New York Public Library Summer Reading Challenge

Many libraries run children’s challenges to get kids reading over their summer holidays, but New York Public Library have gone one step further and made a summer reading challenge for us adults too!

Adults can need the push to read just as much, or sometimes even more so, than kids. And more importantly adults can learn something from these challenges too, which is exactly what the NYPL’s is about, with their theme ‘Build a better world’.

The last year or so has been scary, we’ve seen the rise of far right-wing groups become mainstream and normalised and politics has taken a swing towards conservatism and nationalism. There have been riots and protests, there have been a series of terrorist attacks and there has been a rise of intolerance in the wake of Trump’s election and Brexit.

So ‘building a better world’ is an important idea and the NYPL captures this with the three strands of the challenge. Check these out below with what I’ll be reading for the challenge this summer.


New York Public Library Reading Challenge: Build a Better World

Read a book …

About immigrants or refugees: Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Madeleine Thien - Do Not Say We Have NothingAi-Ming is a refugee, fleeing China after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. The book explains not only her story but the epic history of China’s revolutions. While the book deals with the horrors of a communist uprising, revolution and rule – it illustrates the dangers of any kind of extremist movement, something we need to keep in mind especially in 2017.

About an unlikely friendship: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
Theboyinthestripedpyjamas

A Jewish boy in a conentration camp is befriended by the son of a Nazi Commandant. The boys are too young and innocent to understand the divide between them. Obviously the Holocaust itself is a testament to the horrors that hate can cause, however this book is poignant reminder of just how terrible the effects can be, but also a heartwarming glimmer of light that humanity can still be good, and we can learn a lesson from these children.

That’s nonfiction, about an issue that’s important to you: Nasty Women33022718._UY2339_SS2339_

When Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton a ‘nasty woman’ he had no idea what he was starting. The words have become a hashtag, a global movement and a call to arms for feminists everywhere. This book collects essays on the issues that affect women today, with different perspectives covering a huge range of intersectional issues.

What are you going to be reading for the Summer Reading Challenge? Let me know in the comments!

Summer Reading List

What makes the perfect summer reading list?

You want books that transport you to exotic places, adventures, maybe some summer romance. Whether you are into mysteries or fantasy, there are definitely certain types of books that are perfect on the beach, or a rainy British summer indoors!

Checkout my picks for this summer:

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Released at the beginning of June this will be the hot topic of the summer – I read a lot of it on my first really hot day off. I have also just moved near to the beach which was the perfect place to read this.

The Girls

The cover of this screams summer and makes you think of Polaroids, aviator sunglasses and road trips in pastel blue cars – like pretty much every summer music video ever. Even better the book takes us back to the summer of ’69 – I feel a soundtrack coming on.

How to Stop Time 

Haig’s book is released on 6th July and sounds like the perfect holiday read – who doesn’t wish they could stop time over summer? This book will take us on a heady journey through all the best moments of literature and history and is all about losing and finding yourself – one for the traveller perhaps?

Pride and Prejudice 

This summer is the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death so you really need to read an Austen novel this summer – and with all of the garden walks and country picnics what could better represent the British summer? I will be listening to Rosalind Pike’s narration of Pride and Prejudice and possibly perusing Lucy Worsely’s new book Jane Austen at Home.

The Final Girls

A college girl goes on vacation and comes back alone. This could well be the thriller of the summer. Watch out for its release in July.

Treasure Island

Shame on me. I have never read this classic adventure. But it is the book featured by this season’s Happy Reader magazine so I figured I can set sail on the high seas and try both the book and magazine. And my new coastal location gives me the perfect setting to be reading this in.

Big Little Lies

The TV series has been making waves so it seems to be the perfect time to catch up if, like me, you haven’t read the book. All of the promo for the series screams summer to me – bright colours, shots on beaches – I’m imagining soccer moms holding pitchers at BBQs, I may be wrong but this feels like a pretty summery read.

Burning Girl

Released in August, this is a coming of age tale about two girls in a quiet town in Massachusetts. When you are a teenager summer can feel like time is on pause before you grow up, and so the release of this book could finally signal that September is here.

Sing, Unburied, Sing 

This has been described as brining the archetypal road trip novel into the 21st Century which makes it a perfect late summer read when it is released in August. The burnt orange and ice blue hues on the cover make me think of the relief of ice cream and swimming pools in scorching summers.

