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.

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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.

Once and for All

Is it really better to have loved and lost?

Louna spends her summers helping brides plan their perfect day and handling all kinds of crises: missing brides, scene-stealing bridesmaids and controlling grooms. Not surprising then that she’s deeply cynical about happy-ever-afters, especially since her own first love ended in tragedy.

When handsome girl magnet Ambrose enters her life, Louna won’t take him seriously. But Ambrose hates not getting what he wants and Louna is the girl he’s been waiting for.

Maybe it’s not too late for a happy ending after all?

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I am a huge Sarah Dessen fan. I must have been around 15 or 16 when I read my first Sarah book (I just turned 25. Whaaat?!), it was Just Listen and I fell hard for it. It’s a book about trauma, speaking up and figuring out how to express your emotions – cause if you don’t, they’ll find their own way out regardless – and I identified incredibly strongly with it for reasons I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint until after graduating school, then university and starting my (semi) adulthood (feeling feelings is not a strong point of mine. I would much rather watch excessively violent shows on Netflix than, say, deal with my daddy issues). All of which is to say I LOVE Sarah, I have read all of her books and will continue to do so for as long as she’s writing them. But, fact is, when an author has written 11-some novels, chances are not all of them are going to be 100% for you. I ADORE Just Listen, Saint Anything, This Lullaby and Keeping the Moon, for example, but I have much more lukewarm feelings toward Lock and Key and Someone Like You.

The drawn out point I am ever-so-slowly getting to is that, while the majority of her books are hits, her latest, Once and for All, was a miss – for me, anyways.

Once and for All is a book about weddings and the notion of ‘forever’ love, an idea all of the characters in this novel are somehow sceptical of. It being a Sarah Dessen novel, romance takes centre stage and by the end, all of the now former sceptics are nicely coupled off and at the beginning of their happily ever afters. While I usually enjoy this kind of thing – I am myself a highly sceptical individual who definitely day dreams of being persuaded of the error of my ways – something about the approach in this one felt a little… off, for reasons I will get more into later.

There were aspects of the book I liked a lot – primarily Ambrose, obviously. The funny, sweet talker with commitment issues is totally my type (I mean who isn’t into that, really?). Every moment between Ambrose and Louna went straight to my squishy heart. They reminded me of Rory and Tristan in Gilmore Girls season 1. Ambrose had the kind of swagger typical of a boy in his mid-twenties rather than his teens and a love of dogs that would have endeared him to me immediately even if the rest of his personality weren’t so appealing.

I really liked Louna’s family – also unsurprising as Dessen writes family with empathy and complexity 100% of the time. Louna was raised by a single mum and major straight male-sceptic in the particular way single mothers tend to be (anyone raised by such a woman will know exactly what I’m talking about), and so even as a teen who had never been in love, Louna was going into the romantic arena with a good deal of (largely unearned) scepticism.

As I was definitely the kid who, at the start of secondary school when my classmates started dating would say things like, “psh, that won’t last” as if I were Joan Collins-type old broad smoking in the corner of the bar, and not actually a 13-year-old who believed Janis Ian style black eyeliner was a strong look and one I would likely wear for the rest of my days – this amused me greatly.

But despite all this, Once and for All left me cold. Generally speaking, I’m a huge fan of a happy ending, but I also believe that what that is looks different for everybody. In Once and for All that looked like being in a relationship – for every single character. And that would be fine, were it not for the fact that at the beginning of the book, Louna’s mother and her business partner William, were both very happy single. They remain happy in that state until the last quarter of the book, when they suddenly meet people (her, some kind of self-help mogul and him, a cute guy from the deli) and realise that they’re supposed single happiness was a farce, and that being one of a romantically entangled pair is really only the way to go.

And… I don’t think that’s true. The idea this book presented, that long term monogamy is *the* route to happiness, made me uncomfortable. And yes, I know this is the premise of most contemporary YA, and yes, I know it ordinarily doesn’t bother me, but to have every major character in the book come to conclusion that single = unhappy… did not resonate with me. At all. This may have been partly owing to the fact the resolution of the book felt quite rushed anyway, but more broadly it’s that, to me at least, the idea that everyone finds happiness in the same way is incredibly reductive. What I would have really liked from this novel is a much more nuanced portrayal of happiness and the pursuit of it, and unfortunately on this occasion I didn’t get that.

