I Was Born for This

For Angel, life is about one thing: The Ark – a pop-rock trio of teenage boys taking the world by storm. Being part of The Ark’s fandom has given her everything she loves – her friend Juliet, her dreams, her place in the world.

Jimmy owes everything to The Ark. He’s their frontman – and playing in a band with his mates is all he ever dreamed of doing.

But dreams don’t always turn out the way you think, and when Jimmy and Angel are unexpectedly thrust together they find out how strange and surprising facing up to reality can be.

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Because I am hopelessly out of the loop, I was perhaps the last person to find out that Alice Oseman had a new book coming out, but when the news finally reached me, I was thrilled. After avoiding her work for a long time because her age-to-success ratio made me feel like a failure (if you don’t know, the woman got a book deal when she was seventeen. SEVENTEEN. When I was seventeen I got turned down for a job at the zoo because I didn’t have any retail experience), I finally picked up Radio Silence (which she wrote at university. When I was at university I got turned down for every internship I ever applied for) and I fell in LOVE. In a similar style to my eventual acceptance of Tavi Gevinson into my life, Alice Oseman’s talent overrode my own sense of personal failure. (Also, I got a job, which I’m not going to lie, helped a great deal.)

And funnily enough, as it turns out, I think it is Oseman’s age that plays in a big part in what makes her books such a joy to read. No shade to older YA authors, but there’s really no one who can write about the experience of being a teen growing up on the internet better than…. you know, an adult woman who spent her teen years on the internet. In I Was Born For This, much like Radio Silence (and, I assume, Solitaire though I haven’t read it yet) Oseman crafts an authentic story of coming of age online, this time through the intensity, joy and misery that comes with being part of a fandom.

She writes about The Ark fandom, in which Angel, one of the two narrators of the story is heavily involved, with authenticity and compassion, easily incorporating the positive and negative sides of online infatuation. Oseman made clear that the obsession with these three boys wasn’t so much rooted in sex for Angel, but the need to escape from her day to day. Her involvement in the fandom wasn’t  a sign of having ‘no life’, but of having one that she didn’t want to deal with. Thinking about The Ark was a means of avoiding herself, something I think a lot of us bookworms can probably relate to (I certainly could – I think it’s how a lot of unhappy kids who aren’t so much into drugs or drink tend to deal with their feelings).

Oseman’s use of dual point of view, something I usually don’t like at all, worked perfectly in I Was Born for This. Chapters alternating between Angel, the fangirl and Jimmy, member of The Ark and object of Angel’s obsession came together to show two people in radically different situations dealing with the same issue: desperately avoiding confronting their problems, often in ways that meant being wilfully – and hurtfully – ignorant of the people closest to them. It’s really mature subject matter for a YA book – the consequences of avoiding problems/feelings isn’t something I really confronted until I was well into my twenties.

As in Radio Silence, I Was Born for This is a space of complete acceptance of all people – no matter race, sexual orientation or gender identity. I have slightly complicated feelings about this. On the one hand, I love it, because it’s fun to live in such a safe space for a couple hundred pages, but on the other, having a book in which one lead protagonist was a Muslim girl and the other a transgender boy that is pretty much apolitical felt, frankly… unrealistic.

That said, though there was a serious lack of politics, something that did feature was characters’ religions. Which I loved. Angel, as I mentioned, is a Muslim and Jimmy is a Christian and for both of them their religion plays an active and positive role in their lives. Religion is seen by a lot of people as a profoundly negative influence on the world*, but the truth is, though the voices of crazies are loudest, most religious people are just getting on with their lives, following their religion and trying to be the best people that they can. I Was Born for This reflected that in a way you don’t often see and it made me very happy.

I Was Born for This is a delightful read. Oseman builds characters you can’t help but root for, despite their flaws, perfectly nails the fandom experience and leaves you feeling all warm and squishy on the inside. Her writing is YA at its best.

*My feelings about religion that no one asked for: Sometimes scientists build weapons that are used to kill and maim thousands of people while others are out there finding a cure for polio. Religion, like most things, really depends on the person practising it.

