First Impression – Life is Strange: Before the Storm

First Impression – Life is Strange: Before the Storm

Summer is now officially over, and as we turn over a new page in the calendar, there are several things to be excited about now that it’s September, the most important of them being the release of Life is Strange: Before the Storm, which came out on Thursday. This was also followed by the release of the whole soundtrack for the game by Daughter on Friday. It was a glorious end to summer, and start of autumn.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

Before the Storm takes place three years prior to the events in the first game, Life is Strange (2015), and focuses on Chloe Price. Chloe’s father has died, and her best friend has stopped keeping in contact with her.

When I finally managed to calm down after opening up the game, and actually started playing, the game flew by so fast! I was done with episode one in what seemed like a heartbeat (although the game sure made my heart race).

I am still not over it, and so, to prolong this post-“Before the Storm” dreamy state, here are my first impressions of Episode 1!

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What I liked about it:

  • The soundtrack: it was one of the first things we got to experience before the actual release of the game; the trailer  featured one of Daughter’s songs, and the announcement that they were going to heavily feature on the soundtrack brought me a lot of joy. I am a HUGE fan of Daughter and to know that they are going to work on MY FAVOURITE video game was just a dream come true. How amazing! The songs are beautiful and so emotive; they go really well together with the action of the game. I am also really glad that Life is Strange fans get to fall in love with the band too.
  • Animation: now, Life is Strange is not perfect, and animation is where the game lacks (when characters cry it just looks like their skin is slightly damp – where are the tears?) Before the Storm is an improvement on the quality of the animation, especially when it comes to facial expressions. It makes everything seem much more natural and therefore really improves the player’s experience. They still need to work on the tears, but they do look better than in the original game.

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  • Backtalk challenges: I was really worried, before playing the game, about Chloe’s fiery attitude and the way she does not mince her words. She could get in some very serious trouble in this game, and this time, there was no Max to turn back time and fix it. But Deck Nine have managed to dispel all my worries, by turning her verbal confrontations into challenges. They are very well done – you have to pay attention to the words the other person uses and use them to your advantage. If you successfully talk back to them several times, you win. The challenges are surprisingly enjoyable, even for someone like me, who never has the courage to talk back to people. They also bring out Chloe’s talent with words.
  • The Dungeons & Dragons game: all nerds rejoice! How amazing is this completely unexpected surprise from Deck Nine, that you can actually get involved in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign? Even those who don’t play D&D, or have no idea what that is (a fantasy tabletop roleplaying game) should give it a try. It’s immensely fun, and I loved seeing Chloe go from wanting to dismiss it as a nerd thing to getting really into it and earning the respect of the other players.
  • Chloe’s sexuality: Even though, in the original Life is Strange game, the Dontnod team tiptoed around the actual sexuality of the characters, merely giving hints, Deck Nine seem to have heard the fans and have taken a different approach, by simply letting Chloe be herself, not hindering her thoughts and feelings towards those around her, regardless of their nature – simply letting them be, without additional comment or the need to draw attention to them. This is a very authentic approach towards Chloe, which characterises the whole episode. The result is an amazingly honest, raw side of Chloe that we have only been able to glimpse in Life is Strange.
  • Chloe and Rachel: just as with Life is Strange, where, despite the mystery of the storm and Max’s rewinding powers of time, the core of the game inevitably becomes the relationship between herself and her long-time best friend, Chloe, the same happens in this game. In episode 1 we get a first glimpse of the “friendship…but more” between Chloe and Rachel. Still trying to come to terms with her father’s death, as well as having to deal with an increasingly absent best friend, it is not hard to see why the charming Rachel Amber ended up having such an impact on Chloe, and becoming her “angel”. We also get to see a side of Chloe we have never seen before, the “useless lesbian”, as it has been deemed online – her awkwardness when interacting with Rachel is very relatable.

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  • Nathan Prescott: Nathan greatly annoyed me in Life is Strange. He was arrogant and entitled, a bully and a creep who ended up being guilty of Rachel’s death. He was a very flat character – other than being the student antagonist of the game, there was not much to him. Before the Storm does a great job of turning him to a more rounded, complex character, showing us the origin of his asshole behaviour. While it could be considered clichéic that he becomes a bully because he was bullied, alongside the implication that his father pressured him into the football squad (for which he was mostly bullied) to uphold the family name, it does all make sense. It does not undo his wrongs, but it does make him three-dimensional as a character.
  • Secondary characters: Stephanie, Samantha and Mikey are amazing side characters, and I am glad that Deck Nine has not focused solely on the characters we all knew from Life is Strange, but has also added new dynamic, relatable secondary characters. They play an important part in the choices you make throughout the game, depending on the impression they leave on you.
  • Max Caufield: Being the main character in Life is Strange, it was pretty easy (and expected, even) to side with her, especially when it came to her time away from Chloe – there were times when Chloe ‘s anger at Max seemed a bit too much, and we never understood the full extent of the things that had happened (or better said, had not happened) during the time the girls had not spoken. But that was because, after all, we only had Max’s side of the story. Now we get to experience those years after Max has left for Portland from Chloe’s point of view. And what a difference this makes! Chloe is trying so hard to hold on to her friendship with Max, and all she gets in return is silence. I am aware that we don’t actually know how it was like for Max in Portland, but is it really hard to reply to a text once in a while to let your best friend know you haven’t forgotten about her? We really get a chance to adjust our ideas about Max in Before the Storm.

