Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Pancake recipe

As it's Pancake Day today, I thought I'd share my recipe for pancakes, the English way. That is, thin disks of batter, similar to crepes. Crepe is the French word for pancake, but they are a little different. Crepes tend to be bigger and thicker, but these one are thinner, or at least the way we do them. Pancake Day (Also known as Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras) is traditionally the start of Lent, where originally it was a way to use up eggs and milk before fasting for Lent.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

The Review of Ink and Stars: A Review of The Girl of Ink and Stars

Every page in the book looks like this!
The Girl of Ink and Stars (known in North America as The Cartographer’s Daughter) is the debut novel by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. The protagonist, Isabella Riosse, daughter of a cartographer, has been confined to a small corner of her island for as long as she’s known. The story reads like a myth from a thousand years ago. There are also strong themes of friendship and bravery running through the story. Every page as you read is highly decorated, making this a visually impressive novel to read. There are also well-drawn maps, implied to be ones by Isabella’s father, which help you to follow the action around the island. I love it when fantasy stories have a map to them, don’t you?

The island of Joya was once a floating island, which moved around the world as it saw fit. However, it has been anchored in one position for as long as Isabella has known. Her small town of Gromera is ruled by a corrupt, oppressive Governor. Other parts of the world are discussed – Afrik, Europa, Amrica – giving the impression that these places are similar yet distinct from our world. Some people may find this lazy, but I think it was a purposeful decision to show the book was set in a world similar to ours. What feels stranger – visualising a floating island in a fantasy world or visualising a floating island next to a continent looking identical to the continent we know as Africa?

Isabella is our protagonist, and her best friend Lupe Adori plays a role in the adventure, too. Lupe is the daughter of the Governor, which isolates her somewhat from the other villagers. Although they are different people, they are also very good friends. Both girls display extraordinary courage over the course of the book. This ties into myth of their island, Arinta, who was a brave heroine herself and whose tale influences the decisions our protagonist makes. I like the fact that the hero from legends happened to be a woman, too.

As always, stories about oppressive government bear with applicability to our modern day. In this case, however, it is too extreme to really relate. The Governor bans anyone from leaving the town of Gromera, except those who disagree with him, who are banished. I have to mention that this story does remind me a little of Moana, but any similarities are purely coincidental – this book came out early 2016!

The fantasy aspects aren’t overt – in fact, apart from the whole floating island thing, they are barely there. Normal human beings who just so happens to live on an island that once floated on the seas. With the names used and the character descriptions, I imagined everyone on the island speaking Spanish. Just a nice little detail that implied they were all speaking in a translated foreign language, yet the author didn’t feel the need to pepper their dialogue with gratuitous words from the language they are supposedly speaking.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who loves fantasy/adventure stories. It’s aimed at a slightly younger audience than a lot of what I review, so it would be good for young readers interested in this genre. I must beg people to get the UK version, as the US one has a less pretty cover and a more generic name. What’s with this thing of relating female protagonists to what their father does?

Friday, 24 February 2017

A Review of the Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters

The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters is a book by Nadiya Hussain, best known for winning The Great British Bake Off 2015. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book, considering that Nadiya’s background is not in literature. But she captured the nation with her warm personality, which shines through in her writing. It might also be the only book to have a character who genuinely likes being alone and isn't made to change her mind by the end of it.

The four sisters are all flawed but likeable, and they’re also different. If you gave me a random paragraph, I would be able to tell with some degree of certainty which sister was speaking. Fatima, the eldest, is thirty, still living at home and struggling to pass her driving test. It’s lovely to see a character struggling with something like this, but not being taken as a complete failure because of it. Bubblee is an artist living in London, who has a tendency to say things without thinking. She doesn’t want the life her parents want for her, but struggles to see how others might not want to life she wants for them. Namely her twin sister, Farah, who is happy being a wife, very much in love with her husband, and struggling with infertility, wanting children. They're twins but very different people, but more alike then they think. Mae can take the longest to warm up to. On the surface, she’s a bundle of typical teenage girl traits, but underneath, there is more to her character. She is always on her phone, mainly because she records everything. She runs a YouTube channel, not vlog style, but more as a sort of docu-drama on her entire family, filming moments in their lives. She often tries to record personal, private moments, sometimes without the knowledge of the people on film. She can also be sanctimonious about her healthy lifestyle, and the health of the other characters. Trust me when I say that if you give her early chapters a pass, she does get better.

Is it me, or does every book now have to contain a character who does some sort of blogging or vlogging sort of thing? It’s not just in Young Adult – I noticed it in Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Americanah, too. When done well, it can be a fascinating look at something many people aren’t familiar with. At its worst, it comes across as condescending, an adult trying to act down with the kids. So, did Nadiya strike the right balance? Yes, she did, since Mae's knowledge of the internet actually ends up helping the sisters out in the end. It's great to see the internet being used as a force for good.

I'm not even sure if Mae was a realistic depiction of a teenager or not. I know that young people now use social media more than even my generation did, 8-10 years ago. Wow, that makes me feel old. I find that increasingly in books now, I can’t get annoyed about how teenagers behave. I used to exclaim when teenagers were reduced to a few tired stereotypes. “Teens don’t act like that! I don’t act like that!” But now, I find I can’t say that because I don’t know how teens nowadays act.

