Saturday, 21 January 2017

Review: 'Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives' by Leigh Gilmore

As some of you know, I am very interested in women's voices and women's narratives. Although my expertise largely lies in medieval English narratives, I also busy myself with reading up more current explorations of the roles of women within our contemporary world. Thanks to the recent rise of interest in feminism, more books are now seeing the light of day exploring the different ways in which this world is skewed against women. When I read the blurb for Leigh Gilmore's Tainted Witness I knew it was the type of book I wanted to read straightaway. I enjoy academic reads, hence my never-ending desire to stay at universities, especially when they're well-researched and well-written. Thankfully both are true for Tainted Witness and it has been an incredibly enlightening and fascinating read. Thanks to Columbia University Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 17/01/2017
Publisher: Columbia University Press
In 1991, Anita Hill brought testimony and scandal into America's living rooms during televised Senate confirmation hearings in which she detailed the sexual harassment she had suffered at the hands of Clarence Thomas. The male Senate Judiciary Committee refused to take Hill seriously and the veracity of Hill's claims were sullied in the mainstream media. Hill was defamed as "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty," and Thomas went on to be confirmed. The tainting of Hill and her testimony are part of a larger social history in which women find themselves caught up in a system that refuses to believe what they say. The Anita Hill case shows how a tainted witness is not who someone is, but what someone can become. 
Why are women so often considered unreliable witnesses to their own experience? How are women discredited in legal courts and in courts of public opinion? Why is women's testimony so often mired in controversies fueled by histories of slavery and colonialism? Tainted Witness takes up these questions within a rich archive, including Anita Hill's testimony as well as Rigoberta Menchú's account of genocide in Guatemala; Jamaica Kincaid's literary witnessing in Autobiography of My Mother; and news coverage of such stories as Nafissatou Diallo's claim that Dominique Strauss-Kahn raped her. Bringing together legal, literary, and feminist frameworks, Leigh Gilmore provides provocative readings of what happens when women's testimony is discredited. Throughout, Gilmore demonstrates how testimony crosses jurisdictions, publics, and the unsteady line between truth and fiction in search of justice.
In Tainted Witness Gilmore casts her eye over a number of high-profile cases and books which caused controversy and saw female witnesses become "tainted witnesses", disbelieved and vilified, hounded and abused. The desire not to believe what we wish wasn't true means that many victims find themselves abused again as witnesses. Seemingly there are stories every day of victims of sexual assault being victim-blamed, of perpetrators being saved by their class, position and race. Look at how Donald Trump responded to the women who accused him of sexual assault, how the media chose a side and how even "Pussygate" had hardly any impact and then tell me there is no need for a book that looks into why we don't believe female witnesses. But Tainted Witness doesn't just look at sexual assault, it does much more than that. Below I want to give a short description of what Gilmore's book covers since I want to show how much work Tainted Witness does, how much it connects and what it tries to do.

Gilmore's first chapter looks at Anita Hill's testimony during the 1991 Senate confirmation of Clarence Thomas in which race, gender and sexual abuse in the workplace came together. While he was confirmed, she was defames. Gilmore makes an interesting case both for the role race played as an all white hearing questioned the African-American Anita Hill, as well as highlighting the absence of awareness regarding sexual abuse in the work place, for which a legal definition and framework now exists. In her second chapter Gilmore explores the case of Rigoberta Menchú, whose testimonio I, Rigoberta Menchú shed light on the conflict in Guatemala and the massacres of indigenous people. Similarly to Hill, Menchú found her narrative and personal life investigated, her motives questioned and her ideas spurned. The third chapter focuses on the memoir and self-help books, moving from a book such as The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison, which chronicles an incestuous relationship with her estranged father, to Wild by Cheryl Strayed, which tells the author's journey of survival and self-help. Gilmore highlights how some women who tell their stories don't fit how we want victims to look (like Kathryn Harrison) or how self-help books eradicate personal history and background for a universal humanity. Chapter four revisists Mortensens' Three Cups of Tea as well as Jay Kristoff's Half the Sky and how the stories of underpriviliged or "other" girls (read: non-Western girls) are used by humanitarians to sell a story. In the guise of telling the witness' story, Gilmore shows how their stories are, in a way, appropriated and abused. The picture of a girl in a hijab has become a rallying cry, for all the wrong reasons. The final chapter looks at the testimony of Nafissatou Diallo, who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of rape and was vindicated in the Bronx court, as well as Jamaica Kincaid's novel The Autobiography of my Mother in which her perhaps unlikeable main character grows up loveless, as well as with the burden of her homeland's (Dominica) colonial past. These two women allow Gilmore to contrast a witness in court to a literary witness. Diallo was equally vilified, if not worse, as Anita Hill and her case allows Gilmore to analyse the he said/she said formula which somehow still always ends up in his favour. In her conclusion Gilmore explores the feminist roots of #BlackLivesMatter and how its activists make themselves knowing witnesses, publicising that which others would like to remain secret.

