Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The Year of Living Danishly

Read the World: Denmark

With Britain's political landscape in a right mess, I thought I'd read about a place where they have things thoroughly sorted. Denmark is as close to an Utopian society I think we can hope to get. When Helen Russell's husband is offered his dream job at Lego HQ, she wonders if the change of country will make her happier. What is it that makes Danes so content, and can she embrace it within a year?

At the time of writing, Denmark was number one in the World Happiness Report (and is regularly close to the top). Danes are well looked after by the state, and so they never feel like they have to stay in a job they hate for fear of poverty. The country is family minded so taking time away from work is not frowned upon. In fact, Denmark have some of the shortest hours worked yet still being productive. Happier workers are better workers.

Yes, taxes are high to pay for such things, but Danes still have that sense of community which means they don't resent paying to keep the country great. They all know they will use something state paid in their lifetime so why not contribute? They are not a petty people.

If anyone plays the martyr card, staying late or working too much, they’re more likely to get a leaflet about efficiency or time management dropped on their desk than any sympathy.

Hygge has become quite fashionable in recent years, and you will likely have heard about it, even if just from the books lining bookshop windows of late. The idea partly comes from the fact that during the dark winter, you have to just stay inside. So get comfy and cosy, appreciate the little things in life and spend time with your family and close friends. It's not a wild lifestyle, but one I would feel at home with.

Whilst I found the content interesting I didn't particularly like Helen, well maybe she grew on me a bit more as she became more Danish. Still, at the start she seems like exactly the sort of person you'd expect to work at a glossy magazine. Her tone implies she is expecting not to like Denmark and is actively trying not to. Until she embraces hygge she is a little bit of a snob.

Danes stay happy in winter because it’s so awful outside that coming home inspires an overwhelming rush of relief and gratitude at having survived the elements.

She relies a lot on phoning up experts to ask questions about the country rather than getting involved. It's a valid form of research but I don't think she needs to keep explaining about the phone calls. She does ask everyone to rate their happiness on a scale of one-to-ten (I don't think anyone answers less than 8) so maybe this is the only way she felt could could fit this in.

The book repeatedly returns to Jante's Law, something many Danes adhere to. It is a set of ten rules to live by:

You're not to think you are anything special.
You're not to think you are as good as we are.
You're not to think you are smarter than we are.
You're not to convince yourself that you are better than we are.
You're not to think you know more than we do.
You're not to think you are more important than we are.
You're not to think you are good at anything.
You're not to laugh at us.
You're not to think anyone cares about you.
You're not to think you can teach us anything.

Anyway, I'm glad I read it as it's an interesting insight into Denmark, even if I didn't love it.

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Book Source: Purchased

Monday, 24 April 2017

Northern Lights

It was a very long time ago when I first read Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, and with The Book of Dust on the horizon, I thought it was about time I refreshed my memory. I enjoyed Northern Lights even more the second time round and I think I got a lot more out of it. I don't think I really cottoned onto the whole original sin part before, having not really paid too much attention to theological discussions whilst at school.

So Dust may be strange, and we wonder at it, but we don't fret and tear things apart to examine it. Leave that to the Church.

What I do remember was the horror over being "severed" and it has not lost any of its impact in a second reading. I probably didn't cry the first time Lyra finds the poor severed boy. It's a mark of how well the world-building is done that a minor character can elicit such a reaction. He represents the worst thing an adult could do to a child in the name of religion, to violate body and soul in such a way. It's a huge taboo to touch another's dæmon, they are such a personal thing.

I guess when I first read it I was enamoured over the idea of having a dæmon, a talking animal friend who would be with you whatever. That side definitely appeals to the younger readers, but they represent so much more. When the children reach adolescence, their dæmon assume a fixed form, one that can say a lot about a person.

That’s the duty of the old, to be anxious on behalf of the young. And the duty of the young is to scorn the anxiety of the old.

