The Art of Starving – A Looking Glass into Myself (Personal Story + Review)

The Art of Starving


Title:
The Art of Starving
Author: Sam J. Miller
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: July 11th, 2017
Genre(s): Young Adult, Contemporary, Fantasy
Page Count: 384 pages
Goodreads

Rating: 9.0/10 (Champions of the Genre)

 

 

Trigger Warning (for the post and the book): Depression, self-harm, starvation, and eating disorder.

I’ve gone back and forth on whether or not to post this. Because maybe it’s a bit too much. Because I’m running a book blog, for Christ’s sake, and I doubt anyone signed up to read one of my sob stories. But The Art of Starving is a brutally honest, personal tale and I think it deserves nothing less than an honest and personal response.

There are some artists whose work I can only describe as something ripped out from the deepest crevice of their heart that’s then handed to me on a platter with a quivering smile and the words, “I hope you enjoy.” Raw. Intimate. Uncomfortably honest. And you can’t tear your eyes away. That’s more or less my experience with most of Sam Miller’s short stories. His debut novel is no exception–for several reasons.

The Art of Starving is a YA Fantasy/Contemporary story starring a teenage boy named Matt who has an eating disorder. Except he doesn’t. He’s fine, really. It’s not a problem. Then one day he discovers his hunger is the gateway to unlocking a slew of superpowers–enhanced hearing, smelling, bending time and space, and even pig wrangling. And with them he’s determined to seek out the people who have hurt his family and make them pay. But for that he needs to eat less. He needs to stay hungry.

It’s a story I’d been meaning to read since it came out a year ago, but somehow couldn’t make the time. But I very much loved Sam’s short stories, and the book got nominated for the YA category in the Nebula Awards, so I finally caved in.

As I started reading, I thought to recount to myself some of my own experiences with food so I could later add it to the review–a bit of personal anecdotal spice. It’d be fun and completely innocuous. I would begin with something like, “Food is a passion for many people, for many different reasons” and talk about “foodies” and namedrop some reality cooking/baking shows.

But then I had to pause–both the reading and the recounting. Because I was getting uneasy. Because some of my accounts were sounding very, very familiar to what was written on the pages of this book.

“This whole thing is not easy. It’s a fight, most days. Me vs. Food.
Food usually wins. My body, that traitorous thing, makes me cry Uncle. Drags me to the cupboard and makes me frantically scoop peanut butter out of the jar and into my mouth with my finger until I gag on it.”


“I thought about puking up all those sandwiches once I saw what I had done, but that’s a line I won’t cross. If you make yourself puke, you have a problem.”

I eventually stopped reading altogether. My brain felt rattled. I started flipping through my memories and started putting pieces together, while realizing that they were pieces of the same whole. And the whole wasn’t looking pretty.

Then I continued.

I arranged my roughly-assembled thoughts next to Matt’s.

And what I saw was a mirror image of my own thoughts and experiences.

The term “eating disorder” was one I never once associated with myself. I knew I had an antagonistic relationship with food but I never felt it was anything to write home about. And it certainly wasn’t a disorder. But throughout this past week I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the fact that, yes, I have an eating disorder, and tracing my behaviour back, I’ve had it for quite some time now.

This book prompted me to write it all out–a rambling of my relationship with food and my perception of my body, from teenage years to now. This is the (slightly) shortened version.

~*~*

One night, when I was 15, I sat sobbing for hours at the dining table with my forearms stretched out in front of me because I’d just noticed how fat they had gotten. That was when I first decided to start counting calories. I asked my mom to stop making my school lunch every morning. My argument was that I was old enough to start doing it on my own when, really, I just wanted decrease my food consumption as discreetly as possible. And so peanut butter and banana sandwiches became my staple diet. I started exercising copiously, sometimes to the point of being sick–had everyday workout sessions on top of swimming and competitive tennis. It got to a point where I broke out in tremors at the mere thought of skipping a session. All of this eventually led to four months of missed periods, which I couldn’t bring myself to ignore and prompted me to return to a normal diet.

Then, a year later, I watched my friend grow thinner and thinner until they had to be hospitalized and undergo surgery. That was a major scare. I told myself I would no longer care about what I ate–junk food, healthy food, I’d enjoy them all. I told myself I would never do something that dangerous.

I never thought of this period as the result of an eating disorder–the notion hardly ever crossed my mind. I viewed it as a dumb phase I went through as a teenager. It didn’t help that every health guide and documentary I’d ever seen described only three types of eating disorders: anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating. Well, I wasn’t rail skinny (I still had a roundish face, my thighs still felt gelatinous, my waist was still too thick, and so on and on…) I didn’t starve myself for prolonged periods of time. I didn’t go on sudden eating sprees. I didn’t vomit out what I ate. I didn’t resemble the girls in those 20/20 features about eating disorders.

I just didn’t like the feeling of being full. It didn’t matter that I had massive fights with my mom throughout the rest of highschool because I hated–so hated–the words, “Do you want something to eat?” It was a love-hate relationship I had with food, nothing more.

Then came university. During my freshman year, I was, for the first time, happy. Truly happy. Everywhere I turned I saw possibilities and knowledge and reasons for being alive. There was no limit to what I could achieve and I had friends and a loving partner by my side to support me through. And I ate regularly. Well, as the year went by, I did start skipping most dinners (I hid my annoyance whenever one my friends sighed and said, “she’s not eating dinner again.”). But breakfast and lunch were well-balanced meals and my weight stayed more or less the same, at around 110 to 112 lbs.

