Into the Forest by Jean Hegland

I’ve been waiting for this book to arrive so I can read it since I stepped off the plane from Toronto and realised the in-flight movie was based on a novel. I absolutely loved the film and I was praying it wasn’t so vastly different to the book that is be disappointed in either. Luckily I wasn’t!

Into The Forest is set in near-future California where two sisters live isolated and miles away from any other people in a forest. The power has gone, there are rumours of war and turmoil in congress and the nearest town is thirty miles away and almost abandoned. While the film is slightly more linear (beginning when the power dies and moving on from there) the book is written from the point of view of Nell, the youngest of the two sisters, some time after their father has died. We get snippets of what she remembers from the time the power went out, their father’s death, their childhood, but also their struggles to live on dwindling supplies.

It reminded me very much of Our Endless Numbered Days in both style and theme but there was also a much more feminist slant. Nell uses the encyclopaedias left by her parents to inspire her and learn from and ultimately keep her and her sister alive. It’s bleak, and at some points deeply uncomfortable, but it’s not unpleasant to read. It felt like a working mix of poetry and science.

It was, in parts, brutal. And I don’t think it’s one for everyone (there is, although brief, talk of rape and incest. Then less briefly fairly gruesome death and the butchering of a wild pig). But with those warnings in mind I do throughly recommend both the book and the film! 

Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

I should have known, I should have known that I was in for a rough ride with this one. After reading Louise O’Neill’s other novel, Asking For It, I should have been prepared for another bleak ending. And this one really, really shone in that department. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, and it was certainly a very different book to get other one, but don’t come here looking for a happy ending.

There is a running theme between Louise O’Neill’s two novels: the logical extension of how we as a society treat women. In Only Ever Yours the future world is wrecked, only male babies are born and girls are designed and raised in schools to be the perfect companions or concubines for men, or as chastities to raise the next generation of girls. Those deemed unworthy are ‘sent underground’ and girls are ranked and pit against one another from infancy. It’s not a pleasant vision, but it’s anchored in truth and therefore all the more scary. There’s ‘ideal’ body weights, slut-shaming, boys with zero likeable personality that are somehow still viewed as ‘superior’, hypocrisy and the hatred of ‘other’. It’s extreme, and some might say unrealistic, but I think it’s definitely the worst case scenario of attitudes we see today.

I did read the subtext of this one completely wrong. Or completely right and the ending was really sad. I was expecting the plot to head towards an LGBT relationship, but it was strangely dangled in sight but never came to be. 

It wasn’t my favourite of the two books of hers I’ve read, but I’m a sucker for a dystopia and it was at least an entertaining mix of Mean Girls and Brave New World.

This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp

This one is a good example of why I love ebooks; stuck in a traffic jam yesterday (as a passenger, I should add) I had no physical book but I do have the Kindle app on my phone. So I downloaded This Is Where It Ends and wiled away the hour and a half reading that instead of staring out at cars.

This Is Where It Ends deals with one hour at a high school in Alabama, in which the doors of the auditorium are locked at the end of the principal’s welcome back speech and a gunman open fires. It’s told from the point of view of four characters; Autumn, the gunman’s sister; Claire, his ex; Sylv, Autumn’s girlfriend and Tomás, her twin brother. Sylv and Autumn are locked inside with the rest of the school while Claire and Tomás seek help from outside. It’s gripping, and I read it pretty much in one go (with a brief interlude to buy my sister a birthday present). Some parts weren’t pleasant and I imagine that it would be a much more difficult read for someone who lives anywhere where a high school shooting has taken place in living memory; a significant portion of the characters that die aren’t anonymous and it is made very clear that all of those people aren’t just extraneous characters- they mean something within the school.

I think I may have stumbled upon this one as part of a recommendation during the Diverse-A-Thon (during which I bought a bunch of new books, but only read the ones I already owned). The cast of characters feels quite effortlessly diverse; two of the narrators are lesbians, Sylv and her brother are Latinx, Tomás best friend is from Afghanistan (and Tomás’ fears that his friend Far will be assumed to be a suspect are noted) and several of the other characters are explicitly stated to be POC. It’s a modern day high school in America, of course it should be representative of a diverse range of people. 