Even though this book was not, ultimately, for me, I still can’t wait to read whatever Sarah does next. Though not everything she writes is completely to my taste, I am a fangirl forever, as far as her writing is concerned.

The Answers

Trigger warning: sexual assault.

Mary is out of options. Estranged from her family, plagued by debt and beset by phantom pain, she signs up for ‘The Girlfriend Experiment’ – a mysterious project masterminded by a famous Hollywood actor who, frustrated by romantic and creative failure, hires a collection of women to fulfil the different roles of a relationship.

Mary is to play the Emotional Girlfriend, alongside a Maternal Girlfriend, a Mundanity Girlfriend, an Anger Girlfriend and, of course, an Intimacy Team. Each woman has her debts and her difficulties, her past loves and her secrets. As Mary and the actor are drawn ever closer together, the nature of the experiment changes, and the Girlfriend’s find themselves exposed to new perils, foremost among them love.

Here, then, is a novel of die-hard faith and fleeting love; of questions which plumb the depths of the human heart, and answers that will leave you reeling.

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“Sometimes it seems all I have are questions, that I will ask the same ones all my life. I’m not sure if I even want any answers, don’t think I’d have a use for them, but I do know I’d give anything to be another person – anyone else – for even just a day, an hour. There’s something about that distance I’d do anything to cross.”

The Answers by Catherine Lacey presents an unsettling premise as a means of exploring themes of identity, feminism and romantic relationships in one of my favourite reads of the year.

Mary has run out of options. Beset with a mysterious and debilitating illness no doctor could name or solve (“Whole hospitals shrugged.), on the recommendation of her hippy friend, Chandra, she turns to an alternative therapy: PAKing. PAKing (Pnuema Adaptive Kinesthesia) seems to work – though Mary suspects the placebo effect – the relief it brings her leaves her with no choice but to proceed with the cripplingly expensive sessions. In order to pay for her treatments, she signs up for a strange-sounding side hustle, The Girlfriend Experiment (or the GX, as it comes to be known) with a famous actor she has never heard of, Kurt Sky.

There is so much to love about The Answers: Lacey’s poetic yet sharp writing, the personification of the emotional labour of women with Emotional Girlfriend and Maternal Girlfriend as actual paid jobs, the irony of the title – The Questions would be a much more accurate name – and the off-putting, almost dystopic premise of the GX.

Early on, Mary states that “Love is a compromise for only getting to be one person”, a thought that forms a kind of mission statement for a book consumed with the reasons relationships fail. It is a study of variously damaged people looking to escape themselves  – Mary is unable to make meaningful connections with others because of the complete breakdown of her relationship with her parents whose religion dictates they must live ‘off the grid’; Ashley, another participant in the GX is angry at a world that will only define her by her beauty; Kurt is unable to move past the loss of his mother in his childhood and is consumed by his own toxic masculinity; Matheson, Kurt’s assistant, is stuck serving a man who will never love him back; Chandra is (probably) in a cult.

The GX is also more than it seems. Envisioned initially as the answer to Kurt’s, and perhaps, everybody’s, problems – “truly innovative technological solutions to emotional and psychological problems that were previously thought to be just part of the human condition” – it is derailed by a team of scientists with ulterior motives. Less interested in cracking the key to relationships, the scientists instead want to decode feelings, specifically how to not feel them, or to only feel those things that can be considered “useful”. Girls in the GX are manipulated into feeling love, anger, rejection – even Kurt is programmed to experience moments of emotional intimacy with the women he did not consent to.

Even as the plot veers into the bizarre, Lacey’s intense engagement with her subject matter leads to a work that is painfully human. It was impossible not to see your own feelings reflected in the novel – haven’t we all at some point wished to turn an emotion off? – your own questions, insecurities and feelings of isolation in a world increasingly geared toward leaving us separated from our own, and each other’s, truths.

