offer. We made a quick stop at the ice cream parlour, Shepherd’s (ice cream made with sheep’s milk – sounds weird, but tastes great), and Eighteen Rabbit, the Fairtrade shop I only wish existed in my hometown. In addition to the shopping, Hay is also situated in the middle of a hiker’s dream: The Black Mountains.

What I am saying is that there is no reason not to visit Hay-On-Wye.

If you’re going and want a travel buddy, let me know. I’m already dying to go back!

The Only Girl in the Gang

Discussing the representation of women in film will only get old when the situation gets better. With the recent release of Now You See Me 2, it’s obvious that we’ve still got a long way to go.

The Now You See Me franchise, like so many others – The Avengers, The Fantastic Four, etc – has a serious woman problem. Namely that they can only handle one of them at a time. The setup is familiar: a team is brought together through extraordinary circumstances: magic, crime fighting, revenge, etc. Three of them are men, one a woman. With a couple of notable exceptions, this is the format of the central team of every action movie ever.

Is it just me, or is it getting a little tired?

Now You See Me 2 is a particularly frustrating example. In the first movie, The Four Horsemen, the famously befuddling, bank robbing magic act was comprised of Jessie Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco and Isla Fisher. In the second movie, from which Fisher was reportedly absent due to her pregnancy, she was replaced by Lizzy Caplan. The writers attempted to get around this by acknowledging it, having Lulu, Caplan’s character joke that ‘I’m the new girl horseman!’, but the joke really only served to raise the obvious question. Why was there only one girl horseman in the first place?

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A lot of it comes down to the limited roles women are allowed to play. In Now You See Me, Henley’s (Fisher) primary function is as a love interest to Jessie Eisenberg’s inscrutable J. Daniel Atlas. The only other major female character in the entire movie, Alma (Melanie Laurent) plays a similar role to Mark Ruffalo’s Dylan Rhodes. In Now You See Me 2 – in which there are even fewer women with decent speaking roles – Lulu, Henley’s replacement quickly establishes herself as super into Dave Franco and makes sure to remind us of her attraction to him. Regularly. The only girl in the group is always cast as the love interest.

This particular role could not be more obvious than in the various Avengers movies, in which Scarlett Johansson’s character, Black Widow, has played the potential girlfriend of just about everybody. This demonstrates a pretty narrow view of women’s capabilities, and in the case of Black Widow, really serves to trivialise her character. Her co-stars even laugh about it in interviews. It strikes me that perhaps rather than slut shaming the character in the press, it might be nice to see Johansson and co. questioning why Black Widow is written that way in the first place.  Marvel has established a world in which it is possible for men to exist without love interests – Bucky Barnes and Sam Wilson are going through pretty major dry spells – but women cannot. Even in the more recent movies, with the introduction of Scarlet Witch, she stepped out of the shadow of her twin brother only to be paired with Paul Bettany’s creepy robot man, Vision.

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But the tropes don’t stop there.

Not only is the woman an available love interest for sometimes multiple male characters, but she has to mother them too. I might be picking at a freshly healed scab, but it’s impossible not talk about Age of Ultron’s most cringe-worthy moment: the lullaby, when Black Widow is asked to turn the Hulk back into Bruce Banner. Of the entire team, apparently only she can accomplish this. Not Tony Stark, who the writers have gone to great pains to assure us – through both The Avengers and a scene at the end of Iron Man 3 – is knee-deep in a Banner bromance. No, talking down a hulk takes the sort of loving nurture of which Marvel level masculinity is apparently incapable. It was only ever going to be Black Widow’s job. The stereotype lives on and the audience are reminded that, despite all the fighting, she is still a woman after all. And what do women do? As Black Widow says later on in the movie ‘I’m always picking up after you boys.’

Like I said, cringe.

Gamora gets to play a similar role in Guardians of the Galaxy. She spends much of the movie berating playboy Peter Quill – who has mummy issues of course – for his irresponsible lifestyle and childish personality.  In one scene when the newly assembled team are making themselves at home on Quill’s space ship, Gamora informs him that the place is filthy. And then there’s a really lingering shot of her butt while she walks up the stairs. Mothering? Check. Sexy love interest? Check, check.

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Ultimately, I think this is much of the reason behind why there is only ever one woman on the team. Why have more than one, when her role is so limited? The group only needs one mother, after all, and most audiences can’t be expected to care about multiple romances in the same story. The only way to ditch this trope and get together a team with some girl power is to expand our perceptions of what women can be and do. Ditch the skimpy outfits and the victimisation. Don’t cast them in the role of the sexy parent figure. If by some chance there is more than one woman in the movie, let them have a scene together. Perhaps rather than casting them as rivals, a la Gamora and her sister, Nebula, let them be a team as much as the guys are. Make a movie poster where the women are as active as the men, rather than posed and passive.

