Thursday, 11 January 2018

Review: 'Bad Girls with Perfect Faces' by Lynn Weingarten

It has only been the past few years, almost simultaneously with ageing out of teenhood myself, that I truly allowed myself to indulge in Young Adult drama of the high school kind. The one where everyone is under eighteen and yet everyone speaks like they have the vocabulary of a mature grown-up. Sometimes this leads to me reading absolutely brilliant books, like Girls on Fire which rocked my world, or books that slightly let me down, like Girl in Snow. And so I continue with this genre, down this path of hit and miss, and Bad Girls with Perfect Faces is the latest to meet me on my way. Thanks to Egmont Publishing and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 11/01/2018
Publisher: Egmont Publishing; Electric Monkey
STUNNING NEW PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER FROM THE AUTHOR OF THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER SUICIDE NOTES FROM BEAUTIFUL GIRLS. 
No one is good enough for Xavier. Not according to Sasha, his best friend. There's nothing Sasha wouldn't do to protect Xavier from getting hurt, especially by his cheating ex Ivy, who's suddenly slithered back into the picture. Worried that Xavier is ready to forgive and forget, Sasha decides to do a little catfishing. She poses as a hot guy online, to prove cheaters never change. 
But Sasha's plan goes wrong fast, and soon the lies lead down a path from which there's no return . . .
Bad Girls with Perfect Faces is the kind of book you devour in a single sitting, racing through the pages as time flies by, until it's done. And then you just sit there for a second, finally taking the time to actually consider what it is you've just read. A lot of things about Bad Girls with Perfect Faces are pretty straightforward, especially considering its genre. You've seen it before. boy and girl, or girl and girl, are best friends, only friends, or are they? And suddenly there is the ex again, who is a terrible person, making this a love triangle. Now our main girl has to protect her friend, but how? By doing something stupid, something she will definitely come to regret. And welcome to the downward spiral, as all the teenagers involved see their lives slipping down a slippery slope of silly mistakes and regrets. Why is this so entertaining, I ask myself as I read this same plot over and over again, breathlessly turning the pages. There is something addictive about the adrenaline-fuelled mess that is being a teenager, when everything feels dramatic, especially when it is in the hands of a gifted author who manages to make the plot feel new again. And that is the case with Bad Girls with Perfect Faces. It is by no means revolutionary, but Weingarten manages to make it exciting nonetheless. Was I surprised by the novel's plot twists? Not entirely, but did I enjoy going down this rabbit hole again? Definitely!

I always feel slightly dirty after books like Bad Girls with Perfect Faces. None of the characters are truly likeable, all stuck in that teen mindset where everything is horrendous and everything is about them. I saw another reviewer, Parajunkee, comment on how Bad Girls with Perfect Faces struck an odd balance between mature/immature throughout and I couldn't agree more. On the one hand Weingarten's characters are incredibly immature children with no thought for those around them, on the other hand some of the novel's themes, the emotions its characters felt, were surprisingly deep. However, I do think that the limits of the genre hold most of these novels back from really saying anything too profound. There is so much drinking, pill-popping, absentee parents, lack of school, sex and swearing that I hardly recognise it as the world of a seventeen-year old. Sure, that could be me, but it's still odd. Also, why are only the girls going down wrong paths, seemingly? Why are they the ones excelling at crazy while the boys remain floating, occasionally boringly, in calmer waters? Perhaps this is partially why I find the genre so fascinating, because it always comes back one way or another to the high drama of being a young girl, of being a growing woman loving and fearing and losing. And Bad Girls with Perfect Faces does capture the utter fear of losing something or someone perfectly.