The role of witness is a difficult one, since it often involves personal morals, prejudices and expectations. Since women already receive less credibility than men, thanks to centuries of writing on "men's superior intellect", it makes the position of a female witness a very difficult one. Gilmore covers a whole range of subjects, yet her writing on sexual abuse victims/witnesses is what struck me most. Between 2 and 10% of reported rape claims are found to be false, which is both an incredibly small number and a terrifying number considering about only one out of 10 rapes is reported. The dangerous thing about rape culture and the narratives we build around rape cases is that many of us become a part of it. The famous he said/she said formula is one we all use and all recognise, yet it is one which is fundamentally skewed because it opens up both the victim and perpetrator to the same level of scrutiny. Female witnesses are tainted by this scrutiny in a way male witnesses often are not, and Gilmore's precise and detailed research into the above cases really brings this home. Although Tainted Witness is dense and at times complicated, it is a very rewarding read. 

I give this book...
4 Universes!

Tainted Witness is very dense but it has a lot of important things to say. It is a fascinating insight into the role of witnesses and how the legal framework works regarding female witnesses. Although one would like to hope female witnesses have it easier now, statistics as the one above regarding reported rapes show that the fear of being tainted still stops many women from reporting crimes. I will be looking for a hardcover version of this book because I want to reread it and highlight it, write notes and thoughts, comb its bibliography for more books to read and borrow it to other people ready to be enlightened.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Review: 'Vivid and Repulsive as the Truth: The Early Works of Djuna Barnes' by Djuna Barnes, Katharine Maller

Vivid and Repulsive as the Truth: The Early Works of Djuna BarnesWhat do you do when you see a book by "the most famous unknown author in the world"? You rack your brain, find you really don't know her, are shocked at yourself and get your hands on the book ASAP. That's what happened when I saw Vivid and Repiulsive as the Truth by Djuna Barnes and her name didn't ring a bell. Unlike many, I'd never heard of Nightwood, a novel now solidly on my TBR-list, so Barnes really was completely unknown to me. And what a shame that was. Thankfully, Dover Books and Katharine Maller changed that. Thanks to Dover Books and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 17/08/2016
Publisher: Dover Books

The self-described "most famous unknown author in the world," Djuna Barnes (1892 - 1982) is increasingly regarded as an important voice of feminism, modernism, and lesbian culture. Best remembered for her 1936 novel Nightwood, Barnes began her career by writing poetry, short stories, and articles for avant-garde literary journals as well as popular magazines. She took the grotesque nature of reality as her recurrent theme, a pessimistic world view frequently brightened by her sparkling wit. 
A longtime resident of Greenwich Village, Barnes drew inspiration from the bustling streets of Lower Manhattan, and this eclectic compilation of her early journalism, fiction, and poetry recaptures the vitality of her bohemian literary scene. The collection opens with articles ranging from an account of an evening at the Arcadia, a "modern dance hall," to a firsthand report of the force-feeding endured by suffragettes in 1914. In addition to profiles of a postman, vaudeville performer, and other local personalities, Barnes interviews Lillian Russell and Alfred Stieglitz and describes an encounter with James Joyce. A dozen short stories follow, and the book concludes with a selection of compelling and sensual poetry, including verse from The Book of Repulsive Women. A selection of the author's original illustrations is included.
Before going into Vivid and Repulsive itself, a quick note on Dover Books is necessary. I've read and reviewed a number of their collections by now and I always greatly appreciate them. They are well-structured and always offer a great insight into an author's full work. But they don't just cover the well-known and famous, they also provide collections such as these which reintroduce the audience to woefully forgotten voices. It's a real pleasure to be able to find such strong female voices and have them presented so delightfully. Which brings us back to Djuna Barnes and Katharine Maller. Maller both edits this collection and wrote an introduction for it. Quite often these types of introductions get skipped, but in the case of Vivid and Repulsive the introduction is a real gem. Maller does an excellent job at contextualizing Barnes, introducing her and 1900s New York to the reader. Especially of note is her statement on some of Barnes' opinions. Despite having feminist notions, Barnes is also a product of her time. Maller does not edit these more unsavoury moments out, but has excluded some stories from the collection for this reason. She doesn't cover up Barnes' more outdated opinions, but gives them a place without making them dominant. It's an excellent way to deal with covering older authors, I think.