I was disappointed by how little baking was in the book. The front cover shows the girls baking, with cooking utensils and cakes around them. It feels like a cheap ploy to get viewers from GBBO to give this book a try. I admit it worked on me, who was hoping that I’d get to read about delicious cakes being made. I know, judging a book by it's cover, shame on me. It’s not any worse of a story for it, and no doubt the cover choice is not Nadiya’s fault, but it’s worth mentioning. Baking does get a moment in the story at the end in an awesome way, however, so I'll let it slide.

The editing could also have done with a little more polish. There is a character named Annabelle who changes the number of N’s in her name while on the pages. I’m not sure if it’s Nadiya’s fault or her editors, or maybe both. Nadiya should have caught it before sending it off, and her editor should have noticed. It just feels like the book was rushed to print.

It won’t win any awards, but it’s certainly a good, fun read. I recommend this story to anyone with sisters. As an only child, sister stories always give me the odd feeling like I’m missing something I never had to begin with.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Review Review: A Review of Everything Everything

Everything Everything is a book by Nicola Yoon, who also wrote The Sun is Also a Star, which I previously reviewed here. It is told from the POV of Madeline Whittier, an 18-year-old girl suffering with SCID. A cute boy moves in next door... wait, where have I heard that plot before? But in this case it works, because there would be no other way for her to meet someone new. A big part of the driving force of the plot is how Madeline really hasn't been able to experience life like a normal human.

The story is told with inserts of webpages, Madeline's schoolwork (she's homeschooled) and things like old diary entries. One page in particular sticks out so much that my curiosity got the better of me and I peeked, thereby spoiling myself of the events on that page. Oops, but it was my own fault. In a way it worked because then I was interested in reading the events that led up to it, but the alternate colour of the page does that, anyway.

I have to state that I love Madeline as a protagonist. She reads like I read, as a way to experience things she wouldn't normally. She also is the only character in literature to accurately describe how I feel about travelling. The sense of wonder, adventure and excitement. It doesn't take long for Madeline to develop an obsession with Olly, neglecting other parts of her life. There are many stories where this would bother me, but not here. Since her life has been so sheltered by necessity, he is the first friend her own age she's ever had. Her life changes very little from day to day, so waiting to wave hello to him is the only enjoyment she gets every day.

You know that phrase people use about The Fault in Our Stars? It's a book about cancer, but it's not a cancer book? Long term illness might be a plot point, and a major one, in this book, but it's not a long term illness book. It's primarily a romance, really. Everyone who enjoys romances, especially those with a slightly different plot then just boy-meets-girl will enjoy this one, I feel.

I think I'm going to have to put the rest under a cut, here, because I have some more spoilery things to say about the events in this book.

The Difficulty I Have in Reviewing Movies

I find it hard to get my thoughts about movies into a coherent order. Most times, when I finish watching a movie, I'll have a vague sense of "that was an awesome movie!" but I can't put my finger on why. It can take a few days for me to think of what to say, and if I go to write one then, I'll find I forgot half of it. There's been a few movies I've seen lately that I've wanted to review. La La Land, Moana, Rogue One. But I can never really think about what, exactly, made it a good movie. Why did I like it so much? At the end of a movie, the answer for me is usually "I don't know, I just did." It just feels odd to me that something which is so instinctive for me with reading is harder in this circumstance. You'd think they'd use the same skills! Also, I'm not very discerning with movies. I really do tend to like most of them! I think this might show through in my book reviews, where I always try and comment on things that I liked about the book.

Also, I don't watch every movie at the cinema, I mean what am I, a millionaire? By the time movies start to be shown on the movie channels, Netflix and the like, it feels too late to review them, like everyone else has already seen them already. Sometimes, of course, there's also the issue of the UK cinema release being (at times, months) later then the American one. Maybe I'll start reviewing some older movies, just so that I get some practice of doing that.

I guess this differs from how I read books. When I read, I am constantly thinking about what I liked here, what could be better, what I'd do differently. I find it really hard to turn that part of myself off, and I wouldn't want to anyway, because that's half the fun of reading for me! Watching movies, I tend to prefer sitting back and enjoying it. It's an activity I do to relax. Well, I read to relax, too, but it's a different type of relaxing. In fact, it can be harder for me to turn the analytical part of my brain on while I'm watching a movie. I'm much less informed about the technical side of making a movie then I am about the process of writing a book. Also, when I'm reading, I often jot my thoughts down as I go. I could take a pen and paper into the cinema with me, but I feel like I would miss things on screen if I constantly was looking down at my paper. Watching at home would probably be better for this purpose, so I could pause and rewind if necessary.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Movie Review: Hidden Figures

Do you ever watch a movie that is so good and so important that you just want to go around and tell as many people about it as you can because that's kind of how I feel about Hidden Figures. This film is directed by Theodore Melfi and stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae. It is based on a non-fiction book by the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly.

