Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Review: 'Wicked Wonders' by Ellen Klages

I love short story collection! There is something about the art of writing a short story that still fascinates me. A short story author has to try and cram as much emotion, character development, world building and plot into a few pages as others authors do into a novel of hundreds of pages. I have read a lot of brilliant short stories, but I always love discovering new short story authors. So I was very excited to see Wicked Wonders pop up, with its enticing blurb promising some amazing stories. Thanks to Tachyon Publications and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date 23/05/2017
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
The Scott O'Dell award-winning author of The Green Glass Sea returns with her second collection: a new decade of lyrical stories with vintage flair.
Inside of these critically-acclaimed tales are memorable characters who are smart, subversive, and singular. A rebellious child identifies with wicked Maleficent instead of Sleeping Beauty. Best friends Anna and Corry share a last melancholy morning before emigration to another planet. A prep-school girl requires more than mere luck to win at dice with a faerie. Ladies who lunch keeping dividing that one last bite of dessert in the paradox of female politeness. 
Whether on a habitat on Mars or in a boardinghouse in London, discover Ellen Klages' wicked, wondrous adventures full of brazenness, wit, empathy, and courage.
One of my favourite literary genres is Magical Realism. When done well, Magical Realism describes ordinary life through those magical moments in which wonders happen. Although, according to Goodreads, Wicked Wonders doesn't qualify as Magic Realism, it has all the hallmarks of it. Each of Klages' stories is a snapshot of an ordinary-seeming life in which one day is only followed by another day and nothing else. And yet each of these lives is infused with something strange, magical, absurd and extraordinary that makes every story fascinating. There are twists and turns which are either unexpected or so well played they seem natural. In a way the stories in Wicked Wonders also feel like an elegy to America the way it was, with its quiet towns, forgotten corners and dreams of elsewhere. It gives the stories a nostalgic feel, yet without becoming too mourning. The reason the stories don't become a downer is because each has a subversive twist, something that makes you reconsider not just the story but also how you see the world. Why wouldn't you look at Maleficent as the hero of Sleeping Beauty? Why not set all your future hopes upon the Red Planet?

Perhaps it's a quote from Wicked Wonders itself that best describes the effects of this collection:
'Joy in a minor key.'
All the stories in Klages' brilliant collection have an understated charm. They start of so calmly and quietly, perfectly normal and straightforward except for those few notes that are both discordant and yet elevate the story. And then something wonderful happens on the pages of each story, and I think t is best described as joy. Even when a story moves you to tears, there is still an element of jubilation to it for the beautiful writing and the heartfelt emotions in each tale. The women and girls in Wicked Wonders are as the title prescribes: wonderful and wicked. They are normal, and yet not. They live in our world and yet they are a little removed from it. They are young and old, innocent and wise, trusting and heartbroken, excited and sad, and everything in between. Although it is not a collection "for women" perse, there is something brilliant about all these stories exploring such different parts of female life, even if it is the absurd or the magical.

I had never read a book or story by Ellen Klages before but I will definitely be looking into buying her other work now. Klages' writing feels understated yet really isn't. There are no over the top flourishes meant to overwhelm the reader, yet there are quiet gut punches here and there which work even more effectively. Her characters, most of them young girls, feel age appropriate without becoming boring or caricatures. There are some home truths hidden throughout the stories, about friendship, about love, kindness, loss and more which always feel honest. I don't know what it's like for other people, but I usually need the first three stories or so before I can get into the feel of a short story collection. With Wicked Wonders however I settled into the feel of the collection very quickly, from the first story called 'The Education of a Witch' really. The second story 'Amicae Aeternum', about a friendship surviving intergalactic travel, settled it for me. Each story only added to the sense of wonder that Klages created both with her writing and the themes in her story.

I give this collection...

4 Universes!

I really enjoyed reading Wicked Wonders. Every single story is filled with some wonder and some wickedness, but mainly with a lot of humanity and beautiful writing. I'd recommend this to everyone who likes short stories and is loving for a little bit of magic in their life!