I hadn't read Weingarten's wildly popular Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls so I didn't quite know what to expect going into Bad Girls with Perfect Faces. As I said above, I was sucked into the novel straightaway, she captured me in that way only YA fiction can. Weingarten excels at writing the kind of fiction that speeds up, where every sentence is leading to the next one. There were some things about the writing that threw me off, how one narrator's chapters were in first person and how another's were in third, which were probably done on purpose but felt a bit off. I really enjoyed how Weingarten incorporated social media messaging into the novel, tapping into how we're simultaneously more honest and more deceitful online. Towards the end of the novel a different narrator joined in and their narration really didn't work for me. Although I can see why Weingarten made certain choices regarding how they relayed their feelings it went too far over the immature/mature line for me and felt a bit dramatic. This kind of reflects on the whole end of the novel, where things seem to just get more and more convoluted past the point of the believable. However, I still couldn't put Bad Girls with Perfect Faces down and will definitely keep my eyes open for future books by Weingarten for that adrenaline kick her writing gives me.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

I enjoyed Bad Girls with Perfect Faces a lot, even if there were things here and there I didn't enjoy. The novel is a rush and will capture you straight away with its high drama and calmer moments of contemplation. The mess of teenhood is captured brilliantly and I'd recommend this to anyone who likes Young Adult and Suspense fiction.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Short Review: 'In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein' by Fiona Sampson

I knew of Frankenstein long before I actually read it. Like many others, I think, I had absorbed the story of the monster, of science gone wrong, through popular culture from an early age on. Frankenstein is a cultural staple, and yet it wasn't until university that I truly started appreciating the woman behind it, the girl, even, who created this cultural phenomenon. It is now 200 years since the novel's publication and interest in the novel and author are reawakening. In Search of Mary Shelley is part of that reawakening so of course I had to read it. Thanks to Serpent's Tail for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 04/01/2018
Publisher: Serpent's Tail; Profile Books

Mary Shelley was brought up by her father in a house filled with radical thinkers, poets, philosophers and writers of the day. Aged sixteen, she eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley, embarking on a relationship that was lived on the move across Britain and Europe, as she coped with debt, infidelity and the deaths of three children, before early widowhood changed her life forever. Most astonishingly, it was while she was still a teenager that Mary composed her canonical novel Frankenstein, creating two of our most enduring archetypes today. The life story is well-known. But who was the woman who lived it? She's left plenty of evidence, and in this fascinating dialogue with the past, Fiona Sampson sifts through letters, diaries and records to find the real woman behind the story. She uncovers a complex, generous character - friend, intellectual, lover and mother - trying to fulfil her own passionate commitment to writing at a time when to be a woman writer was an extraordinary and costly anomaly. Published for the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, this is a major new work of biography by a prize-winning writer and poet.
Reading Frankenstein at university was what first brought Mary Shelley to the forefront of my mind. The novel is a masterpiece, carefully and intricately crafted, full of thoughts on human nature and tempestuous feelings of self. And this came from the mind of a nineteen-year old girl, recently eloped with a Romantic poet and the child of two philosophical heavyweights. I immediately adored her. One can't help but be fascinated by those who create masterpieces like Frankenstein. It is why Jane Austen has so many adoring followers, we readers want to get to know those whose writing touched us so deeply. For a long time Mary Shelley was very much hidden in the large shadow cast by her acquaintances, but renewed interest in her has allowed a large field of Mary-centred research to flower. In Search of Mary Shelley is a part of that, a book that tries to paint a picture of who this girl was, what kind of woman she became, and why.

Since my introduction to Mary Shelley started at university, I am used to reading about her in a certain, "academic" way. In Search of Mary Shelley is a refreshing break from that, with Sampson writing very casually and directly. She avoids academic lingo and doesn't really quote from any research into Mary. Rather, Sampson attempts to sketch a portrait of who Mary Shelley could have been based on details in her books, letters and journals, as far as those are available, as well as what is known of the time period. Because of the book's lack of references, it occasionally felt to me as if too much of it could be made up. The picture Sampson creates isn't necessarily a factual one, but very much a potential one. Perhaps Mary did feel this way, maybe that letter does reference an awareness of a larger cultural event, or possibly none of it is true. Although I enjoyed reading In Search of Mary Shelley I have been too spoiled by my time at university and felt the lack of supporting material for Sampson's claims. However, for someone wanting to get a sense of what Mary's inner life could have been like and what an asshole Percy Shelley at times was, In Search of Mary Shelley is an excellent starting point!