Vivid and Repulsive is a collection of early work, when Barnes started off as a journalist. The first section of the collection focuses on her articles. This was probably my favourite section, as Barnes' articles cover a whole range of topics and are written with a perfect balance of cynicism and interest in her topics. Amongst my favourites are her interviews with contemporary actresses such as Yvette Guilbert who had delightfully modern and feminist thoughts. Also interesting is her obituary of James Joyce, who she met repeatedly. Her articles offer a different kind of perspective, especially on the Bohemian life in Greenwich Village, NY. Impactful is her report on the force-feeding of the Suffragetes, which puts the reader right in the middle of this terrible act.This section was my favourite, although I also enjoyed her short stories. She writes about the miseries of life with an almost blase attitude. Terrible things happen, but it is what it is. For some it may be a bit depressing, but I thought it was very interesting. The final section of the collection focuses on Barnes' poetry. There are some beautiful poems in the mix, such as 'Call of the Night' and 'Love Song', which I loved. The title of this collection is taken from one of the last poems, 'Seen from the L'. Although I enjoyed Barnes' poetry it wasn't as enticing as her prose, but full of beautiful imagery.

After reading Vivid and Repulsive one understands why she called herself 'the most famous unknown author in the world'. On the one hand that is simply her style, but as always there is also a kernel of truth in it. Djuna Barnes' writing is alive with personality and spark. This is the woman who walked into her first job interview saying: 'I can draw and write, and you’d be a fool not to hire me'. She put herself in the most difficult positions in order to be able to truly write about them. She was a Bohemian who moved to Paris and wrote a cult classic of lesbian fiction. She is one of those people whose life reads like a 'Who's Who' of 20th century Paris and New York. Her articles are beautifully descriptive, her short stories depressingly honest and her poetry ever so slightly elusive. Having not read Nightwood, this collection has made me very curious for it!

I give this collection...

4 Universes!

I'm very happy to have discovered Djuna Barnes, not only as a writer but also as a person. Seemingly fearless for most of her life, she can serve as a great inspiration for beginning writers. Perhaps don't adopt her violently alcoholic latter years however. I'd recommend Vivid and Repulsive as the Truth to those wanting to find a gem of the 20th century and for those interested in female writers.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Review: 'Good Me Bad Me' by Ali Land

As a thriller fan nothing gets me going as much as reading or seeing something I haven’t read or seen before. Admittedly this can be quite a task for an author since thriller novels and films abound, with new ones coming out seemingly every day. So when I saw Good Me Bad Me I was immediately intrigued by the blurb which promised all the right things. And I’m very happy to say that Land did not disappoint. Good Me Bad Me is both a gripping read and a book that will make you think. Thanks to Michael Joseph and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 12/01/2017
Publisher: Penguin UK - Michael Joseph
SET TO BE ONE OF THE MOST EXTRAORDINARY, CONTROVERSIAL AND EXPLOSIVE DEBUTS OF 2017 - for fans of quality psychological suspense and reading group fiction: once you read this book you'll want to talk about it . 'NEW N A M E . NEW F A M I LY. S H I N Y. NEW. ME . ' Annie's mother is a serial killer. The only way she can make it stop is to hand her in to the police. But out of sight is not out of mind. As her mother's trial looms, the secrets of her past won't let Annie sleep, even with a new foster family and name - Milly. A fresh start. Now, surely, she can be whoever she wants to be. But Milly's mother is a serial killer. And blood is thicker than water. Good me, bad me. She is, after all, her mother's daughter... Translated into over 20 languages, Good Me Bad Me is a tour de force. In its narrator, Milly Barnes, we have a voice to be reckoned with, and in its author, Ali Land, an extraordinary new talent.
‘But the hearts of small children are delicate organs. A cruel beginning in this world can twist them into curious shapes.’
Carson McCullers (1917-1967)