The only thing I found a little bit tricky about reading it… Is that it takes place over an hour. And I did not read it in an hour. That kind of pulled me out of it because I had to keep readjusting how much time I thought had passed in the story every time I started a new chapter. But there was no way around that and it’s by no way a criticism of the writing itself. It’s just a particular challenge of this kind of story that would work brilliantly on screen but is really difficult to get perfect on paper.

Overall I really enjoyed this one. It was a fairly quick read and I think it was better for it; too long as the point of the story would have been lost. It’s pretty brutal in places, but also a poetic kind of romantic with a big focus on family, love and sacrifice.

Divergent by Veronica Roth

I have a massive thing for YA dystopias. I think the first one I properly got in to was Matched by Ally Condue but I kind of always compare them, now, to Divergent. It’s a definite favourite of mine.

Divergent takes place in a dismal future where the citizens of Chicago are cordoned off and separated into factions according to their personal qualities. At sixteen they choose thwir new faction and leave their birth-factions after taking a test to see where they are best suited. Tris, born in to the selfless Abnegation faction, discovers that she is divergent- she doesn’t fit any one place- and chooses the brave, impulsive Dauntless but faces the wrath of the powers that be.

As dystopias go I do think the actual society is well thought out. Later books in the trilogy kind of turn the whole thing on its head, but the structure of future Chicago is solid and believable.

It’s also one of the few YA novels where I was actually invested in the romance. I’m usually completely disinterested in romance as a plot device (especially in YA- something about it makes me cringe). I really liked the development of Tris and Four’s relationship. Especially Four’s respect of Tris’ intimacy issues. There’s no pressure- and his backstory provides a realistic foundation for why he would be so considerate.

It’s not perfect- I’m sure. But it’s still one of my favourites. I also really like the films and I’m looking forward to the fourth one next year (they’ve done that new-fangled thing of splitting the final book in to two films). 

Red Dwarf by Grant Naylor

This is kind of an old favourites sort of post; I’ve watched a lot of Red Dwarf recently in preparation for series XI and so I dug out the original novel version. I’ve been thinking for a while about going back to books I read years ago and writing about them but I suppose these will be less like book reviews because my memory is hazy and more me being nostalgic. This one is a bit of a blur between talking about the book and the TV series but they’re all kind of a unit to me.

Red Dwarf was written collectively- originally- by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor under the pen name Grant Naylor. They later split as a team and wrote books later but this original was at least a joint project (as were the first few series of the TV show). It’s one of my favourites and I pretty much grew up watching the show with my brother; my copy of the book came from a second hand bookstore in down the road from my Grandma and has my name written in it so I must have only been about thirteen when I bought it. The premise is; in a future where space travel is common (and for many people menial) Dave Lister gets drunk on a pub crawl in London and wakes up on a Saturn moon with a pink hat and the wrong passport. When he joins the Space Corps as a way to get back home he ends up three million years away from Earth as the last human being alive with only a creature that evolved from his pet cat, a hologram of his dead bunk mate and a senile computer for company.

I always loved Grant Naylor as a partnership in writing (the series was never the same after Rob Grant left the series). It’s both funny and with enough scientific references to keep it grounded, but it’s still completely ridiculous. I think the book is perhaps more believable than the TV series (which was always confined to 30 minutes an episode) because it can expand on all the things that the show had to gloss over for time’s sake. So far from being a rehash of the series it’s a book in its own right because it fleshes out so much.

I was also having a discussion with my flatmate about how, given the series originally aired in 1988, how incredible it was to have at least 50% of the main crew be POC. Very few women turn up (although in the book that’s not the case if I remember rightly- some of the male TV characters are swapped to women) but the characters who are in every episode are all non-white. Which is probably one of the few things the BBC got right in the eighties.

