Tuesday, 11 July 2017

A Review of Hold Back The Stars

Hold Back The Stars is the debut novel by Katie Khan. It is a romance/sci-fi/space survival book about the struggle of two people to survive in space. Carys and Max met back on earth, and they look back over the chain of events which have bought them to this point. They come from Europia, a country born out of the old European Union, between the remains of the shattered USA and Middle East.

Wow, what a fascinating setting! Most of the story here comes from the worldbuilding, so let try and explain as much of it as I can, without giving anything away. Many people call it a utopia, but for some people it seems more like the other thing. There is much discussion on the actual meaning of the world utopia, and those who call it that most vehemently are the ones with a more vested interest in seeing it survive. You know how if you have to tell your citizens they live in a utopia, they probably don't.

Citizens live in Voivodes, numbered parts of the world, and every three years they move on to a new Voivode, in a process known as Rotation. This is so that people don't develop ties to any one place - people are meant to act not in the name of religion, country or rulers. There is, however, somewhat of a cult of personality around the man who first set up the Voivodeship. These terms aren't explained, but presented to you as if you are a citizen of Europia and would know what they mean. It's easy enough to work them out from the context, however. I actually thought this was an interesting idea, and I would love the chance to live in a different part of the world every few years.

The next big point is people settling down much later. Because of advances in medical technology, people can have children later, leading to the creation of the Couples Rule, whereby people aren't supposed to settle down until they're in their late 30's. I would personally love the idea of not settling down until I am much older. However, what I would like shouldn't control what everyone else can do, and if they want to settle down at 20 with their childhood sweetheart, they should be allowed to

There is a strong emphasis on the individual, with people acting for themselves, rather than doing things because of family name, country ties or religion. There is one unified faith, and though old languages have survived, there is mention of a universal European language. To me, this would make the world worse, not better. When people say the world would be better if we all had one language or religion, they usually mean that the world would be better if everyone was just like them.

 The one thing I didn't like was the idea of an asteroid field surrounding earth, which is given no explanation. Also no word on how the former UK is doing being united under a system which takes much, such as the flag and the motto, from the former EU?

It's possibly a shame that I didn't care for the characters as much as I did the world. Carys and Max are in such peril from the start of the story that we really should be able to care about them instantly. I clicked with Carys, but Max took me longer to warm up to. Carys is supposed to be an astronaut and an scientist, yet she never displayed much personality that I would associate with these careers. She didn't remain calm under pressure, nor did she seem particularly logical. It was often Max coming up with ways to help them out of the situations they were in. Max is a chef, but we never see him cook - I think Carys cooked more than he did.

So, is this story a sci-fi with some romance elements? A romance with sci-fi thrown in? A bit of both, with too much of the other genre to appeal to fans of either? I really like cross-genre stories like this, so if you like that sort of thing, give this book a go. It does fall on the softer end of hard sci-fi - no The Martian style science-ing the shit out of everything. Still, I think there is enough romance and sci-fi here to appeal to fans of both.

Also, no spoilers, but a warning - the ending does start to drag.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

A Review of Wilde Like Me

Wilde Like Me is the first book by Louise Pentland, a UK based YouTuber. Robin Wilde is a mother to Lyla and a make-up artist. She has great friends, a good job and an amazing daughter. However, she struggles with being a single mother, and feels she doesn't fit in with the other Mums at Lyla's school. With nothing to do for long periods of her day, she spends much of her time with a feeling she describes as "The Emptiness." In an effort to get back in the dating scene, she tries online dating, leading to a series of hilarious mishaps!

YouTubers writing books has become the new thing. Sometimes, such as in the case of John Green, it works well. Other times, such as with Zoe Sugg, they received more mixed reviews, although I liked her Girl Online series, personally. I knew Louise had experience with book publishing, that she was doing much of the work herself and that she was writing about subjects she cared about, so I have to say I was cautiously optimistic. After reading, I must say I am very pleasantly surprised! This book is hilarious, heartwarming, relatable and real. It's been a long time since I've felt "The Emptiness" like this after finishing a book, with tears in my eyes. I just wanted to read more and more about Robin Wilde. This may sound silly, but all I wanted to do was hug the book.