I give this book...

3 Universes!

In Search of Mary Shelley offers a fascinating insight into who Mary Shelley could have been. Although Sampson doesn't quote much from academic research and allows herself some artistic freedom, it is a worthwhile read for those who want to get a sense of Mary.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Review: 'Everless' by Sara Holland

35883046I have been a Fantasy fan all of my life. There is something about Fantasy that makes it the perfect genre for confronting modern-day concerns as well as allowing for some beautiful world-building and escapism. It is a genre I love and I have partly been spoiled by genius fairy tales and genre icons like The Lord of the Rings, to the point where I am now often quite hesitant to pick up YA Fantasy books in the fear of being disappointed. However, Everless' blurb and beautiful cover convinced me to throw my fear in the wind and jump right in. Thanks to Hachette Children's Group and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 04/01/2018
Publisher: Hachette Children's Group; Orchard Books
Time is a prison. She is the key. Packed with danger, temptation and desire - a perfect read for fans of The Red Queen.
In the land of Sempera, the rich control everything - even time. Ever since the age of alchemy and sorcery, hours, days and years have been extracted from blood and bound to iron coins. The rich live for centuries; the poor bleed themselves dry.
Jules and her father are behind on their rent and low on hours. To stop him from draining himself to clear their debts, Jules takes a job at Everless, the grand estate of the cruel Gerling family. 
There, Jules encounters danger and temptation in the guise of the Gerling heir, Roan, who is soon to be married. But the web of secrets at Everless stretches beyond her desire, and the truths Jules must uncover will change her life for ever ... and possibly the future of time itself.
As said above, I go into a lot of YA Fantasy books with a sense of trepidation nowadays. The tropes abound, the cliches are stifling and the world-building is unimaginative. I know, I sound like a complaining old lady but I have gotten sick of reading the same story over and over again, knowing where a novel is going to go after less than a 100 pages. However, I found myself pleasantly surprised by Everless. I enjoyed the novel's main idea, your life time being bound to your blood and your blood being capable of becoming iron coins. It is an idea that allows an author to explore class and capitalism in a very interesting idea and Holland does do so here and there in the novel. Although there is a bit of an info-dump at the beginning of the novel, Holland starts her novel off very well by getting the reader attached to Jules. And that, I think, is where one of the strengths of this novel lies. You do genuinely find yourself caring for Jules, becoming as interested in her past as she is, as concerned about those she cares about as she is. And Everless is also actually concerned with her and her life, rather than in setting her up with some handsome prince or having her meet some other random genre trope. It's what makes the novel fly by and makes some of the clunkier examples of world-building fall by the wayside.

At the heart of Everless lies Jules' stay at the eponymous estate in her hope to find answers to some burning questions. I liked Jules' dedication to saving her father and to finding answers, even as the questions she asks change as the situation around her changes. That is what I loved about Everless: it starts out straightforward and then grows into something much more complex. Initially, Jules just wants to earn money so her father can stay alive. By the end of the novel Jules finds herself at the centre of web that has become incredibly intricate. Holland manages to complicate her novel without making the reading of it complicated. She adds twists and turns, managing to subvert some of the genre's conventions as she goes, but never does Everless lose track of who Jules was at the beginning. I think that why it is so easy for the reader to get sucked in by Everless and I know that I personally can't wait for the next book in the series to come out! Is it 2019 yet?