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Thoughts on finishing the WTF podcast book

I have always been obsessed with the notion of ‘storifying’ life. The inevitable result of a childhood spent reading and a young adulthood on Netflix, I’m drawn to a tight narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end. You can imagine my delight when I hit my early twenties and discovered memoir. I collected the works of Cheryl Strayed, Roxane Gay, Mindy Kaling and Amy Poehler and assembled them on my bookshelves like a treasure map.

Too bad my own life didn’t make any kind of narrative sense. I felt like a mixed bag of interconnected feelings and anxieties and good and bad experiences that I couldn’t assemble into any kind of cohesive structure.

Podcasts made their way into my life. I started listening to Marc Maron’s WTF – required listening for any podcast enthusiast – and the stories his guests told were illuminating and brilliant and showed lives with that thing I so desperately wanted: a narrative arc. The discovery was bittersweet. It was like whatever the thing I sort of suspected might be wrong with me was, it was compounded by all these people who had managed to make sense out of their lives in a way I wasn’t able to.

Then I graduated university, and a combination of not knowing what I wanted to do and not really wanting to try at anything – hey, at least I’m honest – led me to spend the next two years in the call centre-retail-waitressing rat race. I got bored and restless in the first year, and even more bored and even more restless in the second. And at some point, the flood gates simply opened. I reached that point of absolute boredom where I had no choice but to delve into the thoughts I usually avoided. I was suddenly reflecting on my life so far, critically studying it and making those connections between past and present that had evaded me for so long.

What I eventually came to realise in fits and starts, in epiphany-like a-ha moments and in meandering thoughts while assembling pizza boxes – yes, really – is that actually, I do have a story. I can make connections out of my life and draw lines between point A and point B.

Like most things, finding my story didn’t turn out like I thought it would. In one way it’s liberating to acknowledge the wrongs done to you in the past, and the part they might play in the challenges you experience now. It feels good to identify a source of blame. On the other hand, it’s disconcerting to realise that the past can so deeply affect your present, often in ways you haven’t even noticed. The initial liberation I had felt turned into a sense of impending doom, like I was only the sum of my worst experiences.

In dealing with this evolving identity crisis I found myself again turning to those a lot further down the path of telling their own stories than me. My answers came from the world of WTF again, though in book form, this time. In 2017 Marc Maron and Brendan McDonald released Waiting for the Punch: Words to Live By from the WTF Podcast. It’s a doorstop of a book, filled with the stories of many of Marc’s guests over the years. There is a lot to discover in Waiting for the Punch – Marc has never been afraid to go deep with people, and there has always been something about him that makes people feel like they can open up. The words that stuck out to me most though, came from RuPaul Charles. He and Marc were talking about childhood, and the narratives we learn from our parents that we carry into our adult lives, regardless of whether they are true or not. He said:

I have this scene in my head that, with my father, where actually on weekends he was supposed to come pick me up, and I would sit on that porch and he would never show up. Well, let me tell you this. That scenario in my head is a benchmark. I had inevitably looked for situations to strengthen my identity as the little boy who was left behind, because on some level, that identity is what drove my buggy.

Once I’m able to let go of that identity and say, “That’s not me, and I don’t get off on that,” then the party can begin.”

We all have a narrative, whether we have found the tools to tell it to ourselves or not. That narrative might include abandoning or it might include something else awful altogether. It’s important to know the narrative, I think. It has a purpose for a while – after all, you can’t change a story until you recognise that you’re telling one.

But there comes a point when you have to let that narrative go.

Then the party can begin.

The Secret History

Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last – inexorably – into evil.

Summary from Goodreads

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“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

The first sentence of The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s debut novel of 1992, might be superior to at least 90% of the first sentences of all of the books I’ve ever read. I mean, how can you put down a book after a first sentence like that?

You can’t.

The Secret History is narrated by Richard Papen, a Gatsby-esque, Californian 19-year-old who after a year of medical school (mistake) and basically estrangement from his (mostly indifferent) parents, travels to New England to attend Hampden College, where he plans to study English Literature. Quickly, however, he falls under the spell of a group of Classics students who study with one very particular, ever-so-exclusive professor, separate to the rest of the students at the university. He talks his way into the class, and into the lives of the rich and enigmatic group.

It turns out to be the worst decision he’s ever made.