Are you struggling to make your own summer list? Feel free to steal mine or check out my top tips for picking summer reads.

Review: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

4-stars

Arundhati Roy’s second novel has been long awaited, coming 20 years after her first. This highly anticipated book will have garnered high expectations from fans, and for me it didn’t disappoint.

This novel is expansive, exploring geographical issues surrounding Kashmir, the religious tensions in the region, ideas of revolution, gender identity, and identity politics in general – all issues which couldn’t be more relevant or important in 2017.

Anjum is a ‘hijra’ a term used to describe transgender women in South Asia. The novel depicts her life and struggle, and where her life intersects with others who are outcast, alone or in need of a home.

Anjum bridges the gap between Muslims and Hindus, between old and young, men and women, Indian and Kashmiri, through Jannat’s Guest House, which she gradually builds from a tin shack in a Delhi graveyard. The novel seems to be haphazard, jumping in narrative voice and focalisation. However, eventually these strands do pull together to meet, making the novel complete, whole and rewarding.

Roy’s prose is utterly exquisite, and the presence of India behind the novel isn’t just a ‘character’ in the way we sometimes metaphorically speak of the depictions of countries and cities in books. Roy very literally makes Delhi real, living and breathing; a ‘thousand year old sorceress, dozing but not asleep, even at this hour.’ Passages such as this one are the kind of literature that takes your breath away, which you reread over and over.

Despite being 20 years in the making, it feels as though the novel lives in the here and now. It preaches tolerance in the light of religious and transgender persecution, something which has never been more relevant with the rise of extremist politics in the last year. It presents an India in the age of video and selfies – with the videos on phones that characters obsess over mirroring an age obsessed with live streaming and on the go access.

For me the only fault lay in that the multiple narratives and wide-ranging nature made the book feel less polished than it could have and a bit like hard-work, to keep track and keep up with all the different strands of the story. But even this didn’t ruin such a beautiful novel, which not only evoked a sense of India, but managed to balance the death, suffering and misery, that features all of the way through, with kindness, tolerance and hope.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness couldn’t have arrived on our shelves at a better time and I hope Roy’s novel inspires some of the sentiments that she achieves in her novel.


I received this book as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; all opinions are my own. 

Image from Amazon. 

Review: Miraculous Mysteries

4-stars
Miraculous Mysteries is a wonderful little collection of impossible crimes by some of crime fiction’s best loved writers.

The collection is varied, with all sorts of mysteries which all have one thing in common – they are seemingly impossible to solve. The book opens with a gem from Conan Doyle ‘The Lost Special’ which was probably the best story of the whole book. Other highlights included ‘Diary of Death’ and ‘Death at 8.30’ by relatively unknown authors.

Impossible Crimes are perfect for mystery lovers because of the challenge they offer and the intelligence and wit that goes into them. Think Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and it is easy to understand why these stories are popular.

This mix of authors, some of who were lesser known,  and their different styles was refreshing. The stories were fun, with some that were completely impossible and others which you could have a good stab at working out. This is the perfect combination, as you don’t want to have to be working things out constantly as you go, so it allows you to sit back and relax and just enjoy the novels too.

My favourite stories were the ones that built up more context and scenario around the crime, allowing me to get a little more caught up in the action, for example like in ‘Too Clever by Half’. I also enjoyed having a bit of background about the writers as this helped me learn a bit more about them, or even recognise them from characters that I am culturally aware of.

The thing that did grate on me slightly was that despite the effort to include a few female writers in what is clearly a white male dominated genre – none of the ‘detectives’ whether officially in the role of detective or not, was female. I felt like there surely could be a good Miss Marple or other witty female out there solving impossible murders, however as they were classic short stories they are drawn from a time period where such stories were in short supply.

Overall I did really enjoy this book, and it is absolutely perfect for when you want a quick crime to solve with a cuppa and some cake – because that is the only way you should read these stories.

 


I received this book as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; all opinions are my own. 

Image from Amazon. 

Review: The Dark Circle

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 2 stars
Two teenagers are admitted to a sanatorium with TB in the 1950s in Linda Grant’s newest book The Dark Circle. Grant is a previous Women’s Prize for Fiction winner and the buzz suggests she is a contender on the shortlist.

