Kindred Spirits

If you broke Elena’s heart, Star Wars would spill out. So when she decides to queue outside her local cinema to see the new movie, she’s expecting a celebration with crowds of people who love Han, Luke and Leia just as much as she does. What she’s not expecting is to be the last in a line of only three people, to have to pee into a collectable Star Wars cup behind a dumpster or meet that unlikely someone who just might truly understand the way she feels.

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Kindred Spirits, by Rainbow Rowell is a charming celebration of geek culture and first romance of the kind of we have come to expect from the author of Fan Girl and Carry On. My only complaint was that, as a short story published for World Book Day 2016, Kindred Spirits is far too short, coming in at only 62 pages.

As in any good story by Rowell, Kindred Spirits is character driven, and even in the brief time we have with them, Elena and her line-mates, Troy and Gabe leap off the page. Elena is a sweet geek girl whose mother won’t stop driving past the line to check on her; Gabe, the aggressively anti-social Star Wars lover; and Troy, the line veteran who knows all the cinema staff by name.

What I have always loved most about Rowell’s writing is how she twists the expectations we have going into any given situation. Fan Girl isn’t your typical going to college story, and this line that turned out to be three people is not the days-long geek party Elena was expecting. It’s part rubbishing expectations and the detrimental roles they always play in our lives, part nostalgia for a time when, pre-internet, queuing for several days for a movie was the type of thing people would actually do.

In such a short span of time, Rowell manages to touch on absent parents, high school cliques, the unfortunate misogyny that lurks in nerd culture (the whole ‘fake geek girl’ thing) and the problems of peeing outside while female (the challenge is real).

If you’re looking to escape for an hour (and who isn’t?), and indulge in a world of nostalgia and nerd love, Kindred Spirits is the short story for you.

May Wrap-Up

The latest Lenny Letter pointed out to me that we are half way through 2017. I should have had this figured out already, but that particular information has me a little bit floored.

May was a weird month. At the beginning, I was a waitress, with little hope of not being one in the near future. Then, pretty much out of the blue, I was offered an internship at a magazine I did some work experience at a few months back. So I’m there now. Temporarily. I have not processed it yet. I had to interview a chef yesterday and I barely stopped myself saying yeah it’s like that in the restaurant I work in. 

Come August I most likely won’t have a job, but I’m trying really hard not to think too much about that.

Life = Up. In. The. Air.

For so many reasons. There’s a general election happening in the UK this Thursday. It also came pretty much out of the blue and at the start I was so determined not to care about it.

Not caring about things isn’t really how I roll.

If Theresa May and her awful Conservative government get back in my heart will be broken.

My brother turned 27.

And my blog turned 2.

Whaaaaaaat?! As per usual, I do not know what to make of any of it.

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So, that being the case, let’s review the month.

I read:

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

Feelings: I want to sit in a busy city centre and hand out copies of it to everyone I see.

The Rules Do Not Apply – April Levy

Feelings: An interesting look at survival in the face of life fucking you over. Truthfully, I didn’t get as much from this as I hoped I would, but I really enjoyed Levy’s fearlessness is describing her infidelity, her miscarriage and her wife’s alcoholism.

A Conjuring of Light – V.E. Shwab

Feelings: This past week I reread Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London books just because I really needed to think about something other than the election. I know that this series will be a similar sort of comfort reread for me in the future. If you need to say goodbye to reality for a little while (and who doesn’t, honestly? This series’ll do the job).

Play It As It Lays – Joan Didion

Feelings: A dark novel about ennui and suicide. Absolutely riveting. Adored it.

I also wrote…

Should characters be likeable?

OTHER THAN BOOKS: Some recommendations you didn’t ask for…

To Read: This fascinating piece about 13 Reasons Why (which I still have not watched. Sorry. I will! I promise!) and whether such frank and – from what I hear – graphic depictions of teen suicide help the problem or contribute to it.

To Watch: Handmaid’s Tale. All of the trigger warnings. I have only watched one episode and I haven’t psyched myself up to watch to second but OMG Necessary viewing. I LOVE Elisabeth Moss.

To Listen: Gone Now the new album by Bleachers. In the past couple years I finally shed any pretensions I had about having a ‘cool taste in music’ and admitted I love straight up POP. As such, Jack Antonoff is essentially my musical hero and boyfriend.