Then, between year two and three, relationships fell to pieces and grades started to plummet and, consequently, so did my mental health. If the first two years were some of the best days of my life, the last two were some of the worst.

In the past few years, from my 4th year of undergrad up to now, I started using food as a new weapon against myself. In my worst hours, when I was roiling in a miasma of disgust and self-hatred, I deliberately, methodically starved myself as punishment for the mounting failures I’d perceived I was collecting. A savage glee consumed me as I deprived my body of the one thing it was clamoring to receive. Because I deserved it, the piece of shit that I am. Because here is a thing that I can control.

Four months ago, there was a particularly long, particularly bad episode during which I starved myself for nearly a week–because I felt pathetic and wanted to punish myself or feel something more than the weight of the void pressing against my chest or both. One night, when I’d had enough, I reached into the fridge and pantry and pulled out whatever my hands could grasp and started eating and choking, crying and hating myself. And that too was an act of punishment.

A day later I stepped onto the scale for the first time in years because, I don’t know, I wanted to feel vindicated–to know all my work made some kind of dent on my body. But I just ended up standing there in shock, blinking down at the screen, because it read ’92 lbs.’

And that couldn’t be right.

And later all the BMI calculators on the internet were flashing “severely underweight” and that also couldn’t be right (for context, I’m between 5’4 and 5’5).

After the initial shock and fear wore off, I wish I could say that it triggered me into some kind of action. But it didn’t. I just didn’t care enough. The reason I starved myself in the first place was to punish my body, and well, 92 pounds was sufficiently punished. There was also a tiny eager voice telling me to see how much lower I can go–“C’mon, let’s try to hit 90!” But that scared me enough to shove it into a dark corner.

Even then the words “eating disorder” never crossed my mind. So what if I occasionally starved myself? So what if I mostly scrounged by with one meal per day? So what if my insides twisted with anxiety and fear at the thought of bumping it up to three meals? It was just my depression acting up. Depression was making me hurt myself. Depression was making me lose my appetite and my body didn’t get the memo because it was still constantly begging for food. I just sometimes–most of the time–didn’t like food. That’s it. That’s all it is. Why don’t they understand?

You might ask, “How did you not know?”

It’s amazing, the sheer depth of false belief your brain will drag you into. How you so effectively blind yourself to truths you don’t want to see. And it becomes hard, sometimes nigh on impossible, when you’re on the inside looking out, to recognize a problem as a problem. Things turn hazy on the inside. The narrative you see is a whole different beast than the one others see.

But there’s a clarity that comes with being on the outside. It’s always easier to recognize the flaws and strengths of others than to spot them in yourself. And with books, it’s easier, at least for me, to swallow them when they’re presented in the form of fantasy. That’s how it was with Matt from The Art of Starving.

I said before in my Robin Hobb post that it’s easier to latch onto a fictional character, your own creation or someone else’s, and forgive their flaws and understand their struggles and just love them in a way you can’t do for yourself. Well, I loved Matt and my heart broke for him (and myself). I recognized my behaviour in his and understood his lies and silences, though they pained me.

Despite that, for about 3/4 of the book (after I’d assumed reading), I thought I was doing pretty okay, emotionally-speaking; there wasn’t anything too triggering. But then I came across this one chapter and this one particular passage:

“I don’t think this is a rulebook at all. It might be what the therapeutic professions call A Cry for Help. It might be a road map to how to get to where you know you need help.

I started out thinking I had so much to offer. But I’ve got nothing to share but the hope that my pain can be helpful to someone.”

And I just crumpled. Broke down, utterly and comprehensively, into wrenching sobs. And again, I had to stop.

There’s a feeling of purging–all the toxins you’ve built up throughout the day, the week, the month, trailing out and away from you–when you encounter someone, real or fiction, whose pains mirror your own. Like your respective wavelengths colliding, kissing and merging into one.

It’s the feeling of being known. It’s the feeling of being told, “I see you. I see all of you. Your fractures and your breaks. The coiled, terrified, trembling thing inside of you. And I know you. Because you are me and I am you. And we are not alone.”

Right then I felt as though someone had taken my hand, that I didn’t even know I was reaching out with, and pulled me out onto shore, shivering and gasping and alive.

And I said aloud to myself for the first time: I have an eating disorder.

And that was that.

~*~*

The Art of Starving not only depicts the haziness of the boundary between truth and perception better than any other book I’ve read in recent memory, it also examines the cracks in ourselves that we so desperately try to hide from others. Alcoholic mothers, closeted teens, abused teens. With his newfound powers, Matt is able to see through their pretenses and disguises and yet still finds himself unable to help them.

What can you do for someone who doesn’t want to be seen? the book asks.

Sometimes nothing, it answers.

There are some battles that can be yours to win, but you have to be the one to take that first step.

Well, I’m not here to make grand promises. To set down goals and long-term resolutions. In a way, I’m still processing things. And even now I can barely believe it. There’s a loud voice in my head saying that this is just a stunt to draw more attention to myself, to collect morsels of pity from strangers because that’s the only way I can feel validated. And about a quarter of the time, I believe it. But most of time my brain tells me, with profound apathy, So what? So what if you have an eating disorder? Nobody cares; you certainly don’t.