But genuinely I love this book. I just reread the first four chapters and I actually laughed out loud. Which doesn’t happen as often as it used to. It’s fun, it’s silly, it’s written well which is fairly extraordinary for something that combines sci-fi, comedy and TV-script writers. 

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

This one was another reread for the Diverse-A-Thon. I originally read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao as part of my Ethnic American Literature module alongside Junot Diaz’s shorter writings but it was nice this time to appreciate it in its own right. 

Oscar Wao deals with several generations of the de Leon family in both the Dominican Republic and the United States of America and the fukú that curses the family. Centrally, there is Oscar- an overweight nerd who dreams of falling in love but falls short of the Dominican stereotype of a ladies man. The book is narrated by Yunior; Oscar’s college roommate and sister’s on-again, off-again boyfriend.

I loved the way it was written. Being narrated by a nameless acquaintance of the family (it’s not until later that it is revealed to be Yunior) means that it feels personal and the dense smattering of Spanish dialects makes the whole thing feel like being told the history of the family during a heart to heart. A lot of the story is sci-fi and nerd references (like Oscar having ‘speak friend and enter’ in elvish on his door) which is sweet- there’s this feel that knowing Oscar changed Yunior’s life forever and that’s why he can include all these obscure references.  

There’s also a lot of footnotes regarding the history of the Dominican Republic. I must have skimmed them when I read this originally back in 2010 because I learnt so much about the country reading it this time around. It feeds the story too- gives context for the fears and tragedies of the family- whilst also highlighting a lot of history that is missing from most of our consciousness. 

My only issue is that I didn’t actually like Oscar very much. He’s like every girl’s worst nightmare of the cloying, awkward nerd-friend who secretly harbours excessive feelings and gets upset when we don’t want to date them. In fact that’s exactly what he is. He’s not written as if that’s a good thing… It just is what it is. We’ve all had an Oscar in our lives at some point… Oscar Wao just takes it to its full, tragic extreme. 

There was one quote that I loved when I originally read this book and I could still remember where abouts it was on the page (although I couldn’t remember it word for word). It’s beautiful and I think it sums up the whole book:

‘I think the word is crisis but every time I open my eyes all I see is meltdown’ 

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Update: I need to update this review because several conversations have brought to my attention (and I’m sorry that it wasn’t obvious to me) that a lot of the descriptions of Park in this book are racist and fetishising. I’m finding some more knowledgeable review to link here at the moment but for now please bear this in mind and taken my review from the ignorant point it stood in.

I read Eleanor and Park shortly before my complete reading slump in the spring (I think it was weirdly one of the books to cause it- I read this and some other really good ones and then others didn’t compare) so I completely failed to review it at the time.

I never really had a great deal of interest in reading Rainbow Rowell’s other books, I think I got it into my head that they were a kind of YA fantasy that I was interested in, but it turns out I was very wrong. I absolutely loved Eleanor and Park. It had that sort of gritty quality that makes a good, believable romance and the ending… Wasn’t an ending. Like teenage romances don’t get wrapped up all neat and tidy, neither did Eleanor’s romance with Park.

The basic gist; Eleanor and Park are two teenagers who develop a friendship (after a slightly antagonistic beginning) and eventually fall in love over comic books and mixed tapes. Eleanor has recently returned to living with her mum after a stint sleeping on a family friend’s sofa because her step-dad kicked her out. Park is trying to keep his head down in a town where he tenuously gets along with the popular kids, but still has to deal with being a mixed race kid in 1980s America. Both of them find a way to forget their home lives in each other.

I really liked the fact that the two main characters aren’t conventional. Park is half Korean, Eleanor a slightly overweight girl with frizzy ginger hair. Neither of them scream conventional hero; but their story shows that they should be. 

There’s a lot going on in the story; bullying, domestic abuse, interracial relationships and the importance of letting people go when the time is right. So it felt like a lot was packed in, but not overwhelmingly so. These are the stories of many teenagers, so why shouldn’t they be represented?