The Hate U Give

Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised and her posh high school in the suburbs. The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. Now what Starr says could destroy her community. It could also get her killed.

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“Listen! The Hate U – the letter U – Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody. T-H-U-G  L-I-F-E. Meaning what society give us as youth, it bites them in the ass when we wild out. Get it?”

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is the book we all needed about an experience of blackness in America (and the UK, even though over here we like to pretend that racism is an American problem, like obesity and not knowing how to spell aluminium). Thomas’ raw and authentic story of the murder of an unarmed black teenager by a policeman and the ripple effect his death has on the lives of the protagonist and witness to the murder, Starr, her family (the Carters AKA my new favourite fictional family) and their community is hard not to fall in love with.

Starr is straddling two worlds. At home, she lives in a poor, majority black neighbourhood. Half the time the streets around her house are the centre of a gang war, and she spends a lot of evenings at home listening to the sound of nearby gunfire. At the private school she attends, she is one of the only black students. Surrounded by wealthy white people every day, Starr never feels she can truly be herself.

Seeing Starr exist in these two polar opposite environments shines a spotlight on the insidious and institutional racism that people of colour face every day. In Starr’s high school – as in much of society – whiteness is the norm. Starr, a black girl is ‘other’ and constantly preoccupied with being less so, with appearing agreeable, avoiding the stereotype of the ‘angry black woman’ and not speaking in a way her white peers might interpret as ‘ghetto’. To try to go outside of these social parameters is to be excluded from them. On one level, this is demonstrated by social exclusion – Starr’s friend Hailey, stops following her on tumblr after Starr starts posting material about black history and Black Lives Matter. At its most severe this exclusion is demonstrated by Khalil’s murder. Power is in the hands of the white people, and it is enforced by means from micro-aggression to murder.

The Hate U Give is a complex study of what it is to be black and poor. Through Khalil’s life and death, Starr sees how people in her community get trapped in cycles of poverty and violence. One of the aspects of Khalil’s life that the news pick up on after his death is that he was a drug dealer. As if this fact somehow justifies his death (it does not). Luckily for Starr, her father Big Mav is an advocate for Black Lives Matter and a passionate change maker within the community, so through a conversation with him – one of my favourite scenes in the book honestly. I adore Starr’s father – Starr looks at the aspects of Khalil’s life that forced him down the path that he took – “he got tired of choosing between lights and food.”

The wider reaction to Khalil’s murder is familiar and heart breaking. The news paint a picture of a drug dealer who had it coming, as the officer (murderer) in question as the true victim that night.  The opinion of so many is shown again in Starr’s ‘friend’, Hailey who, rather than being concerned with the unarmed boy who was murdered can only say of the police officer, his killer “His life matters too, you know?” No, Starr replies, that’s the problem: “his life matters more.”

All the pain and the violence forces Starr to find her voice. It makes her speak out, even when to do so is to put herself at risk of harm from the police and from the gangs in her neighbourhood. It is in equal parts inspiring and heart wrenching watching Starr’s anger transform into action.

“Once upon a time there was a hazel-eyed boy with dimples. I called him Khalil. The world called him a thug. He lived, but not nearly long enough, and for the rest of my life I’ll remember how he died. Fairy tale? No. But I’m not giving up on a better ending.”

Believe the hype. The Hate U Give is an extraordinary book. It’s raw, emotional and vital to our current political discourse. It also has some of the most wonderful characters you’re likely to read for a while. Starr’s family have shot right to the top of my favourite fictional families list. Her parents are complex and passionate individuals, and the strength of their relationship is Starr’s foundation. Seven is the big brother we all wish we had and Sekani is just adorable. I loved spending time with these people.

The Hate U Give is an emotional and political ride. Starr is a complex, funny, and smart character of the kind young black girls have needed for so long. The book dissects privilege and oppression, and why #alllivesmatter is not actually a thing in the face of a world where some lives are treated like they matter less.

You must read The Hate U Give. I can’t think of a more relevant novel right now.

A Conjuring of Light

Warning: ALL the spoilers.

A precarious equilibrium among the four Londons has reached its breaking point. Once brimming with the red vivacity or magic, darkness casts a shadow over the Maresh Empire, leaving space for another London to rise. Kell – once assumed to be the last surviving Antari – begins to waver under the pressure of competing loyalties. Lila Bard, once a commonplace – but never common – thief, has survived and flourished through a series of magical trials. But now she must learn to control the magic, before it bleeds her cry.