It was funny to read a novel called The Answers that was so utterly devoid of them. But that, Lacey makes clear, is the point.

Turtles All the Way Down

Sixteen-year-old Aza never intended to pursue the mystery of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett, but there’s a hundred-thousand-dollar reward at stake and her Best and Most Fearless Friend, Daisy, is eager to investigate. So together they navigate the short distance and broad divides that separate them from Russell Pickett’s son, Davis.

Aza is trying. She is trying to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student and maybe even a good detective, while also living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts.

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I am a huge John Green fan. I started watching Vlog Brothers, the Youtube channel he has with his brother, Hank, a little before Paper Towns came out (9 years ago. NINE YEARS AGO. Oh my god. I need to go recover from that realisation…), and at first I didn’t even realise he was a writer. Then Paper Towns blew my mind – I had the part where Radar tells Quentin that he has to stop expecting everybody in his life to behave as Quentin himself would tacked to my bedroom door throughout the rest of high school. I went to see John and Hank on book tour when they stopped in Swindon, of all places, to promote TFIOS. I have a Pizza John shirt. He is one of a very limited number of men whose opinions I have any interest in.

I’m a fan.

So it kind of figures that Turtles All the Way Down would be my kind of thing.

And oh, it was. Turtles All the Way Down is a stunning achievement. It’s a deeply introspective novel about living with a mental health problem that avoids all of the tropes and ‘fixes’ that so often plague stories on the subject. Aza struggles with OCD, which Green has himself, so that helps with the representation.

While the story did have what I have seen referred to as trademark John Green whimsy – his characters are super smart and definitely manipulate scientific fact to create metaphors about their lives (this time they are very into space) – it felt like a departure from his previous work. In Paper Towns, Looking for Alaska and TFIOS in particular the story is very much a vehicle for an idea, whereas Turtles All the Way Down is a deep exploration of Aza’s mental health, with her mental state functioning as the primary driver in the story.

While most stories about mental health incite some conversation about romanticising unhealthy behaviour – To the Bone, that Lily Collins movie about Anorexia springs to mind – there is nothing romantic about Aza’s situation – and not just because her OCD interferes with her love life. That’s not to say that the novel is hopeless, but it is engaged with the particular struggles of Aza’s life that at times make for hard reading – for example, Aza is plagued by the thought of getting an infection, and this thought that she can’t shake leads her to start drinking her hand sanitiser. She understands rationally that drinking pure alcohol is poisonous, and will seriously harm her body in the long run, but she can’t overcome the part of her brain telling her that drinking the hand sanitiser is the only way she will survive. The compassion and skill with which John Green navigates these especially difficult scenes of the novel means that as a reader you’re falling down the spiral of Aza’s anxiety with her even as you stand on the outside desperate to help pull her out.

One of the aspects of the novel that felt most important to me was the new challenges Aza faced when trying to have a romantic relationship, in particular the physical side of things. Physical relationships are really difficult for some people for a whole variety of different reasons from mental health issues to trauma to all of the nuances in between and don’t think I’ve ever read a book where I’ve seen that represented before. Sex positivity is absolutely wonderful, but it’s contributed to the taboo surrounding having any kind of sexual issues – which a lot of people have. Though Aza does not have sex in this book, she does find that her intrusive thoughts do mean that she can’t be physical with her boyfriend most of the time as making out with him makes her to anxious. Yet she and her boyfriend still have a very positive relationship in which he is understanding, kind, and never shames Aza or tries to push her into doing more than she is comfortable with. And he’s also still like, crazy into her. It’s such a positive view on a situation in which a lot of people feel a ton of shame, and I am so so happy that it exists.

Turtles All the Way Down is a difficult, painful and deeply compassionate novel that tears to shreds the romanticisation of mental health problems. In his typical style, John Green navigates Aza’s internal life in a way that never feels anything but emotionally true. It is a stunning novel about friendship, loss and surviving your own unique challenges, whether that be your OCD or your millionaire father leaving his entire fortune to a reptile.

It was totally worth the wait.