And that’s probably the one that should scare me the most.

But there’s another voice now. One that says, “Feeling okay is a war, one that lasts your whole life, and the only way to win is to keep on fighting.” And, “You are never alone, no matter how alone you think you are.”

And I’m hoping to feed it until it grows large and strong and the other ones slink away in shame and fear.

I hope Sam Miller wins a shit ton of awards this year because while I don’t like throwing around adjectives like “important” and “life-changing” too often, this book is both.

I hope it helps boys and girls with ED to come to terms with themselves and seek guidance.

I hope it reaches a wide audience, young and old, because we are all, in one way or another, waging wars with our own bodies.

And I hope it saves lives.

Because–though maybe it’s just me being dramatic and maybe it’s too early to say–it’s pushed me one step closer to saving mine.

 

[Review] Imposter Syndrome – A Brilliant Combination of Action, Complex Characters, and Heartfelt Examination of Mental Health

Imposter Syndrome

Title: Imposter Syndrome (The Arcadia Project 3)
Author: Mishell Baker
Publisher: Saga Press
Release Date: March 13th, 2018
Genre(s): Urban Fantasy
Page Count: 481 pages
Goodreads

Rating: 9.0/10 (Champions of the Genre)

 

 

 

So this review started out as a normal review and then it morphed into a weird self-reflection/series appreciation/review monstrosity. Because my god, Imposter Syndrome made me feel a lot of things. It’s a pitch-perfect conclusion (maybe?) to a series that has wormed itself into a special place in my heart, and it left me crying for most of its latter part.

So buckle up. This might be a long one.

Following the shattering revelations at the end of book 2, Imposter Syndrome starts out three months later, smack in the middle of a Cold War between LA-New Orleans Arcadia, led by Alvin, and UK Arcadia, led by Dame Belinda Barker. To make matters worse, there’s tension building among the fey. King Claybriar and Queen Dawnrowan are on opposite sides of the Seelie, the latter supporting Belinda, and Queen Shiverlash and King Winterglass of the UnSeelie would gladly see each other’s throats torn out. So when Tjuan (senior agent of LA4 Arcadia) gets framed by Belinda for a crime he did not commit, our protagonist Millie Roper decides that the best defense is an offense and plans a heist that would strip Belinda of crucial resources that grant her complete control of this conflict.

I found Imposter Syndrome much better in terms of plot and pacing than Phantom Pains. My problem with book 2 was that the plot felt very scattered–one minute Millie would be investigating the possibility of a ghost, the next she’s dealing with a murder investigation, and so forth. Everything is more focused this time around, on the heist and thwarting Belinda Barker. The characters know what they need to do, they know what’s at stake, and they just go for it. It’s simple yet perfectly executed.

The heist itself is brilliant. This is no Ocean’s Eleven with the best of the best doing their thing with confidence and cool. This is Millie and her wayward companions fumbling their way through one of the most ridiculously-plotted heists in the history of heists. It is a ton of fun with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. And there’s this one sequence in the middle of it that’s so cleverly-structured, it made me punch the air in excitement.

But as it has been for the past two books, the characters are the focal point of the story. The series remains one of the most diverse in fantasy: there are major POC characters, a bisexual protagonist, a lesbian love interest, a trans male character, and bi(pan?)sexual fey. And Millie continues to prove why she’s one of my favourite protagonists ever, with Mishell Baker finding the perfect balance between self-deprecation and snappy humour.

“Everytime I try to put it down I freak out. Last night I slept with it tucked into my pillowcase.”
“That is called anxiety, Millie.”
“Gotcha. Sometimes I can’t tell the difference between sorcery and insanity.”

Millie has a lot on her plate–she has to deal with her BPD on top of all the Belinda and the fey stuff. And she fucks up. A lot. She gets paranoid and jumps to conclusions and sets back her own plan by miles. But what she doesn’t get are excuses from the people around her. They don’t coddle her; they don’t blame her BPD. They say: “This is your mistake. So take responsibility and fix it.” And she does try to fix them. I can’t properly express how much I appreciate this. To see a mental disorder depicted not as a throwaway quirk or stepping stones to a hurt/comfort plotline, but as something that’s a part of the character and which she needs to learn to manage. And the latter is an ongoing process with a lot of stumbles and failures, but also successes. I have yet to find such candid portrayal of mental health in any other fantasy.

Meanwhile, Caryl is dealing with the fact that all her emotions are now hers to feel and hers alone (most of the time, at least), with her familiar Elliot no longer permanently acting as her “trauma container.” So things are hard for her as well, especially when it comes to Millie. While they have cute and sweet moments together, their relationship overall is a kind of a trainwreck. There’s no doubt that, professionally, they’re both talented and competent people; it’s just when the personal issues rear their heads that things start to go sideways.

And I love that. I love how messy it all is.

Because while I don’t have BPD like Millie or a history of childhood abuse like Caryl, I see a lot of myself in both–Millie’s impulsiveness and selfishness, Caryl’s hyper-emotional, sponge-like state, and both of their low self-esteem. And some of their struggles hit a little too close to home, like Millie’s unwillingness to acknowledge her relationship with Zach, her maybe-boyfriend. And her struggles with relationships in general:

Claybriar: “You’re always the first thing in my mind. I’d fuck you if I could, believe me. But with her, it’s that–you know, that breathless thing where you don’t even feel quite safe. Like you’re falling.”