It follows the lives of three woman of colour, Katherine Goble (Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Monae). These three women work as computers at NASA, which means they tend to do a lot of the high-level calculations, along with several other African-American women in the West Area. Katherine is assigned to the Space Task Group, becoming one of two women in the room and the only African-American. Mary, after some encouragement, starts looking into becoming an engineer. Dorothy, who has been lobbying for a supervisor position, leans of a computer arriving that can do their job faster then they can.

The three actresses were obviously loving their roles, not one of whom I felt was miscast. Jim Parsons playing a uptight scientist is good for a chuckle. There is definite chemistry between Katherine and Mary's respective love interests and them. In Mary's case, it shows that no matter how she talks about other men, she does love her husband.

Before I saw this movie, I had no idea that NASA employed women in that sort of time as anything beyond secretarial or custodial positions. I certainly had no idea they would be doing the sort of work they do during this film, or that they were employed in such large numbers. I felt I learnt a lot while watching, but it was presented in such a way that you don't realise you are learning.

The dialogue is often funny, laugh-out-loud funny. It got a chuckle out of everyone watching in my cinema in the UK, which is saying something. I've noticed that in cinemas in America, the audience tends to laugh more openly than at a cinema in the UK. The movie however retains it's heart throughout, and the story is certainly touching in places. It bought a tear to my eye, but that's not hard to do, since I cry at everything! But the overall story is one that is both moving and funny, sometimes even at the same time. It's the sort of film that leaves you feeling a little happier about life once you've finished watching it.

I recommend this film to space geeks and anyone who enjoys learning about important historical women. If that sentence doesn't apply to everyone in the world, I have to ask why not.

Monday, 20 February 2017

A Review of The Selection series

The Selection series is a trilogy by Keira Cass, which attempts to combine the dystopia genre with romance and royalty. It is a weird mash-up, and it doesn’t quite work. I’ll admit, I only bought it because I liked the pretty dress on the cover. The three books in the series are The Selection, The Elite and The One. There’s also a follow up series, and many companion books. It is set in a dystopian future North American country, Illea, where its citizens live within a rigid cast system. The royalty of the country hold a reality TV show to decide who should marry the Prince. The Prince gets the final say, but the viewers have their own opinions and of course his father, the King, is around to give his ‘advice.’

The Selection has to set the scene and introduce us to the characters. The Elite takes it on a much darker turn from the start, and The One ties everything up nicely. Quite frankly, these three are such easy reads that I feel like they could easily have been one book, and splitting them into three just feels like an attempt to get people to buy three books instead of one.

The main character, America, is as feisty and reckless as these sorts of heroines often are. She does things that you’d think would land her in prison, or stripped of her status. Naturally, she finds herself caught up in a love triangle between the handsome prince and her boyfriend from home. I found myself rather impressed by the character of the prince. As far as love interests go, he is done well. Out of the other girls in the Selection, Marlee makes the biggest impression. Not many of the others are given fleshed-out personalities, but with 35 characters, it’s understandable.

The caste system is one aspect I feel these books fall very short on. The caste system defines what job you can do. There is no chance to upward mobility, if you are more suited to another profession or do really well at your job. America and her family are Fives, who are normally artists or singers. This means they are often poor, despite the very best of them often being employed in the houses of higher castes. The justification for this is that they get the bulk of their work at a few times of the year, during holiday times. Eights, at the lowest end of the scale, are criminals. Of course, being an Eight means their descendants will be Eights. Sixes and Sevens have a hard time of it, too. I’d like to see more evidence of them struggling – it affects their job prospects, sure, but what about other aspects of that? Lower castes likely confined to houses in certain neighbourhoods, so that even if they try and save up to move out, they can’t. Difficulty in finding doctors to treat lower castes, pretending to be higher caste to get better medical care. This is things that aren’t touched on, and would have made it relevant to today’s society.

Something that is done well is the attitude to sex outside of marriage. It’s illegal, and of course birth control is hard to come by for the lower castes. This means they often experience more of the consequences, with the weight of that falling upon the shoulders of the women. However, once they are married, most families will have quite a few children, because of the lack of birth control. This makes it harder for them to save money. This plays in well to certain attitudes about this today.

I will give this series credit for one thing. While the girls are competitive at times for obvious reasons, they rarely turn bitchy. Celeste could be the sole exception, but she is given more of an explanation within The One. They all admire and respect one another, while still attempting to compete for the Prince’s hand. I was also impressed that it doesn’t just ignore everywhere outside of North America. Italy and Germany visit, New Asia comes up often in passing, and the border of Illea stretches down into Central/South America somewhat.

On the whole, this is not the sort of series that stays with you for a long time after reading, but it is a fun, quick read. I recommend it to people looking for something easy for a light bit of escapism.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

The Geek Review Girl: A Review of the Geek Girl series

The Geek Girl series by Holly Smale is a series of books about Harriet Manners, a self-confessed geek, who finds herself discovered by a model agency. I found this series after finding myself without a book just before a train journey, frantically rushing to the shop, and thinking this looked like an interesting read. I was expecting a story that would be a nice, easy read on the train, which I might end up regarding with a sort of mixture of amusement and scorn. I wasn’t expecting to be looking for the second book that night and to find the sort of characters that grip onto you and stay there. I gave this series a chance and it surprised me, so I hope more people will allow themselves to do the same. Not just for this series, but for any book in general.