I really liked Sara Holland's writing in Everless. She doesn't linger on grandiose descriptions or dramatised conversations but rather lets the needs of the plot drive the novel forward. On the one hand this means that some events seem to happen very quickly, but on the other hand this means there is no chance to get bored. Although here and there I would have maybe appreciated some extra time to get to know some new characters or feel the consequences of certain events, I also liked the drive forward. Everless also has some stunning visuals and moments which really stick in your mind. Holland has a knack for adding in little details and little descriptions here or there that deftly support her world-building and characterisations and make the novel feel more realistic. That may seem like a strange thing to ask for when it comes to Fantasy, but actually Fantasy novels live or die by how real they are. If you can't imagine this world, then how can you believe in it enough to want to read about it? Everless felt real in a Magical Realism way, almost, where something ordinary like paying rent is elevated to something different, where a young girl's made up childhood stories are maybe something completely different. It is this balance between the fantastical and the real that will make you want to keep reading Everless.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I raced through Everless and am consequently heartbroken that the next book isn't coming out for another year, apparently. Although engaging in some of its genre's tropes, Everless and Sara Holland will consistently surprise you. I'd recommend this to fans of YA Fantasy ready to trust again!

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Review: 'No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters' by Ursula K. Le Guin

Prepare yourself for something truly dreadful: I had never read anything by Ursula K. Le Guin before No Time to Spare. I know! Somehow her Earthsea books were nowhere to be seen during my childhood and even later I never got around to it, despite actually loving Studio Ghibli's Tales of Earthsea. I didn't even know she had also written speculative fiction and short stories until this particular book. Once I saw No Time to Spare I figured it would be the perfect way to dip by toe into the deep lake that is Ursula K. Le Guin's writing and see how it felt. Surprisingly comfortable and uproariously hilarious, was my conclusion. Thanks to Houghton Mifflin Court and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 05/12/2017
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Court

Ursula K. Le Guin on the absurdity of denying your age: “If I’m ninety and believe I’m forty-five, I’m headed for a very bad time trying to get out of the bathtub.”
On cultural perceptions of fantasy: “The direction of escape is toward freedom. So what is ‘escapism’ an accusation of?”
On breakfast: “Eating an egg from the shell takes not only practice, but resolution, even courage, possibly willingness to commit crime.”
Ursula K. Le Guin has taken readers to imaginary worlds for decades. Now she’s in the last great frontier of life, old age, and exploring new literary territory: the blog, a forum where her voice—sharp, witty, as compassionate as it is critical—shines. No Time to Spare collects the best of Ursula’s online writing, presenting perfectly crystallized dispatches on what matters to her now, her concerns with this world, and her unceasing wonder at it: “How rich we are in knowledge, and in all that lies around us yet to learn. Billionaires, all of us.”
Coming in as a novice meant I had no real idea what to expect from No Time to Spare or Ursula K. Le Guin. Not only did I not really know what it is she had written, I had no idea how she wrote her blog. All I knew was that No Time to Spare was Non-Fiction, but I had no real indication whether this was going to be funny, poignant, one long rant, sad, or straight up boring. Turns out it was all of that except the latter! The purpose of this blog right here is pretty straight-forward. I review books, and if I'm not doing that I'm probably talking about something else book-related. But for  Le Guin her blog was almost like a journal where she carefully crafted entries about anything that was on her mind. This means the topics of the blog posts collected in No Time to Spare cover almost everything, whether it's ageing, cats, eggs, feminism, belief vs. facts, cats, Fantasy, the Great American Novel, war, swearing, and again, cats. By the end of No Time to Spare you have truly gained an insight into Ursula K. Le Guin, how she thinks, how she can joke and be serious at the same time. You've been taken on a tour of her mind and it is fascinating.