Lenny and Miriam are admittedly far more interesting characters than I expected from the initial blurb, and I particularly love how they fall in love with literature, and connect with other patients during their stay at the ‘Gwendo’. The novel explores the phenomenon of TB from a number of perspectives, and looks at postwar life from the experience of the Jewish protagonists, to the implementation of the NHS. I really enjoyed how the novel transported you to a forgotten past, and felt that it did really evoke the early 50s.

However, for several reasons, I still didn’t really get on with this book. While Lenny and Miriam’s experiences are significant, and a story that needs to be told, the whole book felt like their experience in the sanatorium – stifled, monotonous and slow. Nothing really happens over the course of 320 pages. The switching points of view made it difficult to focus on which character was focalising at the time, and occasionally the prose just felt odd, with jarring metaphors. I couldn’t tell whether this was an attempt at originality or quirkiness to avoid cliches – however there was more than one turn of phrase which didn’t really make sense or made me question what it meant.

I could identify and sympathise with some of the characters, though others just felt flat and not fleshed out enough. I like the idea of the novel, in terms of the exploration of how the patients were not just medically treated, but socially, politically and on an individual level. It explored a range of human emotions with great nuance and it really did make me feel for the patients. However, because of the lack of pace and plot, and the writing style in general,  I struggled to immerse myself in it or really enjoy it.

Anne with an E: First Look

Anne of Green Gables is a beloved childhood memory for many people, so when Netflix announced that they would be doing an original series there was obviously a huge reaction. Many people felt that it needed to be done, others were outraged – no adaptation could match the book. However if it was going to be done, then who could do it better than Netflix with their huge successes in original series and adaptations in recent months?

Series 1 is now available on Netflix, so after seeing Episode 1, what first impressions can we take from this highly anticipated series?

It’s a lot darker than the books

Looking back, we should have guessed that there was more to Anne’s past than meets the eye. She turns up to the Cuthberts’ in a fair state and in the book it is just passed off that she’s a bit of an oddball and her desire to stay with the Cuthberts’ because asylums aren’t very nice. However in this adaptation Anne has a number of flashbacks which show her to be a victim of abuse at the hands of the previous family she ‘worked’ for. While this may be a bit serious and gothic for some, it definitely made it feel more real – suddenly her emotions make sense rather than seeming histrionic.

Anne is not quite so precocious 

The book Anne is frustratingly precocious to the point it becomes comedic. By bringing Anne down to earth a bit, her wild imaginings and ridiculous speeches becomes a lot more meaningful. She is just as heartwarming as ever, but she is also relatable and earnest. I wish I could have been like this version of Anne at 13. She also gets a much appreciated feminist update when she declares ‘girls can do anything boys can and more.’

Its pacy

Some of our favourite moments from Anne’s early days at Green Gables feel as though they are raced through immediately – however this might have something to do with the fact that Netflix has made the first episode a double one – lasting a full hour and thirty mins. I don’t really understand why since Netflix has proved that we like our viewing in short and many installments. My attention was wavering through this first one, and I can’t help but think I would have appreciated it split into two, to have Anne’s best slip-ups a little more spaced out.

It is aesthetically perfect

I was going to say aesthetically ‘stunning’ then I realised this wasn’t the right description. Green Gables is beautiful, scenes of Matthew riding through water are breathtaking and the contrast between the lovely present of Avonlea and Anne’s horrific past is on point. However there are some visual aspects which are less ‘stunning’ but which makes it all the more perfect. Anne is wonderfully presented as the thin, freckly, red-headed vain girl we all know and love and I am so glad because TV adaptations have a tendency to give appearances the Hollywood Treatment. Equally our first view of Diana shows a fairly real girl in her early teens. Neither have been altered, airbrushed or beautified and that’s ok because they are perfect just the way they are.


Overall, a pretty positive first look at a classic childhood story, I just hope that future episodes can relate the journey Anne goes through growing up and do the classic justice.

Review: Hag-Seed

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The Hogarth Shakespeare series is a project rewriting some of of the Bard’s most famous plays, into novels by some of the world’s best-loved authors.

Hag-seed by Margaret Atwood is based on The Tempest.