The series consists of six books, Geek Girl, Model Misfit, Picture Perfect, All That Glitters, Head Over Heels and Forever Geek, due to be released this March. There are also three companion books, Geek Drama, All Wrapped Up and Sunny Side Up. My favourite is probably book 2, which takes Harriet to Japan. I’m easy to please. I love books with a travelling aspect, and Japan is top of my list to visit.

As a geek, I tend to stay away from things with the word geek in the title, finding they rarely contain much I would consider geeky at all. In this case, I would say that Harriet is absolutely a geek. She tries to sneak her physics homework into a modelling shoot so she can revise while she’s there. She’s socially awkward and believably so. She attempts to touch an octopus that was going to be used on a shoot and gets ink all over her clothes. She stops a whole shoot so she can help a monkey that was being treated awfully by its handlers. She’s not always perfect, but she is always kind.

Harriet Manners is an endearing protagonist, but sometimes I found her acting younger then she is supposed to be. She often starts fights or acts somewhat immaturely. It’s hard not to feel sorry for her however when her bully is being particularly mean, or when she realises how much trouble her actions have caused. She has that trait of reciting facts throughout the book, which can be annoying or interesting depending on your point of view. Whatever the case, you might learn something!

Natasha gets a serious thumbs up from me for being a fashion-conscious teenage girl who is not presented in a bad way. Toby is one of those odd stalker type characters which are supposed to be humorous, since they’re harmless? While the narrative makes it clear that Toby is a good friend of Harriet’s, I’m not sure if I agree with the idea of normalising stalking in people’s minds. Harriet does however manage to have one of the best sets of parents I’ve seen in recent literature, both of them supporting her completely. None of which is at all marred by Annabelle being Harriet’s step-mother, and presenting step-families in a positive way is important.

I would recommend this series to teenage and grown-up geeks looking for a little bit of fun to read.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

What Belle Means to Me

Growing up, I had a soft spot for fictional brunette bookworms. Hermione Granger, Matilda Wormwood and Rory Gilmore were inspirations, but they weren’t me. I never felt exactly like them, because they were good at school and I wasn’t, really. I was distracted, a daydreamer, lost in my own world. But then people would assume that because I read so much, I had to be good at school, and I don’t think the two correlated at all. But then, we have Belle.

It certainly helped in some ways. I picked up a broad vocabulary and a gleaming of general knowledge. I had trouble spelling – which lead to comments of “But you read so much?!?!” from my parents. As I would much prefer to be reading fantasy stories when I was younger then classics or non-fiction, it didn’t help much for my schoolwork. My tastes have matured since then, but I still love a good fairy tale. Most of what Belle seems to read appears to be in the same vein. Her books contain ogres and Prince Charming.

School isn’t ever mentioned in the animated Beauty and the Beast, but Belle is described as “dazed and distracted, can’t you tell?” Maybe, like me, she would have been happier looking out the window than paying attention in class. Imagining herself in the lives of her fictional world. She’s different and doesn’t fit in with everyone else in her town, like me in school. She was a brunette bookworm I could really relate to.

Living in a small town, I had the same desire to escape. To travel the world, or even just live somewhere more exciting, like a city (or an enchanted castle). She wanted adventure, like I do too. She also has no patience for men like Gaston. Please, give me half her strength when dealing with them. She’s willing to look past someone’s appearance to see what they’re like inside, something I always try to do.

I make this on a hope and a prayer that Disney gets the live-action one right. From the moment Emma Watson was announced, I’ve been apprehensive. Please, don’t make her into Hermione 2.0. They’re different characters, and they deserve to be treated as such. Please, let them remain distinct. Hermione, the uptight bookworm, and Belle the dreamer. I know Disney can do it, considering the excellent job they made on the live-action Cinderella. Don’t let me down, Disney.

Monday, 13 February 2017

A Review of The Sun Is Also A Star

The Sun Is Also A Star is a book by Nicola Yoon, who also wrote Everything, Everything. It follows Natasha, a teenage girl who is an undocumented immigrant about to be deported, and Daniel, a Korean boy struggling under the weight of his parents’ expectations. Throughout the book, we are also given insights into other character’s lives, which makes everyone from the main characters parents to the waitress at the Korean food place feel like well-realised characters.

The book approached the immigrant experience from two angles. Natasha, born in Jamaica who came to the USA illegally when she was eight, and Daniel, born in America to Korean parents. Daniel struggles a little with his identity, something which I know many children of immigrants may relate to. Is he Korean, American or Korean-American? Too American or too Korean? His parents would say too American, his brother thinks he’s too Korean, Daniel considered himself Korean-American, and Natasha doesn’t think he’s Korean if he was born here. Four different people with four different opinions on this subject. Obviously, Natasha’s struggles are different. As the only one in her family who is willing to keep fighting the deportation order, she’s dealing with immigration lawyers and USCIS. These two characters are a reminder that every immigrants experience is different.
However, the whole book doesn’t revolve around Natasha’s troubles with immigration or Daniel’s problems with his family. It acknowledges that people have lives that aren’t just related to the colour of their skin, but also brings up the issues faced because of it. Natasha and Daniel also struggle with their feelings towards each other. In Natasha’s case, she runs into her cheating ex, and is worried about her best friend moving on to college without her.

