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Month: March 2020

Review: Heaven and Hell (A History of the Afterlife) by Bart D. Ehrman

Review: Heaven and Hell (A History of the Afterlife) by Bart D. Ehrman

‘Whether we believe in them or not, we are all familiar with the concepts of heaven and hell. There was a time, however, when no one thought they would go to either of these places after they died. In fact, Jesus didn’t believe a dead person’s soul was bound for heaven or hell, and these ideas are nowhere to be found in the Old Testament. So, where did they come from?

From the Epic of Gilgamesh to the writings of Augustine, Bart Ehrman provides a fascinating and thought-provoking history of the afterlife. He traces how beliefs changed over time and reveals the social, cultural and historical roots of competing views held by Greeks, Jews and Christians. Ultimately, he shows that many of our ideas about heaven and hell emerged long after Jesus’s time, through the struggle to explain the injustices of our world.’

One of the things I’ve always loved most about studying classical civilisation is looking at the systems of belief that governed societies, and how these beliefs developed, took on elements of other stories and legends, and the impact that they had on the growth of different cultures and what was and was not acceptable in societies. Working as a teacher of English, I do get to discuss a wide range of historical contexts in the study of literature through time, but I honestly miss getting to explore the ancient world in the depth that I used to, and I have to say that reading Heaven and Hell was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I may not be religious, but I do try to expand my understanding of different beliefs whenever possible, and I was thrilled to be able to learn about subjects that I previously had very little knowledge of, such as the Hebrew Bible.

One of my favourite chapters in Heaven and Hell was ‘Life After Death Before There Was Life After Death’, which looks at the representation of the underworld in Classical literature, and how much the perception of what stands to follow after has changed by the time Virgil writes The Aeneid, even what he has heavily ‘borrowed’ from The Odyssey impacted by the altered views of the time. I was very lucky to study Classics with excellent teachers and a group of good friends, and it did give me a bit of a giggle to see the same plot holes that we identified back then highlighted here too, such as why Odysseus needs a sword to ‘hold back’ the intangible dead, and how Circe simply tells him everything he learned in his trip to the underworld when he returns to her palace, making his journey all but needless, excepting what he learns of Elpenor and his need to be buried, meaning the trip perhaps only serves to draw attention to the importance of ritual and the afterlife in the Ancient Greek world. This chapter also brought to light something that I’d never really considered, not particularly having any definite belief in what might happen after death: is it worse to experience an eternal, bland, afterlife lacking in any purpose or meaning, or the torment of our more ‘traditional’ understanding of what the soul stands to suffer in hell? Each stand to be their own forms of torture, it cannot be denied.

In studying literature, one of the things I particularly love is looking at the different connotations of language and how words stand to be interpreted depending on context, beliefs and other elements of society that impact how we perceive the world. Another of the things that Heaven and Hell looks at is how our understanding of the words originally used in ancient and religious texts have changed over time, primarily down to the differing opinions involved in translations and what we have had to attempt to fill in when pieces of a text have been destroyed, or key pieces of context that lend specific meaning are missing. In considering this, it seems that, in some instances, we struggle to step away from what we associate with language as suggested by our learning and experiences. In the case of the Hebrew Bible, in reading the word ‘pit’, one of the immediate associations tends to be with that of what we are told of hell – that it is a ‘fiery pit’ of eternal torment, and not simply a physical place of burial. In making this assumption, this is one of the first steps to ‘altering’ the original meaning of a text and passing it down through generations, until the true meaning is lost.

As I read Heaven and Hell, I was often left wondering exactly what my own beliefs about life after death are. It seems that – at least in the UK – it is schools that first suggest that heaven and hell exist, even if they are not religious schools. Hymns are sung and a suggestion of there being a god and afterlife are made and generally accepted, the belief that to be good is to go to heaven and to be bad means going to hell something that we are brought up with even when our families are not religious. The suggestion is that to be a good person will have its rewards, which is realms away from the ancient belief in Hades and an equal experience of the afterlife for all – a frustrating and unfulfilling eternity though it may be. There is a part of me that cannot help but believe that these ideas are used as a form of control, an idea Ehrman highlights in discussing the supposed origins of religious texts and how they have, in all inevitability, been manipulated for purpose by men.