I had completely forgotten what happened with Iofer Raknisen, the armoured bear. He might be a mercenary but he is also Lyra's protector. He is also an outcast and has had his equivalent of his soul stripped from him too. Whilst humans have dæmons, bears have their armour, made from sky iron. Iofer's armour may not be shiny but it is true to him, unlike the new bear king, who is far more human in his ways.

Mrs Coulter is a fantastic villain, she doesn't wear her ugliness on the outside. She is charming and beautiful, no one would consider her to want to do harm to children. Although she believes she is doing the children a favour, probably the most dangerous kind of villain. Lyra and Pan do get a funny feeling from her dæmon though, a crafty golden monkey.

I'm looking forward to continuing my re-read with The Subtle Knife, especially considering how little I actually remember.

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Book Source: Purchased

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Strange the Dreamer

Inside a dream.
Within a lost city.
In the shadow of an angel.
At the brink of calamity.

Strange the Dreamer introduces a new, richly imagined fantasy world from Laini Taylor, something a lot of us have been waiting for since the end of her DoSaB trilogy. This beautiful blue book does not disappoint!

As the book opens, a blue-skinned girl falls from the sky in the city of Weep. This remains a mystery for some time, with the story turning towards an orphaned boy, named Lazlo Strange by the monks who took him in. Lazlo becomes obsessed with the lost city known only to him as Weep, for its true name has been erased from memory. Fate sent him to the Great Library of Zosma City, a place which granted him access to thousands of tomes where he could research the Unseen City. There he remains, content as a librarian until the day his books are taken.

Thyon Nero is the golden boy of Zosma, he has the queen’s favour and is a renowned alchemist. But his and Lazlo’s fates are intertwined, the two sharing knowledge which the nobleman would never admit to, and he treats the orphan with disdain. Thyon wants to be the best at everything, a legend in the making, so when the opportunity to travel to the Unseen City arises, he does what he must to get chosen.

He had loved the library, and had felt, as a boy, as though it had a kind of sentience, and perhaps loved him back.

But Lazlo’s life has been dedicated to learning about Weep. The inequality is clear but Lazlo possesses a humble and honest nature which leaves him in good stead with the people he must impress the most. It turns out the noblemen and tradesmen selected may be good at what they do but they are not good people. It's impossible not to like Lazlo Strange.

Meanwhile, back in Weep, the gods are still alive, well at least their offspring. Trapped in a metal citadel in the sky, the children stick to the Rule; do not be discovered. Sarai is the only one who can leave, and she can only do that through her moths. Each night they emerge, taking her consciousness down into the streets below. As the moths find their targets, Sarai is transported into the dreams of humans. Or are they nightmares?

That was the curse of dreaming: One woke to pallid reality, with neither wings on one's shoulders nor goddess in one's arms.

For there is an injustice that can never be redeemed. Just like Laini’s previous books there’s no obvious black and white morality. Both sides have committed horrors against the other. Is each new generation destined to bear the burdens of what their parents did? Two wrongs do not make a right, and the complexity of characters makes the story so much more compelling.

The world-building is fantastic, I love this new world. Sarai sees the world through her moths and through dreamscapes. Not everyone sees Weep the same in their dreams, and when she meets Lazlo she is entranced by the beauty he sees.

I think I saw the ending coming once I'd connected the prologue to everything else but I was willing for a different path to emerge. An impossible choice, both for the characters, and the reader, to choose. I think what happens will make the second book more uncomfortable reading, but we will see. Of course, I shall be reading it and I can only hope it won't be too long a wait.

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Book Source: Purchased

Friday, 21 April 2017

To All the Boys I've Loved Before

Lara Jean has always written letters to the boys she loved, past tense. They weren't love letters, more her way of ending unrequited love. She keeps the letters in a hatbox and has never actually sent one. Until one day, somehow, the letters get posted. How is she going to live this down?

Great premise and so many people love these books, so I expected to like To All the Boys I've Loved Before more than I did. To save face, Lara Jean agrees with one of the boys to pretend they are dating and on more than one occasion, it comes across a bit mean and manipulative. You can blatantly see people's feelings getting hurt and she is just oblivious. I wanted to it to be a light and sweet book and it misses the mark somewhat.