This is a book that will break your heart, mend it, and break it all over again. This book will have your feelings dangling on a string from the second you first open the page. Her characters screw up, they make mistakes, they have flaws. Toeing the line between giving characters’ flaws without making them unlikeable is hard. Yoon succeeds, managing to keep some characters on one side of the line and cheerfully throwing other characters irredeemably beyond it. And some people do make huge mistakes that screw other people’s lives up, not just their own, and some awful people can do one nice thing.

You know how I love books that take you to another place and make you feel as though you live there? This book does this for New York City. The author’s obvious love for the place comes through in her descriptions from midtown Manhattan to Harlem and Brooklyn. She also describes in a huge amount of detail things like eating soon dubo. She describes it so well I felt like I was eating it along with them.

You also might learn something, whether it’s something physics related from Natasha or from an aside about the prevalence of South Korean store owners in the African-American hair care industry. These asides never take away from the actual story, nor do they get annoying. They are relevant to things happening in the story, and Yoon finds appropriate places to stop before starting the new chapter.

In a normal book, I would complain about the amount of coincidences. Especially in a place as large as New York, how could you keep running into the same people? However, this isn’t a normal book. It’s a book that talks about whether all these coincidences mean something, or if they’re just unrelated chance events in someone’s life. Are we in the exact right place at the exact right time because we’re meant to be, or do things just happen without purpose? And regardless of what side of that line you fall on, you will get something out of reading The Sun Is Also A Star.

As a book dealing with the struggles faced by immigrants, it is one I recommend everyone to read. No ‘especially for this group’ this time – I literally just think everyone should read this book.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Why I Don't Use Numerical Ratings

You know how most reviews will give some form of rating? Like 6/10 or 3/5 Stars? You might have noticed I don't use a system like that. I have a few reasons as to why I don't use them. It's not that I disagree with them as a rule, but just that they don't personally feel right for me.

  1. It's subjective - well, I guess all interviews are, right? But a book I'd rate as 6/10 might be an 8/10 to someone else. Take The Princess Bride, which I would put as a 2/10 personally, but it's obviously a book many people have read and enjoyed. I'd rather write about what I liked and didn't like, so that others can decide whether or not they should give it a go, based on their personal interests. And sometimes, a book might not feel right one day just based on what mood you're in when you pick it up!
  2. It stops people from giving things a try - be honest, would you try a book based on a review that rated it average or less? Most people wouldn't, not without a second opinion. But what didn't sit right with one reviewer may be just what someone else needs. If someone rates a book low because it was too sappy for their tastes, but a bit of sappy is just what someone else needs, should they not give it a go based on that review? That's why I would rather write out my thoughts - "It was too sappy for me personally, but if you like that, give it a try."
  3. Things are never as clear as that - if I'm honest, I would put Girl Online at a solid 6/10. But it would be a 6/10 for overall writing, 8/10 for characters and for the last 100 pages, 7/10 for the start, 5/10 for the middle bit. I feel I can't distil my whole experience with reading a book down into one single value.
  4. I don't think in those terms - when reading a book, I just get excited about the idea of me sharing my thoughts on it with others. I find it tricky to place it into a definite category. Like I mentioned above, if I try to do that, I'll end up breaking it down into several values with little idea of what I should prioritise to give a rating.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Reviews Online: A Review of the Girl Online Series

The Girl Online series is a series of books but Zoe Sugg, better known as the vlogger Zoella. There are three titles in the series so far – Girl Online, On Tour and Going Solo. They follow the adventures of a teenager named Penny, from Brighton. While they aren’t my favourite books, there are still things in them that I liked, too.

The main protagonist, Penny, is one of the best things about these books and the only reason I kept reading at some points. She’s endearing. We’re quickly shown her hobby of blogging and her dreams to be a famous photographer. She also has the rather different trait of suffering from panic attacks. While I felt this were somewhat inconsistently presented (some things would set her off, others wouldn’t) I realise that not everyone would react the same to every situation. I used to struggle with panic attacks during exams. Being in a room I couldn’t leave for two hours while my entire future hinged on a few sheets of paper in front of me terrified me. Penny seems to cope with exams fine, but her reasons behind her attacks are obviously different from mine. On the complete opposite end of the scale, I’ve always been fine on planes.

As for other characters, Noah is a standard too-perfect boyfriend. He’s a rock god! There are some points where he annoys me (one point in On Tour comes to mind) and their whole relationship is unrealistic. Shy and awkward 16-year-old goes to America and just happens to meet a handsome celebrity, who falls in love with her? But maybe a little unrealistic is what we all need. We read books to escape. Sometimes, a love story like that is exactly what we need at the time.

I didn’t like Elliot, at first. The point where he was asking Penny to cut short her time in New York where she was enjoying herself, go back with him on a plane which terrified her and spend time away from her family over Christmas annoyed me. He did grow on me over the course of the books, however. Penny’s parents are lovely and supportive, if a little inconsistent. Fine with her traipsing all over New York with a boy but not with her trip to Europe with him? Kira and Amara prove time and again to be the best friends Penny has, better than others I could name!