Review: 'A Gallery of Poisoners' by Adrian Vincent

I have been drowning myself in beautiful Magical Realism, Fantasy and Fairytales lately, but then found myself craving some fun and quick non-fiction, the kind of book that cleanses your palate a bit but also gives you something fun and scandalous. And I found that cleanser in A Gallery of Poisoners. Who doesn't want to while away the lazy hours of the day by reading about Victorian poisoners and their scandalous court cases? Thanks to Endeavour Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!

Pub. Date: 25/11/2016
Publisher: Endeavour Press

Here are thirteen cases of fatal passions, unfortunate acquaintances and gruesome endings.
Presenting infamous cases ranging from 1857 – 1972, Adrian Vincent revisits the lives of some of the most notorious killers ever to be brought to justice. What drives someone to specialise in devising agonising death for their victims? 
Vincent reveals the lure of money, lust and deviancy as they manifest in pure evil — lurking beneath the surface of domestic bliss and professional respectability. Wives dispatching husbands for their cash.  
Lovers killing for passion. The infamous Mary Ann Cotton, who poisoned three husbands and eleven of her children. Graham Young, who was fascinated by poisons from the age of twelve and given to administering lethal concoctions — just to see what would happen. Obsessive poisoners like Tillie Gburek, a middle-aged woman who found a taste for making deadly soups — and got through a series of husbands … There’s the voyeuristic ménage à trois where a husband enjoyed his wife taking a lover which had dire consequences … While the so-called Angel of Death, Nurse Waddington, ran her own nursing home.
Killers who specialised in devising agonising death for their victims. A Gallery of Poisoners is classic true crime at its best — thrilling and disturbing in equal measure.
A Gallery of Poisoners was originally published in 1993 but was republished by Endeavour Press on November last year. I wonder whether it would have made a timely Christmas present... surely an ominous one. Poisoners have always held a certain fascination with people. Perhaps it is the subterfuge that usually goes along with it, the idea of the murderer calmly sitting opposite their victim as they drink the poisoned wine or eat the poisoned cake. In the thirteen cases described by Vincent in A Gallery of Poisoners we get exactly the images we want, the lover who has to be dispatched before he causes a scandal, the husband-killing wife, the husband who gets sick of his nagging wife. The list also includes both very well-known murder cases, such as Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, and more unknown yet equally fascinating ones. Just for these arguably over-the-top stories, A Gallery of Poisoners is a fun read, giving the reader exactly what they want. If these cases weren't historically true, they would be almost too cliche to be believable.

As the book's subtitle points out, A Gallery of Poisoners actually focuses on 'case histories of murder by poisoning'. Although this may seems like just a fancy way to say 'stories about poisoners', it actually reveals more about the content of the book than you may expect. Vincent doesn't just give dramatic, and potentially fictionalised, retellings of the lead up to and the actual poisonings, he also focuses on the trials afterwards. By doing so, he grounds his book in history and facts, thereby also giving himself the liberty to speculate here and there. Throughout reading the different cases it becomes fun to track different people, whether it was a junior counsel or the crown prosecutors, from one case to another, seeing them both succeed and fail at defending their clients, getting promoted or demoted, etc. (Most notable here is Edward Marshall Hall.) Also interesting is the way in which Vincent considers both gender and class in the novel, hopping between America and England to show the fates of victims, murderers and bystanders. He especially shows awareness of the circumstances of women in Victorian England, with their small means and curtailed opportunities. Although he never excuses any of the murderers, he is also not blind to external pressures which prevents A Gallery of Poisoners from becoming sensationalist.

Vincent's writing style is very direct and to the point. Often the cases start with who gets murdered, which means suspense is not exactly a big aspect of A Gallery of Poisoners. However, the way Vincent speculates as to motives and means is interesting, and he does it with an off-hand humour which often surprised me into laughter. Throughout A Gallery of Poisoners Vincent drops in his own two cents here and there, commenting on the tactics of the poisoners, their missteps, the courtroom antics of defendants or the general state of British law. While each case history is fascinating, I would not recommend trying to sit down and read all of them at once. Although possible, eventually a sense of repetition does set in. Vincent does his best, but it is more fun to read a story here and there.