Meanwhile, the disgraced Captain Alucard Emery and the Night Spire Crew are attempting a race against time to acquire the impossible, as an ancient enemy returns to claim a crown and a fallen hero is desperate to save a decaying world…

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In my review for A Gathering of Shadows, I talked about my love for the series coming out of my connection to the characters – a connection which, to be totally honest, I don’t often form when reading fantasy novels. I wrote that I generally find that in such books, plot has a higher importance than character development, which is fine for some. But me? I’m really more of a character-driven reader.

I had started to think that maybe you could only have one element, that perhaps a dense, fantastical plot always meant two-dimensional characters.

Nope. Somehow, Shwab does both.

And she does it good.

A Conjuring of Light, on the surface, is a book about a kingdom battling for survival against a huge and inexplicable evil.

Don’t get me wrong. I was into it. Osaron is terrifying! And that scene when he kills King Maxim? Harrowing. The Ferase Stras? Let’s go. Maybe Maris will give me a job. I can totally see myself working in a magical floating market.

But perhaps even more than its twisting, breath-taking and at times, heart-wrenching plot, A Conjuring of Light was a book about change and how that fucker is always coming for you.

Kell has known since A Darker Shade of Magic that his life as a glorified messenger boy is not enough for him. This dissatisfaction shows itself in various ways, from illegal smuggling of objects between worlds, to blindly following strange women (how could he not tell Ojka was a sketchy individual? It’s as if knowing Lila had taught him nothing) into unknown dangers. Kell’s desire to leave the palace is at odds with his loyalty to his kingdom and his love for his family, especially that for his brother. As a result, this unfulfilled desire comes out in self (and sometimes kingdom) destructive behaviours. In case none of that made it obvious enough what this guy really wants, he goes and falls in love with Delilah Bard, the girl who will never stop wandering.

‘Her hands were bandaged, a deep scratch ran along her jaw, and Rhy watched as his brother moved toward her as naturally as if the world had simply tipped. For Kell, apparently, it had.’

Meanwhile the responsibility party-boy Rhy has spent almost his entire princedom avoiding becomes his own with the deaths of his parents. While most of what was childlike about Rhy has, over the course of the book been shed, it isn’t until his parents die, particularly his mother, that we really start to see him as an adult. In Emira – who’s perspective I adored – we see Rhy infantilised. When Emira found out she was pregnant, she grieved like someone had died because she knew that she would spend the rest of her life living in fear that Rhy would die. She wanted to protect him from everything to the point that she cast the boy meant to be his brother – Kell – in the role of bodyguard. She made Rhy into his party-boy self because that was safer for him than being king. And for Rhy the worst had to happen – he had to actually die – before he was able to shed the idea of himself as to be protected and become a fighter instead. It’s an identity that becomes fully realised once both his parents are gone.

I think that what made both these storylines quite so painfully real to me is that both boys had the ability to prevent the other from growing. Kell could leap in and keep Rhy from acting using magic, and Rhy at the end, ‘knew he could make him [Kell] stay, and knew he couldn’t bear to do it.

There is a sense that these characters know what they have isn’t enough, but are afraid to let it go all the same. Lila, to an extent, serves as a foil to this. She is an expert at letting go. Running is her default setting, whereas staying presents more of a challenge. For Lila, the process was the opposite. She has to learn to let people in, rather than just let them go.

Schwab’s characters all break themselves out of their cages. While, you know, dominating evil and restoring peace to all the Londons.

Not bad.

It took me a minute, but ultimately, I adored this series. Schwab’s rich prose weaves a complicated and magical world, and her characters will live in my imagination for many years to come.

As much as I always claim not to care, I’m dreading them making a sub-standard teen movie out of this one.

 

Should Characters be Likeable?

Earlier in the week I reviewed Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion. It was one of those novels that I couldn’t help but feel had waited for me until it knew that it was the right time, that I was in the right head space. That I needed it.

But the truth is, the book had me riled before I even started reading. In his introductory essay, Something About Maria, David Thompson spends some time dwelling on the question of Maria, the protagonist of Play It As It Lays, and her likeability.

Even with no knowledge of her at that point, I could only engage with the debate in the form of some serious side eye.

Are we REALLY still talking about this?