The situation is bleak, but I have hope. If it is a movie studio’s job to entertain, then in serving up the same tired stereotypes over and over again, they are failing. Maybe Now You See Me 3 – which is, somewhat unbelievably, a thing – will see the return of Henley, and she and Lulu will share some screen time. Perhaps despite its traditional set up, Marvel’s next Netflix collaboration, The Defenders – made up of three men and Jessica Jones, sigh – will find a way to turn the trope on its head. They’ve done it before with Karen Page’s subversion of the innocent girl stereotype, and the fight against the patriarchy that got us addicted to Jessica Jones in the first place.

It’s time for a change. And the think pieces and Twitter arguments aren’t going to end until we get it.

A Book Haul

This may be the first time I have had enough unread books at any one time to do a haul. I am going for it.

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In the next few weeks, I will be reading my way through…

Hollow City (Miss Peregrine #2) by Ransom Riggs

A Gathering of Shadows – V. E. Shwab

Unhooked – Lisa Maxwell

The Raven Boys – Maggie Steifvater (I am pretty sceptical about this series, but nobody will shut up about how wonderful it is, so I’m giving it a go with at least half of an open mind).

No Matter the Wreckage – Sarah Kay (amazing poet)

 

Feminist TV Shows

Feminist TV is hard to come by. Even in shows featuring the coveted ‘strong female’, she is often the only woman in sight, as if multiple women would somehow disorient us. There is a particular sort of joy that comes in the discovery of truly feminist television. We may not be constantly judging scenes on whether they pass or fail the Bechdel test, but there is a certain comfort when they do. It comes from not having that annoying voice in the back of your head pointing out that the only women in the room are two dimensional and passive. That voice is rarely absent. When it is… it makes for some joyful viewing. I often watch these shows with a silly grin plastered across my face.

Orphan Black

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This show smashes the very concept of ‘limited roles’ to pieces. It’s about clones. All of the main characters are played by the same woman, the insanely talented Tatiana Maslany. The other thing? They are all complex and weird and unpredictable. Each takes the stereotype on which she is loosely based and twists it into something unrecognisable. The sisterhood that develops as the show does, the love and tensions between these women, are thrilling to watch.

Oh yeah, and they’re trying to bring down the evil corporation that’s trying to have them killed. What’s not to like?

All of the straight men in Orphan Black are under written idiots. This is a deliberate choice. It is a device to point out the limited roles we give women in television. It is also there as a means of showing how men – even when they are idiots, still work within the privileges afforded them by a patriarchal system. If you’re interested, there is a really great article about this aspect of the show over at Slate. The author refers to men as ‘like so many walking erections.’ It’s a must read. Trust me.

Scott and Bailey

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This is a cop show from the UK. Generally speaking, I’m not really into crime shows. Usually because – in the UK, anyway – they are about men, and at a certain point I just got bored of that, you know? Then my brother introduced me to Scott and Bailey. I refused to watch it for ages, because I assumed I wouldn’t like it for aforementioned boredom reasons. How wrong I was.

All of the positions of power in this show are occupied by women. Scott and Bailey are police officers, their DCI is a woman (played to absolutely freaking perfection by Amelia Bullmore, who is also a writer for the show), as are all other heads of departments they encounter. In addition to the women in this show being epic badasses (which they all are), they deal with what are actually some pretty real issues – whether or not to have kids, how to balance work and motherhood (we don’t like to talk about it, but sometimes you can’t), how to deal with the creepy guy who you slept with and who is now kind of stalking you.

Every episode of this is gold. I don’t know that it’s watched much outside of the UK, but it totally should be.

Jessica Jones

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I love Jessica Jones deeply but it has ruined Marvel for me forever. Now I know that they can do better, the utter shit show that is female characterisation in the Avengers movies has become totally unacceptable to me (before I was doing that thing where I pretended I didn’t mind because I loved Robert Downey Jr. so much. I totally mind.).

The entire first season of Jessica Jones is a repeated stabbing of the patriarchy. It covers topics such as abusive relationships, sexual violence and PTSD. It studies women’s agency, and how it can be taken from them. It places a woman as a central character, something Marvel has never done before. Jessica doesn’t spend the entire show being sexualised (cough – Black Widow – cough) – in fact she spends it wearing a pair of jeans so comfortable looking I have been searching for a similar pair ever since. She is an active character coming to terms with the actions of her abuser even as she seeks to bring him down.

It is excellent.

But I will warn you, it will totally un-do all that work you did trying to convince yourself that Black Widow was kind-of-maybe-sort-of okay.

Scandal

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Olivia Pope. Need I say more?