I give this book...

3 Universes!

A Gallery of Poisoners is a quick and interesting read. It gives some fascinating insights into both murder cases of the past as well as the court cases that followed. Reading the book in one sitting may be a bit dull, but to dip in now and then and read a story or two is exactly the kind of fun you may need. I'd recommend this to fans of historical fiction and murder mysteries.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Review: 'In the Name of the Family' by Sarah Dunant

I am a history fanatic so any novel which tackles a major period in history or an infamous family or a momentous battle or really anything that impacted history is bound to have me excited. So when I saw In the Name of the Family, a novel dedicated to 'Machiavelli & the Borgias' I was already on the edge of my seat. They are some of the most fascinating people to have lived in Italy, which says a lot, and yet they were still largely strangers to me. So I was overjoyed when I got approved for In the Name of the Family and I was fascinated once I started reading. Thanks to Little Brown, Virago and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 02/03/2017
Publisher: Little Brown; Virago

In the Name of the Family - as Blood and Beauty did before - holds up a mirror to a turbulent moment of history, sweeping aside the myths to bring alive the real Borgia family; complicated, brutal, passionate and glorious. Here is a thrilling exploration of the House of Borgia's doomed years, in the company of a young diplomat named Niccolo Machiavelli.

It is 1502 and Rodrigo Borgia, a self-confessed womaniser and master of political corruption is now on the Papal throne as Alexander VI. His daughter Lucrezia, aged twenty-two, already thrice married and a pawn in her father's plans, is discovering her own power. And then there is Cesare Borgia: brilliant, ruthless and increasingly unstable; it is his relationship with the diplomat Machiavelli which offers a master class on the dark arts of power and politics. What Machiavelli learns will go on to inform his great work of modern politics, The Prince.
But while the pope rails against old age and his son's increasing maverick behavior it is Lucrezia who will become the Borgia survivor: taking on her enemies and creating her own place in history.
Conjuring up the past in all its complexity, horror and pleasures, In The Name of the Family confirms Sarah Dunant's place as the leading novelist of the Renaissance and one of the most acclaimed historical fiction writers of our age.
History is a fascinating topic because it always changes. This might sound fallacious but history is not as set a thing as many of us think or hope. History is written by the winners, by the survivors, by those with the loudest voice, and as such we often have to reconsider what we know when a new viewpoint comes to light. The revision of history is an ongoing and important cause, which often gives a voice to those who were always silenced. Historical Fiction has a very interesting role in that process, since it allows authors and readers to take a different kind of look at history, one that is perhaps not entirely factual but often very human. What kind of a man could Cromwell have been? What was it like aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff? What kind of scars did the Yugoslav wars leave on a young girl? Historical fiction allows us modern people to see history as human, as something both destined and accidental, both flawed and sublime. and this is exactly what Sarah Dunant does in In the Name of the Family.

Dunant tackles some major historical figures in this novel about whom a lot has been written, not just academically but also in popular culture. The Borgias have been immortalised in a TV show as well as in countless novels and films. There is Rodrigo Borgia, or Alexander VI, the pope who flouted the celibacy rules and happily fathered children throughout his reign. There is Cesare Borgia, whose brutality and cunning in warfare blew away all of his contemporaries. There is Lucrezia Borgia, so beautiful she must of course have slept with half of Italy, including her own family. The way this family has been both idolized and vilified goes back centuries, but Dunant takes a surprisingly fresh and insightful look at this family, especially Lucrezia. History is notoriously unfair to women, both silencing them and loudly decrying them. In In the Name of the Family Dunant attempts to undo some of the prejudices thrown at the Borgia family, without sugarcoating their behaviour. Rather, she lets a humanity shine through that brings the Borgias to life as human beings with conflicting loyalties, dreams, hopes and fears. She does the same for Machiavelli, who has become not only an adjective but also a larger-than-life politician and historian. Meticulously researched, In the Name of the Family both stick to the script and deviates where Dunant finds potential for something more. She doesn't give us a rigid history, but rather acknowledges that
'history is only and always the story of human nature in action, and that in an imperfect world, men who set out to make their mark must work with what is, rather than what they might like it to be.'
Dunant's writing style took me a few chapters to get used to, but before I knew it I was hooked. Historical fiction is tricky because an author has to find a balance between remaining historically accurate and yet not losing the fluidity and imagination of fiction. Switching between the viewpoints of her four main characters, and a few fascinating side characters, Dunant manages to constantly retain a sense of urgency and immediacy. The reader knows more than any of the characters in the book since they are privy to everyone's thoughts. The novel flits across Renaissance Italy with a swiftness that never feels rushed. There are a whole number of references, key dates, key battles and key places which are fed into the narrative in a very natural way. In the Name of the Family never feels cluttered, which reminds of Umberto Eco's brilliant historical novels. The author's, both Eco and Dunant's. obvious comfort within their chosen time period makes these types of historical novels feel like a breeze. I personally cannot wait to read more of Dunant's historical fiction. First on the list is Blood & Beauty: The Borgias which, as the title makes clear, is another epic novel about the Borgias. Also, this novel comes with an extensive bibliography which will make the heart of any history-nerd beat faster. I myself have already highlighted a number of books I want to try.