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  • “dickhole”: what a lovely mashup of “dickhead” and “asshole”. Chloe truly has a way with words.
  • Chloe’s wardrobe: This is the additional feature no one thought they needed but is in fact pretty enjoyable. Playing dress up with Chloe is really fun – her wardrobe is a blend of “don’t care” and hipster, which, for someone who’s wardrobe is on the other side of the spectrum, is just fascinating.

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What I didn’t like about it:

  • “This action will have consequences”: The message first appears when you decide to steal the $200 from the shitty dude who overcharged for Firewall t-shirts. It keeps coming up throughout the episode, which is to be expected, since this is in the game description. However, we never really get to experience any of those consequences, at least in this episode. After a while, it’s pretty easy to just see the message as a feeble threat, laugh in its face, and go about doing whatever you feel like it without the pressure of actual consequences. It allows for a more relaxed environment that in Life is Strange, where your actions caught up with you much faster than here, but it also creates a sense of annoyance, since they start seeming unnecessary.
  • PC controls: Deck Nine has made several changes when it comes to game controls – instead of the using the arrow keys to move, you now use the WASD keys. And while you still need to left click on object to be able to select it, you now need to also press the WASD keys to interact with it, which is much more complicated at first glance than the simple “drag the mouse” that Life is Strange used. However, the use of the WASD keys is overall better, it’s much easier to navigate the game once you get used to it. This is initial dislike is mostly a personal thing, as I was simply used to the controls for Life is Strange. However, I was really not a fan of the fact that you cannot use the touchpad on a laptop in the game, you must have a mouse plugged in – a touchpad was fine in Life is Strange, would it have been so hard to do it here, too? Especially since you need the mouse much less.
  • Texting: I have never minded the inability to send text messages in the Life is Strange games….until now. I understand that Chloe is supposed to be a rebel and doesn’t want her mum to cramp up her style, but the fact that you cannot answer her text messages kind of annoys me. All Joyce wants is to know Chloe is safe, would it have hurt the game devs to have Chloe send an “I’m ok” message to her mum?

I really look forward to the release of the second episode!

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Book Review – “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Book Review – “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Having fallen in love with Elizabeth Gilbert after reading Eat, Pray, Love (as I imagine many of her fans have), I was really looking forward to reading Big Magic. There’s something about the conversational tone that she seems to always adopt in her books that really creates a sense of closeness between you as a reader and Gilbert herself. It feels like the two of you are engaged in a private conversation. Big Magic is the same.

The thing is, though, I’m not one for motivational/inspiring/guiding books. They put me on edge. They seem to point out one way to do things, and if I’m not already planning on doing them in the same manner, they create a sense of failure. Self-help books such as Big Magic never really seem to do the trick for me, so I proceeded with caution.

Big Magic has a very promising start.

The book opens with a section about fear and the way it holds you back, eventually getting to the idea that only courage will allow you to be more creative. It’s not anything ground-breaking, but I consider it a very good opening to a self-help book; we can never be reminded too often to try and let go of our fears. Gilbert accompanies this motivational message with a personal example, something which she consistently does throughout the book. In this case, she talks about her friend who, after years of not practicing, decides to pick up figure ice skating again. While talking about this, Gilbert stresses both the simplicity of the action – her friend didn’t aim to get competitive again, nor did she completely change her lifestyle to accommodate this new pursuit, she simply enjoyed the sport and wanted to practice it – while also emphasising the impact this creative pursuit had on her friend – it brought her a lot of joy, which she did not get from other activities in her life.

Now, with the reader all fired up, wanting to gain the same pleasure from their own brave, creative pursuits, Gilbert does a U-turn. She talks about creativity as something bigger than us, mentioning the “external daemon of creativity”, which the ancient Greeks and Romans believed lived in your walls and helped you with your work – the message being, you are not a genius, you have a genius. She also talks about ideas floating around, searching for a human that will put them into practice.  While I have a hard time getting behind her former belief in a creative genius, I do like the latter. It encourages you to hold on to the moments of inspiration you experience, and try to turn them into something solid as soon as you get the chance, otherwise they might float away. I have heard a similar idea from a Creative Writing teacher of mine – she told her students that if we don’t turn our ideas into a story, if we let them hang in the air, someone else will think of those same ideas and they will use them instead. So if you have a great idea, don’t let it go. Gilbert states that “Done is better than perfect.”

There are a lot of great lessons to take away from Big Magic.

The most important one, that runs across the whole book, is to cut yourself some slack. Perfectionism holds you back. It’s something that I have had to come to terms with as well – we all want to make sure that everything we do is perfect, so that we won’t get badly judged by others. However, most of the time, it turns out that the person judging you the harshest is yourself. This usually applies the most in the case of anything creative, and Big Magic really brought home the relief that it’s fine for creative work to have rough edges. Gilbert stresses the importance of keeping at it, working daily at your craft, and letting your inspiration and creativity do its thing. Persistence brings about the idea of learning to stop procrastinating, since there will never be a perfect time for putting your ideas into action – Gilbert insists that you have to make the time for your creative pursuit.