Heaven and Hell is a fascinating, thought-provoking and engaging book that I enjoyed immensely. It’s on shelves on April 3rd! Thank you, OneWorld Publications, for sending it to me!

Review: Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

Review: Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

‘The pale-skinned, black-eyed baby is a bad omen. That’s one thing the people on the old plantation are sure of. The other is that Miss Rue – midwife, healer, crafter of curses – will know what to do.

But for once Rue doesn’t know. Times have changed since her mother Miss May Belle held the power to influence the life and death of her fellow slaves. Freedom has come. The master’s Big House lies in ruins. But this new world brings new dangers, and Rue’s old magic may be no match for them.

When sickness sweeps across her tight-knit community, Rue finds herself the focus of suspicion. What secrets does she keep amidst the charred remains of the Big House? Which spells has she conjured to threaten their children? And why is she so wary of the charismatic preacher man who promises to save them all?

Rue understands fear. It has shaped her life and her mother’s before her. And now she knows she must face her fears – and her ghosts – to find a new way forward for herself and her people.’

I’d planned to read the first few chapters of Conjure Women, but the story grabbed me and just wouldn’t let go, and it was 3am before I was willing to put the book down, and that was only because I’d finished it. Conjure Women is a brilliant and haunting read, beautifully written and heart wrenching in all that the story encompasses. The novel alternates between two time periods, that of Rue’s youth in slaverytime and her life as a young woman in freedomtime, after the passing of her mother and the destruction of the home of the white family that had owned hers and all those in her community.

Rue grows up as a daughter of a woman who is respected within her community and known to be able to weave spells and magic that can both aid and hinder others. Families, primarily other women, put their faith in Miss Bay Belle to help them both in terms of medical health and in producing curses that impact their rivals or those that have done them wrong, in a world where nothing is certain and ‘magic’ is one of the only things that feels that might help in taking back a measure of the control that has been stripped from their lives. While her mother is all too painfully aware of what governs their lives and who they cannot trust (for how can you trust someone who considers you an object and possession to be used and hurt at their whims?), the lines have been blurred for Rue, who is sometimes certain that the master’s white daughter, Varina, is her friend, and at others fails to quite grasp the extent of the differences that society has built between them. In her youth and ignorance, Varina fails to grasp her often insensitive behaviour and cannot understand that, in sometimes wanting what Rue has, she is only highlighting that she already has whatever she wishes and is trying to claim what of Rue’s world that she can in an intrusive and selfish fashion. Neither girl seems quite aware of where the lines between them are, each of them exerting power where they can when distressed, yet it’s Varina who appears more blindly ignorant, underestimating Rue’s intelligence and emotional understanding to get her way, knowing, if nothing else, that she cannot be denied. As Rue grows and she begins to comprehend that her friendship is really a relationship of a mistress and her slave, she begins to take opportunities to get her own back, knowing that Varina will not suspect her. The relationships between the women in the novel are complicated, all being at the mercy of men and masters in different manners, none seemingly able to have complete faith in each other, knowing it will only take one misstep, one rumour or remark, to ruin them and worse.

May Belle’s position within the community affords her the trust and respect of her fellow slaves, and leaves her as the keeper of the master’s secrets, not out of respect, but because he knows full well that she must obey him and that, as his property, he holds her life in his hands and can use that power to make her do as he requires. The master’s behaviour is beyond abhorrent, his actions something that are repulsive and among the most unsettling things in the novel, but the worst of it is knowing that how he treats his slaves is what actually occurred in this time period. He not only forces his female slaves to fulfil his sexual needs against their will, he also forces the men and women he owns to sleep together so that he can increase the number of slaves that he has to work his land. Unsurprisingly, any children he fathers are not acknowledged and are considered his slaves, left to the mercies of his cruel and arrogant white children.

Following May Belle’s death, Rue’s place in the world shifts quite dramatically. While she has taken on her mother’s duties – if somewhat against her will – events conspire to have the slaves still living on the plantation unable to find this same trust in her, primarily owing to the delivery of a baby that suggests bad omens and that he is an unnatural child. Her troubles are worsened by the arrival of a preacher who is determined to convert them to Christianity, and while May Belle’s magic was considered to be traditional and something learned of women going back generations, the changing world brands Rue a dangerous woman involved in witchcraft. In the secrets she has to keep to protect herself and others, she is left with very little with which to defend herself, often inadvertently playing into the rumours, and her hand is forced to go against her conscience out of desperation on more than occasion.