Like with most books of this sort, it's characters are it's heart. Every interaction between Robin and Lyla is gold dust and I'm sure will bring a smile on the face of everyone who's ever been around a child. I would have taken a book just with moments between them! Lyla acts wonderfully like her age - not too old or too young -  and speaks exactly like someone of her age would. Robin feels like everyone else around her has the perfect life, with everything together, but to her credit, never resents anyone around her for this. Robin's insecurities should make her relatable to a large group of people, not just mothers. There were other characters I loved, such as Robin's boss Natalie - an awesome make-up artist and businesswoman, who built a company out of nothing. And Robin's friend Lacey gave the feminism speech I've been waiting to read in a book "being a feminist means you want everybody to be equal; to have the same chances, opportunities and treatment as everybody else." It becomes clear as the book goes on that no-one has the perfect life they seem to.

Robin does want a man in her life, and many people around her seem to think her problems will be fixed if she has one. I will actually point out the difference here between wanting something and needing something. Robin may want someone to share her life with, but she's also getting on fine on her own. She also doesn't want any man, she wants someone who is right for her. Also, the overall theme of the book seems to be that gal-pals will be there for you, even if men aren't. Loneliness... isn't something I experience much. I'm the sort of person who much prefers being on my own. But I know that isn't the way for everyone. At one point, Robin does mention she had post-natal depression. Robin didn't seem just lonely to me. In my non-expert opinion, much of what she felt sounded like depression. It's not always possible to just shake off depression, and isn't 'fixed' just because someone starts dating. I know there has been talks of a second book, and I would like to see this sort of thing touched on in the sequel.

Spoilers: I am also so, so glad that things weren't wrapped up in a nice, neat bow. The twist here is basically what I've been hoping to read in chick-lit since I read Bridget Jones in my teens. Robin realises that, actually, she's doing very well in her life without a man, and I loved that.

Also, since I grew up in Cambridgeshire, I loved the fact that it was set there! I smiled whenever I recognised a place, and was nodding along with some of the cultural references to things I experienced, or heard from Mum. She struggled to fit in with the other mother's at school to start with, since we moved just when I started Primary school.

I would recommend the book to any parent or parent-to-be, to remind them that they aren't the only ones who are struggling, or who have worried about raising their child right.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

The Problem I Have With Jacqueline Wilson

Jacqueline Wilson is one of those authors who I read at lot when I was young, but who I find hard to get back into as an adult. I will say that since it has been so long since I read one of her new books, she might have changed somewhat. I stopped reading when it started to feel like she wrote the same book a lot. She uses a lot of plot points over and over again.

Let me explain. There's a main character, often with messy/untidy hair, or in some way not classically beautiful. She (almost always a she) often had a troubled home life - council estates or being in a care home were common. She's often either a brat, or she's nice, but shy and meek. She wants to become an artist, writer or an actress. If a young boy is described as weedy, she will become friends with him, and if a character is blonde and beautiful, she will be mean. There's a surprising amount of girl hate in her books, although it is tempered by a large amount of supportive female friendships, too. Also, most of her protagonists, at least every one I've come across, were of white British descent. I'm not saying that her books that fit this pattern are bad books, just that they do get samey after a while.

However, her books have been loved by generations of children. How do you rate a children's book? Is it by how well it's enjoyed by it's intended audience, or how readable it is for adults? Honestly, I think this is one of her biggest issues, and one that bothered me, even then. She writes for children, and in doing so, it feels patronising. Her characters always seem to act much younger than they actually are. And she tells rather than shows a lot of the time.

On the other hand, I do still like how her books deal with issues not often touched upon in children's literature. She doesn't patronise her reader's ability to grasp these serious subjects. In a way, it feels like she believes her readers are more intelligent than her characters are. And very few of her books aimed at children have any sort of romance in them at all. Romance is a part of life and not something I believe children should be hidden from completely, but it is a refreshing change of pace.

Her age also starts to show whenever a character has to use technology, and she uses a grading system that it nothing like what actual UK schools use. (For example, in Diamond Girls, the main character's sister, Rochelle, says she got an A on a project in primary school. We don't use a letter based grading system in primary school!) Her language can also be problematic at times. In the Girls in Love series for instance, a character uses the T-word slur to describe characters who are either men dressed in drag or transgender women. I apologise, but the narrative isn't clear enough either way for me to know.