Millie: “It’s always like that for me at first…And then it mellows. Or goes away altogether.”

(Get out of my head, Mishell!)

And all the times Millie and Caryl burst into tears, seemingly out of nowhere, struck me to the core. Because in the words of Moonlight, “sometimes I cry so much I feel like I’m gonna just turn into drops.” Because a lot of the times I find myself wishing for an Elliot of my own. Something to stop me from reacting to everything around me with so much anxiety and sadness and heartbreak.

And that’s really what this book, and this entire series, is. Not about Seelie and Unseelie and Hollywood, but about people, both human and fey, who have extraordinary abilities and walk through extraordinary worlds, and yet still grapple with the same pains that I do.

Now, is it realistic that people carrying around so much emotional trauma and mental health struggles can come together in such a short time to pull off a high-stakes heist? I don’t know–maybe not.

Is it inspiring and validating?

Fuck yeah.

None of these characters are, in the traditional sense, heroes–Millie even says at one point, “I’m more of a shit-stirrer than a hero.” They mess up; they act selfishly; they hurt one another on purpose and by accident; and they’re constantly at war with their own minds.

But nor are they broken people. These guys spend most of the story running around scared out of their minds and full of doubt and they still somehow manage to pull things off. They’re always, always trying to move forward, with however many falls and stumbles they experience along the way. And sometimes that’s all that matters.

And that, to me, is realism. That is what being a human is all about.

I applaud and thank Mishell Baker for writing characters whose honesty doesn’t leave me feeling trapped or vulnerable, but included. Known. And if this is truly the end of the series, then it’s a fitting one. Not a happily ever after, but one that feels right and brims with hope.

Read this book. Read this series. You’ll not find another like it.

 

[Review] Lamb – Jesus Christ and His Best Friend Walk into a Bar…

Lamb


Title:
Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal
Author: Christopher Moore
Publisher: Harper Collins
Release Date: March 1st, 2002
Genre(s): Historical Fiction, Humour, Fantasy
Page Count: 464 pages
Goodreads

Rating: 8.0/10

 

 

I’m not going to make a frequent habit of reviewing books that are more than 10 years old, but occasionally one will come along that makes me sit up and sing its praises. This is one of them.

Lamb is a coming-of-age story like no other. It’s Jesus Christ: The Origin told through the eyes of Levi bar Alphaeus, who is called Biff, who just happens to be Jesus Christ’s best friend.

“Whoa–whoa, wait a minute,” you might say. “I may be an unapologetic heathen who’s never come within ten feet of a Bible, but even I know there’s no mention of anyone called BIFF.”

Well, my friend, that’s where you’re wrong. Because Biff has been unfairly redacted out of the Bible and Christopher Moore has kindly inserted him back and given him a chance to fill in the crucial missing years of Jesus (who is called “Joshua”) between the age of six and thirty. It’s not a biography. It’s not a fantasy (well, it’s mostly not fantasy–we do meet a singing yeti at one point). It’s a “what if.” What if Jesus had had a best friend named Biff? What dumb kid-things would they have done? What adventures would they have led? What pains would they have shared?

Joshua is, as you would imagine, a very sensitive, sweet-mannered kid. He also doesn’t have a deceitful bone in his body, which makes life just a tad difficult for Biff because he’s the one who has to cover up Josh’s various miracles and treasonous talk. Moore strips down all the reverence that surrounds Jesus Christ and shows him as a young boy. A very special boy, but a boy nonetheless. One dogged with all the uncertainties that come with the knowledge that he is to be the saviour of humanity. It didn’t take me long to completely fall in love with him.

But Biff is really the star of the show. He’s funny and irreverent and also the glue that holds the duo together. His early conflicting feelings toward Josh are wholly familiar and easy to empathize with; it’s the feeling of being overshadowed by the seeming perfection of your best friend, while also knowing that you would walk to hell and back for them–and Moore captures it perfectly. The friendship between these two is one of helpless, exasperated love and unquestionable loyalty. I loved every moment of it.

“What if I am not really the Messiah?”

“You mean you’re not sure? The angel didn’t give it away? You think that God might be playing a joke on you? I don’t think so. I don’t know the Torah as well as you, Joshua, but I don’t remember God having a sense of humor.”

Finally, a grin. “He gave me you as a best friend, didn’t he?”

I think the humour will be a hit or a miss for a lot of readers. For me, it’s the former. There are moments that sent me off into serious contemplation and then, a couple of lines later, had me breaking down into giggles. It’s absurd humour. It’s crude humour. It’s poignant humour. Sometimes it dips a little too far into the ridiculous, but I very much enjoyed it for the most part.

…Here’s the gist of almost every sermon I ever heard Joshua give.

You should be nice to people, even creeps.