She also reassures us that we do not have to worry about having a “big idea” as soon as possible, to put it into motion as quickly as can be. We can take our time. It’s important to continue being actively creative and curious. Gilbert uses an example from her own life, telling us how a simple desire to have a garden turned into a new novel – as her interest in flowers grew, and she did more research about them, the idea for a new story appeared, and turned into her new novel. You never know when inspiration may hit you.

I absolutely appreciate that Gilbert talks down the “suffering artist” myth. I personally haven’t seen it done before, and I feel like people really need to understand that creativity does not need to come from pain and suffering, and romanticising the negative things in your life does not mean you are making art, nor does it necessarily help you in healing/overcoming them.

HOWEVER

There is something which really, really irritated me. At one point in Big Magic, Gilbert says you don’t have to quit your job to write, or be creative. It will do your craft no good to put the pressure of making it pay the bills on it. She points out that it can be reassuring to know you are being creative only for the sake of it, for yourself. This, however, does not mean that you are not allowed to dedicate all your time to your creativity. Talking about this, Gilbert gives herself as an example, telling us how she kept her day job for years, never wanting to let the responsibility of having to make her writing pay the bills tamper with her creativity. That’s all good, but she adopts a tone that I feel is different to the one she used until this point. She becomes preachy.

She continues the next section by saying how you shouldn’t pursue a degree in the arts to be creative. She is very against creative related higher education, painting a very false, very negative picture of it, saying it only results in debt while having no benefits. As an English Literature student, and someone who has loved all the Creative Writing courses and workshops I have attended in my lifetime, this almost made me give up on the book. (I never stop hallway through books, but this infuriated me so much I did consider it).  Pursuing higher education in the arts is a very rewarding experience that feeds into everything you do – and it will make a very noticeable difference. You become exposed to so many different styles of art (writing, literature, painting, drawing, sculpting…you name it) that will then allow you to figure out your personal taste and style. Sure, you don’t need a degree in the arts to be creative – curiosity, passion and perseverance are all you need to succeed in your pursuit, but it doesn’t mean it’s not helpful. And, first of all, a degree paves the way for your future, so if you want to study the arts and work in that domain after you graduate, go ahead. I salute you, I am doing the same.

Yes, this bit made me really mad. It does not take away from all the good bits, however. I just needed to step away from the book for a while, and accept that opinions differ from one person to another. The book can be a very easy read. It’s not split into long chapters, but rather into sections, which are further spilt into subsections. It makes it really easy to stop reading at any point during the book, and continue later on. Moreover, Gilbert’s writing style is very conversational – easy going and comforting. This makes all the important messages in the book stand out. They are very complex, yet told to you with such ease, it’s really easy to take it. And it’s all very motivational, without seeming to be trying too hard.

 

Book Review – “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini

Book Review – “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini

Synopsis: Born a generation apart and with very different ideas about love and family, Mariam and Laila are two women brought jarringly together by war, by loss and by fate. As they endure the ever escalating dangers around them—in their home as well as in the streets of Kabul—they come to form a bond that makes them both sisters and mother-daughter to each other, and that will ultimately alter the course not just of their own lives but of the next generation.

This was my first encounter with Khaled Hosseini. Yes, despite this being his second book.

Regardless, it was a very memorable one.

I had heard of Hosseini before, and even though I was aware of the praise being sung for The Kite Runner, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for this book, and Hosseini’s poignant and immersive writing.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is never described as an educational book, but it taught me so much.

When I picked it up the first time, I scoffed and thought to myself “I know about Afghanistan and what’s going on there!” But reading a few newspaper articles and hearing about the Taliban on the news wasn’t actually enough for me to make that claim. Hosseini proved my arrogance wrong, and proceeded to actually tell me what had been going on in the country we all know the name of, but not its story. The novel takes you through thirty years of the country’s modern history, from the end of monarchy to the rule of the Taliban. Because the story is told from the point of view of two women, who initially have nothing else in common besides being neighbours, we learn about Afghanistan through the characters, a much more meaningful experience. Hosseini truly manages to show the horrible effect of war on ordinary people’s lives this way – one of the reasons this book is so heart-breaking is because you get to feel the fear and confusion of the people whose backyards are being bombed. Secondary characters also take centre stage when it comes to teaching the reader vital history lessons. Laila’s father, a school teacher and huge bookworm, offers a lot of insight into the country’s current state of affairs, as his interest in politics seeps through almost everything he says. Laila’s two older brothers are actively involved in the fighting that takes place for most of the book. Even Rasheed, Mariam and Laila’s horrible husband, offers vital information regarding the social and political climate through the various regime changes, which would have been more confusing were it not for his indirect explanations.

The characters in this book are all amazing.

I adore Mariam and Laila, they are such strong women, yet so human and relatable. They experience a lot of complex emotions and are really well-developed. Laila’s father is an adorable sweetheart whom I felt very protective towards. Tariq, the boy Laila falls in love with, is a bad boy with a soft heart that even I fell for. Rasheed is THE villain, violent and mean to his wives, only showing compassion for his son (and not for his daughter), and it is impossible not to hate him. The difference between the men portrayed in the novel is a significant one. It points out that there is no one type of man in a society, something which is not only valid just Mariam and Laila’s world, but also to ours.