Like I said above,  No Time to Spare covers a massive amount of different topics and it would be impossible for me to discuss all of them and do them all justice. So I thought I'd pick two or three of her blog posts to discuss instead. In 'Having My Cake', Le Guin considers her craft, namely that of writing, as well as her youthful confusion about not being able to 'have your cake, and eat it too'. Her confusion came from the word 'have' which is often used as a synonym for 'eat' when it comes to food. What made this post so interesting was how she analysed her own confusion, how her passion for words and their infinite potential and complexity shone through her writing, as well as her joy at having found a way around her confusion. That post made me want to write. In 'A Band of Brothers, a Stream of Sisters' Le Guin analyses the difference between the grouping of men and women, using this as a way to discuss each group's place and power in the world. One sentence stood out to me in particular:
'Living in "a man's world", plenty of women distrust and fear themselves as much or more than men do.'
In a simple sentence and in straightforward prose Le Guin can make a devastating point. Because it's true, we women grow up distrusting ourselves, second-guessing other women until we truly meet them and join them. This post made me want to call my female friends. In 'Belief in Belief' Le Guin discusses the difference between believe and fact, and how, even when she wrote that post, the two were becoming intermingled. Her positioning of 'belief' and 'knowledge' as two different things, neither mutually exclusive but also not the same, was so elucidating and straightforward that I would make this post recommended reading for pretty much everyone. That post made me want to go out and have a discussion. And then, at the end of No Time to Spare, is 'Notes from a Week at a Ranch in the Oregon High Desert', which is a stunning post about nature filled with utterly beautiful and evocative writing. I have never wanted to go outside more than after this post.

Le Guin's writing needs no praise or analysis from me. What I was trying to show above was how each of the posts I read did something to me. They made me want to do something, whether it was go outside and watch the birds, play with my cat, read a book, or get angry and then figure out why. Although it doesn't trigger the emotions a fiction book may do, it is also far from leaving you unmoved. With her humorous and no-nonsense style, Le Guin gets to the heart of the matters that concern her and reveals beauty there, or a lack of. And this is where the collections tagline comes in as well: 'Thinking About What Matters'. The different blog posts show Le Guin struggling with themes over years, coming back to various topics over time and having another go at them. Seeing a brilliant mind work, in that way, is a treat in and of itself. Le Guin allows us a fascinating glimpse into her mind with her blog posts, both those collected in No Time to Spare and those on her blog. It's like having a conversation with your grandmother, who after a long life has wisdom and jokes to impart, memories and advice, all with a wink and a nudge but also a caring concern for the world you live in. No Time to Spare was a joy to read.

I give this book...

5 Universes!

I adored the variety of topics explored by Ursula K. Le Guin in No Time to Spare and many of her observations caused me to rethink some of my own opinions. It's a delight to read and never once gets boring or predictable. I'd recommend it to fans of Ursula K. Le Guin and those interested in short non-fiction.