And if you:
a) believed that Joshua was the Son of God (and)
b) he had come to save you from sin (and)
c) acknowledged the Holy Spirit within you (became as a little child, he would say) (and)
d) didn’t blaspheme the Holy Ghost (see c), then you would:
e) live forever
f) someplace nice
g) probably heaven

However, if you:
h) sinned (and/or)
i) were a hypocrite (and/or)
j) valued things over people (and)
k) didn’t do a, b, c, and d, then you were:
l) fucked

(If this kind of humour is your thing, then you’ll love Lamb)

But what I find most brilliant is that, in a story about the birth of Christianity, Moore decided to examine other religions as well. The idea that Christ had to explore and learn the teachings of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism to become the person he needed to become, is downright plausible, if somewhat anachronistic (Buddhism didn’t spread into China until many centuries after Christ). It facilitates the notion that love, kindness, generosity, and living a life free of ego and greed should be universal to all humans, regardless of faith or origin, and I love that.

Though some prior knowledge of the New Testaments would enrich the experience, you don’t need to have read them to enjoy the story. Part coming-of-age, part super-charged adventure, and 100% unexpectedly heartwarming, Lamb is a book I recommend to anyone, Christian, Catholic, atheist or otherwise.

 

[Review] Torn – Fabric Swatches and Revolutions

Torn


Title:
Torn (The Unraveled Kingdom 1)
Author: Rowenna Miller
Publisher: Orbit
Release Date: March 20th, 2018
Genre(s): Fantasy
Page Count: 480 pages
Goodreads

Rating: 6.0/10

 

 

This was a bit of a disappointment. While I liked the first 1/4, the rest of the book didn’t quite match up with the expectations I had going in.

Torn tells the story of a dressmaker named Sophie who has the ability to add charms (things like luck, protection, love) to the clothing she makes. She lives with her brother Kristos in Galitha City during a time of rising discontent within the working class. But Sophie isn’t a would-be-revolutionary, handing out pamphlets and giving speeches; that would be her brother. She’s just trying to run her business and keep them out of starvation. Except one day Kristos gets himself kidnapped. And Sophie must comply with the wishes of the kidnapper if he is to survive: make a piece of clothing that would help murder the royal family.

What this book isn’t: a high-stakes political intrigue starring a perky young businesswoman who happens to get mixed up in a revolution.

What this book is: a languid, historical-fictionesque story with lots of political and economical talk, starring a perky young businesswoman whose brother happens to get mixed up in a revolution and she ends up trailing along by accident.

The worldbuilding was more sparse than I would have liked. It felt very much like a historical fiction with a dash of fantasy added, rather than the other way around, which again, was not what I had in mind. Galitha is very similar to 18th-century England, or pre-revolution France, with tensions building between the elite and the working class.

The entire story takes place in Galitha City. For me, a good cityscape in a book feels like a living, breathing entity. There would be lush descriptions of all the mingling smells and sights and all the different districts that compose the organs of the city. There wasn’t much of that in Torn. We were sequestered to Sophie’s shop, a lady’s parlour, a couple of cafes and taverns, and a few other miscellaneous locations that felt isolated from the rest of the city. These places had little character and there was no good sense of what the city as a whole looked like. What’s more, the transitions between the locations felt choppy.

At first, all the political talks, cafe visits, and walks around the city were charming. There was a comforting laziness to it that made it different from any other fantasy I’d read recently. But after a while it got to the point where I was craving something more. More action, more tension, more involvement in the revolution plotline. Because even at the halfway mark, it was still a lot of just sitting around talking about the pending revolution and its players. It felt like there were two plotlines from two different novels: Sophie’s and Kristo’s. The former involved working at the dress shop, debating about politics at the parlour, and being courted by Duke Theodor. And the latter involved all the life-and-death, shaking-the-country’s-foundation stuff. I can’t tell you how many times I thought Kristos was probably having a more fun time than Sophie (and he’s the one who got kidnapped!)

I liked Sophie as a protagonist for the most part. If you’re tired of books that equate “strong” female protagonists with women who hate skirts and housework, then you’ll love Sophie. It’s not often we get a businesswoman–a dressmaker, at that–as a fantasy protagonist and I immediately took to her practical, no-nonsense attitude. I also empathized with her sentiments that, although she’s Pellian (and her parents are Pellian immigrants), she’s grown up in Galitha and thus feels a closer kinship with the country and its people. I’m not a stranger to people of my nationality–and people not of my nationality–saying that I should exhibit more patriotism, more interest towards my home country, so her internal struggles rang a chord with me.

My problem with her? She’s passive. Not so much in terms of character, because she’s obviously a self-sufficient woman who’s unafraid of speaking her mind, but in terms of plot. She waits for things, like the rebellion, to happen to her before doing anything about it. She spends half the book repeating to herself that she doesn’t know which side–the nobility or the common folk–she stands with, without making an effort to find an answer. It was utterly frustrating.

I also wasn’t a fan of the romance between Sophie and Theodor, partly because I felt the author gave it precedence over the revolution plotline, and partly because I found Theodor somewhat bland. He is a pleasant enough character, however, and I did like his laid-back sense of humour:

“How long is dinner?” I chewed my lip. The longer the better.
“Probably four to six courses–not terribly long.”
“That sounds like an eternity,” I replied.
“Not compared to state dinners and wedding feasts. Twelve, fourteen courses–land sakes, you get sick of food.” Theodor stopped himself. “Sometimes I can see why revolutionaries want us dead,” he said ruefully.

He and Sophie have some interesting debates (because this book is full of debates on every possible subject).

