Sunday, 21 January 2018

Short Review: 'Jane on the Brain' by Wendy Jones

I'm unashamedly a Janeite! I love Jane Austen, her books fill me with happiness and I low-key adore every adaptation of her books, even when I don't really want to. (I'm looking at you, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies!) And I'm not alone. We're a force to be reckoned with, spanning generations and continents. But what is it about Jane Austen and her books that makes us so happy? Countless of books have been written about her unique talent to make us feel as we do, and I try to read a fair share of them. So of course I had to read Jane on the Brain as well. Thanks to Pegasus Books and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 05/12/2017
Publisher: Pegasus Books

Why is Jane Austen so phenomenally popular? Why do we read Pride and Prejudice again and again? Why do we delight in Emma’s mischievous schemes? Why do we care that Anne Elliot of Persuasion suffers? We care because it is our biological destiny to be interested in people and their stories—the human brain is a social brain. And Austen’s characters are so believable, that for many of us, they are not just imaginary beings, but friends whom we know and love. And thanks to Austen's ability to capture the breadth and depth of human psychology so thoroughly, we feel that she empathizes with us, her readers. Humans have a profound need for empathy, to know that we are not alone with our joys and sorrows. And then there is attachment, denial, narcissism, and of course, love, to name a few. We see ourselves and others reflected in Austen’s work. Social intelligence is one of the most highly developed human traits when compared with other animals How did is evolve? Why is it so valuable? Wendy Jones explores the many facets of social intelligence and juxtaposes them with the Austen cannon. Brilliantly original and insightful, this fusion of psychology, neuroscience, and literature provides a heightened understanding of one of our most beloved cultural institutions—and our own minds.
Jane on the Brain takes a unique approach to Jane Austen's books by bringing Wendy Jones' expertise in neuroscience and psychology to the conversation. Jones doesn't rely too heavily on literary analysis, but rather analyses the keen insight with which Austen crafts her characters. Jones takes an interaction, like, for example, Darcy and Elizabeth meeting unexpectedly at Pemberley, and dissects how Austen describes their responses. Although Austen did not intend to write psychological novels per se, Jones successfully shows how her sharp perceptiveness and interest in human behaviour allowed her to not only make us care for her characters and Austen herself, but to also feel like she cares for us, as if she understands us. This was one of the main lessons I learned from this book, that Austen's power lies in us, the readers, feeling understood and appreciated. And Jones shows us just how she accomplishes that in Jane on the Brain.

Jane on the Brain requires its readers, especially those like me who engage a lot in Jane Austen literary theory, to reset their expectations a little bit. As I said, this is not "normal" Austen commentary or analysis. Wendy Jones blends together different disciplines in this book, introducing her readers to concepts like Theory of the Mind, as well as the anatomy and processes of the brain. If you don't adjust your expectations, it will be difficult to get into the book. Jones does her best to limit the jargon in her book and not overwhelm the reader, but there is still a lot of information and theory to take in. I personally really enjoyed this and it added an extra layer to my appreciation of Austen. I can see Jane on the Brain being an excellent teaching tool as well, both for the neurosciences and English literature. If you're willing to buckle down and learn something new, then Jane on the Brain is definitely for you.

I give this book...

3 Universes!

Jane on the Brain gives its readers a completely new insight into Austen's writing and into her power to make us feel. Although her more scientific approach may not be for everyone, there is a lot learn from and think about in Jane on the Brain. I will definitely be revisiting this book in the future.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Review: ‘The Book of Joan’ by Lidia Yuknavitch

Ever since my father introduced me to Star Wars as a child I have been in awe of the stories that Science-Fiction can tell, when done right. Similarly to Fantasy, it allows authors to discuss worldly problems in a foreign setting, highlighting their hypocrisy or methods. Once you mix Science-Fiction with Dystopia you have an incredibly powerful tool with which to reassess our world. It is with that in mind I started reading The Book of Joan and yet I still wasn't prepared for what was to come. Thanks to Canongate and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 18/01/2018
Publisher: Canongate
In the near future, world wars have transformed the earth into a battleground. Fleeing the unending violence and the planet’s now-radioactive surface, humans have regrouped to a mysterious platform known as CIEL, hovering over their erstwhile home. The changed world has turned evolution on its head: the surviving humans have become sexless, hairless, pale-white creatures floating in isolation, inscribing stories upon their skin.
Out of the ranks of the endless wars rises Jean de Men, a charismatic and bloodthirsty cult leader who turns CIEL into a quasi-corporate police state. A group of rebels unite to dismantle his iron rule - galvanised by the heroic song of Joan, a child-warrior who possesses a mysterious force that lives within her.
A riveting tale of destruction and love found in the direst of places, Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan raises questions about what it means to be human, the fluidity of sex and gender, and the role of art as a means for survival. It’s a genre-defying masterpiece that may very well rewire your brain.
 Where to start? Often I finish reading a book and I know exactly what I want to say about this, whether it's positive or negative. Sometimes a review already forms in my head while I'm reading. But there are some books where, after the last page, I just stare ahead, attempting to sort out my thoughts. The Book of Joan is one of those latter ones. So I'm going to try and answer some basic questions first. Yes, it is a Science-Fiction book. Yes, it is a Dystopian book. No, it isn't a straightforward book. Yes, there is a high chance you'll be puzzled by it at times. Yes, it will be a worthwhile experience reading it. Yes, this is a book about love. Confused yet? Good, now join me as I try and make sense of my thoughts.