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 5 stars
If you thought a play within a play was Hamlet’s domain, think again. In Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest Prospero is a famous theatre director, Felix Phillips, who is ousted from his role and ends up putting on plays in the ‘Literacy through Literature course’ at a local prison under the name of Mr Duke.
Hag-seed is an incredibly clever exploration of the themes of this play, namely the role of prisons within it. As Felix enacts his revenge using the inmates he directs, the other characters are complicated – we have the Ariel he casts 8Handz, as a kind of Ariel, but he is also haunted by his daughter Miranda who died age 3, and so becomes a kind of spirit like Ariel.
Equally, the death of Miranda complicates who takes on this role in the play. Lady Luck, or the Auspicious Star is cleverly personified in Estelle – showing how Atwood’s attention to detail is faultless. The play is modernised both as Atwood’s tale and in the performance of The Tempest that Felix stages which features rap-numbers, dance and significant reinterpretations.
Atwood’s invented world of the play is clever and complex, making you think twice about the play you thought you knew. It deals with issues of revenge, justice, imprisonment and mercy in whole new ways, rethinking the ways in which we perceive these. We get to know the inmates and can sympathise with them,  they are funny, real understandable people.
The depths which Atwood reaches with Felix explore the character in completely new ways, we see his motivations, emotions and manipulations but also a softer and more vulnerable side. The references, allusions and explorations within this are an English student’s dream and it feels as though it may have been an exercise of intelligence for Atwood, who lists off a dozen different sources for reference in her acknowledgements. I can’t say how good this book would be if you weren’t aware of it’s heritage – but the story was good with an interesting plot and was well-paced, reaching an exciting climax. However most of the fun came from knowing what the hidden references and meanings were, so a knowledge of the play was important here.
I studied The Tempest for four years in a row at school and was frankly pretty sick of it – I’ve never seen or studied it again since. If this book could make me enjoy a play which I’m not a huge fan of then it really did its job. Atwood’s retelling was everything a retelling of Shakespeare should be – an accessible, exciting and engaging update to the Bard’s words.

The Handmaid’s Tale: First Look

2017 has seen a resurgence in Atwood’s classic, partially as a staple in the feminist canon, and partly as a reaction to fears of such a dystopian future under the Trump administration. Hulu’s adaptation couldn’t have come at a better time.

Now that the first episodes have dropped, what can we tell about this long awaited series?

Colour is everything

If you have read the novel you will know how important colour is – the handmaiden’s red gowns for example. However, the series takes this a whole step further. Offred’s past is shown in fairly bland, real colours, while the present is almost Tim Burton-esque in it’s contrast. The symbolic reds of the handmaiden’s, blue of the wives and greens of the Marthas aren’t the only colours here, the brightness of the oranges, the greenery of the surrounding suburbs and the stark whites of the buildings are all used to create a vivid and too-perfect-to-be-real setting.

Young and beautiful

The commander and his wife, Serena Joy, are written as older in the book, with the commander even having silver hair. Joseph Fiennes certainly doesn’t fit the bill and the same can be said of his counterpart Yvonne Strahovski. There is definitely some Hollywood glamourising going on here but hopefully the change to the characters serves a better purpose than simply aesthetics.

Amped up violence

From the very first episode we see far more violence than in the book, with the ‘salvaging’ coming much earlier than expected – evidently for the shock factor. We also see a gruesome addition at the ‘Red Centre’ so this seemingly sets the pace for more violence as the show progresses.

An update for 2017 

There are subtle hints indicating a contemporary time period – from technology to passing remarks. Moreover, the series departs from the books which dealt with racism in a very specific way, instead employing a diverse cast.

What’s in a name?

The short answer: everything. We get confirmation of character names to a much greater extent than in the book and most importantly we find out Offred’s name – no spoilers here you have to watch! If you are looking for literary significance or hidden meanings, this revelation is HUGE. 

So basically everything is bigger, brighter and more dramatic, as is only to be expected from such a high profile TV adaptation. Only time will tell whether the series will do it’s book justice but it is looking pretty positive so far!

Review: The Power

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 5 stars

A feminist dystopian by a Margaret Atwood mentee, nominated for the Bailey’s Prize. It almost sounds too good to be true.

Well it isn’t. The Power by Naomi Alderman is everything I wanted it to be. The book is simultaneously a deeply personal and epic exploration of the gender-power dynamic in the modern day.

The premise is fairly basic: what if, overnight, the power shifted? What if one day, the literal power was in the hands of teenage girls?