My favourite part about the book, and the thing that really makes it stand out, is all the diverse, intrepid women surrounding Sophie.

Three ladies in elegant dishabille convened around a book bound in pink leather. I trained my ear toward them, expecting to hear a rehashing of a romantic novel. Instead, I caught snippets of a lively debate about labor economics.

These include painters, seamstresses, socialites, and history buffs of various nationality and class. The book gives you a little wink and a smile and tells you that there are no specific parameters of being a woman. You can love pretty clothes and makeup and tea parties and also be politically savvy, an artist, an entrepreneur, whatever. The whole story is distinctly feminist, with scenes of women propping up other women, and I loved that.

So if you’re looking for something slow that features interesting female characters and lots and lots of political talk, then give Torn a shot. Alas, it just wasn’t for me, and I don’t know if I’ll be continuing on with the series.

~
This is an honest review of an ARC provided by Orbit Books and Netgalley.

[Review] The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle – Twisty, Original, and Utterly Spellbinding

The Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

Title: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
Author: Stuart Turton
Publisher: Raven Books (Imprint of Bloomsbury UK)
Release Date: February 8th, 2018 (UK); September 18th, 2018 (NA)
Genre(s): Mystery, Science Fiction
Page Count: 528 pages
Goodreads

Rating: 9.5/10

 

 

Stuart Turton is a twisted fucking genius. I doff my hat to the mysterious acid-fueled voice that must have whispered into his brain at 3 AM that an Agatha Christie/Quantum Leap/Groundhog Day mashup would be the perfect debut novel. Because holy hell, it’s been a while since I’ve had this much fun reading. The Seven (7 1/2 in the North American version) Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is the best whodunit story I have ever read and it has just reserved itself a VIP spot on my Best of 2018 list.

It starts with a lost memory. A name torn from the throat (“Anna!”). A mad chase through the woods. A woman’s scream. Our protagonist (Aiden) does not remember who he is or how he came to be at Blackheath House, a crumbling Georgian manor situated in the middle of nowhere. It is where the Hardcastles are throwing a masquerade ball to celebrate the return of their daughter, Evelyn, from France. Except Evelyn will be murdered by the end of the evening. And Aiden will need to solve her murder in order to leave this place.

Here’s the catch, though: every time he wakes up, the day rewinds itself and he’s thrown into the body of a different guest.

Eight same days. Eight different hosts. One woman murdered. Again and again. Fail by the end of day eight and the cycle begins anew.

Simple enough?

…Not quite.

There are many things that set Seven Deaths apart from your standard mystery:

1) The whole, you know, body hopping thing.

2) A protagonist with a…fluid personality:
Our protagonist is a bit of a sponge. He exhibits his own personality, but whenever he wakes up in the body of a new guest, much of their personality ends up seeping into his own. This makes things doubly interesting. It’s also one of the only times I can say, “this character is so inconsistent,” and have it be a good thing.

3) A non-linear timeline:
I don’t want to elaborate much more because it’s best to experience this for yourself, but let’s just say bodies aren’t the only thing Aiden’s hopping through.

I can safely say I have never read anything like Seven Deaths before. It’s a perfect meld of scifi and mystery, with a plot that branches out into a million different directions. And just when you think you’ve seen the last of the author’s tricks, you get one more surprise, and then another…and another. Until they all accumulate and build up to a rousing crescendo of a finale. It’s absolutely brilliant and your brain will be twisted into knots. The prose is also fantastic. Short and to-the-point in tense moments, but beautiful and meandering in others. It’s not just a fun story; it’s also an introspective one that ruminates on the nature of individuality and redemption.

Add to all this a protagonist who is stubborn and empathetic–a combination that makes him so easy to root for–and an eclectic cast of side characters–likeable and shy, clever and witty, arrogant and repulsive, and every one of them hiding sordid secrets–and you have a story that is destined to leave a mark in literary history.

I can’t further articulate how enamoured I am with this book without spoiling stuff, so I’ll just leave you with a mental image of wild flailing arms and incoherent screeching. And two words: Read it.

If you love mysteries, read it.

If you hate mysteries and love scifi, read it.

If you want a story that takes one of the most audaciously brilliant premises ever and pulls it off with aplomb and fireworks, then read it.

If you want your characters complex and interesting and not 2D cardboard cutouts of the Clue cast, read it.

Don your tiaras and plague doctor masks and go get ready for the Hardcastle Masquerade Ball. Oh, and strap on some knives and a pistol or two, because things are going to get very strange and very, very bloody.

~
Note: If you’re in North America, you’re going to have to wait until September 18th for the release. Or, if you’re impatient (and you should be), you can pick it up from Book Depository.

 

[Review] How to Stop Time – A Moving Look at Time and Happiness

How to Stop Time
Title:
How to Stop Time
Author: Matt Haig
Publisher: Harper Avenue
Release Date: February 6th, 2018
Genre(s): Historical Fiction, Sci-fi, Contemporary
Page Count: 336 pages
Goodreads

Rating: 7.5/10

 

 

 

 

I think every one of us has, at one point or another, wished our lives were longer. That we could take the distance between one moment to the next and give it a nice, long pull. And when you think of your time in this world not in terms of decades, but hundreds, maybe even thousands, the possibilities can seem endless. You can witness hundreds of years of technological advances. Scour every corner of the globe for its natural and human wonders. Read and watch and play every piece of creative media out there. Sink yourself into your passions without the threat of a ticking clock looming over your head.