Conjure Women is a moving and thoroughly enthralling read, out on April 7th. Thank you to 4th Estate Books for sending me a copy for review!

Review: Bone Crier’s Moon by Kathryn Purdie

Review: Bone Crier’s Moon by Kathryn Purdie

‘Bone Criers are the last descendants of an ancient famille charged with using the magic they draw from animal bones to shepherd the dead into the afterlife—lest they drain the light from the living.

Ailesse has been prepared since birth to become their matriarch, but first she must complete her rite of passage: to kill the boy she’s destined to love.

Bastien’s father was slain by a Bone Crier and he’s been seeking revenge ever since. Now his vengeance must wait, as Ailesse’s ritual has begun and their fates are entwined—in life and in death.’

I loved this book. I initially sat down intending to read the first few chapters, then I was nearly all the way through it and it was dark outside. The narrative alternates between the points of view of Ailesse, Sabine and Bastien, the former a pair of Bone Crier friends, and the latter determined to destroy a Bone Crier in payment for the father he saw slaughtered when he was a child. Ailesse and Sabine are firm friends, despite their differences, such as Sabine’s reluctance to kill creatures to magically gain the best of their abilities herself, while Ailesse is determined to earn herself the strongest of graces to aid her in following in her mother’s footsteps in leading their people, and I loved that they are supportive of each other despite not always understanding the other’s decisions. Bastien has his own companions in Jules and Marcel, who have likewise suffered loses at the hands of a Bone Crier, though it is not solely their intent on getting revenge that binds them together. In my opinion, family is one of the strongest themes running through Bone Crier’s Moon, whether blood or found family, something that is exemplified not only by the main characters, but in dialogue from others and elements of the culture and magic we see.

One of the things that I think makes the story work so well is that none of the characters are ever one hundred percent set on one course or belief, or completely unwilling to listen to those around them and learn from their experiences. It keeps them from falling too firmly into any stereotypical role and leaves the reader never quite sure how they will react to different developments, making the outcomes of the different threads of the story difficult to predict. To my mind, it also keeps everything much more focused on character development than simply moving the plot from point to point, and I’m sure I’ve said before that I much prefer this structure, rather than sacrificing time spent with characters to move events along. Though the events unfolding threaten to impact the protagonists at every moment, what we see of the characters is not a constant flurry of action, affording time for conversations and moments between them that allow for relationships to grow and develop in a manner that doesn’t seem forced or make the choices they make seem contrived. I don’t believe there is a character in Bone Criers Moon whose motivation isn’t something that invites a measure of empathy and understanding, and though some of them do walk darker paths that have them doing things that threaten to slide towards the ‘evil’ side of the spectrum, their reasons are not ones that paint them into a corner and invite snap judgements. The villains are not simply ‘villains’ – they are well-rounded characters that we learn significant details about, allowing the reader to understand them, if not to agree with their actions.

I really enjoyed the time the time spent with Ailesse and Sabine’s clan and what we learn of how their family functions, both in terms of the cultural side and the magical features. The concept of using the ‘graces’ (the skills that allow different animals to adapt and survive in the wild/their native environment) of creatures as a power develops the magic system as more than ‘just’ magic when paired with the rules that govern it. That each woman (aside from the clan leader) is only allowed three graces leaves a lot of room for individualisation and reasoning behind their personal choices, as well as consideration of what truly makes a person strong. Sabine cannot stand killing creatures and has only managed to obtain one grace at the novel’s opening, and while some look down on her power, others see her healing ability as a boon that makes her less obviously stronger than something that would grant physical power. While on the subject of potentially looking down on others, I was glad to see that Sabine and Ailesse’s clan, formed solely of women, does not invite tearing each other down. There are rivalries and disagreements, yes, but in this and the novel on the whole, the female relationships aren’t destructive (with a couple of notable exceptions that are more tied to the plot than women perceiving each other as threats) and actually grow and develop beyond any simple, ingrained or first-sight ‘hatred’. I am so, so tired of women in fiction being made to see each other only as someone to else to tear down and I was very glad to see relationships here developed beyond that sort of instinct.