The novel is, at its heart, a thriller, but it’s a thriller that instead of asking the usual ‘who dunnit’, instead leaves us asking – how? How does it come to be that this group of – admittedly eccentric but not overtly unusual – students murder one of their classmates?

It’s remarkable that in this 600-some page tome, Tartt manages not to let up on the sense of foreboding disaster for even a second. If the group aren’t threatened with exposure from outside sources, they are crumbling from within. It’s quite a situation when you discover that the murder you committed together really only scratches the surface of the mess.

It’s funny – there were many elements in this novel that were familiar. From the group of classmates reading way too much into their school work, to the group themselves; bookish Henry, hot but creepy twins Charles and Camilla and poor half closeted Frances, all felt somewhat archetypal. Richard, even, the working class boy who invents himself a new history to fit in with his rich friends, didn’t feel new as such. And yet, in Tartt’s hands the story felt completely unique.

The richness of her language and the perfect balance between plot and character – what I loved so much about this and The Goldfinch was the way that Tartt establishes an expansive and complicated situation and then delves deep into how her characters respond to it – create a disturbing, hedonistic, shocking and anxious world that I couldn’t help but get lost in.

There is a reason so many people recommend this one.

April favourites

Hey April, where’d you go? Mine vanished in a whirlwind of deadlines (never.ending.deadlines) the occasional spin class and a sneaky weekend away in Cornwall.

I was very pleased to realise it was monthly favourites week, because I have fallen behind on my reading and caught up on my reviews, leaving me suddenly without anything to blog about. I decided to finally read The Secret History by Donna Tartt (of The Goldfinch fame, a book that ruined me for any other book for several months), which while very good is also very long, hence the review gap.

TV:

a series of unfortunate events

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I know that because of Daniel Handler this is on the problematic side, but I am enjoying A Series of Unfortunate Events so much. Firefly occupies such a special place in my heart I will never be anything less than thrilled to see Nathan Fillion (another problematic fave) and as Jaques Snicket he performs in his ever-so-likeable with a side of I would still totally do you way that I enjoy so much. Oh Mal, I just can’t quit you.

Also Neil Patrick Harris did WTF with Mark Maron a few weeks back and he was exactly as delightful as you might imagine. I just want to lie on a sofa with him and platonically snuggle.

Podcasts:

wtf

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Speaking of WTF with Mark Maron, ep. 907 with Aisha Tyler and Louie Anderson is a wonderful way to spend an hour and a half of your life.

In a conversation I found so comforting – partly just because I was so happy to sit and listen to Aisha again. Her now defunct podcast Girl On Guy was a huge thing in my life for a while – as she and Mark navigated the gradual but huge life changes that come along with suddenly waking up to your own bullshit. IT IS SO GOOD. If you feel like a weirdo alien sometimes (so, everyone, right?) I can’t recommend this episode (and the podcast in general) enough.

Other:

I’m scared to buy a pair of these because I lack confidence in my ability to pull the look off, but this month I have spent an inordinate amount of time scrolling through their Instagram imagining what it would be like to be the sort of person that could.

How were your Aprils? In the garbage fire that is the world right now, what media do you use to distract yourself?

Love, Hate & Other Filters

Maya Aziz dreams about kissing boys and going to film school in New York, but miles away, an unknown danger looms. A terrorist attack in another city unleashes fear and hate in Maya’s small town, changing her life and disrupting her future.

A stunning debut novel that celebrates the power of personal choice in a world that wants to put labels on us all.

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Love Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed is a charming read that packs a serious emotional punch. It reads like a Carly Rae Jepson song, all inexperience and desires, as yet unfulfilled. Maya is full of typical teenage girl fantasies – consumed by the idea of being loved and being in love (those are, at least in my opinion, different from each other), of independence from her parents and, her biggest and most secret fantasy of them all: moving to New York to pursue film making.

I love to read about teenagers with ambition, and Maya has that in spades. She wants to be a film maker, and there are few chapters where she doesn’t have her trusty camera with her, so she can, as she puts it, look back on herself when she’s an old lady and remember what it was like to be her now. Unfortunately for Maya, her desire to make film-making her career is one of the many areas where she clashes with her strict parents. Maya is Muslim American and a child of immigrants – her parents moved to America from India and have pretty traditional values and a strong idea of the path they want Maya to take, and it involves studying close to home, studying something that will ultimately lead to a job (this may just be because I am getting old or cynical or both, but I felt like I understood where her parents were coming from on this – who would want their kid to doom themselves the life of frustration and disappointment that is pursuing a creative career?!) and marrying a nice Muslim boy.