I found Lara Jean a little too young and naïve for my liking. She's never dated anyone before and she has put relationships on a pedestal. There's something about calling a dad "daddy", that makes someone seem either very young or posh. However, I did like the father, he is kind and tries hard to make life easy for the girls without their mother (yes, it's a dead mother book). Maybe her naïvety comes from the lack of mother-figure in her life, but she does have an older sister.

If love is like a possession, maybe my letters are like my exorcisms. My letters set me free.

It's stronger when looking at the dynamics of three sisters, especially where the eldest steps in to be the carer, of sorts. When Margot moves away to university, Lara Jean realises how much she did for them. Their hierarchy is out of whack and Kitty, the youngest, is at that age where she's turning from baby into someone who wants to be seen as more mature than she is.

I know this is part of a trilogy, but the ending is very abrupt. There's really no sort of resolution and I don't think it's fair to expect people to people to read three books to get any sort of satisfaction. Holly Bourne manages her contemporary trilogy quite well with each book concentrating on a different character. An ongoing romantic arc doesn't really work for me. Honestly, I just felt a bit cheated (or like I was missing a chapter).

Maybe America doesn't have annual animal welfare campaigns reminding people pets aren't for Christmas but I was disappointed to see a puppy being given as a gift. It's not even offset by that puppy being hard work, instead he behaves perfectly, isn't weeing every half hour and no one has sleepless nights. Humpf.

An easy and pleasant distraction to read on my commute but I didn't find myself eager to get back to the story when I wasn't reading it. I'm not sure I would go out my way to read another one, even if I am a little intrigued about what happens next.

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Book Source: Purchased

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

The Hate U Give

Starr's life is split in two. Her home, family and old friends in Garden Heights and the private school where most her class is white. She doesn't want to appear too ghetto at school, or be labelled as the angry black girl, so she changes who she is. When her friend Khalil is shot by a cop, she is the only witness. She doesn't want to put herself in danger but how will her friend ever get justice if she doesn't speak up? How does staying quiet stop this happening again and again...

I’ve seen it happen over and over again: a black person gets killed just for being black, and all hell breaks loose. I’ve tweeted RIP hashtags, reblogged pictures on Tumblr, and signed every petition out there. I always said that if I saw it happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down. Now I am that person, and I'm too afraid to speak.

The title comes from what Tupac Shakur said THUG LIFE stood for, The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone, which refers to the generational problems causing poverty and crime in black neighbourhoods. Hate begets hate. The cycle of fear and poverty doesn't give kids a chance to do anything else, to be better. Riots and drugs damage the very neighbourhood the victims live in, which is seen in The Hate U Give.

When Khalil is shot, he is doing nothing wrong and he is unarmed. The media focuses on the fact he did deal drugs, but even if that were true, it doesn’t carry the death penalty, it doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have a fair trial. Starr starts to truly fear the police, worrying that she or her family could be the next ones killed.

Guns scare me. The idea that the police aren't there to protect you is terrifying. I am privileged by my skin colour but also the country where I live has its head screwed on when it comes to guns. The right to bear arms is a ridiculous right, one which implies you have the right to maim another human being. America, why is this right held so dearly?

Brave doesn't mean you're not scared. It means you go on even though you're scared.

In the UK, scared kids carry knives. In the US, they are carrying guns. In a country where so many people are carrying lethal weapons, it’s hardly surprising that innocent people are being killed. If you are scared someone's going to kill you, you will react, with all your prejudices firing on instinct. The story briefly touches on the fact it that it is years and years of problems coalescing into that moment where a police officer makes a decision. It's not designed to make you side with the cop, but I think it's important it is included. The problem is never one racist cop, it’s something ingrained in the country's psyche.

