Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Review of 'The Soft Whisper of Dreams'*

This has definitely been my favourite book of 2015 so far. I am a big fan of Christina Courtenay, and all of her books which I've been lucky enough to read so far have been pretty fab (Monsoon Mists was one of my top reads of the summer, and you can check out the review for it here). Also, I don't think I've seen London so accurately described in one sentence before as it was in the above quotation.

Maddie's parents die suddenly, and now the only family she has left is her bitch of a sister. That is, until the will tells them that Maddie was adopted, and so, unless her sister displays some heart (highly unlikely) she's now inheritance-less. Needing to get away from the city and the shock of all that's happened, Maddie takes a break in the country at her best friend Kayla's. She expects peace, quiet and a chance to see Kayla's kids. What she doesn't expect is Kayla's hunk of a brother-in-law to be staying there, nor to recognise a resident from the nearby town. When things start to get scary, Maddie is forced to question everything she thought she knew.

This plot had so many strands coming into it that there was never really a dull moment in the book. Courtenay once again creates realistic, believable and over-all humanity-affirming love interests. There's no ridiculous sex scenes (hello one I read where a tampon was whipped out by a guy ... on the first time?!), and the characters all have a great deal of depth to them. Moreover, if you like a bit of a thriller, The Soft Whisper of Dreams has that for you too!

Have you read it? What did you think?

Steph x

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Review of 'Oroonoko'

When I think about literary texts on slavery, I never really consider English 17th Century ones, however, Aphra Behn's Oroonoko is radical for this alongside many other reasons. It is written by a woman, and was one of the first novels, albeit more of a novella, in English literary history. The quotation above highlights the inherent racism in it, however, as a 17th Century text it is often very forward-thinking, and approaches the issue of slavery in a much more sympathetic light than many 19th Century American texts written by a white author. 

Oroonoko is a mighty and beautiful prince. He comes back from a war and falls in love with a beautiful and intelligent woman Imoinda. He makes his intentions to have her as his wife clear. However, the king of the land insists that she becomes one of his concubines. Oroonoko and Imoinda are heartbroken at this shameful separation and eventually succumb to their desire for one another. When this happens the king sells Imoinda as a slave and she is sent overseas, yet tells Oroonoko he has had her killed. Later, Oroonoko is captured as a slave. When the pair meet once more on a plantation who knows what they will do?

This was a very powerful text for me as I mentioned in the beginning. Many critics have argued about whether this book is a celebration or critique of slavery. I found it more erred on the side of a critique, but what did you think?

Steph x

Monday, 23 March 2015

Review of 'Marina in a Green Dress

(image taken from goodreads)

As a child, Walt Disney taught me that 'if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say nothing at all' (in the words of Thumper), so I'm going to keep this short and sweet. I picked up Marina in a Green Dress a couple of weeks ago as it was free to download onto my kindle and I wanted to go for something I hadn't really gone for before. Now I have to say I slightly regret it, and was pretty disappointed. The idea of a book based around a female protagonist who loves musicals sounds awesome, but in reality I don't think this one really worked out.

Jessica moves to London in the hope to get away from her restrictive Northern parents who believe that education and university ought not be everyone's top priority. She goes to see her favourite musical, 'Marina' on a regular basis, much to the chagrin of her boyfriend Steve. However, when a joke letter asking the lead actor of the play to meet her gets sent, Jessica's life changes irreversibly. It's up to you to decide whether it's in a good way, or this is taking her down a darker path ....

This just didn't hit the spot with me. I felt as though I could not in any way connect with the protagonist, which I find really spoils a book. Her thoughts and actions baffled me, and I more frequently felt as though i sided with the reason of other characters in the book.

Have you read it? Did you enjoy it more than I did?

Steph x

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Review of 'The Rover'

This is probably the oldest text I've ever read by a woman. I'm not going to lie, before coming across 17th Century English literature I didn't even know women were able to write published work at this kind of time (kind of shows how repressive some eras were - I'm looking at you, almighty damaging Victorian period). Anyway, The Rover, a play by Aphra Behn, is incredibly expressive regarding the wit and status of women in society during this period. However, this quotation, despite appearing a bit fluffy and cute is actually one of the most troubling I came across in the text. It's spoken by one of the boldest women in the play, Angellica, but suggests that there is an inherent weakness in women that emerges when they fall in love. 