So, are there any of her books I would recommend? Yes, anything which deviates from the above plot. Midnight is one of my favourites of hers, mainly because it does go against many of her stereotypical plot points. Also, you absolutely should give a few of her books to young boys as well as young girls. If they don't seem interested, let it drop - I believe no good can ever come out of forcing a child to read. But the only way our world is going to change is if we begin to understand one another more, and one of the ways we can do that is by reading about people who are not like us.

Also, parents might want to check if they feel the material in the books are suitable for their child's age. Because she's written all over the spectrum from early chapter books to books aimed at older teenagers, and a wildly inconsistent categorisation of her books in most libraries and bookshops, they can easily end up with a book not meant for them. I know, and I disagree with limiting books available to young adults, but younger children are a different matter. For example, in one of the books in the Girls in Love series, they are out at a concert that gets cancelled. One of the girls decides to hop in a van with some older guys, and the other two decide to go along since they assume it'll be safer. There are also references to drinking and drugs while they are with them.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

A Review of The Book Thief

The Book Thief is a book by Markus Zusak. Liesel is nine years old when this book starts, being sent to live with foster parents on Himmelstrasse (as the book will remind you enough times, this means Heaven Street.) She can't read, but becomes fascinated by a small book she finds on the ground. Over the course of the next few years, she learns to read, steals more books, fits into the family life becomes good friends with a neighbour, and ends up hiding the kind of secret that in Nazi Germany could get everyone she knows killed. Also, the book is narrated by Death.

I will state that I've long had an interest in German history, particularly that surround the Berlin Wall, but of course knowledge of the Holocaust is important to lead up to it. My German language is conversational - I could 'talk' my way around as a tourist, but I couldn't debate a serious topic in the language. With that being said, however, I am no expert and I don't feel I could comment on any historical accuracies of the book. However, I like that it reminds people that life wasn't all sunshine and rainbows for many ordinary Germans living at that time.

The Book Thief is another of those books that defy categorisation. I've seen it tagged with the young adult label, and in the young adult section of bookstores. However, I see literally no reason why an adult with an interest in German history wouldn't enjoy this book. I know I've definitely seen adults reading it. So I would ask why it happens to be placed in that section? And not that it's not also a great book for teenagers learning about WW2, or that there can't ever be good writing in YA. It is just that with books placed there, many of those who would enjoy it won't see it.

There really isn't a (main) character in this book who I dislike. It's, rather unusually, narrated by death, a rather cheerful chap who has a pretty unpleasant job, but he knows it is an important one. I loved Liesel and her desire to read, her attempts to get her hands on as many books as she can. Rudy is possibly one of the best childhood-friend-slash-love-interest I've read in fiction. Rosa can seem rather harsh at times, but her love for Liesel and care for Max comes through. Hans is just lovely throughout the book. It's a wonderful way to show that people can find happiness as a family other than the one they're born into.

The film is one of those that really catches the spirit of the book. It's what I'd consider a companion film - you wouldn't miss anything if you've read the book but didn't watch the film, but it's still a sweet film on it's own merits. However, if you watched the movie but haven't read the book, than yes, you absolutely should read it.

I recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in German history.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Chin hair, Chin hair, go away, and don't come back another day

Not the most flattering of pictures, but I think
you need to see how bad it was
When I was in my late teens, I noticed a long, dark hair on my chin in the mirror after a shower. Thinking it had just came from my scalp and affixed itself there with water, I reached out to brush it away. Soon I realised it was growing from there. A few frantic seconds with a pair of tweezers later, it was gone, and I thought that would be the end of it. A few months later, there was another one. Then another, then two then three. It got to the point where I could no longer manage it solely from plucking, and I started booking myself in waxing appointments pretty frequently. They weren't only on my chin, either. Some of them would stray up to near my ears, or be almost on my cheek. I had nightmares that one day, I would wake up to a full-on beard. I think my saving grace was that it happened in my late teens. Secondary school teenagers would have been vicious about something like this!

One of the things I did was get tested for PCOS, which can cause this, but my results came back negative. And it just felt like the more I waxed, the worse it got. It came back sooner, and more of it. I was always jumpy afterwards, waiting for the point where it would become noticeable again. And it was noticeable. I spend a lot of my day with young children, and they commented on it. But once they've asked about it, they're over it, and still want you to join in their games. I actually prefer this to the adults "pretend not to notice, then laugh behind your back" method. Or maybe I just felt like that was what they were doing, because I was paranoid. I started wearing my hair down, pulling it forward, so it blended in a bit better. If I was a minor character in a book, I felt like my description would be "the woman with hair on her chin."