FYI, this blog post is about gender equality in being shitty.

Let me explain myself.

When a male character acts like an asshole, but as the protagonist of the story we are drawn to him anyway, he is called an anti-hero. A Don Draper. Logan from Veronica Mars. Every male lead in every detective show ever. He’s awful, but sexy. Shitty, but funny. We want nothing more than to bury our heads inside of his chest in the hope we might find some answers in the heart beating there.

(But we never will. But we’ll never stop).

What we DON’T do is spend endless hours, think pieces, youtube videos (youtube comment sections) talking about whether he’s ‘likeable’.

Nah, only female characters get that treatment. Female characters like Maria.

Because, as a female lead character, she breaks the rules. She isn’t concerned with whether or not the reader ‘likes’ her. She isn’t quirky and relatable.

We don’t use anti-hero so much when talking about women. We have other words: Bitch. Crazy. Slut.

An anti-hero can be all these things. But in a female character? Rather than a study of human character we find it kind of… icky.

Alida Nugent talks about this a lot in her essays on feminism, You Don’t Have To Like Me. She writes that:

‘As women, we place a lot of stock into being liked. We are supposed to be liked, to be agreeable, to be demure. We aren’t supposed to be disruptive. Saying you’re a feminist means you want more. Women and Oliver Twist should never want more! It’s not ladylike (or orphanlike). We are supposed to be happy. Say yes. Nod Along.’

We aren’t supposed to be disruptive. I think that’s the central problem. When we encounter these women, these unlikeable women, something feels wrong.

Rather than engage, we turn away in the hope such action will put those women back in their boxes.

It won’t.

The truth is this: female characters don’t have to be likeable. They don’t owe that to you.

Women can be cute and smart and funny and dark and damaged and terrible. They can contain as many multitudes as a man.

And we should read about all of them.

So can we PLEASE stop discussing whether or not female characters are likeable? There are so many more interesting questions.

 

 

A Gathering of Shadows

Kell is one of the last magicians with the ability to travel between parallel universes, linked by the magical city of London. It has been four months since a mysterious obsidian stone fell into his possession and he met Delilah Bard. Four months since the Dane twins of White London fell, and the stone was cast with Holland’s dying body back into Black London.

Now Kell is visited by dreams of ominous magical events, waking only to think of Lila. And as Red London prepares for the Element Games – an international competition of magic – a certain pirate ship draws closer. But another London is coming back to life. The balance of magic is perilous, and for one city to flourish, another must fall…

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For the past year, whenever I’ve seen mention of Victoria Schwab or A Darker Shade of Magic – almost always in glowing reviews or rhapsodising tweets – I’ve just sort of shrugged to myself. I read it. It was fine, but I wasn’t that into it. I guess I’m just not a fantasy person, I said to myself. It’s hard to get into a book when I can’t turn off the part of my brain telling me it’s just… silly.

I was wrong.

It isn’t silly.

When I read A Gathering of Shadows I fell in love with it like Kell did with Delilah: hard, fast and with some theft involved (of my heart, obvs).

We could analyse why A Darker Shade of Magic didn’t work for me but I think it’s pointless really. It boils down to a simple statement: book, it’s wasn’t you, it was me. It’s like when Taylor Swift released Shake It Off and I thought for a couple hours I didn’t like it. I was wrong. It’s a vital part of 1989. I love that song.

Like I love A Gathering of Shadows (and A Conjuring of Light, which I am currently about half way through. I went out and bought it, like, instantly even though it wasn’t even pay day yet).

Have I apologised enough yet for my initial lack of enthusiasm? I’m SORRY, okay.

Let’s move on.

V.E Schwab’s writing – if not her name, which I mistype at least three times at every attempt – is like unwrapping a gift, but like in a game of pass the parcel there are layers and layers to peel away before you reach the (dramatic, crazy, heart attacking-inducing) centre.

The only way I can truly describe it is that I want to EAT this woman’s prose. Honestly I think it would taste like chocolate.

I know you know what I mean.

A thing about A Gathering of Shadows is that it’s a lot like The Goblet of Fire – most of the plot is essentially pointless, but it leaves the characters distracted enough for Voldemort to regain his powers while everyone else is looking the other way. Voldemort in this instance being White London (previously of evil Astrid and Athos fame) now under the control of the mysteriously alive evil Antari, Holland.