Yes. You might notice something about this list so far. All of the characters I have talked about are white ladies. While there is a growing feminist movement in TV today it is by no means intersectional, a fact that is disappointingly predictable.

But it’s not all bad. Shondaland, exists, after all.

Olivia Pope is a fixer. She sees your problem – a dead body, an unfortunate affair, some illegal action – and she can make it go away. By any means necessary. Growing up, Olivia Pope’s father drilled into her that as a black woman she would have to work twice as hard for half the power. She took that to heart, and if there is one thing Olivia Pope can do it is this: she can work you under the table. She wants power and she is willing to sacrifice anything to get it.

A guy kidnapped her one time. It was super traumatic. He’s dead now. Olivia smashed his head in with a chair.

Olivia Pope breeds presidents. And then she runs the White House without them even noticing.

Olivia Pope is unbeatable.

 

I Capture the Castle

Cassandra Mortmain lives with her bohemian and impoverished family in a crumbling castle in the middle of nowhere. She records her life with her beautiful, bored sister, Rose, her fadingly glamorous stepmother, Topaz, her little brother Thomas, her eccentric novelist father who suffers from a financially crippling writer’s block. However, all their lives are turned upside down when the American heirs to the castle arrive and Cassandra finds herself falling in love for the first time.

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I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith is a whimsical and lovely piece of classic young adult fiction. It is also the reason why, whenever I am staying in a house that allows me to, I will sit on the sideboard with my feet in the sink, to feel for a moment like Cassandra Mortmain in Godsend Castle.

‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy.’

Smith uses I Capture the Castle to gently send up the idea of the ‘bohemian’ existence. Cassandra, though she loves her dearly, is always addressing the ‘phony’ way that her unconventional stepmother, Topaz, communicates, putting on a deep voice and reacting in a way that is much more wildly emotional than the situation necessarily warrants. She is always stripping off her clothes and going out into the countryside to ‘commune’ with nature, then coming home and wailing while strumming away on the lute she doesn’t really know how to play. Topaz was drawn to Cassandra’s father because of his novel writing and wanted to be his muse. He hasn’t picked up a pen in years and he pretty much ignores her.

Smith is uniquely brilliant at toeing the line between funny and sad.

She does it most excellently with Mortmain, Cassandra’s father. He wrote this famous, Ulysses-style novel called Jacob Wrestling that was a huge deal in literary circles. Then, one day during an unfortunate argument with Cassandra’s mother (now deceased, though not as a result of this incident), while Mortmain was about to cut into a cake, he lost his temper and started waving the knife about in the direction of his wife. A concerned neighbour saw this happening, hopped the fence and got into a fight with Mortmain over it. Even though it was decided in court he was not attempting murder, he still went to prison for three months. And he hasn’t written a word since. Mortmain’s refusal to write or get any other sort of work has basically plunged the family into poverty. The whole thing is quite darkly amusing.

(Pretty much every artistic character in the book (with the exception of Cassandra, I guess) is quite unbearable. I wonder if this might be Smith saying something about her art-world peers?)

It’s on this backdrop that Smith sets up the traditional marriage plot. And then spends the rest of the novel tearing chunks out of it. I don’t think it is too much of a spoiler to say that this isn’t a book about marriage so much as one about unrequited love. It is about falling for the idea of a person. Rose, Cassandra’s sister, falls for the idea of Simon and his money. She falls for the idea of having all that she perceives herself to lack. She falls in love with a lifestyle, rather than a person.

Cassandra is variously loved for being the child she really ceases to be throughout the course of the novel. Whenever there is a lengthy break between her encounters with the American heirs, Simon and Neil, it seems like the first thing they both wish to do is put her back into her box, rather than engage with the person she has become – the person they have in fact had a hand in creating.

Smith uses all this change and pain to challenge her characters to ask themselves what they really want out of life: wealth or love? Pain or lies? Something new, or something comfortable?

The question of wealth, in particular, comes up a lot. The Mortmain family do live in fairly extreme poverty. They haven’t paid the rent in three years, they’ve sold all the furniture, jewellery and anything else that might put food on the table in the absence of Mortmain’s second masterpiece. Rose would do anything to escape that life. It is unbearable to her. Cassandra on the other hand, is less sure. Once Simon and Neil are in their lives, the family have more of the basic necessities – she’s less likely to go hungry. While she appreciates the basics they have gone without, anything much beyond that, Cassandra is suspicious of.

‘Perhaps the effect wears off in time, or perhaps you don’t notice if you are born into it, but it does seem to me that the climate of richness must always be a little dulling to the senses. Perhaps it takes the edge off joy as well as off sorrow.’

What appears a traditional marriage plot is instead used as a vehicle to explore some of the greatest questions of growing up. I Capture the Castle is a beautiful, heartfelt novel, and a necessary addition to any YA lover’s bookshelf.