I really enjoyed how Ahmed approached Maya’s relationship with her parents. Though they were very strict, and, at times, SO frustrating, they were always sympathetic characters. It wasn’t that they wanted to hurt Maya with their actions any more than Maya wanted to hurt them with her own, it was more that there was a fundamental misunderstanding between them of their roles in each other’s lives – one that they spend much of the novel trying to navigate to various degrees of success.

And then, the bombing. Ahmed’s writing of the terrorist attack that kills dozens in the town over from Maya’s was painfully realistic. There was a real sense of that sad, suspended state of disbelief – this happened again? – you live in on the outside while the attack unfolds, and subsequently names and pictures of victims fill the news and us with all this loss from one senseless act of terror. Maya’s fear and sorrow over the attack is compounded by fear of the consequences if the bomber was Muslim – which the police suspect is the case. Suddenly her status as the only Muslim girl in her overwhelmingly white high school feels like a greater weight than usual – and that’s before the so called ‘revenge’ attacks on her and her family even start.

In Love, Hate & Other Filters, Islamaphobia is kind of like the monster under the bed. There are times when you can ignore it and go on with your life, but at the slightest change it won’t hesitate to pull you under with its claws and rip you to shreds – usually with an audience studiously looking the other way as it happens. The things Maya is subjected to after the terrorist attack are frightening and sickening – the sort of assumed safety we walk around with for much of our lives is totally taken away from her and her family as they become the objects of hate and revenge for crimes that have nothing to do with them.

I think what makes Love, Hate & Other Filters quite such a revolutionary book is that it’s a story about hate that actually isn’t about hate at all. It’s about a young woman fighting hatred, finding her way and claiming her space in a world she has just as much right to as anyone else

In this fantastic debut (!) novel, Samira Ahmed will put you through the emotional ringer – from the maddening, insulting and deeply sad state of current Western society to the heart-racing, anxiety inducing possibilities of first love and the future, it’s a novel into which you can’t help but throw your entire heart.

All the Single Ladies

Today, only around 20 percent of Americans between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine are wed, compared to nearly 60 percent in 1960. Rebecca Traister sets out to investigate this trend at the intersection of class, race and sexual orientation, supplementing facts with vivid anecdotes from fascinating contemporary and historical figures.

All the Single Ladies is a remarkable portrait of how single women shaped contemporary American life.

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All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister is part sociological study, part memoir and part feminist polemic that combines to create a compulsively readable and intersectional text that, for me at least, was as empowering as it was educational.

Through extensive research and interviews with women from a range of racial and economic backgrounds, Traister paints a fascinating portrait of female singlehood in the US  – though as a single woman living in the UK most of it felt entirely applicable.

I don’t think I’ve ever read such an intersectional feminist text written by a white lady. It’s an exploration of the decline in marriage and rise of female independence that consistently holds the feminist movement to account for its failings and exclusion of women of colour, queer women and working class women throughout history and today. Traister makes sure to acknowledge at every step that the barriers and obstacles white women face are so often different than those faced by women of colour, and that the standards those women of colour are expected to meet are unrealistically and absurdly higher.

All the Single Ladies casts a huge net, looking at women’s careers, friendships, unmarried and single mothers, sex, adult virginity (chosen and somewhat accidental – the I was busy doing other things  people we very rarely acknowledge), religion and fertility. Traister manages to tackle it all with a relatively neutral brush (apart from when Phyllis Schlafly came up but you kind of have to give a girl a break as far as that can of worms in concerned), covering a wide range of lifestyles without casting judgement on any of them – single through choice or circumstance, married happily, unhappily or divorced, there was no sense any particular lifestyle was superior.

Ultimately, that’s the point I took from the book. That women – all women – should be able to live however to hell we want. You know, like white men have been doing for literally the whole of history. Get married or don’t. Have kids or don’t. What we want, and what I desperately hope we’re heading towards is a future in which women can live however they like without all the misogynistic bullshit.