More than the characters though, I love the interactions and relationships between them. My favourite is the friendship-turned-into-romance between Laila and Tariq. It’s just so pure and honest. And there are a few very heart warming, and some equally heart-breaking, moments between the two. I also love the friendship between Mariam and Laila – yes, even the rocky start. There are people who comment that Mariam’s initial jealousy and anger at Laila (after she marries Rasheed) is unjustified. But when trying to win Laila over, Rasheed was kind to her, something which Mariam never got to experience. Mariam had also been the woman of the house longer – despite the suffering she experiences at the hands of her husband, I can understand why suddenly having to share everything with a stranger would make you upset. I also really love Laila’s children, especially the way they interact with Tariq.

It’s a really tough book, though – very far from an easy read.

The hardship Mariam and Laila endure is not easy to get over, even after closing the book. Mariam has a tough life from the beginning. She is the illegitimate child of a wealthy business man, and lives with her mother in an isolated place outside Herat (the city where the majority of the plot takes place). The relationship between her and her mother is strained, her only joy being the visits from her father. However, he isn’t the brilliant man she has made him to be, and later, he never welcomes her into his home or his family, marrying her off to Rasheed to keep her away. If this isn’t painful enough, the suffering she must endure as Rasheed’s wife is unbearable, yet becomes something of the ordinary for Mariam. By contrast, Laila has a much better upbringing, going to school and making friends, as well as having a proper house to live in. Despite all this, she also ends up married to Rasheed, enduring the same suffering as Mariam. It’s a really tough lesson about hardship. It can strike and any time, regardless of upbringing or social situation.

But the real lesson is about friendship and love, and how these can persevere against any obstacle and challenge. Female friendship in this book is the purest form of joy and hope. It made me cry happy tears. And love…this is no fairy tale, but it portrays love in the same way. Despite the war, the poverty and the hardship this book keeps telling us about, it is also overwhelmingly positive in its message.

A Thousand Suns was life changing, and I do not say that lightly. It taught me about Afghanistan, and made me realise how much I take for granted every day. It taught me about hardship, abuse and loss. It taught me about strength. It showed me there is beauty among the rubble, love among the hate, and above all, there is always hope.

It made me cry on the bus. People shot me strange looks, and the elderly lady next to me gave me a tissue. I don’t cry on buses. But that’s the kind of boo this is – it will make you cry in public.

five-stars

You need to watch Sense8

You need to watch Sense8

Today is the last day of June, a day which also sadly marks the end of Pride Month. As is my habit when something comes to an end, my mind wondered back to the beginning of June and on all the things that have happened this month. I remembered that, on the 1st of June, Netflix announced the cancellation of Sense8, my favourite TV show of theirs. I was very angry. As were millions of fans around the world – the Sense8 fandom spent Pride attempting to bring back the show and reminding everyone why it is so amazing, by sharing the best moments from it (if you don’t believe me, just go on Tumblr).

This made me decide to dedicate the last blog post of Pride Month to one of the most diverse and inclusive shows on Netflix. I am simply doing what all Sense8 fans have been doing this June – telling you why it’s so brilliant and why you should watch it immediately.

In a nutshell, Sense8 is about eight strangers who are emotionally and mentally connected to each other, being able to share their knowledge and language – something they discover as a result of experiencing the same vision at the beginning of season 1. The rest of the first season deals with the sensates coming to terms with their connection while also trying to live their normal lives, while season 2 delves deeper into the implications of being a sensate and shows the numerous ways they help each other on a daily basis.

Sci-fi isn’t usually my thing, and at a first glance, the whole idea for the show sounds pretty complicated and “meh”.  But every Buzzfeed quiz and “what to watch based on your zodiac”-type post pointed me to Sense8. It was actually freaky. Since destiny wanted me to watch it (not to mention loads of my friends), I pressed play on episode one and did just that. Now, I had been warned it would take a while for me to get into it, and that was nothing new – it does usually take one or two episodes to get into a new show; you need to get used to the dynamic between characters, the world they live in, etc. But with this show…it took half of season 1, I was so unsure of what I felt towards the whole thing. It did make me really curious, if only to see if I will ever like it as much as everyone liked it.

I loved it.

I was addicted to it by the second half of the season. Just hooked, I am telling you. When I finally understood what the deals was with their connection, and got the hang of the pace of the show, pieced together the plot…that was it for me. “Slowly, and then all at once.” This is the perfect way to explain my growing love for the show.

You will love it, too – I promise you.

Sense8 is pretty much a twenty-four-hour long movie, broken down into episodes, and unlike other shows that I have seen before, the pilot doesn’t just explain everything. Instead, it leaves you asking the same questions as the characters (namely, “what the hell is going on?”). This establishes a great foundation for the relationship between viewers and the characters. The way the story is told really helps build up that relationship as well – each episode is told from one of the characters’ point of view. As a result, we never know more than them, which I find helps me put myself in a character’s shoes much more easily, and therefore emphasise more with them. As this show is very heavily focused on its characters and the bond between them, this storytelling choice seems very fitting for the show.