Bone Crier’s Moon is out on April 30th in the UK, from Harper Collins! Thank you, Harper360ya, for sending my a copy to review! I loved this book and hope you will too!

Review: Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin

Review: Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin

‘They’ve infiltrated homes in Hong Kong, shops in Vancouver, the streets of Sierra Leone, town squares of Oaxaca, schools in Tel Aviv, bedrooms in Indiana.

They’re not pets, nor ghosts, nor robots. They’re real people, but how can a person living in Berlin walk freely through the living room of someone in Sydney? How can someone in Bangkok have breakfast with your children in Buenos Aires, without you knowing? Especially when these people are completely anonymous, unknown, untraceable.’

Little Eyes follows the lives of a handful (out of thousands, if not millions) of people across the world who have, for various reasons, either purchased a kentuki or bought a code that will let them inhabit a kentuki in a stranger’s home (some of those involved in the main narrative also receive these things from friends and family members, rather than directly involving themselves out of their own curiosity). Kentukis are made to look like toys and contain a camera and audio equipment encased in the seemingly harmless form of one of a selection of fluffy creatures, from bunnies and birds, to dragons. By inhabiting a kentuki, a user gets to control the device within the home the person who has purchased it, letting them move around the house, follow its inhabitants and both listen in on and watch events unfolding in other people’s lives. The limitations to the kentuki primarily involve power usage, meaning if the device runs out of power and is not charged, the connection between kentuki and user is permanently severed and neither component of the relationship can be reactivated, but the kentuki can also be easily stymied by trapping it in places and ensuring it cannot escape to charge or spy on events people don’t want it witnessing.

There are many threads of the narrative that would be ruined were I to refer to specific characters and events and, as much of Little Eyes hinges on expertly crafted tension and suspense, I don’t want to ruin it for other readers, so it’s my intention to avoid referring to anything too closely and instead comment on the issues that the novel explores and addresses. I simply couldn’t put the book down and I don’t want to ruin the reading experience for anyone else.

The kentukis themselves are not cheap to purchase, and as a one use item rendered useless if the connection with its user fails or is cut one way or another, that it’s suggested that people are willing to simply buy more or spend the money simply to satisfy their curiosity speaks volumes about the power of advertising and consumer culture in the world in which we live. Much of social media exists to satisfy our curiosity about other people’s lives and share an idealised version of our own, and the kentukis are something that it feels we are not even whole steps away from. One of the features that the world of Little Eyes seems to find exciting is the random nature of inhabiting a kentuki, in that the code you activate could link to anyone in the world for any length of time, from minutes to weeks, making it feel rather like the same variety of gambling that online loot box and mystery box systems aim to draw people into.

Many of the characters demonstrate either a lack of understanding of what threats they are opening themselves up to in the purchase of a kentuki, or seem to decide that being able to say that they are involved in the craze sweeping across the world is worth the risk of letting a stranger into their home. One of the most worrying features of the story is how many people buy them for their children, believing them to be nothing more than an advanced toy, and don’t appear to grasp that they are letting someone see almost every facet of their children’s lives, including incredibly personal information that sets them up to be located and potentially abducted, let alone the horrifying potential for viewing inappropriate material regarding minors. It’s all too easy to identify the dangers of the kentuki devices as you read and grow more and more disturbed by everything that their existence inflicts on those who own and inhabit them, but the fact is that the kentukis are truly not that different to what many of us have in our homes, from webcams to home hubs and children’s toys filled with technology that allows tracking and monitoring. It’s a little bit late to be perturbed by the idea of the kentuki when they’re essentially already in our homes – the difference being we are supposed to implicitly trust the companies collecting our data, listening to our conversations and controlling our devices. The irony that I always cover my webcam, but have a home hub in my living room has long not been lost on me.

Something else the story highlights in a rather frightening fashion is the lack of understanding of the importance of privacy and a disturbing willingness to engage with technology as if what they are sharing has no potential to go any further than their homes. Many regard the kentukis as a novelty and don’t appear to swiftly grasp that there is an actual human being controlling it, who is, in many instances, inadvertently given all of the information they need to exploit the person to which the kentuki belongs. Intimate details are shared with an ease that makes the reader flinch, from contact information to nudity, often completely bypassing any comprehension that what you share online has the potential to be shared beyond its intended audience; that when you share something, you lose control over its distribution and audience.