I felt like the middle section of the first book could be cut down by about half. It goes on for quite some time about her trip to New York. However, the last 100 pages are brilliant, and where the story really picks up. Penny doesn’t have many close female friends or role models for this book, but this does change in the next one.

The second book is my favourite so far. The story picks up sooner, and we’re taken around several different European cities. There are a few more female characters with a stronger role in this book, which I like. During this book, Penny also learns she doesn’t need Noah to have a good time while in cities abroad, and goes to look around one by herself, a huge step for her. Like in the previous book, when everything starts to come together, the last 100 pages are an amazing read.

I was glad that the 3rd book dropped (or at least, stopped using them so much) some of the more obnoxious terms from the first two – terms like Inciting Incident and Magical Mystery Day might have been cute once, but tend to grate on the nerves if they’re used time and again. I found less Noah a refreshing change, and it was lovely to see Penny learning to enjoy life without him, making new friends. Noah was a constant presence in this book, as Penny obviously misses him – but she doesn’t let that stop her from doing things. This book does a good job at letting us see older characters in a different light, and introducing us to new characters, some who are instantly likeable, some not.

Spoiler: I actually don’t want to go too in-depth into Callum, since I didn’t want to spoil things, but I just felt something off about him from the start. Also, it’s great to show that just because someone has similar interests to you, it doesn’t mean you’ll work as a couple! Also, I knew it wasn't Posey, but I think it would be more interesting if it had been.

I think the one big thing that annoys me is that every character talks in the exact same way. A 16-year-old girl from England talks the same as an American 18-year-old boy who talks the same as his Grandmother and much younger sister. There would be a few differences in speech between them (I remember American characters using the term autumn a lot) and it was especially noticeable in the case of a 4-year-old girl. The best thing to bear in mind when writing younger characters is to cut out unnecessary words and replace long ones with shorter synonyms.

Other things – as a blogger, the idea of gaining overnight success from it seems farfetched to me. There were a few things that I found weird, like two families having the same exact pattern on Christmas Day? There’d at least be a discussion along the lines of “We open our presents after breakfast, we leave ours until the afternoon.” No two families have the exact same traditions over Christmas.

It is difficult for me to recommend these books to anyone who isn’t already a fan of Zoella, but I think there is one group in particular who might get something out of it – people who suffer from panic attacks.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

A Princess Reviewer: A Review of The Princess Bride

The Princess Bride is a book by William Golding, which has been adapted into a rather more famous movie of the same name. It’s most commonly seen as a parody of various fairy tale tropes. To be frank, I dislike this book, and the movie too. On paper, this book should have everything I like. Fantasy! Adventure! Romance! Princesses! Sword-fighting! But for some reason, on this particular occasion, none of this clicked with me.

Perhaps it’s because I never watched the movie as a child? The way that if something is overhyped before I read it, I tend to like it less? Or my never-ending love of fairy tales means I don’t appreciate parodies of them? It’s like the exception that proves the rule that I’ll like anything based on fairy tales! In fact, a common problem I find with parodies is that they have to use the very worst ideas of their source material out of necessity. 

There’s a really weird framing device used that the author is abridging a book originally written by S. Morgenstern. This has the side effect of making the author seem presumptuous, knowing more about what parts readers want to read then they do. And yes, I know that it wasn’t really an abridging, but still. It also means he calls his book a classic before it was even published. Sometimes I found myself wanting to know more about the parts that had been left out. Every time he makes a cut, he’ll mention what happened in the cut, and his irrelevant tangents about them can go on for pages. This can interrupt the flow of the story, if you are excited to keep reading about Buttercup and Westley. Another thing is the side notes about when this book took place, to make its time period deliberately ambiguous. (This was after… this was before…) I realise that they were probably supposed to be humorous, but they just ended up annoying me after about the 5th one, although they thankfully eased off after that.

The only prominent female character in the entire book is Buttercup, and the narrative goes out of it’s to highlight her stupidity. She is never given any personality beyond how beautiful she is. And it disappoints me, because she could have – she’s mentioned to have liked horse-riding, for one thing. All this goes when her true love leaves her and she spends the rest of her time trying to make herself look prettier. She even gets some parts where she shines, but they are few and far between. There is one point where she is inactive for so many pages it’s easy to forget she’s actually in the scene.

Westley, on the other hand, has personality, but it’s not a good one. To give you an idea, at one point he hits Buttercup for lying to him, even though she hadn’t. He is unfairly critical of her decision to have married the Prince in his absence, despite the fact that not only did she believe he was dead, the Prince threatened to kill her if she didn’t. He treats Buttercup so awfully throughout the book that I had to wonder how she was still in love with him. But I guess that was the point, to show how unrealistic love in fiction can be? You know, if I could read it as a parody of Twilight rather than a parody of fairy tales, I might like it more.

It’s meant to be a parody of fairy tale stories, but you can parody something without falling into the same sexist tropes that are present in the source material. I’d go as far to say that most original fairy tale heroines had more personality then Buttercup! And I find even the early Disney romances much more believable. Also, surely a Princess who rescues herself would be more of a parody?