Speaking of characters, it is impossible not to fall in love with them. I am completely honest when I say that I do not have a favourite out of the eight protagonists; I have the same passionate love for all of them. They are very diverse – they all come from different corners of the Earth, are of different races, identify as different sexualities, speak different languages, know different things. There’s Capheus Onyango(also known as Van Damme), a Nairobi bus driver; Niomi Marks, a trans woman hacktivist and blogger from San Francisco; Lito Rodriguez, a gay Mexican actor; Sun Bak, a badass kickboxer who is also the daughter of a powerful Seoul businessman; Kala Dandekar, a pharmacist and devout Hindu based in Mumbai; Wolfgang Bogdanow, a Berlin locksmith and safe-cracker; Riley Blue, an Icelandic DJ living in London; and Will Gorski, a Chicago police officer.

They are very unique, yet have been so carefully written, and are so well-rounded, you would truly expect to meet them on the street. One of the reasons why just happens to be that some characters are inspired by real people. Niomi is inspired by Lana Wachowski herself, one of the writers of the show. Niomi’s girlfriend, Amanita, is inspired by Wachowski’s wife. And while not being the alter ego of anybody, Wolgang’s difficult relationship with his father is inspired by the equally difficult relationship between J. Michael Straczynski (the other writer) and his own father.

If they are this amazing by themselves, I hope you can imagine how extraordinary they are as a group. The dynamic they have together is something that goes beyond the connection they have as sensates. It’s not only that they understand each other so well, it’s also the support they give one another, and the way they help each other out in need. They’re truly friends – because, after all, the connection they have doesn’t necessarily mean they have to like each other, right? Let alone be friends. The secondary characters are just as brilliant. They provide a great support system outside the cluster, and it’s very heart-warming to see how positively people react to the “gift” the “main eight” have. Moreover, they allow for glimpses inside each protagonists’ life outside of the cluster, because sometimes it’s quite easy to forget they’re thousands of miles apart and have very different lifestyles.

The whole cast really becomes a family as the show progresses, not only among themselves, but also for the viewer.

What makes Sense8 even more special is the way it was filmed.

Yes, it can be very confusing plot-wise, but it is visually stunning, and that is because the amazing producers of this show wanted to shoot on location for the whole show. And boy does this method deliver! What’s also great is that, because of the focus on the characters, you don’t just get to see the eight different cities, you get to know them, since you get to experience places that have emotional meanings to the protagonists. (I for one grew attached to the Palace of Westminster in London, even though I knew it really well already, thanks to a scene in season 2. I even went there specifically to recreate that scene. It gave the building more meaning, even though I’ve gone past it hundreds of times before. Sense8 does this kind of thing to you.)

You know how I mentioned diversity before?

The show tackles a lot of very current, very serious issues – culture, gender, sexuality, politics, religion. The idea of empathy is what lies at the core of Sense8. When talking about how the show came about, empathy was the starting point, as Straczynski mentions: “We started out at one point talking about how evolution involves creating ever greater circles of empathy: You belong to your family, then you belong to your tribe, then two tribes link up and now you have empathy for your people on this side of the river, and you’re against the people on the other side of the river… on and on through villages, cities, states and nations… So what if a more literal form of empathy could be triggered in eight individuals around the planet… who suddenly became mentally aware of each other, able to communicate as directly as if they were in the same room.”

The “us vs them” idea can be used to understand the overarching idea of the plot, as the sensates are battling against Whispers and the BPO (the bad guy of the show and his evil organisation), who are after them simply because they are different. The show is very well-loved for the positive portrayal of LGBT characters, and is very sex-positive (the several orgies that are included in the show aren’t there just for the sake of it, although I can guarantee no-one would mind if that were the case; the whole cast is very good-looking). Overall, the show really advocates for acceptance and inclusion.

When I began writing this blog post, this amazing show had been cancelled, never to be continued again, because Netflix, despite being the only ones interested in the show in the beginning, are jerks. However, things are quite different as I am finishing this post – a two-hour special episode has been announced for 2018.

Therefore, go and watch Sense8.

It is a “visual feast” and an “emotional touchstone”, as it has been described online, and if it all seems confusing…just go with it. It will be worth it, I promise. Just as the sensates do, let yourself discover the wonder of this “ability” and the show. Plus, who doesn’t like a TV show with such a great pun for a title?

It’s very binge-able, so consider your weekend sorted. There’s a lot of amazing moments, like Christmas and Pride, that will really get to you, so have some tissues ready as well. Just go and watch it. It will make life better.

Book Review – “More Happy Than Not” by Adam Silvera

Book Review – “More Happy Than Not” by Adam Silvera

Warning! You might stumble upon a few spoilers.

Synopsis: In the months after his father’s suicide, it’s been tough for sixteen-year-old Aaron Soto to find happiness again—but he’s still gunning for it. With the support of his girlfriend Genevieve and his overworked mom, he’s slowly remembering what that might feel like. But grief and the smile-shaped scar on his wrist prevent him from forgetting completely. 