Willmore, or the rover whom the name is titled after is looking for love (or sex, they're effectively the same thing in 17th C fiction). Hellena, whose brother simply wants to send her to a convent and preserve her feminine purity, seeks to get a glimpse into the real world and fall in love. Her and Willmore's paths and hearts meet, however, another figure comes into play: Angellica. Despite being a courtesan, albeit one who insists on a high payment, Angellica is actually not a 'simple' woman as one might expect her to be stereotyped. Amongst a number of other plot lines, you get to see whether Willmore will choose the simple, but alluring Hellena, or the stunning Angellica.

Have you read it? What did you think?

Steph x

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Review of 'Exmikan': Part 1 of the 'Mexican Eskimo' Trilogy* | Q & A with the author | Offer

(image taken from www.mexicaneskimo.com)

This review has been a long time in the making, but I'm really excited to share it with you guys. I've finally finished my final set of university seminars ever, which is simultaneously thrilling and terrifying. Hopefully however, it means my reviews will be posted a bit more frequently (I've realised I've got seven saved up that I need to write down properly!). 

A couple of months ago, the author of Exmikan, Anker Frankoni, emailed me about doing a review of the book. Now I can say that I'm very glad this happened. Exmikan to me was an eclectic mix of styles, moving between a stereotypical modern American style of writing, to one that almost resembled an ancient oral style, or the overlaying narrative of a film. The first section of the book was my least favourite, but once I got past that I couldn't put it down! 

 The book follows a number of characters' lives, and reminded me of an almost postmodern style. My favourite parts were the ones which contained fantastical elements. Stories from eons ago about the relationships between humans and animals in Alaska were incredibly thought-provoking in terms of the effects we have on our world. This was only one of the aspects that really made me think about my actions. Human relationships were ever at the centre of it - mothers, fathers, lovers, children, etc.

If you're someone who prefers books to shy away from the ugly reality of modern life, this probably isn't for you. However, with my favourite book being We Need to Talk About Kevin, you can probably guess that I don't fall into that category. Subjects including child sexual abuse and suicide are covered in this book, and they help to create a realistic snapshot of many lives over a number of generations. This really helps the book to seamlessly blend the realistic with the fantastical in a way in which I haven't seen in a while.

Interview with Anker Frankoni

- To what extent is the first book in the Mexican Eskimo trilogy semi-autobiographical?
Like life—and the beliefs we all hold about ourselves—the answer to this could be very different depending on what plane of consciousness I pull it from. A direct pragmatic response might read like this: The first book in my "Mexican Eskimo" trilogy weaves together layers of storytelling that are alternately composed of 90% fantasy peppered with 10% fact, spliced with intersecting passages where the ratio is reversed, and I've added ten layers of obscuring varnish to a ninety-gauge thickness of events that I describe exactly from memory.

Ahh, but that's where the trouble lies doesn't it? Because memory, and the impression of what is "fact" comes in as many different varieties as the seven-billion+ people on the earth that have heads to hold them in. As an experiment to demonstrate this, have a 5 minute conversation with anyone you are close to (especially an emotionally charged conversation about things that deeply affect your shared lives) and then attempt to repeat to each other exactly what the conversation entailed, and end up with both of you agreeing that the other got it right. Impossible, right? So our present becomes our past every second of every day, and the moment it does so it is no longer defined by reality, but by our memories of it.

So to answer your question from my memory of what I was thinking, feeling, and experiencing while living the parts of my life which I shared in this book, and researching the lives of my blood (and spirit) family members which I decided to drag in there with me, the only true answer to your question is this Stephanie: "Mexican Eskimo" is a tale of two lives, separated by the one I'm currently occupying. This book is the "realest" account I've been able to commit in words to explain my take on the experience of this existence, and it was delicately fashioned from the only 100% real things that exist inside my head: equal layers of piled up pieces of falsely remembered facts, and gospel-truth fantasies.

- From where did you draw the inspiration for the fantastical aspect to the novel, e.g. the story of the birth of dog?
Beneath its wolf-skin facade of genre-bending magical realism, theoretical constructs of dream-travel and reincarnation, and a strong overlayer of liberal humanitarian politics, ultimately, "Mexican Eskimo" is a story about women, told by a man raised by one that should have been treated much better than she was. My personal belief is that most of the hate, murder, addictions, lies, rape, suicide—lump every other thing that logically goes into this list and throw them in a burlap sack—stems from the mistreatment of children. We've had thousands of years to learn how to properly love and respect one another during the evolutionary course of human society, but sadly the problem is as much an issue today as it was ten, one hundred, or one thousand years ago.