I give this novel

4 Universes!

Once you get into In the Name of the Family, the novel doesn't let you go. With history unfolding as rapidly as it does, with the stakes as high as they are, you won't want to put this novel down. And once it is finished you'll have gained a whole new appreciation for the Borgias. I'd recommend this to fans of Historical Fiction and Italian and European history.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Review: 'Treasure Island' by Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure IslandWhen I was young, I had an audio cassette (yup, somehow I am old enough to remember these fondly!) of Treasure Island. I hardly remember anything from it, except a lingering suspicion of Long John Silver and a certain fondness for this story I don't really know anything about. So when I found myself with a free space on my 'Currently Reading' shelf, I decided to dedicate it to Stevenson's classic. And yet I approached the novel with a sense of apprehension. Reading a classic for the first time that has already become part of popular culture to such an extent as Treasure Island comes with a special kind of pressure. On the one hand, you already love this book because it's a part of you, but on the other hand there is the very distinct possibility you will hate it because it's not what you expect. So with this dilemma in mind, I set myself to task reading Treasure Island.

Original Pub. Date: 1883
Original Publisher:v
The most popular pirate story ever written in English, featuring one of literature’s most beloved “bad guys,” Treasure Island has been happily devoured by several generations of boys—and girls—and grownups. Its unforgettable characters include: young Jim Hawkins, who finds himself owner of a map to Treasure Island, where the fabled pirate booty is buried; honest Captain Smollett, heroic Dr. Livesey, and the good-hearted but obtuse Squire Trelawney, who help Jim on his quest for the treasure; the frightening Blind Pew, double-dealing Israel Hands, and seemingly mad Ben Gunn, buccaneers of varying shades of menace; and, of course, garrulous, affable, ambiguous Long John Silver, who is one moment a friendly, laughing, one-legged sea-cook . . . and the next a dangerous pirate leader!

One of the first things you come to realise when reading Treasure Island is that it is a Young Adult novel mainly written for young boys in the late 1800s. Originally named The Sea Cook: A Story for Boys, Treasure Island is a coming-of-age story in which a young boy becomes a man, discovers his inner strength and conquers his fears. Part of what made Treasure Island so groundbreaking is its introduction of so many staples of the pirate genre. Long John Silver unironically says 'Shiver me timbers', he has a parrot on his shoulder, there is a lot of rum, 'X's marks the spot, and there's a whole variety of missing limbs. This was all completely new and instantaneously iconic in the 1800s. Reading Treasure Island now, in the 21st century in which TV shows like Black Sails take these tropes, make them gritty and sexy, it feels almost quaint.