When Genevieve leaves for a couple of weeks, Aaron spends all his time hanging out with this new guy, Thomas. Aaron’s crew notices, and they’re not exactly thrilled. But Aaron can’t deny the happiness Thomas brings or how Thomas makes him feel safe from himself, despite the tensions their friendship is stirring with his girlfriend and friends. Since Aaron can’t stay away from Thomas or turn off his newfound feelings for him, he considers turning to the Leteo Institute’s revolutionary memory-alteration procedure to straighten himself out, even if it means forgetting who he truly is. 

Why does happiness have to be so hard?

This book is brilliant for a lot of different reasons.

For one, there’s the diversity offered by this novel. I have personally never read a YA novel set in the Bronx before, so just the setting itself got me really excited. The novel never strays from this side of New York City, and Adam Silvera manages to convincingly capture life in urban poverty, where Aaron’s mother works two jobs yet can barely afford the small flat the family live in, and things like a friend owning a desk or their own bed rouse Aaron’s feelings of desire. The group of friends that Aaron spends his time with is made up of people we might not consider even going near at first, such as criminals or school drop-outs, but whom, as the novel goes on, turn out to be more than just their social status.

The novel isn’t just about life in the Bronx, though. It also deals with the difficult subject of depression.

I am always weary when it comes to mental health in novels. There are too many ways in which it could go wrong (see the review for All The Brilliant Places and Thirteen Reasons Why, which I dislike too much to comment on). But this book does it well, and it is thanks to Aaron’s narration. Silvera has really managed to make his narrative voice very realistic. It’s through the progression of days that we get a clear sense of the difficult journey he’s going through, the suicide of his father and his l own failed attempt never leaving his mind for long. Despite this undertone of dark emotion, Aaron is quite the quirky guy. I really love the way he engages with those around him.

And it doesn’t stop with depression, the novel also tackles the process of coming out – it does this through the wider topic of self-acceptance.

I really love the relationship that Aaron and Genevieve have (their “Trade Dates” is a really interesting idea that should actually become a thing in relationships, I am telling you). She is his rock, and yet I love that she is not simply reduced to that. In fact, it’s the other way around; Aaron is the one who, I feel, identifies himself through the label of “Genevieve’s boyfriend”. And it’s something that I felt he does with everyone around him in the first part of the novel, before he starts questioning his feelings for Thomas. Funny Thomas should come up, because he is the boy onto whom Aaron projects his fears regarding himself. Aaron assumes Thomas is gay very early on, and then keeps quiet about it because he knows his friends would not approve if they found out, yet it becomes increasingly clear as the narrative progresses that he is fearing for himself, not for Thomas. Which is why Aaron can’t accept Thomas’s confession that he is straight and accuses him of denying his sexuality. The comic book Aaron was working on is another fascinating insight into Aaron’s journey of acknowledging his sexuality. Aaron says: “If I were faced with Sun Warden’s decision – whether or not to save his girlfriend or best friend from a dragon – I’m sorry to change my mind, but Thomas would fall away without me moving a muscle. And I would make that choice without a doubt because the bottom line is that Genevieve is my girlfriend and I’m her boyfriend, and Thomas and I are just friends and that’s that.” He is clearly fighting himself.

The plot twist that happens towards the end of the novel was anything but that for me.

There are so many moments scattered throughout the novel where things either don’t make sense, so you know something is up, or it’s easy to guess that something will happen. However, this isn’t what ruined the latter part of the book for me. The ending was something I did not see coming, and sadly, not in a good way. The positive message conveyed at the end contrasts with how sad it is, which you could say achieves the effect of making it more poignant, but I felt like the whole ending was just…wrong. Also, while the last few pages leave us with amazing quotes, such as “If there’s happiness tucked away in my tragedies, I’ll find it no matter what. If the blind can find joy in music, and the deaf can discover it with colours, I will do my best to always find the sun in the darkness because my life isn’t one sad ending – it’s a series of endless happy beginnings,” it also left me extremely confused about the overarching message of the novel.

There’s also the sci-fi side to the book.

The Leteo Institute, which allows people to erase memories. It can be seen as a metaphor for the dreaded conversion centres/ therapy, and the fact that it ultimately fails to make Aaron’s wish come true clearly adds to the comparison. The existence of the Institute really troubled me as I was reading the book, mainly because it seemed to promise an easy escape when life got too hard, and surely dealing with the bad stuff that life throws at you is ultimately what makes you grow as a person, so this was taking it all away (and where would that leave the emotional growth of the characters). Silvera seems to be aware of such worries the reader might have, since the latter part of the novel pretty much gives you the answer. The Leteo Institute, while actually being put to one side for most of the novel, plays a really big part in the ending, and as you know by now, that left me baffled. As a consequence, I am not too keen on this whole Leteo Institute side of the story.

I didn’t like this book when I first read it, I must confess.