Review: 'In the Midst of Winter' by Isabel Allende

I think The House of Spirits was the first book by Allende I read and it captured me straight away. Isabel Allende's books filled me with a sense of wonder and magic from the moment I was old enough to read them. There was something about her style that just worked for me. I also adored her YA-trilogy, Eagle and Jaguar. However, I lost track of Allende and her new releases, until, that is, I saw In the Midst of Winter and my interest was immediately piqued again. Thanks to Simon & Schuster and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 02/11/2017
Publisher: Simon & Schuster; Scribner
Worldwide bestselling “dazzling storyteller” (Associated Press) Isabel Allende returns with a sweeping novel about three very different people who are brought together in a mesmerizing story that journeys from present-day Brooklyn to Guatemala in the recent past to 1970s Chile and Brazil.
In the Midst of Winter begins with a minor traffic accident—which becomes the catalyst for an unexpected and moving love story between two people who thought they were deep into the winter of their lives. Richard Bowmaster—a 60-year-old human rights scholar—hits the car of Evelyn Ortega—a young, undocumented immigrant from Guatemala—in the middle of a snowstorm in Brooklyn. What at first seems just a small inconvenience takes an unforeseen and far more serious turn when Evelyn turns up at the professor’s house seeking help. At a loss, the professor asks his tenant Lucia Maraz—a 62-year-old lecturer from Chile—for her advice. These three very different people are brought together in a mesmerizing story that moves from present-day Brooklyn to Guatemala in the recent past to 1970s Chile and Brazil, sparking the beginning of a long overdue love story between Richard and Lucia.
Exploring the timely issues of human rights and the plight of immigrants and refugees, the book recalls Allende’s landmark novel The House of the Spirits in the way it embraces the cause of “humanity, and it does so with passion, humor, and wisdom that transcend politics” (Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post). 
In the Midst of Winter will stay with you long after you turn the final page.
Allende's fiction has always addressed the issues in her home continent, and especially her home country of Chile. As she was related to Chilean president Salvador Allende, the CIA-backed coup against him and the turmoil it caused in her country also affected her personally. These experiences reflect differently in her various books and I was intrigued to see how it came to the forefront in In the Midst of Winter. At the heart of this novel are the issues of immigration, refugees and human rights, issues which are still incredibly timely and relevant. In the Midst of Winter focuses on these through the stories of its characters and this allows Allende to highlight the hardship and suffering refugees go through. Some of the chapters, especially in relation to Evelyn's story, are heartbreaking and not for the fainthearted. Some of Allende's descriptions are cruelly truthful and she doesn't let you look away, no matter how much you might like to. But despite the horror she describes, Allende also shows the kindness and bravery of people in the face of such horror. How people help each other, how they care for the old and sick, the young and needy, how love doesn't heal every wound but makes some of the scars easier to bare. That side of In the Midst of Winter is truly inspirational.

Allende's In the Midst of Winter brings together three different characters in the middle of a blizzard in Brooklyn. Thrown together seemingly by chance, they exchange their stories and share experiences as they try to solve a rather immediate problem. Richard, stuffy academic that he seems, hides a deeply shameful past in Rio de Janeiro; Evelyn, undocumented and scared has survived horrors on her journey from Guatemala to America; and Lucia, who escaped Santiago and is still looking for something. Lucia is Richard's tenant and their relationship is distant, but they are brought closer together when Richard accidentally hits Evelyn's car and she comes to his house seeking for help. As they try to help their stories come to the surface and Allende frequently flits between the past and the present, as well as between the different characters. Although this can initially be a little bit confusing, it really pays off as it shows how many hidden depths every person has, how much suffering hides behind a face and how much we may have in common despite our vast differences. As Allende unravels their backstories, the reader becomes more and more invested in these characters and more desperate for their problem to resolve itself.

Most of Isabel Allende's books that I have read were of that most wonderful of genres, Magical Realism. In the Midst of Winter is not that, but rather falls along the lines of Historical Fiction. However, Allende manages to infuse many of its scenes with a similar magic and beauty. Her South-America is one of both wonder and fear, just as her people are both horrid and loving. She maintains that fine balance for most of the book, and it is a truly fine balance to strike. I'm about to talk about something which the blurb already mentions and I therefore feel I can discuss as well, but it is technically a spoiler so if you really don't want to know, perhaps skip the rest of this paragraph. A large part of In the Midst of Winter is dedicated to the "love story" between Richard and Lucia and I simply couldn't have cared less for it. Usually this is a criticism I direct at YA novels and I'm frustrated that it applies so well in this case as well. Allende has a fascinating story that allows her to dig into some really crucial topics and yet I have to care for this love story? Both of those characters are more interesting apart from each other, and actually Evelyn is more interesting than either of them. I felt like Allende's focus on this betrayed the novel's potential and also went against some of the characterisation she had put in place. It really didn't work for me and left me disappointed in the novel. It may be completely different for other readers, but it felt utterly unnecessary to me.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

I loved certain aspects of In the Midst of Winter and it has shook parts of me to the core. Allende's novel holds some crucial lessons about the truth of the fate of refugees. However, I felt some of Allende's plot choices betrayed what the novel could have been. I would recommend it to those interested in South-America and refugees, as well as Historical Fiction.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Review: 'Genius and Discovery: Five Historical Miniatures' by Stefan Zweig, trans. by Anthea Bell