Perhaps there is a very obvious reason as to why I felt a little bit detached from Treasure Island, and Stevenson himself has left a handy quote to explain that reason:
"[Treasure Island] was to be a story for boys; no need of psychology or fine writing; and I had a boy at hand to be a touchstone. Women were excluded... "
Now, Stevenson is not the first man to say his work was created solely for boys. George Lucas himself famously said that he created Star Wars for teenage boys, yet in his mind what those boys enjoyed never actively excluded women and he created at least one of the most iconic female characters in cinema. However, Treasure Island feels a lot more like simple boys store in which there is indeed something of a lack of depth. Stevenson does comment on social class, on the beauty of exploration and on violence, but it is more of an aside than anything else. Qualifying as a Young Adult novel, it could not be compared, for example, to fellow YA badge-carrier Lord of the Flies which is nothing if not social commentary. So while Treasure Island is a fun and entertaining read, it is not the most gripping of novels anymore. It's lack of "fine writing" means it hasn't aged as well as some equally ancient books have.

Robert Louis Stevenson is a very verbal writer. What I mean by that is that Treasure Island is full of conversations and mental monologues. We are constantly in Jim's head, accompanying him through every physical and mental twist and turn of his journey. As such, there is surprisingly little visual imagery described. Here I was, waiting for grand vistas of the seas, of new islands uncharted, tropical climates and outlandish animals. Instead it is all rather straight to the point. The novel starts of very exciting, as Jim's normal life gets interrupted by the sheer excitement of the idea of piracy. However, the plot slowly but surely drifts off afterwards and it became more of a struggle to keep reading. Although I am glad I read Treasure Island, I will more fondly remember the audio cassette than the book.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

I enjoyed reading Treasure Island, it was like a return to childhood. However, this return also left me slightly disappointed. Some of the magic was gone, yet  I'm still glad I read this classic. There is something rewarding in going back to the book that started it all, even if it's just to appreciate how the tropes have developed over time.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Review: 'The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman' by Angela Carter

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor HoffmanAngela Carter captured my heart and imagination the moment I was given 'A Company of Wolves' to read in school. After being enraptured by her fascinating and liberating take on Red Riding Hood, I quickly devoured The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, her collection of fairy tale adaptations. From there I went on to Burning Your Boats, a larger collection of her short stories, which gave me countless hours of dazzling bewilderment and enjoyment. But I had not yet found the time to sit down with one of Carter's novels, partially due to an ridiculous fear that the literary magic which was so palpable in her short stories wouldn't translate to a full-length novel. I should never have feared.

Original Pub. Date: 1972
Original Publisher: Rupert Hart-Davis

Desiderio, an employee of the city under a bizarre reality attack from Doctor Hoffman's mysterious machines, has fallen in love with Albertina, the Doctor's daughter. But Albertina, a beautiful woman made of glass, seems only to appear to him in his dreams. Meeting on his adventures a host of cannibals, centaurs and acrobats, Desiderio must battle against unreality and the warping of time and space to be with her, as the Doctor reduces Desiderio's city to a chaotic state of emergency - one ridden with madness, crime and sexual excess. 
A satirical tale of magic and sex, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman is a dazzling quest for truth, love and identity.
Angela Carter was a genius. I often find myself praising authors on this blog and many authors are worthy of praise. The reason I love reading so much is because I find so many talented authors who are capable of putting into words the human experience in a way I never imagined possible. There's nothing as beautiful as looking up from a page and going 'Jesus, that's exactly how I feel... who knew'. So while I think there are many authors who can do this, not every author can do what Angela Carter does, both in her short stories and her prose. Carter creates a world which is entirely her own, which the reader is both only visiting and yet inherently a part of. For The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman you have to put aside what you know, what you expect when you open a book and what you think is acceptable. This novel is a meta-narrative, the ending is very much given away in the opening chapter, and the narrator constantly interrupts his narrative to comment both on his younger self, on the writing and whatever else he fancies. Carter either gives you too much, or too little, and yet you could never really complain about it because it's damn beautiful. There are things in this novel which may be difficult to read, Carter won't spare your sensibilities. But unlike in other novels, it doesn't feel like she's out to scandalise you, only, perhaps, shock you into a different kind of awareness.