In Alderman’s future the ‘Day of the Girls’ sees women gaining a superhero-esque electric power, giving them the physical means to not only equal men, but to overpower them. However, Alderman is far too clever to make this a simple ‘girls run the world’ story, instead reflecting the complexities of patriarchal society in her dystopia.

The story is told through multiple focalising characters, giving an expansive view of the way the world changes, across the US, Europe and the Middle East. The different characters are complex, all dealing with the phenomenon in unique ways. As well as seeing the perspective of a variety of girls and women; Allie, a runaway, Roxy a british teen and Margot a US politician, Alderman offers us the perspective of male journalist Tunde.

 

“She cuppeth the lightning in her hand. She commandeth it to strike.”

 

The story spans years of changes and illustrates a gradual but seismic shift, however Alderman offers us nuance – as well as women gaining power, we see women abusing that power. Oppression of and violence against men becomes widespread, however, women are still targeted and gender specific violence is enacted against them. Women become leaders, yet many are still hiding and on the run, at the hands of just as violent a regime as before.

Clever tropes and symbols litter the story, illustrating these changes for us – for example the news anchors Tom and Kristen, who debate the issues, yet as time passes Tom is replaced by a younger man and Kristen becomes the intelligent authority on political affairs and economics. In between chapters we see scientific explanations and archaeological finds explaining what has occurred, and short of those which incorporate humorous references to modern technology, it may have you beginning to question your historical knowledge.

Alderman combines dystopia with horror, humour and satire to create a perfectly crafted inversion of patriarchy. This book should be required reading for everyone to understand exactly what gender inequality is and means, not just for women, but for men too, who are also disadvantaged by patriarchy. Ultimately, Alderman shows that women are human, we are capable of the same mistakes, vices, and atrocities as men. There is no such thing as a female utopia and ultimately tying power to gender has no positive outcomes.

The Power is a compelling treatise on all the problems of patriarchal society – from objectification to sex trafficking – however, it is also an engaging story about empowerment and the danger of power.

Review: New Boy

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The Hogarth Shakespeare series is a project rewriting some of the Bard’s most famous plays, into novels by some of the world’s best-loved authors.

New Boy by Tracey Chevalier is based on Othello.


4-stars

Othello is one of Shakespeare’s great tragedy, with Othello, a black general and his wife Desdemona going to war, where his ensign Iago plots his downfall.

Chevalier reframes the story, with the military setting becoming an elementary school playground in Washington DC. Osei is the new boy, and the only black boy in an all white school, who is soon befriended by Dee, despite the aversion of the other students due to his race.  Ian, a known school bully, decides to reassert the pecking order by bringing Osei down.

This take on the story is incredibly interesting, fleshing out characters more than we see in Shakespeare’s words and in a way we don’t often see on stage. We see insights into each of the main characters, Osei, Dee, Ian and Mimi (Ian’s girlfriend representing Emilia from the play).

These insights are interesting, deviating from what many see as the key aspect of Othello – the mystery behind the motivations of the characters. Iago’s motives are the most debated of any of Shakespeare’s villains, while Othello’s actions and anger has also been questioned, as has Emilia’s complicity. In New Boy, we see first-hand insight into the characters and their thoughts and feelings giving us a whole new perspective, particularly in the case of female characters Dee and Mimi whose dramatic counterparts are often overlooked and dismissed.

Chevalier brings in a whole new dynamic in the relationships by making Osei new to the school. In the play Othello is an established general who has earned the respect of his men, meaning he has power, which Osei does not. Equally, the key part to Iago’s deception is that he is seen to be honest, whereas Ian is known to be manipulative and a bully. As such the rewriting does take out some of the nuance of the original story, however, it is an enjoyable new way to look at a well-worn tale.

The novel is also short, coming in at under 200 pages it is more of a novella, contrasting to the long scope of Shakespeare’s plays which last 3-4 hours depending on the cuts made. It is very accessible, easy to read and an engaging story – although we may know what happens we want to see how it is done, and it is done very cleverly.

Rewritings and adaptations never live up to the original tales, however they do allow Shakespeare to live on in new ways and for us to understand him in a contemporary context. New Boy does exactly that and is a very enjoyable and accessible way to approach history’s greatest playwright.

 


I received this book as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; all opinions are my own. 

Image from Amazon.