During my extensive research into the culture and myths of the indigenous people of Canada and Alaska that went into creating the time-travel and rebirth elements of "Mexican Eskimo," one primary story spoke to my spirit in particular. Throughout the Arctic region, the myth of a creator goddess known as Sedna is shared almost universally throughout the various tribes of people commonly labeled "Native Americans." Inuit, Yup'ik, Aleut (Unangan) and others tell variations of the birth of Sedna, Queen of the Sea, whose spirit must be appeased to ensure the successful hunts of the seal and whale upon which their peoples' survival depends. In all the various iterations of the Sedna myth, she is invariably created from the form of a young human girl who angers her father by attempting to marry someone she selects for herself, or rejecting marriage to a man or spirit-creature her father arranges for her (either scenario symbolic of sexual control by the father figure.) Angered by her refusal to bow to his will in one way or another, Sedna's father casts her into the sea, and when she tries to save herself from drowning by attempting to climb back aboard his boat, he chops off her fingers with a knife and sends her to her death (violent mutilation of the female offspring by the dominant father figure.) My reinterpretation of this part of the legend of Sedna alone would have been a very powerful addition to the harsh reality of one of the darkest patches of our society's underbelly that I wanted to address in the fictionalized storytelling of this work.

I wrote "Mexican Eskimo" for a lot of reasons however, and not just to point fingers at something tragic or despicable! I also published this book in hopes that some of the adult female survivors of childhood sexual abuse who read it might become more aware of the healing power of trust, honesty, and the deepest forms of self-examination, and find the strength and inspiration to restore love and faith within themselves. In this regard Sedna is a fantastic role-model: despite the physical brutality hatefully inflicted on her by one of the very people who should have loved her more than anyone in the world, through the strength of her own self-love she refuses to accept not just death, but even allows herself to forgive all of humankind and continue blessing those who sought to destroy her: this I believe is the essence of spiritual love and growth.

- How important do you think storytelling is culturally, as I noticed that this was emphasized particularly when it came to Sedna?
We are nothing as individuals outside of our relationships. Without our connections to the other human beings with whom we live and communicate, we could literally not exist. The next stage of existence after the individual is family, followed by friends, then the greater social circles comprised of the people with whom we interact in our actual lives, followed finally by culture — those elements of the human experience we are exposed to on a completely non-personal level, that we absorb only through art, literature, media, and information technologies. Storytelling is the essential root of every level of our connection with human existence: Family; Friends; Workplace; Cultural Identity — everything we think we know about ourselves and others all boils down to a story we've been told. Whether it's the story of how your great-grandparents met, or the globally accepted "story" we've all decided to agree on that gold has fundamental value (only so far as we agree that it is) that our system of international currency exchange is somehow tied to the value of gold (it's not) and that your neighbor who is in possession of more of these credits is somehow "worth" more than those who have less (they aren't) — it's all just based on the stories we've repeated enough times to believe... and they are ALL composed of some ratio or another of both fact, and fiction.
With that in mind, along with a reiteration of the point I made above—that the only 100% real things about my life is that which exists inside my head—I'll answer your question about storytelling by robbing the first part of the forward from my own book, which begins: "When writers say that names and places have been changed to protect the innocent, what they are really saying is that they are protecting themselves. In this book, which begins the story of my unlikely existence as a Mexican Eskimo, I have changed nothing, for even if I counted myself amongst the innocent, no one can harm me more than I have already harmed myself. If this seems a rash jab at my duty to behave responsibly, and uphold my obligations to the rules of the society in which we live, I confess it’s nothing new. Time and again, year after year, those with whom I was closest urged me to face reality. Instead, I ultimately chose to face that infinitely more beguiling and enduring realm which I believe is the real crux of our shared human experience: Fiction."

- Various scenes in the book could be described as quite graphic. Why do you choose not to skirt around difficult topics, instead highlighting their reality to the reader?

My purpose behind the "Mexican Eskimo" series (of which this first book is only the beginning) is to reproduce a trip through the dark parts of the human soul in order to end up in the light. To truly take that trip, I ask my readers to forgo a great many of the niceties of polite society, and take a journey through time and the human condition, tied together with a complex back-story featuring generations of both likable and despicable characters thrust together by fate and circumstance. Few creatures on this planet are capable of inflicting the kind of abuse on their fellow creatures as human beings do every day, and in keeping with my intention to examine the many different levels of the human spirit that I explore in this work, I forced myself to address the difficult parts of my family history right along with the positive elements.

I should thank you though Stephanie for putting it so nicely! Saying simply that I "chose not to skirt around difficult topics" is indeed putting it mildly, as my material is admittedly much more than a bit controversial (and on that note this seems like the perfect time to remind your blog readers that this book is intended only for mature adult audiences 18 years and older.)