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman is both an absurd and a deeply real novel, a satire that is also honest. It is a novel that no blurb could genuinely do any justice, which is why I'm glad I didn't see one before I started reading. (This is why I almost chose not to include a blurb in this review, but in the end a blurb is a place to start for those who my review doesn't convince this book is brilliant.) The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman is about a lot of things: desire, identity, love, sex, gender, violence, reality, fantasy, logic, the list goes on and on. It feels almost like too much for a single novel, or a single novelist, to handle, but Carter beautifully wraps up all these themes into the life of a man, thereby making each one's appearance valid and natural. See, a human's life is a complex thing, as I'm sure we're all aware. From day to day we struggle with the most basic questions (e.g. why do I not have a single pair of matching socks?!) as well as the most existentially puzzling questions humanity has ever asked itself (e.g. what are any of us truly doing here?). So when one wants to combine the simple and the baffling, why not do so by looking at a person's life? Especially the life of a person who lives in a world where reality no longer forms a barrier between our imagination and the world around us. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman is a difficult novel, and at times there are moments where you feel you might get lost in between Carter's words, but she is always right there to pull you back into the narrative.

I frequently lose count of how often I praise Carter's writing style. There is beautiful writing and then there is Carter's writing, to which I still haven't found a true equivalent. She is not the only brilliant author out there, of course, but she does something which language you don't see often. Carter doesn't spare words, rather she relishes in the possibility of words. When there are so many words up for grabs, why not try and use as many as possible of them? And she gets away with it. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, and any of her other writing, never feels long-winded, boring, repetitive or empty. Just because Carter uses a lot of words doesn't mean she's covering up a lack of meaning. With Carter, you get both quality and quantity. I would like to give the quote below as an example:
“Consider the nature of a city. It is a vast repository of time, the discarded times of all the men and women who have lived, worked, dreamed and died in the streets which grow like a willfully organic thing, unfurl like the petals of a mired rose and yet lack evanescence so entirely that they preserve the past in haphazard layers, so this alley is old while the avenue that runs beside it is newly built but nevertheless has been built over the deep-down, dead-in-the-ground relics of the older, perhaps the original, huddle of alleys which germinated the entire quarter.” 
Yup, that's a paragraph consisting of two sentences. And yet it is one of the most accurate descriptions I have ever read about old cities, of their timelessness that is yet a constant reminder of time itself. Throughout reading The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman I constantly found myself looking up words, rereading sentences, and lingering over words. Reading Carter feels luxuriant, like a midnight treat. I wish I could go back and read this novel for the first time all over again.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

From the first page, pretty much the first sentence, Angela Carter had me on the edge of my seat. I was amazed, shocked, disgusted, intrigued, enamoured, saddened, and everything in between. But above all, the novel enveloped me in beautiful language and wrapped me up in a story that never once let up. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman is a unique novel and I would recommend it to everyone.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Review: 'Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf' by Helene Cooper

I am always on the search for non-fiction reads that introduce me to amazing women I have never heard of or teach me about world history I definitely should already know more about. So when I saw Simon & Schuster's recent release Madame President I had to sit down for a second in shame, since I 1. hadn't realised that Libera has a female president, and 2. had to admit I new woefully little about Liberia's civil wars. After this, rather long, second of shame, however, I got right to reading Madame President and I definitely feel a lot more informed about the world I live in. Thanks to Simon & Schuster andNetgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 07/03/2017
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