This is the quote that starts the book and, in many ways, sets the tone. At the centre of this novel is the question of Annie/Milly’s heart and what is in it. The nature vs. nurture debate has spawned not only dozens of academic discussions but also a whole range of literature. Humanity is fascinated with whether it is, at the core, intrinsically good, or if there is an innate ‘bad me’ which is only waiting to come out. Philosophers such as John Locke have argued for the child being a ‘tabula rasa’, a clean slate, upon which external influences start acting from the moment of its birth. So was it the belief of Rousseau that warfare and aggression are learned, and not innate. We find traces of these arguments in novels such as Jane Eyre in which Lady Blanche speaks of children with ‘bad blood’. Even Harry Potter addresses this when Dudley’s aunt monologues about how ‘if there’s something wrong with the bitch, there is something wrong with the pup’. What makes the latter of the two examples fascinating, and relevant, is that they seem to argue for a combination between nature and nurture. There is something of ‘bad me’ that is simply in all of us, in our blood, yet nurture has a major role to play in bringing it out. This cross-section within the debate lies at the heart of Good Me Bad Me. It explores to what extent evil is something that works upon us or from within us, whether bad things that have happened to us can make us do bad things too, or whether we secretly wanted to do those bad things all along.

Good Me Bad Me is filled with women of all ages and most walks of life. Evil serial killers are usually played by men in films or TV shows, with the rare female killer appearing as an extra special, scary treat. Very often her crimes are either sexual or against children, and in the worst cases the two are combined. It is this fear of evil women which fascinates me and which Land also cleverly picks up on throughout Good Me Bad Me. There is an almost blind trust in women to be maternal and caring, to want to protect children and to not be aggressive or violent. It’s the Feminine Ideal which has somehow survived into the 21st century and still makes it hard for women to talk about things such as Post-Natal Depression, the desire to not have children or the aggressive traits in our own personalities. Because of this ideal, the thought of a woman who goes against all this has always been fascinating and is present in a lot of literary and cinematic tropes. She is in the Femme Fatale, in the Last Girl, in the Virgin/Whore dichotomy. Good Me Bad Me addresses some of the points that arise from this combined fear and fascination with evil women and does so through a varied cast of female characters. There are the teenage girls, violently obsessed with their own lives and almost negligently cruel to each other. There are the mothers who care too much or not enough, those for whom motherhood is a challenge but don’t dare admit it. There are the women and girls who use what they have to get what they want, and those who want and give, but never get.

Land’s world is not a pleasant one, but to a large extent it is a very honest one. It has become something of a trend to write about “complicated women”, but often these books lose all the nuance that is so crucial to them. Novels such as Gone Girl are simplified down to “the good housewife is actually a psycho, beware of all women” and are thereby crucially misunderstood. Naturally thrillers and crime novels are sensationalist in a sense, but they also address significant issues around how men and women are seen and see themselves. Good Me Bad Me strikes a very good balance between following the genre’s knack for the terrifying as well as giving some insight into the minds of the people it is serving up to the reader. Land throws in enough twists that both engender sympathy for all the characters, while also making a sword out of that sympathy. In the end Good Me Bad Me won’t tell you who is good and who is bad, it will give you enough material, however, to come to your own conclusions with your own justifications as to why.