So yeah, I really liked this book. I’m glad I finally read it!

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang

This was my second book of the Diverse-A-Thon, bought after I finished The Dog Who Dared to Dream a few weeks ago. It’s one I’d  seen in bookshops for a while and never picked up (partly, I think, out of some misguided attempt to achieve a good book-to-pounds ratio when buying books in Waterstones) but I’m glad I finally picked it up. In terms of the Diverse-A-Thon; this is the third book by a South Korean author I’ve read in the past couple of months and the differences in style between these stories and western ones is really interesting. The social aspect, of respect and formality between acquaintances, shows through. As does the importance of strong values of motherhood and family that I think shines in both of the Sun-mi Hwang books I’ve now read.

I think I actually preferred this one to The Dog Who Dared to Dream. Maybe it’s slightly fresher in my mind, but I do think it topped it slightly. 

In this story- another allegory or fable- a hen named Sprout dreams of hatching an egg. Her dream comes true thanks to being discarded from the coop, but not without tragedy on the way.

I think I liked this one slightly more because it felt like a story about standing your ground in the face of people who don’t accept you, but also about how family is more than just blood. Sprout doesn’t look like her hatchling, and they struggle to be accepted, but that doesn’t make their bond any lesser. It’s also a story of sacrifice and how the enemy may just be out for the same things you are.

I’m gutted that no more of Sun-mi Hwang’s novels seem to have been translated yet. They’re the kind of book I’d love to have a shelf of, to dip in to when I need something uplifting to read. But for now I’ll keep hoping.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

I’ve never been the greatest fan of graphic novels. Ever since an ex of mine insisted I read them instead of the books I liked I’ve been a bit put off. But Persepolis was recommended by two friends during a failed attempt at starting a book club and I just had to get over my misgivings to have a go at reading it. Again, this was one of my picks for the Diverse-A-Thon so I’m trying to think critically along that perspective too.

I loved this book on two fronts. As a former English Lit and Politics student (my degree was in my eyes a perfect mix but it’s surprise you how few universities offered the combination) any book that entwines political commentary into a narrative is gold for me. So Persepolis‘ focus on revolution, class struggle and the personal vs the political is fascinating to me.

I think it’s also one of those important books that highlights the part western countries have had in the turmoil in the Middle East. I’m British, my country has played a major part in sewing the seeds of many inner conflicts within other nations (to put it politely) and I’m glad that there are books out there that will make me uncomfortable about that. Those books are important. We shouldn’t forget.

But it’s also a book that goes beyond that. It goes beyond the western view of Islamic fundamentalism- shows us how wrong that stereotype is when compared to how the overwhelming majority of Muslim people live and think- and I think that’s important too. Because although it’s something that I feel I know, our media is so biased that we’re never going to be able to appreciate the struggle between the private and the public in places like Iran. It made me think about how much I take for granted in Europe. 

It also turns out that there are graphic novels I don’t find impenetrable (autobiographies, too). The illustrations are simple, but show so much. It was an easy read in terms of page turning, but still packed a lot of punch.

The Dog Who Dared to Dream by Sun-mi Hwang

I didn’t read this one this week but I figured that it’d be an ideal time to review it! 

The Dog Who Dared to Dream is a lovely book that felt less about linear plot and more about the allegory. The story of Scraggly the dog who dreams of a life outside of her yard with her family.

There was a lot of story packed into such a little book (I read it in the bath to give you an idea of how slim it is) and I loved the way Sun-mi Hwang brings an animal character to life. Scraggly is tenacious and loving, fights for her family and remains loyal to the old man who owns her yard.

It felt like the kind of allegorical story that other have tried to achieved and failed. It wasn’t an obvious reference to an event a la Animal Farm, it was more representative of values of family, motherhood and social standing. I immediately ordered Sun-mi Hwang’s other novel (which I did read this week) and I really want to read more.