Okay, let’s talk about parts of the book I did like. Inigo Montoya, and… that’s it. Oh, and the bit where Buttercup stands up and says “I AM THE QUEEN!” was pretty cool.

And you know what? I didn’t like this book, other people do, and that’s okay, because people can disagree. It’s our differences that makes us unique. I would rather live in a world where we can think independently and like different things, because that is how people find out what they actually do like.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Dear Future Me

I’m assuming that I do still have some failures I don’t yet know about, because I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t keep trying. But the fact that you’re reading this in the future shows that we’re succeeding at something, right? Maybe I’m naïve to believe that at one point, everything will be fine if I just keep trying. What if at one point I run out of attempts? Has that happened?

If I picture my perfect life at this point in time, I see a little house in London, with a small garden. That would suit me, not too much space for one person but enough to maintain. You take walks around a nearby park and try and see something new in London daily. You see a different part of England every weekend, a trip to a different city. You travel often. You can spend hours in a nice little study, writing, and when you’re finished, you take a book into a little reading nook and read. You have one room that is wall-to-wall books, and another that is wall-to-wall clothes. You watch films, TV shows, and play your favourite video games when you need a break. You don’t have pets, even though you like them, because they tie you down, and you don’t have children yet because you’re not ready. You never married. You spend most of your time on your own, but you see friends occasionally.

Maybe even further in the future, you have a child, a daughter. You raise her with a love of books. You instilled in her a love of travelling by taking her abroad at a young age. You play video games with her, introducing her to your favourites. You watch movies together, all the classics and the best new releases. You adopted a cat and a dog, so that she grows up loving animals. You teach her all about feminism. However, there are things you don’t want to teach her. You should try and raise her without making her worry about the food she eats. You don’t want her to fear getting older by acting like your age is a shameful secret.

The political environment as of right now feels more tumultuous than ever. It feels like a world tilted on its axis, and it’s either going to balance itself back together, or fall off completely. The actions of a few can make the world seem like an awful place, but as of late it is the actions of the many that are giving me hope. If one action can make even the slightest of differences, it’s worth doing. Even if that action doesn’t change things, but only reminds others that there is good in the world. I am writing this to you because I hope that in the years between me writing this and whenever you next read it, you will not have lost that small grain of hope.
From you from the past

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Dear Past Me

I don’t know what point in time you’re reading this, but I have to tell you something that won’t be uplifting – wherever you are, you are going to fail at things, again and again. But that’s alright, because you know what? You pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and you try again. Because the one thing you pride yourself on is not giving up, not giving in, in your ability to take what the world throws at you and come out the other side.

You try different things, different ways to succeed, but sometimes you can look back and wonder if you’ve actually ever succeeded at anything. Sometimes, it feels as if you never do anything nothing right. I can tell you that there are some things in your life that are going right. Because the same drive to try things even though you might fail is what causes you to attempt things you do succeed at. You have got on planes to go several thousand miles away, solo, to meet up with a group of friends.

You never let the world dictate what you should or shouldn’t be interested in. You shouldn’t be interested in video games, because you’re a girl – fuck them, you like them. You shouldn’t put so much effort into your appearance, its shallow – fuck that, you enjoy it. You shouldn’t watch Disney movies, they’re for kids – oh, who the hell cares what people like that think anyway? You’ve never in your life done anything because other people told you to. When Mum tells you to put make-up on and make an effort that day, you stubbornly wear jeans and a hoodie all day. But if someone tells you ‘guys prefer that natural look’ the day after, you’re likely to have done the heaviest, most noticeable make-up job you ever have. You don’t do anything to impress other people. You wear clothes you like, based on what you felt like that morning.

I say this because I know there are points in your life where you do try to hide your interests, because they’re considered uncool. Because you thought people would like you more if you had cool interests? So, let me tell you now that those types of people are not worth bothering with. If people are going to judge you based on what you do for fun, they aren’t anyone you should want as a friend. So, enjoy things that you want to enjoy, because you’ll be a lot happier in the long run.
From you from the future

Saturday, 4 February 2017

A Review of Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy

Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy are a duology of books by Lisa See, who’s other books include Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love. The first book follows Pearl and May, two sisters from Shanghai who are forced into marriage to pay off their father’s debts, and immigrate to America. The second book deals with Pearl’s daughter, Joy, as she leaves for China to discover her homeland.

Even though both books are in a series meant to be read sequentially, they are both quite different. Shanghai Girls deals with the experience of immigrants coming to America, through Angel Island, working in a Chinatown, and the racism they faced. Dreams of Joy takes place mainly in China, dealing with one of the darkest parts of Chinese history – The Great Chinese Famine. The books don’t gloss over the darker parts of history, and I will warn people that Pearl faces a serious sexual assault over the course of the first book. Both books however have a linking theme of being a fish out of water. Pearl and May obviously take some adjusting to life in America, and in Dreams of Joy, Pearl returns to a China she doesn’t recognise, and Joy is there for her first time.