I wanted to, so badly, and, to be honest, I think that might have been the problem. I have only heard good things about this book, and I ended up seeing only the negative, because in my mind I was sceptical about the hype surrounding this book. Therefore, things suddenly seemed stereotypical and clichéic and annoying. Everything you have read in this review until now is still completely honest, though. It took me a while to realise that I might have been judging the book too hard. Sure, I found it annoying that Aaron seemed to love his girlfriend mostly because she put up with him. Yet thinking about it, he had just gone through the traumatic experience of his father’s suicide. I think all of us would be grateful to have someone who stays, no matter how ugly the process of coping with the aftermath of such an event is. And yes, I found Aaron’s revelation that he is into guys quite the cliché, especially since Aaron didn’t seem to consider the fact that he might be bisexual, he just went ahead and called himself a “dude-liker” (I am aware that the ending might kind of explain why he unconsciously jumps directly to the “gay” label, but for me that still isn’t a good enough reason). Later I realised that it was something I could identify with, because I was myself only aware of homosexuality and heterosexuality in the beginning, before I realised there could be a “middle ground”, let alone a whole spectrum.

This book is quite a journey, for the characters themselves and for the reader (or so it was for me). Silvera deserves to be proud of this debut novel, he manages to tackle some incredibly complex issues with a lot of honesty and emotion. I am not 100% in love with this book, there are things like the ending which I just can’t get behind, but it is still a book I would recommend, especially if you’re looking for class diversity and sci-fi, all with a lovely sprinkle of LGBT.

3-stars

Book Review – “The Price of Salt”/”Carol” by Patricia Highsmith

Book Review – “The Price of Salt”/”Carol” by Patricia Highsmith

Synopsis: The Price of Salt is the story of Therese Belivet, a stage designer trapped in a department-store day job, whose salvation arrives one day in the form of Carol Aird, an alluring suburban housewife in the throes of a divorce. They fall in love and set out across the United States, pursued by a private investigator who eventually blackmails Carol into a choice between her daughter and her lover.

Say hello to one of my all-time favourite books!

I don’t even know where to begin, I have so many feelings and thoughts about this, so let me start by telling you that this novel was loved from the moment it first came out in 1952. It wasn’t called Carol back then, but The Price of Salt, and Patricia Highsmith published it under a pseudonym, Claire Morgan, because she claims she didn’t want to be known as a “lesbian-book writer”, but the lesbians loved it anyway. Why?

Because this was the first novel where the gay couple had a shot at happiness at the end of the story.

Sure, it can be argued that the ending of Highsmith’s novel isn’t all that happy, and we don’t really know what’s in store for Carol and Therese, but they don’t die, or go depressed and crazy, or have to try to lead a “normal” life. And even today, that is a big thing. Because the “bury your gays” trope is still there, and still annoyingly popular, so novels like this one are paperback pieces of hope for the LGBT community looking for better representation. Right from the start, Highsmith was praised for writing a story that lesbian women could identify with, and while we no longer live in the 1950s, having your sexuality held against you, as happens in the case of Carol, is something that many of us still have to deal with today. Not to mention figuring out the nature of your feelings for someone of your own gender for the first time, which is what Therese has to go through in the first half of the novel.

And Highsmith did something else, too. She changed the way lesbian women were viewed in society by going against the stereotypical portrayal, where one of the women in the relationship was expected to be visibly butch.

(Does anyone else’s mind wonder to one of the most annoying things lesbian couples get asked, “which one of you wears the pants/is the man in the relationship”? It makes me both happy to see how such a great book is still relevant today, yet this also saddens me, because after 60 years, it shows that not that much has changed regarding the LGBT community.)

I love the way she breaks this stereotype, too, because Highsmith doesn’t just simply make Carol sophisticated and then expects us to be impressed that her character isn’t butch, but she shows how ingrained this idea of the butch lesbian was in society by having Therese herself be amazed by Carol’s appearance: “She had heard about girls falling in love, and she knew what kind of people they were and what they looked like. Neither she nor Carol looked like that. Yet the way she felt about Carol passed all the tests for love and fitted all the descriptions.”

But being a relevant lesbian story is not the only thing that makes this novel so amazing. After all, as Highsmith is not simply a lesbian-book writer. She states that she planned the novel while having a fever, and while this might not actually have anything to do with the writing itself, “feverish” is definitely the word I would use to describe it. The writing is packed with details and action, and is just as intense as the plot itself. The story is gripping from the first sentence, and then it keeps you hooked like an addict, until your eyes are hurting and the words are swimming on the page and it’s so late you can no longer make out reality from fantasy. The novel provides a very intense reading experience, even if the writing style can be described as conversational (because, even though it may be packed with detail, it flows just as easily as a conversation). It really works, though, the seemingly laid back style with the intensity that it nevertheless depicts. It really brings the character’s feelings into a better perspective, allowing us to experience the confusion, disorientation and even obsession they might have felt, too – especially Therese, who has to deal with thoughts and emotions that are very new to her.

I have to admit that, as nuanced and well-rounded as the characters are, they are not always the most lovable. Although Carol seems amazing when looking at her through Therese’s eyes, I often found myself in a love-hate relationship regarding her while reading the book. There are times when she is simply cold and cruel. Therese herself isn’t that much better, she seems heartless towards people at times, especially towards her boyfriend. Yet it’s both of them, together, that I love the most. The moments they share together, when they can be themselves and joke or reveal secrets about their lives. Such moments, which might not be the ones where the two protagonists fell in love with each other, are the ones where I fell in love with them.

