Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

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Published by St. Martin’s Press, September 2013, 481 pages, £1.19

What started as a light-hearted story about a young woman’s first days at Uni quickly evolved as a thoughtful tale about mental health. Do not be fooled by the cutesy cover. While it is upbeat and quirky, it moves into darker corners of everyday life.

Cath lives and breathes fandom. She and her twin sister Wren devoured a children’s fantasy series called Simon Snow. They wrote wreathes of fanfiction, hung out in forums and went to late night book releases. Their obsession grew at the same time their mother had left them. In that sense it was not so much a craze but a way to cope. For Cath, it was not only the option to live in someone else’s world, but to have their words become yours. In writing fanfiction, she ensured that the story that comforted her during the painful separation, never ends. This is a notion that really hit home. Cath takes comfort-zone to a whole new level.

As the sisters head off to college, Wren is keen to become independent and live apart. So Cath is faced with a terrifying new life, away from a once inseparable twin and a father who also never fully recovered from the family trauma. We soon realize that this is more than your usual freshmen jitters. Cath has trouble engaging with new environments and people, preferring to almost starve than ask where the food hall is. A big bulk of the novel focuses on how she navigates through this, with the help of some zesty characters and a cute farm boy. This is when the plot slows a little, but the author easily maintains a constant liveliness to the story.

Cath is a very sweet character and I imagine she speaks to many types of ‘fangirls’. We all understand how special certain books are, their characters, worlds and most importantly their words. We root for Cath to grow in confidence and independence, not so she can cast away her past but so she can finally create her own stories.

xxx

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Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds by Cordelia Fine

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Heated discussions during a heat wave…

Published by Icon, February 2017, 256 pages, £13.48

I was kind enough to receive a review copy from Icon Books after hearing a lot of enthusiasm about new research that prepares to challenge time-old myths about gender. This book, from notable scientist Cordelia Fine, argues that gender is a social rather than biological construct. That male and female, human and across the animal kingdom, are not in fact that different. The author attempts to subvert the accepted mantra that certain ‘evolutionary make-up’ makes men and women tick, why they are believed and remain unchallenged.

Whether you are up to date with the latest in biological research or not, we have all heard again and again that men are the naturally promiscuous sex and women are more nurturing beings who prefer to stick to one mate. Men are apparently overridden by a monstrous hormone that fuels their active and risk-taking nature. This is supposedly the reason for deep-seated inequalities in modern society. It is this ‘Testosterone Rex’ that allows men to get promoted and become effective risk-takers. Fine basically rains on all of these ideas.

With a robust and entertaining voice, Fine dissects and questions respected scientific claims, some that have gone untouched for decades. Her findings exposes the ridiculousness of simple gender divisions, the popular mindset: Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus. She tries very hard to involve the non-science reader with her witty and personal anecdotes. However, at times it was tricky to stay on top of all the scientific jargon. I particularly liked the chapter called ‘Sky Diving Wallflowers’ which questions the notion of risky behaviour, which has always been assigned a masculine trait. Firstly, she goes against the findings that were meant to prove this very general connection. And then secondly analyses the meaning of ‘risk’ and how it is an ultimately a subjective act.

Fine’s book offers some pretty solid arguments and is a good start to those who are interested in this topic. But it may be a smoother ride if you are more versed in science.

Many thanks Icon xxx

The Power by Naomi Alderman

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Published by Penguin, April 2017, 340 pages, £3.99

5 stars

This book blew me away. A world in which young women develop electric powers to zap and kill. It was a truly thunderous read which left me feeling shocked and singed. The remnants of the story are still crackling in my thoughts, so much that I’m not sure how to convey all of them in this review.

The book follows 4 main POVs: Margot, an American mayor who acquires the power from her daughter and fast tracks her way to the White House. Alison, who runs away from an abusive foster system to a convent where she forms a new religion. Roxy, a British teen who is the daughter of a mobster and takes over his business. And Tunde, a young Nigerian man who is one of the first to record the phenomenon on his phone and quickly becomes a revered journalist, travelling everywhere to document the growth of the power.

I found this eclectic mix of characters very engaging, although at times some were more interesting than others. As the power awoke in more girls and gained momentum we see a very fascinating shift in society, cleverly traced by the author. Some are dramatic but some are subtle changes that overthrow years of social conditioning. Rape on men grew, men’s rights activists begin bombing women’s health centres and when a young man is found dead it is usually assumed a woman is behind it.