Well, Matt Haig has heard your musings and replied with an old, but sensible, adage: Be careful what you wish for.

Tom Hazard is weary. Living for hundreds of years is not sexy or liberating; it becomes the same pattern repeated over and over. His life has been a long stretch of loneliness punctuated by moments of happiness, then grief and hardships, and stretches and
stretches of gray nothingness. Now he just feels lost. Lost in the maelstrom of identities he had worn over the years.

Tom’s elongated life span is not presented as a curse or a feat of magic, but rather a very unique medical condition, which I found refreshingly different from other stories with similar premises–he’s not cursed or chosen, he just is. Those with the condition are known collectively as “albas,” named after albatrosses that were once thought, mistakenly, to live a very long time. Their secrets and identities are protected with the help of the Albatross Society (which is kind of like a union), founded by a man called Hendrich.

Hendrich is an interesting figure. I found him manipulative, arrogant, and divisive. He says the right things, in a long, winding, charming kind of way, but there’s something hollow about it all. And I love that sense of wrongness in a character. Unfortunately, I found all the other side characters, especially Camille (Tom’s love-interest-to-be) and the famous historical figures Tom encounters, lacking. Though they intrigued me, I felt like there were many more layers to them that we never got a chance to uncover, and that’s a bit of a shame.

The chapters alternates between flashbacks to Tom’s earlier years–from medieval England to the Roaring Twenties–and the present. A simple but introspective prose makes it very easy to empathize with the main character and I quite loved his sense of humour. It’s not the laugh-out-loud kind, but a wry, quiet one that threads through the narrative with ease.

One of the most notable things about the book is that it’s chock full of quotable lines. Ones you would frame and plaster all over your walls. Matt Haig has a talent for expressing sentiments that should feel trite and annoying but end up being very moving. There’s such an unabashed honesty to his writing that I couldn’t help but love.

7.0 was the review score that was hovering in my mind when I was about a chapter away from the end. Despite the lovely writing, I couldn’t deny that the book had its share of flaws–a somewhat disappointing plot, a climax that felt rushed, and characters that felt unfulfilled.

But then I encountered this passage:

And just as it only takes a moment to die, it only takes a moment to live. You just close your eyes and let every futile fear slip away. And then, in this new state, free from fear, you ask yourself: who am I? If I could live without doubt what would I do? If I could be kind without the fear of being fucked over? If I could love without fear of being hurt? If I could taste the sweetness of today without thinking of how I will miss that taste tomorrow? If I could not fear the passing of time and the people it will steal? Yes. What would I do? Who would I care for? What battle would I fight? Which paths would I step down? What joys would I allow myself? What internal mysteries would I solve? How, in short, would I live?

This paragraph knocked me breathless and frozen for what seemed like eternity. I imagined myself doing this–unshackling myself from all my fears and doubts and hurts–and the possibilities that I glimpsed sent chills down my spine and tears to my eyes. Like the rest of the book, there’s a simplicity to the words. But the best truths are the simplest ones that you scorned in favour of the cool and flashy kinds. And I realized that’s what makes this book so special. Matt Haig overturns the recesses of the human mind and shines a light on things that we all know peripherally but have never fully examined. One powerful paragraph can’t erase all the criticisms I have, but it can damn well mute them.

The blurb makes the book sound like a romcom with a scifi bent, but that’s a shallow–and frankly, wrong–interpretation; those expecting a wild, passionate romance between Tom and Camille will be disappointed (their relationship doesn’t even kindle until near the end). The story is rather more about one man’s journey to find himself. And this man is you and me–all of us living in a world that feels alien and terrifying. This is a story about life and how we choose to live it, whether we have five or fifty or five hundred years ahead of us.

How to Stop Time is a prime example of a comfort book. One that gently dares you to rise above your fears and take a chance, and just see what happens.

I think this is one that I will end up revisiting many times in the future.

~
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[Review] The Only Harmless Great Thing – Of Sentient Elephants and Radium Girls

The Only Harmless Great Thing
Title: The Only Harmless Great Thing
Author: Brooke Bolander
Publisher: Tor
Release Date: January 23rd, 2018
Genre(s): Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Alternate History
Page Count: 96 pages
Goodreads

Rating: 8.5/10

 

 

 

Books like this remind me just why I love Sci-fi/Fantasy. Not that I need reminders. Not really. I grew up teething on SFF stories, after all. But occasionally a story comes along that fills me with so much fierce pride and wonder and envy, it leaves me breathless, and they become testaments to the (limitless) heights one can reach in the genre.

In The Only Harmless Great Thing, Brooke Bolander takes two true, but disparate, stories–that of the women who worked in U.S. radium factories and an elephant named Topsy–and weaves them together into something wholly original and no less heartbreaking.

This is a story of sentient elephants and radium girls and injustice heaped upon humans and animals alike.

From the late 1910’s to the 1920’s, radium factories began appearing in the United States. Women were hired by these factories to paint watch dials with a special radium paint that would make the numbers glow in the dark. Except, it turns out, radium is highly poisonous and the factories have doomed these women to severe illnesses and painful deaths.