 The Book of Joan is set in the not too distant future where the Sun has given up and the world has been ravaged by geostorms and atomic warfare. Hovering above Earth is CIEL, a space platform in which Jean de Men has brought together some of the richest and most talented people to live under his rule. Radiation has significantly impacted the human bodies to the point where they're sexless and hardly recognisable. On Earth, struggling survivors fight a desolate climate and attacks from above. All of this is important and yet it is also very much background noise. At the heart of the novel are the stories of Joan, a child-warrior who fought Jean de Men for Earth's sake, and Christine de Pizan, floating in CIEL and inscribing stories upon her own and others' skin in the hope of retaining some humanity. With their stories Yuknavitch tries to explore what it is that makes us human, which drives define us above all, and where we have gone wrong. 

The novel swims with themes and philosophies. The Book of Joan is a cry for environmentalism, full of the pain of a dying and decaying world, an ode to the beauty of nature that is slowly being destroyed. Although quite obvious, it never felt too on the nose for me. Similarly, The Book of Joan is an exploration of love, sex and bodies. At times the book may be too crude in this exploration for some readers, as Yuknavitch unblinkingly analyses human impulses and bodies. But there is a beauty in how unrelenting she is, the way in which she shows Christine using her own body to tell stories, to feel, to express herself, by inscribing them upon her own skin. It may not be for everyone, it's not necessarily for me, but it is fascinating and definitely made me think about my own body and how I express myself with it, through it. It made me think about how we judge others by how they carry themselves, how they claim an identity through their bodies

The names of the two women at the heart of The Book of Joan give an indication of what inspired Yuknavitch to write this book. First there is Joan, clearly inspired by the story of Joan of Arc, the warrior-maiden inspired by God to defend her people and her country before she was declared a witch and burned. Then there is Christine de Pizan, an influential author in the 14th and 15th centuries. Although she initially wrote ballads, she engaged herself in literary debates and rose as a prominent voice on women's place in society. She also deeply criticised author Jean de Meun, author of La Roman de la Rose, another name you may recognise, for how he portrayed women. These two historical women, in their own way and in their own times, fought for the rights of women and their determination and strength is reflected in The Book of Joan. Whether it is through fighting or writing, it is important to have your voice heard. It was a fascinating take on these women, unlike any other "adaptation" I have ever read. And I think it did both a lot of justice.

Yuknavitch's writing in The Book of Joan is at times lyrical, at other times brutal. She switches between moments of intense beauty and heartbreak to horrible descriptions of warfare and horror. You can't have one without the other, she almost seems to say. From destruction comes creation, life from death. It is hard balance to strike but Yuknavitch strikes it beautifully. For me the novel took on something of an allegorical feel as I was reading it. On the one hand the plot is there and is what the book turns on, on the other hand  it is about much more than that. The characters could be stand-ins for philosophies or ideologies, the action an expression of our own history and potential future. THe Book of Joan will not be for everyone. One has to partially put one's expectations to the side and let the book do its thing. The bewildering, alien existence of those in CIEL, the struggle and hardship of those on Earth, it all comes together into a story that tries to convey the importance of love, of companionship, of understanding, of caring and of the power of standing up for what you believe in. 

I give this novel...
4 Universes!

The Book of Joan will not be for everyone. It is both bleak and horrifying, as well as beautiful and heartening. It is a book you will question, struggle with, but (hopefully) emerge from with a different outlook on things, a new appreciation for our Earth and our selves. I'd recommend this to readers interested in Speculative Fiction and Dystopian Fiction.

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.