I enjoyed how a male news anchor was replaced by a young handsome man, leaving the female to assume the distinguished role. I also found it interesting when girl’s blamed boys for ‘secretly liking’ the zap (a reversal of the ‘asking for it’ culture) and how girls would ridicule others who can’t or won’t use the power, calling them names that suggest weakness.

I had heard a lot of buzz about this novel, before it won the ‘Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction’ ( the kind of prize that is ironically subverted in the book’s message- there are no ‘Men’s prizes’ after all…). But I was worried it would be too scary or violent and I wasn’t wrong. This book contains scenes of graphic rape and killing. However, at that point I was too far invested into the story, so it didn’t feel jarring or unnecessary, just a sense of grim acceptance.

I was hooked on the plot which follows the power as it snows balls into what feels like a final showdown- wars, primal cults, weapons of mass destruction, drugs, new laws… Nothing really out of the ordinary or otherworldly if you think about it. Alderman writes in an article about this book that: ”Nothing happens in this book that hasn’t happened to a woman”, which is true. It’s not a dystopia, but a reversed image of our own reality. It’s only truly disturbing in the way it exposes us, not just through division of gender but race and other forms of inequality.

And yes, I would really love to have the power.

#Passionthepower

Thank you Penguin for my review copy xxx

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The Girl with the Make-Believe Husband by Julia Quinn

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Published by Piatkus, May 30th 2017, 352 Pages, £5.99

I can think of no better way to kick off the heat wave than sinking into Julia Quinn’s world. This is a romance author that can do little wrong. I flew past this new installment of The Bridgerton Series. Like any of the series’, no prior knowledge is required. Quinn’s pens a world that effortlessly welcomes both newcomers and fans.

This little tale is about Cecelia Harcourt, a young women who learns of her beloved brother’s injury during war in the Colonies. Penniless after her father’s death and faced with marriage to an oily cousin, she dashes across the world to New York in the hopes of reuniting with her brother and taking care of him. Instead she finds his best friend, Edward Rokesby, a man who she had gotten to know through her brother’s letters. He is unconscious and clinging to life. Just when senior officers usher her away from the hospital, with little enthusiasm to help her search, she blurts out that she is Edward’s wife.

Edward wakes to the sound of her voice and recognizes her, the sister of his dearest friend. The one who wrote the loveliest letters. Letters that he looked a little too forward to reading. The problem was he couldn’t remember marrying her. His injury wiped away six months of his memory. But the fact that she claims to be his wife did not feel off-balance, given his circumstances. There was a comforting logic to it, even if it was a tad confusing. Here Quinn serves us a clever example of instant-love. For a reader who prefers the passionate hate-love transition, this was a charming start to the story. It was a situation that deepened without feeling flat. A case in which the language of truth and lies are no match for base feelings. Despite Cecelia lying for practical reasons, she finds that it’s not just morals getting the way of her revealing the truth.

As Edward gradually recovers, they help each other search for Cecelia’s brother feeling the heat snow-balling between them. Quinn successfully switches between endearing newlyweds to determined lovers. However, there were moments in which I thought the conversations pushed too long. Repeated comments about pretty facial features filled a page or two longer than necessary. I also wished there was more building of secondary characters, who rapidly flit in and out. The mystery of the brother was well sustained but wraps up a little awkwardly. But look forward to a heated and satisfying ending of declarations.

Many thanks to Little, Brown for my review copy xxx

Leopard At The Door by Jennifer McVeigh

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Published by Penguin, 13th July 2017, 345 pages, £7.99

3 stars

I spent the last week in Kenya. It was 1952, political unrest had taken a vicious turn and the young Queen Elizabeth is soon to be crowned. Eighteen year old Rachel returns to the country after spending six years in England during the wake of her mother’s death. Turning her back on this life, which included a stifling boarding school, cold nights at her grandparents and meager rationing, she looks towards her real home with a tentative, but relieved heart. Her father, who remained in Kenya, kept very little contact whilst she was away and she hopes to reunite with him and revive memories of her mother. However, on her arrival he remains distant and is living with an unlikable woman and her quiet son.

This was my first time reading Jennifer McVeigh’s work, recommended as being a fan of Dinah Jefferies. I think anyone who favours stories about young women negotiating life and love in an exotic setting would enjoy this.  The time I spent with this novel was a warm escape. It started off with a very calming pace, like sun rays settling onto my back. I saw Kenya through Rachel’s young and hopeful eyes, its endless landscape, dusty beauty and rural way of life. As Rachel struggles to reconnect with her father and rebuild her childhood memories, she runs into Michael, a former tutor and local. The intrigue and attraction between the characters was there, but I didn’t feel their romance was full-bodied enough. Michael started as a masculine and intellectual enigma, revealing very little until the end. Their relationship leaned more towards silent acceptance rather than a heady whirlwind.