In Bolander’s version, the girls who work at the factories are soon to be replaced by captured elephants. The logic is that the girls are dying (and have stirred up legal disputes) and the elephants are larger and hardier than humans so they’ll last longer. The girls’ job is to teach the elephants to paint the dials. Or, more appropriately: “I’m supposed to teach you how to die.”

One such girl is Regan, and one such elephant is Topsy.

The beginning is a little confusing, but stick through it and you begin to get a clearer picture of the cast, the timelines, and the different narrations. The story jumps all across history, from the ice age to the present day to the 1920’s. It alternates from fable-like narrations riddled with abstraction and strange, gorgeous metaphors, to more modern, conventional ones.

And the prose? The prose is glorious. Glorious and clever and brutal.

No matter what you did, forty or fifty or a hundred years passed and everything became a narrative to be toyed with, masters of media alchemy splitting the truth’s nucleus into a ricocheting cascade reaction of diverging realities.

The Only Harmless Great Thing is a very short read, but it packs a punch with the force of a thousand stampeding elephants. I am in awe of how the author managed to combine such different elements into something fantastical yet so very real. My only complaint is that it ended a little sooner than I thought it would and I wish there was more of it. Which really isn’t much of a complaint.

Brooke Bolander has become one of my authors to watch and I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.

Review (That’s Not Really a Review): The Raven Boys – I Can’t Believe I Didn’t Read This Sooner

The Raven Boys
Title: The Raven Boys
Author: Maggie Stiefvater
Publisher: Scholastic
Release Date: September 18th, 2012
Genre(s): YA, Fantasy, Contemporary
Page Count: 416 pages
Goodreads

Rating: 8.0/10

 

 

 
This isn’t going to be in the form of most of my reviews–in that I’m not going to go down a checklist and recount all the ways in which I enjoyed, or disliked, the plot, the setting, and the characters. The book doesn’t feel like the first entry of a series, but rather the start of something large and looming, so it feels wrong to give a comprehensive breakdown so early on in the journey.

So, instead, I’m going to talk about how the book has surprised me, and highlight some of the excellent writing craft that Maggie Stiefvater displays.

Here’s the thing. The summary blurb for these books are, I think, the most detrimental part about the series. It gives the impression of another YA urban fantasy in which a quirky girl falls headlong into forbidden love with a rich boy. But that can’t be further from the truth. In fact, Blue and the boys barely interact for half of the book. Most of that time is spent laying down the groundwork of non-romantic relationships–the friendship between the raven boys and the strange bonds within Blue’s household.

The prose is not what I’d expected. At all. There’s a languid maturity to it I don’t usually see in this genre, and mostly in adult literary fiction. It’s a sense that Stiefvater knows  exactly the kind of story she’s writing and she’s trusting the readers to trust her to get them there eventually, via her terms, however unorthodox that may be. This means that she takes her sweet time to set up the setting, the atmosphere, and the characters. And the payoff (at least, the ones we get in this book) is pretty great.

This is a character-driven story, through and through. Pretty much every element of the story is used to say something about one of the main characters. The most obvious way is through POV shifts. Via alternating POV chapters, we get access to many of the characters thoughts, their fears and doubts; each narrative voice is distinct and compelling.

But what I really find impressive is Stiefvater’s oblique way of developing a character–not from inside their head, but from a distance. Outside-in.

What do I mean by that?

Well, for one, the use of inanimate objects to tell a character’s story. When we interact with our surroundings, we all leave parts of ourselves behind. And I don’t mean those scraps of dry skin that cascade off when you rub against a surface. I mean the small habits, ticks, dislikes, preferences that seep their way into our surroundings. The way we organize our spaces, the decorations that adorn our walls, whether our clothes lie strewn like landmines across our bedroom floors or painstakingly folded in that one specific nook between the dresser and the bed .

They are, each and every one, scattered leavings of our selves.

Stiefvater understands this and incorporates it so very well–it’s in the way she describes Monmouth Manufacturing, Gansey’s car, Adam’s neighbourhood. They all help form the image of a character in ways that dialogue can’t.

Secondly, the constant use of body language and deconstruction of facial expressions to examine characters from a distance–that says something about the characters from a distance.

Every one of these characters are swashed in layers. Some layers you only see when they’re interacting with certain people, some layers don’t emerge at all, and some you only see mere glimpses of in certain instances.

For example:

[Gansey’s] bald expression held something new: not the raw delight of finding the ley line or the sly pleasure of teasing Blue. She recognized the strange happiness that came from loving something without knowing why you did, that strange happiness that was sometimes so big that it felt like sadness. It was the way she felt when she looked at the stars.

This isn’t the character deliberately–or even consciously–revealing something about himself. It’s one of his layers getting caught against the protrusion–the insistence, the intensity–of a particular moment and getting peeled back slightly for just for a moment, and another character being at the right place and the right time to peek inside it.

Gansey can think, or say out loud, “I’m so glad we found these ley lines,” and that would be another way to present the same thing. But it’s not as punchy as another character recognizing, and empathizing with, that unadulterated joy in his body language and expression. And the latter is what sticks in your mind.

All in all, this is a wonderful start and I’ll most likely be writing a full thinkpiece on the series when I finish (hopefully within a month!).

Until then…

Excelsior