Starr is a bit of an outsider and its reflected in her narrative. It's just not raw enough. I understand the desire to put a high-achieving, middle class kid in this situation, it makes it oh so clear she is beyond reproach. But she always feels safe, looked after by her family and school. Imagine if part the narrative was DeVante's? Someone who carries a gun, whose parents aren't there for them, to whom drugs and gangs seem like the only option?

It will be an eye-opening book for many and that's why it deserves to be a bestseller. On the positive side, it does show how wonderful close-knit community can be even in the worst conditions. Her parents work hard to give their kids a better chance in life, even if that feels them feeling guilty that they are turning their back on the place they came from.

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Book Source: Purchased

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

The Song Rising

The Song Rising is the third book in the Bone Season series and therefore this review may contain spoilers for the previous books.

The first 70ish pages I wasn't sure I was going to get into The Song Rising. There seem to be more characters than ever and I couldn't remember half the information on the heirarchy of the Mime Order or what half the different types of voyant were. Whilst the first book is still vivid in my mind, I struggled to remember the key points of the second, so I would recommend a recap.

When it really picks up is when the Paige and all of the London voyants are forced into hiding, moreso than they were before. Scion have upgraded Senshield so even more "unnaturals" can be detected and there are rumours of handheld scanners, which would mean the end of the Vigiles, and pretty much every other voyant walking on the streets of Scion.

She stood facing London, a metropolis created by centuries of humanity. London, with its secret, folded layers of history and beauty, as perfectly formed as the petals of a rose. The deeper you ventured into its heart, the more there was to peel away.

With the syndicates displeased with their new Underqueen, Paige knows the one thing she must do, both to secure their safety and prove she is worthy of her position. Destroy Senshield. Easier said than done, but she does have one lead, which will take her out of London at a time when her control is slipping.

I enjoyed the fact it explored a little more about Scion ruled Britain, not just London. Keeping with the Victorian feeling, the North is industrial, struggling with pollution created by the factories. Other cities have their own voyant networks and different attitudes to Scion. A little more is learned about what happened in Ireland, and what Paige experienced as a small child.

So after an unsure start, I finished the book desperate to know what happens next. I just hope the fourth book starts off with a bit more of an oompf.

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Book Source: Purchased

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Top Ten Books with a Difference

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Broke.

This week is all about unique books. It's probably quite hard to find truly unique ideas these days, but lots of writers have come up with fantastic twists or ways of doing things. So I present to you, ten books with something different about them which I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

The City's Son by Tom Pollock

The whole Skyscraper Throne trilogy is packed with creativity. Tom re-imagines a London where the city is alive. Also one of the first books I read with a Muslim character where her faith isn't a plot point.

Parasite by Mira Grant

Sentient tapeworms taking over their human hosts? Yup, pretty unique premise. The first book is the strongest but it's well worth reading the whole trilogy.

The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker

I don't think anyone else has ever had a Golem as a central and sympathetic character. It's also a beautifully told story about immigration, faith and integration.

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion

A zombie love story sounds like it would be dreadful but I love the skill with which this book is told. It's a lot better known since the film was made, but I think it's often pitched as a comedy which would have completely put me off.

The Testimony by James Smythe

One day, the whole world hears a voice in the sky. Is it a god, aliens or something human-made? Whatever it is leads to global chaos, and this novel follows it all through 26 different narrators.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Stunning retelling of part of the Iliad, a love story between Achilles and Patroclus. I don't think much historical fiction acknowledges the fact that ancient Greece and Rome were pretty fluid with their sexuality. I mean, just look at all the things Zeus got up to!

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Supernatural, killer horses from the sea, an isolated island community and the humans who try to tame them. This reminded me a little of Patricia Leitch's Jinny series which I adored as a kid. Still my favourite Stiefvater book.

The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall

I read this back when I really didn't experiment much with my reading and I read jumped in head first into surreal literary fiction with it! Amnesia probably sounds like standard fayre by now but sharks made out of text are still uncommon. How Eric tries to recover his past is really quite unique. I loved the use of typography in it too.