The harrowing, but triumphant story of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, leader of the Liberian women’s movement, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and the first democratically elected female president in African history.
When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won the 2005 Liberian presidential election, she demolished a barrier few thought possible, obliterating centuries of patriarchal rule to become the first female elected head of state in Africa’s history. Madame President is the inspiring, often heartbreaking story of Sirleaf’s evolution from an ordinary Liberian mother of four boys to international banking executive, from a victim of domestic violence to a political icon, from a post-war president to a Nobel Peace Prize winner. 
Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and bestselling author Helene Cooper deftly weaves Sirleaf’s personal story into the larger narrative of the coming of age of Liberian women. The highs and lows of Sirleaf’s life are filled with indelible images; from imprisonment in a jail cell for standing up to Liberia’s military government to addressing the United States Congress, from reeling under the onslaught of the Ebola pandemic to signing a deal with Hillary Clinton when she was still Secretary of State that enshrined American support for Liberia’s future.
Sirleaf’s personality shines throughout this riveting biography. Ultimately, Madame President is the story of Liberia’s greatest daughter, and the universal lessons we can all learn from this “Oracle” of African women. 
As said above, I knew hardly anything about Liberia before reading Madame President. I knew Liberia had suffered through incredibly rough civil wars, that Charles Taylor was involved and that Liberia's debt had somehow been forgiven. But how the country came into existence, what its make up was, its resources, its culture, all of that was unfamiliar to me. Despite being a biography for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Madame President also goes into Liberia's history, from its creation for liberated slaves by the United States, through its internal racial struggles, its civil wars and its attempts at recovery, all the way to Ebola. Cooper combines the journeys of Liberia and Ellen, in an attempt to show the ground the two have covered in the past decades alone. Reading Madame President gave me a whole new sense of appreciation for the work done by women all around the world in some of the poorest countries in the world. As a white woman from Europe it is easy to appreciate your own freedom and "understand" the long road still to go for women in other countries. But it is so important for authors such as Helene Cooper, herself born in Liberia, to give voice to the stories and women of their countries so it becomes impossible for anyone to turn a blind eye both to the suffering and progress made by women in third world countries.

Cooper does not spare the reader from the harsh realities of what occurred in Liberia. The Liberian Civil Wars,which together lasted from 1989 to 2003, tore the country apart and created a generation of child soldiers who were abused, drugged and exposed to the worst humanity has to offer at too young an age. As a young child myself, Liberia's civil wars were a distant but present danger, a constant reminder that we in the West couldn't just pretend the world had entered a peaceful age. Cooper does not shy away from describing what happened day after day to the innocent people in Liberia, but also avoids the trap of using it for her own sake. Madame President is not sensationalist or exploitative of the civil wars, but addresses it head on. There is a sense in which it all feels almost impossible. That a country in which an estimated 75% of women has suffered rape and sexual abuse elects a female, Harvard-educated president, who then uses her whole strength and knowledge to get $4.6 billion debt relief, feels like a dream. How is this possible if a country such as America can't even elect the most qualified candidate for president ever because she's female? Cooper manages to bring a feeling of destiny to this journey, which makes Madame President, in the end, a very inspiring read.

Helene Cooper strikes a brilliant tone in this biography. I always find biographies challenging reads because the authors have to walk a very fine line. On the one hand their job requires them to make their chosen subject seem like the most interesting person ever. Why otherwise would anyone want to pick up the book and read about them? On the other hand, they can't glorify their subject too much either because readers will see straight through that. Cooper manages to walk that line. She combines Ellen's journey with that of Liberia, managing to cast Ellen both as a woman made by Liberia and a woman who made Liberia. By informing the reader of Liberia's history and Ellen's own life, Madame President is inspirational in showing how anyone can rise through circumstances to help their country and help their people, but also never attempts to only show Ellen's good side. Cooper's portrayal of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf remains human, flawed, strong, inspired, desperate, opportunistic and convinced. After finishing Madame President the reader both has an idea of what it took for Ellen to become and remain President, but also what it takes for anyone to gain and retain power in a country as torn as Liberia.

I give this biography...

4 Universes!

Reading Madame President gave me a lot. Not just new knowledge about Liberia, but also a sense of awe for the ability of humans to rise, struggle, fight and survive. The biography is incredibly well-researched and has left me with a lot of new regions and people to learn about and learn from. I'd recommend this to those interested in African history and Women's stories.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Review: 'Larchfield' by Polly Clark