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RIP Dane siblings

Pointless but fun, and essential in setting up the events of A Conjuring of Light (which so far are CRAZY, btw).

A problem I’ve had with fantasy in the past is that the plot driven nature of most of the books comes at – in my opinion, don’t get mad at me fantasy lovers – the sacrifice of the characters. I often feel like they are stock versions of people, rather than the sort of friends I would happily invite to inhabit my imagination for a week.

Not so in Schwab’s Londons. I was so distracted by Rhy (I’m a sucker for a prince, apparently?) in the first book that I totally failed to notice how engaging Kell’s character is. He spends much of the book with his desire for adventure and independence at war with his responsibilities to his family.

Raise a hand if you can relate to that. Or, maybe don’t actually. There’s no way I could ever count them all.

On the other side of the coin there’s Rhy, who wants his brother to be happy only slightly less than he wants him to stay. One of the interesting images of the book is that of the spell binding Rhy and Kell together, the one that keeps Rhy’s heart beating. The truth Schwab writes around is that the bond was forged way before the spell came along. One boy never knew how to live without the other a long time before death was ever involved.

And Delilah Bard is… basically everything that I want to be.

The Brave adventurer.

The pirate.

The impossible.

Also she has a very utilitarian, purpose driven dress sense that I can’t help but respect.

Lila never met a challenge she wasn’t up for.

As women, we are so often unsure of ourselves, unsure of our legitimacy, if we’ve really earned our place, if we’re allowed to occupy the spaces we’re in. Not Lila. I don’t get the impression that doubting herself ever even occurred to her. As The Least Sure Girl Ever*, I find this to be hella inspiring. In my daily life I think I’m going to start asking WWDBD? What would Delilah Bard do? Though of course the only answer that that question is whatever she damn well pleases.

Altogether, I can’t recommend this book enough. The magic tournament everyone is taking part in has fight scenes that’ll make your heart pound, enemies of Red London, though distant, will keep you on edge throughout. You get to see Lila being a pirate. You’re introduced to Alucard Emery, the new love of my life I would write about at length if this weren’t far too long already.

This wasn’t so much a review as extended fangirling. But, as I’ve mentioned, I have a lot of that to catch up on.

What was your favourite part of A Gathering of Shadows?

*anecdotally proven

 

 

 

 

 

When do you read?

I used to read almost every morning before starting my day. Back when I was student I would roll out of bed around 9am most days, stumble downstairs for a cup of tea before sinking back into bed with a book.

It was the best.

These days, it’s not like that.

I work full time now – usually between 35 and 50 hours a week. Long mornings spent in bed with a book are a thing of the past. They have been replaced with long hours taking food to hostile strangers.

Reading became something that I had to make time for.

I find it frustrating in 90% of people when they say ‘I don’t have time to read!

What most people actually mean by that is: I don’t make time to read.

And there are a bunch of valid reasons for not making time. Maybe your days are mentally taxing. Maybe you have a whole bunch of kids. Maybe you’re just tired.

I totally get that.

But, for people like me, the zero-hour contract, employment law need-not-apply, brain melting 12 hour restaurant shift type people… books are important. You need that reminder that the world is bigger than the walls you work inside of.

So, those mornings in bed being a thing of the past, where do you read?

For me, most reading takes place on or waiting for public transport. I used to not like reading on the train, because I am very easily distracted/annoyed by other people’s conversation and not really into listening to music when I read. But, I realised, if I added up all the time I spend sitting on trains I would probably cry, so I may as well use that time doing something important.

To me, that something important is reading, obviously.

Despite my best efforts, I totally fail at not getting drawn into listening to/laughing at/being disgusted by large groups of football men/teenagers/suit wearing, Apple computer owning types. I had to get over the not listening to music thing. It turns out I can read to Lorde much better than I can middle aged men bitching about their wives.

Who knew.

Adulthood, I have learned, is a lot about choosing what’s important to you.

Right now, reading is important. When I pick up a book, I’m looking for something. I’ve recently realised that there are pieces of it scattered everywhere, through YA and through literary books. Fragments of it are hiding in poetry and essays.

I secretly feel like maybe if I read enough books, I’ll be able to gather those pieces into a coherent whole and then maybe I’ll know what to do next.

When I read, that’s what I’m making time for.

Maybe the question isn’t so much WHEN you make time for it as WHY.

When do YOU read, and why?