Land’s writing throughout the novel is superb. First person narratives are always tricky and very often do not work. Not only does an author need to create a consistent voice for their narrator, that voice also has to change and develop throughout the story. In the case of thrillers or crime novels the extra task is added that the narrator on the one hand shouldn’t give too much away, but on the other hand also needs to reveal enough to keep the reader engaged. There is a very good reason as to why Good Me Bad Me had to be written in first person. Annie/Millie is the sole focus of this novel, it is her psyche, her mind, that is under the microscope, so to say. The way in which Land writes Millie, how she breaks up sentences, constructs thoughts and gives shape to internal processes is fascinating and really draws the reader into Millie’s mind. There is something fractured and hard, yet also vulnerable about the writing of the book which gives the reader a constant glimpse at what’s in Millie’s mind, even the things she herself would rather not know about.

I give this novel…
5 Universes!

I absolutely loved Good Me Bad Me. I raced through it, not only because I was desperate to know what would happen but also because Land gives you no choice but to hurdle along until the bitter end. I’d recommend this to fans of Psychological Thrillers and Crime Novels.


Review: 'My Life on the Road' by Gloria Steinem

My Life on the RoadGloria Steinem is as close to a living legend as it is possible to be. When I first started on my journey towards becoming the full blown feminist I am nowadays I knew her name and of some of her work. As the years passed, she would appear in articles and books I read at University and I'd see her on TV supporting and advocating causes I also believed in. It took until My Life on the Road, however, for me to actually sit down and get to know her. The beauty of this book, for me, lies in that I now do feel like I know more, not just about her, but about feminism, about women, about America, about freedom, about Native Americans and about struggle. I'm very grateful for this book. Thanks to Random House and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 25/10/2015
Publisher: Random House
Gloria Steinem—writer, activist, organizer, and one of the most inspiring leaders in the world—now tells a story she has never told before, a candid account of how her early years led her to live an on-the-road kind of life, traveling, listening to people, learning, and creating change. She reveals the story of her own growth in tandem with the growth of an ongoing movement for equality. This is the story at the heart of My Life on the Road.

As I said above, I am incredibly grateful to have read My Life on the Road. It's not a typical memoir, in that it lists a mountain of achievements and not-so-subtly asks for praise. Rather, it feels like having a long conversation, during a longer roadtrip, that started with the question 'Where are we going?' My Life on the Road doesn't stick to the usual route, takes random shortcuts down country lanes which lead to unexpected surprises, stops at random moments that enlighten, and doesn't require a clear destination. Steinem takes the reader all the way back to her childhood, discusses her fear of public speaking, the struggles she faced as a journalist and how her activism slowly but surely grew into becoming life- and era-defining. The memoir's emphasis, however, doesn't lie on Steinem herself. Rather, it's a book full of people. Although a life on the road sounds lonely, Steinem's life so far is full of wonderful moments, brilliant people, and shocking truths. For me, reading My Life on the Road brought a sense of freedom, in that a life doesn't have to follow a certain pattern, that activism is both small and enormous, that everyone starts somewhere with no clear idea of where they're going. And it made me excited, excited to hear more, see more, experience more. No wonder some think feminism is dangerous for young women, this combination of freedom and excitement is potent!

My Life on the Road is filled with stories, anecdotes, brief glimpses into the lives of others, and realisations. That's because at the heart of My Life on the Road is storytelling and, its often forgotten partner, listening. By reading her memoir, the reader starts out on the path that Steinem herself travels: that of a listener. With each new chapter, each new aside, Steinem broadens the reader's world by showing how her own was opened through listening. But rather than advocate the 'be silent and listen to me preach'-approach, Steinem writes of a different kind of speaking and listening, one which is communal and equal. This book showcases the power of telling your story and thereby encouraging others to do the same. Whether it's Steinem's college tours which stretched into the early hours because once people realise they are being heard they have a lot to say, or Steinem herself being the one initiated into the true power of dialogue by women on an train across India, or women like Wilma Mankiller, My Life on the Road is an ode to conversation. There are those who think feminists are knowitalls, who want to tell you how to think and refuse to listen. They should read My Life on the Road and have their eyes opened.