The slow pace that begins the story almost stagnates in the middle, leaving me wondering if there would be any action. It eventually picks up and speeds towards a dizzying tumble of events. The title ‘Leopard At The Door’,  becomes more apparent towards the later half of the novel.  Danger in multiple forms slink around. The story becomes stabbed with graphic violence (too much for my taste) as the threat of Mau Mau rebels looms closer. Not only this, but the deteriorating relationships in the house and the sadistic nature of the British enforcement close in. The novel also comments on the chilling treatment of women and mental health under Imperial rule and its obsession for sweeping issues under the rug.

The novel ends perhaps too quickly and wraps up with a mixture of unresolved acceptance, sadness and the survival of hope.

Many thanks to Penguin for my review copy xx

One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus

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Published by Penguin, 1 June 2017, 368 pages, £5.99

4 stars

Penguin cleverly sent around press releases daring me NOT to like this book. They boldly claimed that there was not a single reader who disliked the book. So of course I had to accept the challenge, even though I knew it was a marketing bait. I knew that my weakness for high school murder mysteries (a la Pretty Little Liars) will guarantee a base interest. This novel has a bit of everything, intense sleuthing, teen drama and romance. Its attempts to handle darker elements like death and mental illness might be its one flaw.

This is one of the most exciting YA books I have read so far. Five different characters collide in one detention session, all with secrets. Like those who didn’t grow up in the American school system, I have a fondness for their (damaging) stereotypes: the brain, beauty queen, jock, drop-out and outcast. None of these students know why they had detention and at the end of it, Simon the outcast is dead. The rest of the group become suspects. With each day the police are increasingly determined to bring them down. And get this, Simon’s gossip blog continues to post, the topic being the famous four and their secrets. So who is determined to ruin their lives, some elusive stranger or one of them?

If I do say so myself, I had started to get an inkling of who the culprit was. But I do applaud the many twists and turns the plot leads you down. Despite their different worlds, the characters bond with motivating results. They shed their stereotype shells, help each other’s problems and embrace their real selves. There are transformations, society challenges and an additive unlikely romance. However, the story navigates shakily with the topic of depression. The illness was clumsily explained for the rage and revenge that fueled death. But I think the author means to highlight it as a condition partly caused by the school cliques and separations (ones that we in turn find so appealing) in which the main characters ultimately take apart.

Many thanks to Penguin for my review copy xxx

Pushing the Limits by Katie McGarry

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Published by Mira Ink 2012, 395 pages, £3.49

4.5 stars

It’s been a Katie McGarry week and I never want it to end. Thankfully, there are about five more (plus a novella) in this Pushing the Limits series. I have no idea why it has taken me so long to start it. The drama, passion and fiery energy the author brings to her characters warms me from each page. Unlike the Thunder Road series, there are no biker gangs, but focuses on domestic drama, bereavement and mental illness.

Echo and Noah are from two ends of the social spectrum (McGarry is at her best with opposite attraction). Echo was once popular girl, dance team member and on track for an art scholarship. But after the death of her older brother and a traumatic episode involving her mother, she becomes withdrawn and distant from everyone, hiding her inner and outer scars. She is also repressed by her controlling father and his new wife, who was embarrassingly her childhood babysitter.

Noah is the labeled ‘dodgy’ boy who sits at the back of class and lunch, involved with violence, drugs and hook-ups. After the death of his parents and the painful separation from his younger brothers, he has been through the mill of abusive foster care. He is someone who has given up on trust, especially from authority figures, and fights tooth and nail to get his brothers back. Both Echo and Noah’s days are filled with anger and silence. When a guidance councilor brings them together, their initial impression of each other- impressions created by gossip and stereotyping, gradually sift away to make room for their consuming attraction.

Their romance is so fierce, but the wounds from their problems are so raw, McGarry creates an exiting struggle of wanting and never wanting to be the characters. The plot is driven by the mystery of Echo’s memory, as she fails to remember the detail of her trauma. Echo’s mother suffers from bipolar disorder and she fears that she will also loose control and be accused of ‘craziness’. The story deals with the lack of understanding mental illnesses and how it is dealt with. As Echo’s memory comes back in fearful shards, she tries to loosen her father’s safety grips, while Noah does battle with society to reclaim his brothers. Everybody’s limits are tested as the characters challenge those that restrict them as well as pushing their inner scars to extremes. Long at times, the novel was an addictive whirlwind of fatal build-ups and made me look forward to my train journey after a trying day at work.

xxx