Little Eyes is a brilliant novel that grabs hold of you and won’t let go, haunting in its similarities to our own world and a deeply unsettling exploration of our relationship with technology and the media. It isn’t that the kentukis are a frightening concept; it’s that they’re already in our homes under different guises. Little Eyes is out on April 16th! Thank you, One World Publications, for sending me a copy!

Review: Cursed (Twenty Timeless Folk Tales)

Review: Cursed (Twenty Timeless Folk Tales)

‘ALL THE BETTER TO READ YOU WITH

It’s a prick of blood, the bite of an apple, the evil eye, a wedding ring or a pair of red shoes. Curses come in all shapes and sizes, and they can happen to anyone, not just those of us with unpopular stepparents…

Here you’ll find unique twists on curses, from fairy tale classics to brand-new hexes of the modern world – expect new monsters and mythologies as well as twists on well-loved fables. Stories to shock and stories of warning, stories of monsters and stories of magic.’

This collection of twists on folk and fairytales is an absolute joy to read. I’d intended to read one or two of the stories and save the rest… All I can say is that that didn’t happen. Fairytales and folktales are some of my favourite things, particularly because of the cultural features and inbuilt messages from the times and societies in which they were written, and I absolutely love reading new interpretations and twists on stories that may be timeless in terms of their entertainment factor, but perhaps not so morally relevant now (for example, a princess waiting around for a prince to save her is no longer a particularly positive message for young girls) and what nuances within the tale can be tweaked to make it an entirely different story with a new message. I was thrilled to see another collection of this sort from Titan, having previous read Hex Life (twists on tales of magic and witchery) and adored it.

I’m going to stick to commentary about two of my favourite stories from Cursed, the first being As Red as Blood, as White as Snow by Christina Henry. This tale is based on Snow White and subverts the expectation that the Prince is indeed charming and the stepmother is evil. In this instance, Snow’s stepmother does everything that she can to try and protect her and give her a chance to survive her impending marriage to a prince who intends to claim her by whatever means necessary, having manipulated her father by enchantment and played the court into believing his dangerous obsession is devotion. There is a whole realm of terror in the simple sentence, “I see the way he looks at me.” The Prince starts out by using her engagement ring, a ruby, something designed to be beautiful, as a means of spying on her, having the ring quite literally bite into her skin so that she cannot shake free of his monitoring, and his determination to keep her entirely under his control and to do as he wishes only grows from there. In marrying her, the Prince sees her as nothing more than his possession and is set on her being obedient to his needs, which at first seem threatening enough in its sexual nature, but soon turns to something even darker. However, if one is to interpret the tale as a metaphor, this too signals abuse of power and manipulation of women, stealing their ‘hearts’ and casting them aside, dehumanising them and taking their agency. One of the things I enjoyed most about this story was Snow and the Queen working together and clearly caring for one another in a tale that, in most retellings, is still determined to cast her stepmother as evil and not take the opportunity of having women side together and not perceive each other to be a threat.

One of the other stories that I found especially effective is a retelling of Peter Pan, entitled Wendy, Darling, by Christopher Golden. In this tale, the features of the Peter Pan story are translated into a ‘real world’ scenario, in which Wendy has what her father and medical professionals have told her are mad delusions; visions of the Lost Boys who accuse her of forgetting them and abandoning them when she should have been their mother. On the eve of her wedding, Wendy sees the Lost Boys again, who prompt her to remember what she has tried to forget and move on from, which is heavily implied to be a childhood rape by a boy named James, nicknamed ‘Hook’ for his work at the butcher’s. Reality and her visions blur together on her wedding day, when boys others can see turn up and accuse her of being a bad mother, and from there the trauma that may well have triggered her delusions is unveiled. My assumption here is that either there are tales of Wendy passed among orphaned boys, based on what was originally witnessed years ago – that Wendy, in her shame and desperation, drowned her newborn child in the Thames – or her delusions take complete command of her own reality and no-one truly sees the children. Her parents have been utterly unwilling to support her or to believe what has happened, each of them leaving her to keep her ‘secret’ with the help of her brothers, until her guilt finally overwhelms her and her visions reach a peak that has her drowning herself in the same river that she felt was her only option nearly a decade ago. Her child, Peter, is the boy who never grew up; the boy who never got a chance to. Despicable though the behaviour of Wendy’s parents may be (I honestly don’t know whether I find her mother’s denial of the whole situation or her father’s determination to ‘fix’ her and marry her off worse), it is horribly in keeping for the time period in which it is set, in which a girl’s purity and marriage prospects are held above all else. This Wendy’s story is a tragedy, her trauma willingly mistaken for ‘fanciful stories’.