So, I looked into other hair removal options, and I decided to try laser hair removal at sk:n clinics. This isn't a review of laser hair removal or sk:n clinics in general, but a general comment of how I found it, so that other people will know what to expect. Also, bear in mind I am not saying that you have to or even should do this when it comes to removing body hair! It is just what I felt comfortable doing. You do you.

I booked in for my consultation online, and they phoned me up to ask a few questions. I didn't wax for a few months coming up to my appointment, so they could see exactly how bad it was. They were professional, friendly, and I was able to build up a rapport with them, since I saw the same lady when I went it. I had a large form to fill in, then they took me for a consultation. The one thing they do stress is that it's not a permanent removal, but a reduction. They then did a patch test with the lazer machine, which was fine for me.

Before my first treatment, I had to shave it, something that felt different to me, since I had been going out of my way not to shave the hairs on my chin. There's also a long list of aftercare procedures I must follow. Also, my word was it ever painful. I know people have different pain tolerances for different things, so don't let this put you off. I thought since I could handle waxing, I'd be fine. One thing I did do that I absolutely would advise is took a stress ball into the appointment with me, so I could squeeze it when it got painful. Certain patches were much worse than others.

The area that has been treated may feel sensitive or sore for a few days afterwards. I was given an aloe vera cooling gel to treat the skin. I also recommend something cold wrapped in cloth, and holding that on your skin.

I have a course of eight treatments booked, roughly a month between them. So far, I have had one, and it will be interesting for me to compare my results at the end, and to see how much regrowth, if any, I get a few years down the line.

But why do I feel the need to pay so much money to fit into society's acceptable standards? Or go through the pain associated with waxing, so that I felt more confident in my appearance? I wish I could hold my head up high, and be all "I have chin hair, what of it?" but I can't. Would I have wanted these treatments at all if society didn't make chin hair on women seem not normal? If I had no reason to feel self-conscious in my appearance, would I still have wanted it?

I don't know, and I can't answer these questions for the many other women who have hairs on their chin. Wear them proudly, or remove them, the only important thing is that you do what you want. But the one think I do know it this: you are not alone. When I was a teenager, I thought I was the only one with it. There is help and advice out there, and even if you just discuss it with someone close to you who you trust, there is someone who will listen.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

A Review of Strange the Dreamer

I have a weakness for
metallics on darker
coloured covers!
Strange the Dreamer is a book by Laini Taylor, the author of the Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy. Lazlo Strange is fascinated by stories, especially myths, legends and fairy tales. Nicknamed Strange the dreamer, he especially loves ones about the mythical lost city of Weep. When he receives the chance to see the lost city for himself, he jumps on it. Meanwhile, high above them, five blue-skinned teenagers live. One of them, Sarai, has the ability to go into people's dreams and alter them to her whim.

I know it's the first book in a duology, and I'm breaking my personal rule yet again, but I just had to talk about this one, since I'm thinking it might be one of my favourites of the year. I will say that if you don't like long, flowing descriptive sentences that sometimes fall into purple prose, this one may not be for you.

This book is so good that I was starting to wonder why I saw it trapped away in the Young Adult section. It's a giant middle finger to people who believe there can't ever bee good writing in YA, and as good a fantasy story as I've ever read, including ones aimed at adults. Than I realised that felt like I'm implying that Young Adult books can never have good writing. It's just a shame than many people who might enjoy it won't try it, as long as it's in that section of the bookstore. The writing is exquisite, and there were seriously no points where I was wondering if a sentence should have been phrased differently. How about we stop categorising books altogether?

The world is truly intriguing. Taylor has done something amazing, by creating a world that is both magical, but also not a place I would like to live. She really has created something strange and wonderful, and beautiful and full of monsters. The entire world has a dreamlike quality to it - fitting - that only goes up when we're inside someone's dream. It reads a bit like a fairy tale, playing into Lazlo's interest in them.