Steinem is a great writer, which should come as no surprise considering she makes a living of it. Although there is no clear line throughout My Life on the Road, there is definitely a journey. And Steinem is very willing to share it with you, whether it's her own embarrassment at not knowing something, her own struggle with sexism in the workplace or the feeling of euphoria at having achieved something. Rarely do memoirs give me such an actual insight into someone's mind, someone's life. Although she writes about the past, My Life is on the Road is incredibly current. When she writes about the 2008 Democratic primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, many of her observations sting considering the November election. Despite the eight years that have come and gone, nothing changed in how Hillary Clinton was treated. When she writes about her involvement in Native American activism, the many prejudices and obstacles she sees Native Americans struggle with are still as present as ever. Solely for this, My Life on the Road is an enlightening read because it shows that the "fight" is not a battle but a journey. Every two steps forward sees us take a step back and we don't know where exactly it is we're going. But as long as we keep venturing forward, the destination will become clearer.

I give this memoir...

5 Universes!

If I hadn't been a supporter of Steinem before, I definitely would have been one after reading My Life on the Road. It's a memoir of insight, awareness and ideas, a book that shows the power of listening, of telling stories, of continuing to explore. I will be rereading it many times, as well as doing some footnote hunting to learn more. I'd recommend this not only to those already aware of Steinem and what she stands for, but also those who don't know her and are curious.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Inkitt is coming to an Android near you!

Image result for InkittI got approached by Inkitt about 2 weeks ago with some very exciting news which I can't wait to share with you. But first, let's talk about Inkitt itself! Inkitt is an online library of thousands of stories of all different genres, brought straight from authors to us readers. My favourite thing about them is their own 'I'm feeling lucky' button which presents you with a random story. It's an amazing way to discover new genres and different Indie writers. Independent authors need all the help they can get in getting the word out there about their work so I've always thought Inkitt was a great thing!

Now, what is the big news? Back in November, Inkitt launched an IOS app, which is great for Apple users but is less great for people like me who are staunch Android users. But Inkitt has heard our prayers and is ... *drum roll please* releasing an Android app globally today!
With the Inkitt app, readers can discover thousands of new novels by emerging authors anytime, anywhere (even when they're offline!) and get personalized recommendations based on their preferred fiction genres.
I love the fact that amazing new fiction will be mere finger taps away from now on! You can select reads, add them to your shelves, write reviews and discover even more new authors. A feature I love is the offline library, which means you can still read when not online. It'll be perfect for those journeys to work when I can't get reception on the metro! And I love the lay-out as well, it's nice and clean, not too cluttered, all about reading ease.




One of the reasons I prefer reading on my Kindle to reading on my laptop is that I can adjust my reading experience to my surroundings, and Inkitt totally took this idea on board for its app! Not only can you choose from its thousands of titles, you can also adjust font, letter size, background etc. to get the perfect reading experience.






And the best news? Inkitt has given me a download link so you don't even have to go out of your way to get your hands on their amazing app. Click Here to join in on the reading fun! I myself am already there ;)

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Review: 'The Spy' by Paulo Coelho

Mata Hari is a woman who has fascinated me for years. You should know by now that I'm all about women breaking gender norms. She was as enigmatic as they come and her end only aroused more questions than answers. Not only did she live during one of the most interesting times in European history, she played a very interesting role in that time. Combine my obsession with Mata Hari with my interest in Paulo Coelho, author of the cult classic The Alchemist, which I enjoyed, and you should have the perfect recipe. Unfortunately somewhere in the kitchen, however, something went wrong and I was left slightly unhappy with what was served. Thanks to Random House UK and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 22/11/2016
Publisher: Random House UK, Cornerstone