I greatly love the road trip setting that most of the novel offers. This feeling might have been fuelled by Kerouac’s On The Road, which I read prior to my first reading of this book, but it is on this trip that Therese matures in the way she loves Carol and the way she views the world. And it is this trip that reveals what it was like to be a lesbian woman in the 1950s, which are perceived as having been very restrictive times. However, from this novel alone, we can see that the times weren’t as we depict it today. Not only were people aware of homosexuality, but you could also find accepting communities, most clearly shown through Carol and Abby’s friendship, as well as through the interaction between the actress and Therese, whom she meets towards the end of the novel. Also, as the road trip shows, two women could share the same bed at a hotel and not draw attention to themselves, the possibility of them living together also being implied.

The road trip section of the novel also makes Highsmith’s talent for writing thrillers felt, from the gun in the suitcase all the way to the detective that follows them. And don’t you think a road trip to … nowhere, really, is a great metaphor for their relationship? They have no idea where they’ll end up, they have no guidance, not even a map like they do for the trip, and you could read even deeper into this and say that the detective following them is the views and expectations of society (ok, so I might be stretching it a bit here, but it could work, right?).

I will always be grateful to Highsmith for defying the norm and paving the way towards a more positive representation, not only for lesbian women but for the whole LGBT community. It is for this reason, and for her amazing writing, that her novel will surely win the hearts of many generations to come, too.

five-stars.png

 

 

Review – “All The Bright Places” by Jennifer Niven

Review – “All The Bright Places” by Jennifer Niven

Synopsis: An exhilarating and heart-wrenching love story about a girl who learns to live from a boy who intends to die. Theodore Finch is fascinated by death. Every day he thinks of ways he might die, but every day he also searches for—and manages to find—something to keep him here, and alive, and awake. Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her small Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s death. When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school—six stories above the ground—it’s unclear who saves whom. And when the unlikely pair teams up on a class project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, they go, as Finch says, where the road takes them: the grand, the small, the bizarre, the beautiful, the ugly, the surprising—just like life. Soon it’s only with Violet that Finch can be himself—a bold, funny, live-out-loud guy, who’s not such a freak after all. And it’s only with Finch that Violet forgets to count away the days and starts living them. But as Violet’s world grows, Finch’s begins to shrink. This is a heart-wrenching, unflinching story of love shared, life lived, and two teens who find one another while standing on the edge.

This book was one that was constantly brought to my attention every time I seemed to completely forget about it, so in the end I finally decided to read it.

I have never been too keen on the book being advertised as the next The Fault in Our Stars, not because I have something with John Green, but because it ultimately uses the novel’s senstive subject matter of mental illness as a way of promoting the story, thus risking turining it into a sensational topic. But the general consensus among those who have read it is that it is worthwile, so I decided to look beyond what is, in my opinion, a questionable marketing strategy.

The novel has a very strong, gripping opening – the first line really sticks with you. It is a bit clichéic for me, but it did make me want to read on, even if only for the sake of seeing if the clichés continue. As the synopsis says, the book opens with the main characters meeting on the bell tower of their high school, which throws the reader right in the thick of the action.

The story follows Violet and Theodore Finch, who take turns being narrators, and who are both in a really bad place when we first meet them on that bell tower. The friendship that unfolds between them shows readers how two very different people can come together in the best of ways, even if they are brought together by an unfortunate situation.

I took an immediate liking to Finch. Beyond the synopsis description of him being a guy who constantly comes up with ways to kill himself, he is complex and rich – a very well rounded character, with whom it’s really easy to engage. He manages to encompass the contradictions that take over when you suffer from depression – his constant need to stay alive, while being unable to stop himself from thinking about the ways other people have commited suicide. Violet is similarly having a hard time coming to terms with her sister having passed away, and the way she has retreated in her shell as a result of it is something that I really appreciate, because it feels like such a realistic reaction to such a traumatic event. I love the way their love doesn’t just happen, but progresses from friendship, and the way their journey across Indiana to discover their state also turns into a journey of self-discovery. I am also a huge fan of the fact that they use Virginia Woolf quotes.

However, as much as I loved the characters and their journey, there are a few things which I was not pleased with. Firstly, while for the most part, the book is hopeful regarding mental illness, the ending throws that away (it is also pretty predictable thanks to the structure of the book). Moreover, recovering from mental illness is, in my opinion, treated problematically in the novel. There is no mention of any medication that might help, Finch’s mental illness remains undiagnosed and therapists are portrayed in a pretty negative light. So, while the book seems helpful to someone who knows people that are struggling with mental illness, it does not do too much for those who are suffering from it.

What really, really bothered me the most, however, is the way no one tries to figure out what is wrong with Finch. His problems are mostly ignored by his friends and family. And while he is actively helping Violet move past the trauma that holds her stuck in the past, no-one is putting in a similar effort for him. He is fighting against his issues by himself. The final part of the book, especially, becomes about Violet rather than Finch and what he has been going through. While I am aware that there is a lot of stigma surrounding mental illness, I did hope that the novel would fight against that in order to show that we should at least try to understand and attempt to help someone who is suffering from it.

Despite this, I really enjoyed the novel, and I am certain that Finch will forever remain on my list of most beloved book characters. I do really recommend this book, especially if you’re a fan of John Green-like novels (yes, the promo is right in this comparison, to some extent). I personally look forward to reading more novels by Jennifer Niver.

3-stars