I love history and I love fictionalised accounts of history, when an author takes a moment crucial, in their mind, to human history and imagines what must have gone through people's minds. Stefan Zweig promised to do exactly that Genius and Discovery so I faithfully followed him into its pages. And I wasn't disappointed. Thanks to Pushkin Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 14/11/2017
Publisher: Pushkin Press
One of two beautifully designed hardback gift editions of Stefan Zweig's breathlessly dramatic historical sketches, out in time for the holidays.
Millions of people in a nation are necessary for a single genius to arise, millions of tedious hours must pass before a truly historic shooting star of humanity appears in the sky.
Five vivid dramatizations of some of the most pivotal episodes in human history, from the Discovery of the Pacific to the composition of the Marseillaise, bringing the past to life in brilliant technicolor.
Included in this collection:"Flight into Immortality": Vasco Núñez de Balboa's quest to be the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. "The Resurrection of George Frederic Handel": Handel falls into depression until a poet sends him an inspirational work."The Genius of a Night": Captain Rouget writes La Marseillaise, the song which is to become the French national anthem."The Discovery of El Dorado": John Sutter founds New Helvetia in western America and attempts to keep it."The First Word to Cross the Ocean": Cyrus W. Field resolves to lay the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable.
When I told my mother I would be reading Stefan Zweig in English she was affronted. Surely I should be reading such a great German author in German? I guess I should be, and after reading Genius and Discovery I also will. But that is the beauty of publishers like Pushkin Press, who allow you discover literature from all over the world in English. This small anecdote also allows me to talk about the idea and theme behind Genius and Discovery. In the five stories contained in this book Zweig celebrates the human spirit. The blind determination and mindless passion that marks some of the key moments in human history has something magical, and Zweig captures that beautifully. Some of the moments he describes have been taken for granted or never even considered to be as crucial as they were to shaping a nation, shaping a century.

There is something magical about these stories. Zweig chose five moments in history that meant something to him, during which something changed forever, in which we progressed. As the reader, not all stories will strike equally close to the heart. Some, like the first story 'Flight into Immortality' following Vasco Núñez de Balboa's journey to the Pacific combine a respect for de Balboa's dedication, as well as a blunt honesty about the costs of his dedication to the indigenous populations. I adored 'The Resurrection of George Frederic Handel', something akin to a love letter to Handel and his Messiah. It is beautifully written and made me desperate to listen to the piece again. 'The Genius of a Night' is a beautiful look at the creation of La Marseillaise, while 'The Discovery of El Dorado' and 'The First Word to Cross the Ocean' are elegies to those giants of spirit who threw their whole being into getting something done, advancing themselves or humanity. I came out of Genius and Discovery with warm feeling, a new love for how foolhardy we are as a species, and with an increased admiration for all that we have accomplished.

Zweig's writing is beautiful.Whether it is describing the beauty of South American countries, the power of Handel's Messiah, the hope gained from singing La Marseillaise, the madness behind the gold rush in California, or the seemingly insurmountable task of connecting the continents, Zweig brings a beauty and a power to it all. He clearly cares deeply about these moments and as a consequence he makes his readers care as well. No matter that these moments are decennia ago and take place in a world fundamentally different form ours, Zweig makes his reader engage with these moments and become invested in them. Anthea Bell's translation of Zweig's prose is stunning. I only have read Zweig in English, through her, but I can see why he is considered such a giant of German literature. Thanks to her, I will definitely be looking for more Zweig to read, both in German and translation.

I give this collection...