When Mata Hari arrived in Paris she was penniless. 
Soon she was feted as the most elegant woman in the city. 
A dancer who shocked and delighted audiences; a confidant and courtesan who bewitched the era’s richest and most powerful men. 
But as paranoia consumed a country at war, Mata Hari’s lifestyle brought her under suspicion. Until, in 1917 she was arrested in her hotel room on the Champs Elysees and accused of espionage. 
Told through Mata's final letter, THE SPY tells the unforgettable story of a woman who dared to break the conventions of her time, and paid the price.
Mata Hari was born to Dutch parents as Margaretha Zelle in 1876 in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands. At the age of 18 she answered a marriage ad in a newspaper and married Rudolf MacLeod a year later. He was a Army Captain in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and a ticket out of a life that was already becoming stifling. Unfortunately, he was also an alcoholic and abusive. The couple eventually returned to the Netherlands after the death of their youngest child and divorced. In 1903 Marghareta moved to Paris and in 1905 Mata Hari started making waves amongst the social and artistic elite. Mata Hari danced unlike any other, apparently exotic and other, yet incredibly sensual and physical at the same time. Over the years she became more known as a courtesan than  a dancer, embodying the Bohemian spirit of freedom and beauty. But as WWI loomed on the horizon, her fame turned into infamy. Then in 1917 she was arrested in Paris for spying for the Germans and thereby causing the deaths of 50,000 men. She was executed by a firing squad the same year at the age of 41. Margaretha's life was a turbulent and almost permanently outrageous one. She broke a lot of the rules in places for women both then and now, and telling her story is one hell of a mission. Despite the title of his novel referring to a very specific part of her life, The Spy does cover her whole life, attempting to give the reader a real insight into her life.

As I said above, something about this novel left me unhappy and even perturbed. On the one hand Coelho's novel provides a fascinating insight into the life and mind of a fascinating woman. He takes his liberties with history, moving events around to fit his own ideas, but he is honest about it and it works for the novel. I also don't think that Margaretha wouldn't have minded, considering the frequent liberties she herself took when telling her own story. On the other hand, however, his version of Mata Hari was strangely disaffected by most things. The way I imagine Mata Hari is as someone who lived intensely, saw the world around her, both its freedoms and limitations, and wanted to make the most of it. Coelho's Mata Hari, however, is uncaring about the events leading up to World War I and the people in her life. This could be a consequence of the form of the novel, more on that later, but it still left me slightly disenchanted. Who knew the proverb to never meet your heroes also counted for literary rendezvous'?

Coelho's writing can be stunning. In The Alchemist it is at times beautifully descriptive and then obtusely convoluted. In The Spy there are also moments of beauty, stunning quotes that really give an insight into how someone like Mata Hari might have felt. At other times, however, the pace is too high to truly make the reader care. The novel has the perfect set up, starting at the very end. The reader first meets Mata Hari in French prison and witnesses her final moments. From there Coelho lets Mata Hari "take the word" through a letter to her lawyer, written in the days before her execution. It's a brilliant way to bring the reader closer to her, but much of Coelho's work is undone when the novel ends with the lawyer's "reply". It really was a shame because it almost overturns all the work he has done to make Mata Hari appear sympathetic and for me the magic ended very quickly towards the end. Although Coelho does say he has taken liberties, there is a lot he didn't touch upon that would have fit beautifully with the story he does tell. As historian Julie Wheelwright has said of Mata Hari, she was:
"...an independent woman, a divorcee, a citizen of a neutral country, a courtesan and a dancer, which made her a perfect scapegoat for the French, who were then losing the war. She was kind of held up as an example of what might happen if your morals were too loose."
Personally I would have loved to read more about how perception of her changed, how her life in Paris was. Some of the most beautiful quotes from the novel are when Mata Hari lingers on the opportunities she took, the boundaries she broke and the expectations she dashed. More of that would have been welcome, but then The Spy is only 208 pages and not a biography.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

I enjoyed The Spy, it is a short and quick read, well-written and mostly engaging. With any other person at the centre, however, this novel would not have worked. Coelho doesn't do much to add to Mata Hari's mystery, but at least he also doesn't take away from it too much. I'd recommend this to people interested in finding out more about Mata Hari and fans of Coelho himself.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Review: 'Reckless I: The Petrified Flesh' by Cornelia Funke, Lionel Wigram, trans. by Oliver Latsch.