Single, partnered or in a long term relationship, I can’t recommend this book enough. Looking at the strides we’ve taken in redefining womanhood, married and single life in the last century was inspiring – and looking at where change still needs to happen totally motivating. Traister is a fantastic writer, and I had a great time being enlightened by her.

‘A true age of female selfishness, in which women recognised and prioritised their own drives to the same degree to which they have always been trained to tend to the needs of all others, might, in fact, be an enlightened corrective to centuries of self-sacrifice.

Amina Sow agrees. The advice she gives everyone is “Always choose yourself first. Women are very socialised to choose other people. If you put yourself first, it’s this incredible path you can forge for yourself.” Amina too understood how she sounded as the words were coming out of her mouth. “If you choose yourself people will say you’re selfish,” she said. “But no. You have agency. You have dreams. It takes a lot of qualify a man as selfish.”’

Heck. Yes.

The Belles

In the opulent world of Orléans, the people are born grey and damned, and only a Belle’s powers can make them beautiful.

Camellia Beauregard wants to be the favourite Belle – the one chosen by the queen to tend to the royal family. But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favourite is not everything she always dreamed it would be. Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that her powers may be far greater – and far darker – than she ever imagined.

When the queen asks Camellia to break the rules she lives by to save the ailing princess, she faces an impossible decision: protect herself and the way of the Belles, or risk her own life, and change the world forever.

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The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton is one of the most hyped releases of the year so far, and for me, at least, it did not disappoint. It has been a long while since I’ve lost myself in a fantasy world so completely. The novel is the epitome of slow burn, a choice that is vital to a narrative in which absolutely nothing is what it initially seems.

Clayton has packed so much into these pages: a riveting mystery, a terrifying villain, deep analysis of the commodification of women’s bodies and how the idea of beauty in itself can be monstrous. It’s a book about high status people, and people who were taught to believe they had such status while actually never having any power at all. There are two hot guys in it: a charming prince and stern, disapproving guard. I would have both, and I hope by the end of the series, Camellia does.

In the world of Orléans, beauty is the most valuable commodity available. Everyone except the Belles is born grey and shrivelled with red eyes, but with the power of the Belles they are able, depending on their resources, to turn themselves into either a regular looking human or a spectacularly ‘beautiful’ one. In this story, the regular humans we spend time with are all either royals or noblemen and women and so their lives are consumed with keeping up with the latest beauty trends – everything from blue skin to metallic golden hair. Each procedure is incredibly painful, but people go back time and again because living in their natural grey form is completely socially unacceptable. Their lives and resources are all consumed by achieving beauty.

Sound familiar?

The ideal of beauty is a trap so thoroughly entrenched in how society functions that its value is never questioned, an idea Clayton personifies with the Belles, who initially believe they are and very much appear to be of the highest status in society, but are in fact little more than slaves. When we first meet Camellia and the other Belles they are travelling from where they grew up, completely cut off from the rest of the world, to take on their roles in society. They’re (mostly) excited to start, and (mostly) don’t question their role or status, believing as they have been taught that they are vital to society’s function – that makes them really important, right? If ‘important’ means working long hours with no days off for no money in a way that slowly destroys your body and depletes your powers all while being totally cut off from everyone you’ve ever known AND never allowed to leave your new ‘home’… then sure… *side eye*

This is where Clayton’s slow burn style truly comes into its own. Even while as the reader you’re thinking ‘there is something seriously wrong with this situation’, the Belles aren’t, because this is all they’ve ever known. They are slaves who have been tricked into believing they’re Goddesses, and it takes some serious time – and trauma – to de-programme themselves from the propaganda they have received for their entire lives.

Oh, it’s just SO GOOD.

I have not been this excited for a sequel in ages. You know that bit at the end of Handmaid’s Tale season 1 where June and the other handmaids refuse to murder Janine as ordered, then they all march off together and June thinks “they should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army”*? I CAN’T WAIT for the Belles to have that moment.

Bring on book 2!

*side note, almost a year later I cry EVERY TIME I even think about that scene and, in fact, had to pause writing this post to go compose myself. I don’t know about you, but that was probably the greatest moment of fictional catharsis I have EVER experienced.