Cursed is a brilliant collection, out March 6th, and one I can’t recommend enough! Thank you, Titan Books, for sending me a copy!

Review: Marram by Leonie Charlton

Review: Marram by Leonie Charlton

‘From the southern tip of Barra to the ancient stone circle of Callanish, Leonie and her friend Shuna ride off the beaten tracks on their beloved Highland ponies, Ross and Chief. In deeply poetic prose, she describes not only the beauties of the Hebridean landscape, its spare, penetrating light and its people, but also confronts the ghost of her mother and their deeply fractured relationship.’

Marram follows Charlton’s twenty-one day journey through the Outer Hebrides, a journey she undertakes with her friend Shuna and two ponies, Ross and Chief, the first of the ponies ridden by Charlton and the latter by her friend. It’s not only a reflection on the travel they undertake and the intentions behind the journey, but on her troubled relationship with her mother, her youth, and the kindness extended towards her by the people they encounter. One of the things that struck me most about the events that unfold is the welcoming nature and affection of those who aid Charlton and Shuna as they make their way through the beautiful, if sometimes unkind landscape of the Hebrides, and the generosity and willingness of these individuals to assist them whether with shelter, goods or recommendations for time well spent, and the openness of their companionship and what they share of their own lives.

The writing is beautifully and elegantly descriptive, bringing to life the wonderful sights as the journey unfolds, while never straying too far from the emotional impact that the experience has on Charlton, nor suggesting that there is only beauty to be found in what can and does become a harsh and threatening environment in its raw and lonely nature. The events of the journey are interspersed with memories of her relationship with her mother, from the last months of her mother’s life and too early passing, to moments from her youth and adolescence. These moments are not charted in chronological order because Charlton’s experience serves to highlight to all of us that grief is an unpredictable thing that is beyond our control and will not be held to logic or reason. Her attempts to apply some elements of reason and question her past self with the knowledge of what she has experienced in the time that has passed since her mother’s death is something familiar to anyone who has suffered through the loss of a loved one and struggled to come to terms with regrets and the longing for understandings that will never be uncovered. Her description of her mother’s deterioration and her wonderings about how she must have felt are some of the most poignant moments of the recounting of her journey, the experience of helplessly observing the inevitable captured in so accurate a way in words that I’ll admit I did have the put the book down a couple of times and try to put my own thoughts aside. This is not a detraction in any way, but quite the opposite: if a reader has to get some space from what they’re experiencing, then I believe an author has done nothing but the most effective of jobs of conveying the human experience.

On her journey, Charlton brings with her a purse of beads, planning to tie and leave a series of beads in different spots in memory of her mother, one of her enduring memories of her being her work with them and turning them into something beautiful. In locations where she recalls her mother particularly strongly, or believes she would have loved, she seeks to select some appropriate beads from the purse and leave them there, either to be eventually torn free by the wind and elements or simply to drift from where she has placed them, creating an ever-changing ‘necklace’ across the islands in her memory. The selecting of the beads, paying attention to their shape, colour and other features, becomes a ritual that brings the journey together and becomes another way of not only acknowledging her mother, but of letting go and taking another step towards acceptance of the past. There’s a comment early in the novel to the effect of the necklace changing shape as time and the elements impact the locations of the beads, which is something that has also struck me as particularly closely representative of how feelings, and even memories themselves, will never stay static as we go on to have further experiences.

Marram is out on March 19th and is a wonderful read that I enjoyed a great deal. Thank you very much to Sandstone Press for sending me a copy for review!