4 Universes!

I adored the stories in Genius and Discovery! There is something incredibly uplifting about these stories of human spirit, of, indeed, genius and discovery. They would indeed make for an excellent Christmas gift. I'd recommend this to anyone interested in short stories, as well as literary fiction.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Review: 'Reading Jane Austen' by Jenny Davidson

I love Jane Austen, I adore her. She was my introduction into English Literature, in many ways thereby setting me on the path I am on now. So I have a lot of emotions and experiences tied to Jane Austen and her books. When I started studying English Literature I found myself almost subconsciously avoiding writing about her though, partially because my academic interests lay elsewhere, but also because I was a little bit scared. Reading Jane Austen has helped me understand why, in part. Thanks to Cambridge University Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 06/11/2017
Publisher: Cambridge University Press

    Whether you’re new to Austen’s work or know it backwards and forwards already, this book provides a clear, full and highly engaging account of how Austen’s fiction works and why it matters. Exploring new pathways into the study of Jane Austen’s writing, novelist and academic Jenny Davidson looks at Austen’s work through a writer’s lens, addressing formal questions about narration, novel writing, and fictional composition as well as themes including social and women’s history, morals and manners. Introducing new readers to the breadth and depth of Jane Austen’s writing, and offering new insights to those more familiar with Austen’s work, Jenny Davidson celebrates the art and skill of one of the most popular and influential writers in the history of English literature.
Jane Austen was the literary light of my life for many years. Her books are still ones I seek one when I need comfort or if I want to laugh, even if I feel like I need to relearn their lessons. But, as said above, I avoided her at university. Reading Davidson's preface I finally figured out why I did so. It's difficult to discuss, criticise, and analyse something you love. I managed to do so with Tolkien's work during my MA but there I also felt the pangs of anger whenever anyone made a, usually valid, criticism of or remark on his work. I knew myself well enough to know I would not be able to dig as deep with a book I loved, take it apart and consider it objectively, as I would with other books. Davidson considers the same issue, commenting that the students who love Jane Austen often have less to put forward in a discussion and take criticism personally. Reading Davidson's Reading Jane Austen showed me that that is most likely true, as I still got defensive at times, especially on Elizabeth's part. But Davidson loves Austen as much as her readers do, and this love and respect also shines through her analysis.

As an avid Janeite, there were a lot of things which Davidson discussed that I had thought of or considered before, but she casts them in a new light and unites them into a number of solid themes that allow you to see these books in a new light. Davidson shows connections between the different texts, ways in which Austen's style developed and improved, even how her personal life and letters illuminate the importance of certain aspects in her novels. The book is split into seven different chapters, each of which has its own theme which is discussed across Austen's work. Whether it's the importance of letter writing in Chapter 1, the importance to Austen of manners and morals in Chapters 3 and 4, or the way she highlighted the role of women in society in Chapter 7, Reading Jane Austen ranges widely, but always does so relevantly. Davidson illuminated some aspects of the book for me and, perhaps most crucially of all, she made me want to reread Jane Austen's books with a new eye.

Jenny Davidson's writing is what makes Reading Jane Austen fun. I know from experience that academic texts, or any non-fiction book that digs into a topic, are often very interesting, but not always fun. And sometimes they're not even interesting, which makes for the worst reading experience ever. Reading Jane Austen, in comparison, is a delight. Davidson writes with an easy and a friendliness that, to me, felt like I was sitting in a seminar at university, having a conversation with her. She quotes Austen at length, allowing her prose to illuminate Davidson's arguments. Some of the chapters, especially those looking at narration for example, can be heavy on academic lingo which might be off putting to those not used to it. However, she doesn't overuse it and explains it well when she does. The Further Reading section at the back is also fascinating for anyone interested in Jane Austen and I will be browsing through it soon for future reading.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

I enjoyed Reading Jane Austen a lot more than I expected, considering it's non-fiction. However, Davidson takes her reader on a lovely stroll through some of the most important themes in Jane Austen's fiction, all the while providing them with new tools to analyse and appreciate Austen's books. I'd recommend this to anyone interested in learning more about Austen's fiction.