Ultimately, I'm glad of my decision to stay as true and candid about the negative elements of human conduct as I am to the positive bits of this story, and I'm proud to be able to say that many readers have written not only reviews, but personal letters to me, giving thanks for the clarity and healing that my work has lent to their analysis of some of their own life experiences. It would be unfair of me to be less than honest though, and I must admit too that other readers and reviewers have offered scathing criticisms, expressing strong feelings of disgust and disdain... there have been very few lukewarm reactions; "Mexican Eskimo" is without a doubt a love-it-or-hate-it piece of work. It seems that many folks believe that graphic depictions of sex, child-abuse, bestiality, self-mutilation, and suicide don't have a place in stories about love and redemption.

One of the most interesting things though (and that I frankly would never have anticipated) is that the most positive, heartfelt, and soul-baring letters I've received have invariably come from women who suffered sexual abuse in childhood. As for the detractors, I don't have any way to guess at what might be the common denominator that creates such strong aversion to my writing — all I can do is thank anyone (silently in my head!) who puts out a negative statement about "Mexican Eskimo," as for me it's just more evidence that I have succeeded in one of my goals with this work: I never set out to write something that people wouldn't react strongly to.
I appreciate these great prompts Stephanie, and your willingness to let me share this Q&A-style soliloquy here on All of Literature's A Stage. If any of your readers would like to purchase a paper copy of "Mexican Eskimo Book 1: Exmikan" they can use coupon-code ALSFREESHIP at my Etsy bookshop at: https://www.etsy.com/shop/MexicanEskimo and I'll waive the delivery charge on a signed copy of my book sent anywhere in the USA or UK through the end of March, 2015. To read a sample of "Mexican Eskimo," and sign up for newsletter updates and other discounts and giveaways, visit www.MexicanEskimo.com or just email me at Anker@MexicanEskimo.com

Have you read it? What did you think?
Steph x

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Review of 'The Country Wife'

(image taken from google)

This 17th Century play goes hand in hand with The Man of Mode, which I reviewed here the other week. Again, this play forms a part of the Restoration drama canon, and as such has many of the common features of it. Very bawdy (to say the least), this play questions relationships and hierarchies between men and women. 

Horner (aptly named) creates a rumour at the beginning of the play that through some kind of venereal disease he has become impotent. This allows him to get away with far more licentious behaviour with men's wives than would otherwise be allowed. Alongside this plot, the audience follow the lives of many other characters. There is the not-so-witty Mr Sparkish, due to marry Alithea; Pinchwife, whose decision to shut his wife up from the contagion of London morals doesn't quite go to plan, and more.

As with The Man of Mode, many questions about gender roles and sexuality are raised in this play. The most potent of these (get the pun?) is the idea that as long as a man is impotent one's wife is safe with him. This largely dwells from the lack of contraception during this period - a man needed to make sure his heir was in fact his, so his wife had to remain untainted by any other man with the potential to produce offspring. I found it incredibly interesting that this was the key reason for keeping a woman faithful, rather than the spread of venereal disease or the idea of husbandly possessiveness (as is very prevalent in later literature). 

Have you read it? What did you think?

Steph x

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Review of "Candra's Freedom"*

(photo from harperimpulse)

This is the second in a series of romance-fantasy books by A J Nuest - as I loved the first one (Rowena's Key - check out my review here), I was lucky enough to be sent an e-copy of the sequel. Believe me, after the cliff-hanger at the end of Rowena's Key, I REALLY needed to get my hands on this. Candra's Freedom felt a bit more like a novella to me than a full-blown novel, but with my time restrictions at the moment (imagine me surrounded by mounds of books and reams of paper in a slightly dingy and untidy student room), this was just what I needed for a bit of light reading. 

Rowena finds herself trapped in a castle with no memory or her life before the room she is in. After a number of unsavory advances from her captor, Prince Braedric, combined with the unwavering belief that the people of this mystical place have in her being a sorceress, she begins to strengthen herself for escape. However, this also starts to go downhill with Caedmon returns and states that they're ... betrothed?! And she's expected to love him?! - Fuck that!

This really spoke out to me about female empowerment. Rowena is a strong-headed female protagonist who recognises that she has sexual desires, yet does not allow them to alter her convictions or plans. If you want to read a really realistic (read believable, frustrating, tear-your-hair-out 'why are people like this' moments!) romance that happens to be set in a mystical world, this is your bag. This series is shaping up to be something really spectacular, and I cannot wait to see what comes next!

Have you read it? What did you think?