Cornelia Funke has owned my heart ever since my father read me Inkheart for the first time. Naturally he read it to me in German and I loved how she literally brought her characters to live from the pages. There is a magic in words and like other authors, Neil Gaiman comes to mind, Funke knows, appreciates and uses this. So of course I wanted to check out her newest and latest! Thanks to Pushkin Children's and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 29/12/2016
Publisher: Pushkin Children's
Ever since Jacob Reckless was a child, he has been escaping to a hidden world through a portal in his father's abandoned study. Over the years, he has made a name for himself as a finder of enchanted items and buried secrets. He's also made many enemies and allies--most important, Fox, a beautiful shape-shifting vixen whom Jacob cares for more than he lets on.
But life in this other world is about to change. Tragedy strikes when Jacob's younger brother, Will, follows him through the portal. Brutally attacked, Will is infected with a curse that is quickly transforming him into a Goyl--a ruthless killing machine, with skin made of stone.
Jacob is prepared to fight to save his brother, but in a land built on trickery and lies, Jacob will need all the wit, courage, and reckless spirit he can summon to reverse the dark spell--before it's too late. 
The best thing about The Petrified Flesh, the first book in Funke's new trilogy Reckless, is that the fantasy world she creates is fascinating. A beautiful conglomeration of everything to be found in the Grimms' Fairytales, the world behind the mirror is full of magic, witches, fairies, elves, and whatever else you can think of. One of the big joys reading this book is stumbling upon another little Grimms' gem you had forgotten about until it reappeared in Funke's pages. With two of the main characters named after and modelled upon Jacob and Wilhelm Grimms, it should come as no surprise then that the novel consistently moves only within the Grimms' tales. No sad mermaids, no sadder matchstick girls and definitely no pine trees with high Christmas aspirations. However, Funke manages to weave all the different rather well. Although it can become a bit confusing at times, this is rather due to the wrongly paced plot, rather than the world itself. Which leads me to one of my main points of criticism for this novel.

Usually Funke's strength is her story-telling, the weaving together of different fascinating characters and storylines through beautiful prose. Although the beautiful prose still survives into the translation, there are parts of the novel that feel ill-timed. The beginning is too sudden, too quick, introducing a whole range of characters and creatures but not giving the reader enough time to get acquainted with either, let alone start caring for any of them. Although this does improve, it can make the first 70 or so pages of the book a bit of a test. What kept me going was an interest in the world, not any of the human main characters. Conversely, it was the Goyl who I found most interesting and I loved the chapters dedicated to them. What makes the odd pacing especially confusing is that The Petrified Flesh definitely seems to be meant for younger readers, between middle-grade and YA. The chapters are short and sweet, clearly plot-driven and there is little exposition. Each chapter is introduced by a pretty illustration but there is no sense of large world-building as in novels like The Lord of the Rings or even the Narnia chronicles, which, in my opinion, falls within the same reader group. Perhaps for younger readers the pace and motions of the plot will be just fine, but for me they felt off and I found it hard to connect with the novel initially.

No matter the criticism above, Funke completely rewarded my faith in her in this novel. The opening line of the book made me breathe a happy sigh:
'The night was breathing in the apartment like a dark animal.'
The prose in The Petrified Flesh is beautiful. Funke excels at descriptions and there are plenty of those in the novel. She worked on the novel together with Lionel Wigram, the film producer/genius who bought the rights to the Harry Potter books for Warner Bros.. Knowing this, there is definitely a sense in which The Petrified Flesh moves like a film rather than a book. Character development comes from spare moments, quick actions rather than any extended time spent with a character. A reader who approaches this book wanting to sink away into rich prose, world-building, character development and lore might therefore be disappointed. Not that these things don't appear in the novel, but they are there sparsely, woven together by a fragile plot. For younger readers, however, this is a great introduction to both fairy tales and fantasy fiction. Props should also go to translator Oliver Latsch. Although some of the phrasing is occasionally awkward, Funke's writing still comes through very well into English.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

Perhaps I was too old for this novel, since the pacing and depth of Reckless: The Petrified Flesh didn't work for me. However, I really appreciated the beauty of Funke's prose and the pleasurable dip back into Grimms' fairy tales. The one think Funke and Wigram have definitely achieved is making me desperate to reread them classics. I'd recommend this to fans of Middle Grade and YA Fantasy.