It's also been a long time since I've read a book with this many characters, with so many of them fleshed out into three-dimensions. Characters have a reasonable motive for their every action, even the more morally-grey ones. Yes, morally grey, because there really is no-one who's straight up evil in this book, except for the original Mesathim. Minya wants to kill humans, but when she was six, she saw them kill almost everyone she'd ever known. Eril-Fane slaughtered babies in their cot, but their parents subjugated his entire city for years, and left him with memories of love and hate. He genuinely thought the only way to be safe was to kill them all, shows remorse and regret at his actions, and is willing to listen if he thinks there might be another way. Thyon Nero steals Lazlo's research, but he's being beaten up because he can't produce the results his father requires. Taylor employs a switching POV narrative - we don't just stay with Lazlo and Sarai - and a third-person omniscient writing style to great effect.

I recommend this book to any fan of fantasy.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Personality Traits for an Only Child

Quick, write a list of all the character traits you'd associate with an only child!

Did you write spoiled, selfish, self-centred or bratty, or any synonyms thereof? Screw your list up and throw it in the bin. If you wrote lonely, set it on fire, first.

Let me first go through the issues with these first two ideas. Also, since we are not a monolithic group, these are based on my own experiences, and not hard and fast rules. Since I was used to amusing myself at an early age, I found I tended to get less lonely and bored than other children. I could happily play by myself, reading or playing video games, or playing pretend in the garden for hours. The other main one is that my parents did not spoil me. We were a middle-class family, but they certainly did not cater to my every whim and buy me everything I wanted. Mum said than when I had friends round and she put out snacks, because I wasn't used to fighting for things, they would be gone by the time I got to the table. And it was nice to share, since I never had anyone to share things with! And without siblings, I could never gang up on my parents to convince them that a trip to Lego Land/a trampoline was absolutely essential for our well-being!

1. Independence - this is an obvious one, when you think about it. Being more used to doing things alone means that we tended to be more independent. I was allowed to go on train journeys by myself earlier than my other friends, and now I find I much prefer holidaying by myself.
2. Maturity - since we become much more used to talking to adults at an early age, we can sometimes come across as more mature. I can distinctly recall family events where I was the only one present who was under 30!
3. Perfectionism - In some families, the desire to make your parents proud can be spread over a few people. One to be the perfect-grades-and-good-career one, and one to have grandchildren. In only children, all this is concentrated on one child, so the pressure can be increased. I've had bits of it since I'm my parents only chance at grandchildren, but I don't want to get married yet!
4. Can't get away with anything - bird knocks picture frame off our mantlepiece? My fault. Friends scribble on the walls? My fault. Things missing? My fault. Never being able to shift the blame to brothers or sisters meant I always got the blame, even for things I didn't do.
5. Liking solo activities - I remember how hard it was for me to get people to play board games with me! Since we have to amuse ourselves, you might find a more lasting interest in doing things we can do by ourselves, such as reading. And video games, even now, I prefer single-player games to multi-player. Also, you don't have to give a girl a brother to explain why she has a "boy" interest. Not that any interest should be categorised as for girls or boys, anyway.
6. Liking younger children - they were a novelty, so I was never as annoyed by my friends brothers and sisters as they were. And this has carried through into adulthood! Not having to listen to screaming young babies in my formative years means I seem to prefer them still, even now.
7. Introversion - okay, I won't say this is always an only child trait, but it's one I definitely picked up. Only children can genuinely prefer to spend time alone and require more peace and space than other children.
8. Close to parents - I wouldn't necessarily say I'm closer to them than children with siblings, but as I used to do a lot of things with Mum, like nipping to the shops, having a coffee or going to garden centres, we get on quite well know.

What about negative traits? I won't deny that there are some, and I also won't refute that some only children can be spoilt. However, some children with siblings can be spoilt, too. It's not a unique thing, and definitely isn't caused solely by being an only child!
1. Overly sensitive - never having built up a thick skin to siblings teasing means we can struggle more with bullies and their comments.
2. Trouble relating to peers - tying into maturity above, we may find it harder to socialise with people our own age.

Assorted oddities:
I never liked the front seat of the car. The back seat was comfier, and I could spread my legs out over it. I never had to fight with people for it, so I didn't want it because I couldn't have it. Since Mum liked me in the front seat so she could converse with me better, it just made me want the back seat more.
We never had much that I might need a second person to use - it took ages to convince my parents to get me a games console, since "you need a second person to play it with!"
I think I did more after-school activities than my friends, perhaps for the sheer fact that my parents wanted to provide me with something to do. Of course, this plays into the whole increased pressure thing listed above!