On the Beach by Nevil Shute

A book about the apocalypse without violence or action scenes. It is so so sad, but I hope we would see in the end of days this way if it ever happened. The polar opposite of The Road.

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

The beginning may have been ripped off repeatedly by now, but no one else has really gone on to explore carniverious plants taking their place at the top of the food chain.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Dragon's Green

Some people think opening a book is a simple thing. It's not. Most people don't realise that you can get truly lost in a book.

Dragon’s Green is either a middle grade book or a children’s book for adults, I can’t quite decide. The language is beautiful but also feels very much like a children’s story yet there’s references to The Master and Margarita and the like. Perhaps Scarlett’s intention is for it to be read to children by their parents and they can get secret little adult references.

There’s a lot about books and reading, it’s definitely a book for bookish people. Effie starts out on her adventure because she wants to save her late grandfather’s books. He had a collection of Last Editions which were promptly sold after his death, despite Effie knowing he would want her to have them. She discovers the power of books, also the legacy of her family and she finds out that it is indeed possible to get lost in a book.

We don’t learn much about Effie’s mother, who disappeared shortly after the Worldquake, assumed dead. The Worldquake reset the clock on technology to circa 1992, which is a time before the internet and mobile phones really took over our lives. The perfect excuse to exclude these things from the magical world where books are still revered.

All books have tremendous power. And power is magic.

Effie always assumed her grandfather knew magic, asking him to teach her, but he never confirmed it. Instead he taught her magical thinking skills (analytical thinking to you or me). When he dies, she’s left with magical objects which seem to be the perfect fit for her new-found friends. Soon she learns of the Otherworld, M-currency and how magic really is real.

Anyway, it was loads of fun and really rather sweet. In all the scenarios that a book for older readers would turn characters against each other, they just lend a hand and say sorry. One characters would easily be cast as the bully but turns out he’s an OK kid who’s not had the best life so far. He ends up one of the group rather than pit against them.

It's the first book in a new series and I would definitely read the next one. And yes, there is a dragon in it.

Dragon's Green is published by Canongate and is available now in hardback (with a glow-in-the-dark cover) and ebook editions. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review.

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Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Children of the New World

Whatever new technology brings, humans will always act like humans. I liked that at the core of Children of the New World were normal people doing everyday things, just with more advanced technology. It some cases, the climate has changed, triggering the social issues explored, such as the strains of unemployment or the selfishness of not considering others in a survival situation.

A lot of the stories follow the evolution of the internet and virtual reality to a future where people barely exist in the real world. A family who never go outside, doing everything they need to do in virtual reality, faced with a son who wants to experience the outside. A company producing memories to experience instead doing the real thing.

All good memories have boredom buried in them.

In one story, people have become so unused to communicating offline, they forget how to interact with people in person, they panic at the thought of a conversation without having access to their profile. The same story goes on to show the dangers of oversharing, that sometimes it’s better to filter your thoughts.

Of course, sex always plays a part. From the couple who build a virtual life and a virtual family, only to be plagued with the kind of spam that's so much easier to deal with when it only existed in 2D form, to a world populated by clones who no longer have the urges associated with reproduction.

It was tiring to labor through the sentences needed to explain how you ran into a friend - much easier to share the memory, the friend's name and photo appearing organically.

In these futures, the feared terrorists are Buddhist, with enlightenment being a dangerous thing attained through unnatural methods. This targeting of a group so unlikely to be international terrorists helps highlight the absurdity of blanketing a whole religion as dangerous.

Each story explores a fairly believable advancement or change, but many leave a subtle punch at the end. Read too fast and you may miss the most important messages, the ones that make you think a life in the real world may be worth living after all. A desire for a simpler life and internet fatigue crops up in several stories.

We were the first generation to grow up with layers, a group of kids who'd produced thousands of tutorials on blocking unwanted users but not a single one on empathy.

Children of the New World is published by Text Publishing and will be available in the the UK in paperback from 27th April 2017. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review via NetGalley.

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Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.