Put together a poetess, a suffocating small town and a great poet's struggle with his homosexuality and you can have yourself a brilliant novel. However, you could also have a complete trainwreck, as an author tries to deal with too many topics at the same time. Thankfully Polly Clark weaves some beautiful magic in Larchfield, creating a novel that is both exhilarating and painful at the same time. Thanks to Quercus Books and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 23/03/2017
Publisher: Quercus Books
It’s early summer when a young poet, Dora Fielding, moves to Helensburgh on the west coast of Scotland and her hopes are first challenged. Newly married, pregnant, she’s excited by the prospect of a life that combines family and creativity. She thinks she knows what being a person, a wife, a mother, means. She is soon shown that she is wrong. As the battle begins for her very sense of self, Dora comes to find the realities of small town life suffocating, and, eventually, terrifying; until she finds a way to escape reality altogether. 
Another poet, she discovers, lived in Helensburgh once. Wystan H. Auden, brilliant and awkward at 24, with his first book of poetry published, should be embarking on success and society in London. Instead, in 1930, fleeing a broken engagement, he takes a teaching post at Larchfield School for boys where he is mocked for his Englishness and suspected - rightly - of homosexuality. Yet in this repressed limbo Wystan will fall in love for the first time, even as he fights his deepest fears. 
The need for human connection compels these two vulnerable outsiders to find each other and make a reality of their own that will save them both. Echoing the depths of Possession, the elegance of The Stranger's Child and the ingenuity of Longbourn, Larchfield is a beautiful and haunting novel about heroism - the unusual bravery that allows unusual people to go on living; to transcend banality and suffering with the power of their imagination.
At the beginning of this novel I have to admit something shameful. For an English Literature degree holder, I know woefully little about W.H. Auden. I knew he was gay, I had cried over his poem' Funeral Blues' in Four Weddings and a Funeral and have been meaning to read The Orators for a while. But I had never truly connected to him in the way I have to other poets. So when I found Larchfield I saw it as an opportunity to find my way towards Auden in a different way. And now, thanks to Polly Clark, there is a soft spot for Wystan in my heart, a connection to the sense of isolation and otherness that he felt, that echoes in his work. It's s great feat of Clark that she can bring someone like Auden into her novel without treating him as 'larger than life'. There is clear respect for him, but she doesn't hesitate to make him real, make him personal, flawed and thereby fascinating. She also doesn't sacrifice her own characters, Dora and Kit, for him, giving them as much time and personality throughout Larchfield. I found myself walking away from this novel really wanting to read more Auden, as well as return to Scotland, breathe sea air and connect.

At the centre of Larchfield sits Dora, a young woman, a poet, and new mother, who follows her husband to Helensburgh in the hope to start a new life that has everything. But Helensburgh is a small town, with means there are eyes everywhere, loyalties run deep and Christianity and motherhood are sticks to beat newcomers with. Clark paints the stifling closeness, the burden of expectations and the pressure of having to be, beautifully. The growing weight on Dora's shoulders, as she finds her world shrink to her house, then only to the safe spots where no one can hear her, and finally only to Wystan H. Auden. The pressures on Dora, her desperation to remain creative and productive, her fear of not being a good mother, her anger at her husband and her neighbours, and finally her helplessness at being confronted with the seemingly rigid world around her. All of it comes across very well and it all feels credible.They are recognisable burdens for many women and Clark manages to avoid the pitfalls that unfortunately comes from writing about women, avoiding many of the cliches and making Dora feel like a real woman. 

Clark lets the reader enter her characters' minds without forcing the characters to lay themselves bare. Dora's slow descent into utter unhappiness is so gradual and delicate that, although it doesn't come as a surprise, it still hits hard just how harsh it is. Larchfield is filled with characters that are troubled, that have burdens weighing on them, secrets to keep and fears to hide. Clark, by combining modern day Dora and past Auden, shows the continuing struggle of humans to feel included, to belong. Through Auden Clark is able to address the stigma that haunts homosexuals, both then and now, the crippling feeling of otherness and wrongness that pervades much of their lives. Through Dora Clark shows the pressures of modern day motherhood and womanhood, how nothing is every good enough and how the facade of happiness and perfection only deepens the cracks inside. 

I give this novel...
4 Universes!

I was completely taken in by Larchfield. Dora and Auden are wonderful characters that allow readers to join them on their journeys, even if only for a short while. There is both sadness and beauty to be found in Larchfield, and I think that's exactly how it's supposed to be. I'd recommend this to fans of Literary Fiction and Women's Fiction.