When reviewing a book you love, it can be harder to remain objective during a review. However, it does mean I can give these books my highest recommendation, with complete sincerity. I like the genre of books I call stories about immigration. I’ve also heard it called “immigrant fiction” but I don’t like the term, and it can also apply to biographies, so not always fictional stories. I think I can relate to the general feeling of being a fish out of water, and I enjoy learning about other countries. Obviously, different people may identify with other things, for example people with experiences of immigration may find they identify with those parts.

The other big theme of these books is one of contrasts. Between the rich and poor in Shanghai, between China and the USA, between Joy’s life in America and on a Chinese commune. Even between characters, the differences between Pearl and May, or Pearl and Joy. Although both sisters are not as different as Pearl makes them out to be. May has obviously read more than just “gossip columns” and her circumstances would mean she didn’t pick up Sze Yup as much as Pearl, but it makes her no less intelligent. As she mentions in the latter part of Shanghai Girls, she would have loved to have the option to go to college, but her parents never allowed her to like they did with Pearl. Also, since May didn’t speak Sze Yup, Pearl could have conversations with her parents that May didn’t understand. This left May feeling like the unfavourite as much as Pearl did, making an interesting family dynamic with them both feeling like their parents preferred the other. I feel like people with sibling might relate to this more, but as an only child, it is an alien sensation to me.

There are, of course, things I feel these books do especially well. Showing the paranoia surrounding communism in the US in the 20th Century, in a way that is relevant in our current day. Their life in Shanghai, class divides and changing values abound. Showing the relationship between Pearl and Sam growing from a marriage of convenience to actual love. The evocation of a completely different time and place. Lisa See describes places and times with such attention to detail that you feel you are actually there. 1930’s Shanghai, Angel Island Immigration Centre, Los Angeles Chinatown of the 1940’s, Communist China are all bought to life wonderfully within these books. She also describes the food so well I could almost taste it, even when the food is not necessarily appetising.

It’s harder for me to pick out specific flaws in these books. I spent most of Dreams of Joy wondering about some of Joy’s decisions. She is often naïve to the point of stupidity. Dreams of Joy, in general, can seem bleak in its later parts, endless descriptions of nothing but a whole village starving. We also only get to experience one of the sister’s point of view, Pearl’s, and there are some events I felt could be better told from May’s eyes. I feel like we would have got a better sense of the similarities and differences between the two sisters, and May’s thoughts on certain events, especially pertaining to her decisions. The book also does that somewhat-odd thing of dropping Chinese words in paragraphs that are meant to be translated Chinese. I know it is an annoyance for some people, but personally I don’t mind it and I enjoy learning new words from their use in stories. Some of the language is outdated by our standards, but of course it was what was in use at the time.

I recommend these books for: anyone with interest in the experiences of immigrants in America, anyone interested in Chinese culture, anyone who grew up with sisters, and everyone else. These are some of my favourite books ever, and I feel these sorts of stories are important in our world, now more than ever. 

As a last note, I have to mention that I love the covers of these books, and they remind me of how Pearl and May's beautiful-girl posters might look.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

What to do When You're Single on Valentine's Day

Valentine’s Day is not my favourite day of the year, but not for the reasons most would think. Yes, I am single, and no, it doesn’t bother me. I find all the overdone hearts and roses a little tacky, to be honest. I’d rather have gifts that mean something to me, such as daffodils (my favourite flower, and normally just in season at this time of year) or my favourite chocolates, even if they aren’t in a heart-shaped box. Little things that show someone thought more than ‘go to the shop and pick up the first heart-shaped thing I find.’ To many people, though, Valentine’s Day can be a lonely time of year, with everything reminding them about not being in a relationship. Romance is given such a high value in our culture, and I’d like to take this opportunity to remind people that they are more than their ability to find a partner. Here’s my ideas for some things you can do if you’re single for Valentines Day.
  1. Leave the house – go to the movies and watch an anti-romance movie, preferably one with a lot of action. Meet up with a group of single friends and roam about town. Go to a singles mixer just for the heck of it.
  2. Go to an anti-Valentine’s Day event – these have picked up steam in recent years. Google “Anti-Valentine’s Day events in *insert place here*” to get an idea of the options available. If there are none locally, why not call your own night an Anti-VD one? There are some alternative events for London listed here in Time Out! 
  3. Alternatively, don’t – have a group of friends over for a sleepover. Order snacks, beer or cocktails depending on preference, put on movies, and have fun. Make a rule that all discussion of love life is off-limits.
  4. Or do it solo – order pizza, drink wine, have a long bath, binge-watch a new series on Netflix, and make a plan to buy as much half-price chocolate as you can the next day. Take your time since you don’t have to rush to get ready. You’re home, comfy, bra is off and you don’t have to put high-heels on, either.
  5. Read a good book – nothing makes me forget the world quite like curling up with a good book. Pick a new read or an old favourite and have a quiet night in.
  6. Have a trip away – if you have the day off work, or it falls on a weekend, why not use this time to explore a new city? You could do a day trip to somewhere close or make a weekend of it somewhere else. Pick somewhere a little more obscure than Paris, which will be filled with couples. You’ll have too much to do to even think about what day it is!
Personally, my preference would be 4 or 6, but I’m very much a fan of staying in over going out. Do you have anything you do/used to do while you were single on Valentine’s?