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Spoilers and Hold The Door


A few days ago, I started binge-watching season 6 of Game of Thrones. I didn’t watch the show as it was airing this year, because I was fairly certain that I never wanted to see any of it again, but some people I trust told me it was worth watching after all, so once it had all aired and no huge controversy had emerged, I sat down to watch it. And shock of shocks, I’m enjoying it a lot.

Of course, because I never planned to watch it but still feel semi-invested in what happens, I’m extremely spoiled for many major plot points. I was dreading one in particular, in episode five, The Door.

Spoilers obviously to follow!


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The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson


I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Unexpected Everything. I adored Morgan Matson’s debut, Amy & Roger’s Epic Roadtrip, but I was less keen on her next two novels, so although I couldn’t resist grabbing her newest release, I was readying myself for disappointment.

And I almost got it. About 150 pages into the book, I was close to abandoning it. The Unexpected Everything is a sprawling summer read — over 500 pages long — and nothing really hooked me in those first pages. I’d reached the halfway point of most contemporary YA, and I still hadn’t really connected with the book.

But I kept going for “just a little bit longer,” and somehow ended up reading the last 300 pages all in one go. The book took its time to get going, but once it did, I absolutely fell in love with the characters and the story.

At its heart, The Unexpected Everything is about friendship, family, and cute cute dogs. Perfectionist overachiever Andie ends up without any summer plans after her prestigious internship is revoked at the last minute, and after scrambling for another resume-filler, she stumbles into a not-so-prestigious job as a dogwalker.  This brings her to Clark, the cute, awkward and nerdy prodigy novelist struggling with writer’s block and dog-sitting for his editor for the summer. Meanwhile, Andie’s congressman father is also forced home for the summer after being caught in a scandal, making his usually non-existent presence suddenly very present indeed.

Perhaps one of the problems at the beginning of the novel is that the book juggles a lot of elements. There’s Andie’s dad, and Clark, and the dog walking, and her overachieving, and her grief for her mom… it’s enough to make a summer read 500 pages long, but it mean it’s not easy to get immersed in the novel’s world. By the time we meet Andie’s foursome of best friends, I was so busy balancing other plotpoints and characters in my brain that I didn’t have the energy left to connect with them immediately.

But once everything clicks into place, the book becomes fantastic. Once we connect with Andie’s lively friends, her own insecurities, her potential relationship with Clark, it’s an absolute page-turner. It’s a true summer book, about friendship and self-discovery, lazy days and unexpected drama. Matson has an incredibly readable writing style, and her character relationships (and character flaws) are spot on. If you want a contemporary novel that you can really snuggle down with and dig into, that will pull you into a world and give you a sizeable chunk of wonderful reading time with real-seeming characters, then this is definitely one to try.

Also, the cover is irresistibly cute.

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Criminal Empathy in Orange is the New Black


This post contains MAJOR spoilers for Season 4 of Orange is the New Black.

Well. Season Four of Orange is the New Black sure messed me up.

I managed to get through it without being spoiled for anything, but I almost wish I had known what was going to happen. Or maybe I don’t, because I don’t think I would have watched certain scenes, or the season as a whole, if I’d known what to expect. The gradually building intensity of this season literally gave me a stress headache, but the most horrifying moments still completely shocked and disturbed me, in part because I never really saw them coming.

The season left me with a lot of thoughts and a lot of questions, but right now, let’s talk about show’s obsession with empathy.

Orange is the New Black always walks a fine line between critiquing issues like racism and misogyny and perpetuating them. The show has a clear message about abuse in the prison system, focussing particularly this season on the problems caused by privatisation, and it goes out of its way to humanize every character and paint even horrific acts with shades of grey.

Sometimes, this makes for an incredibly thought-provoking (if deeply upsetting) story. But when the show potentially extends its empathy to the abusers, as it did quite extensively this season, things become tricky. Is it nuanced to consider the humanity of all of the show’s characters, or is it simply feeding into a system where victims are ignored and abusers are given more sympathy than they could ever deserve?


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Hugo Nominees 2016: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson


Seveneves is the first Hugo nominee this year to defeat me.

I got about 70% of the way through, which isn’t bad on a nearly 900-page book. But in the end, it really wasn’t for me. Too much science, not enough fiction.

About 100 pages into Seveneves, I had the thought that I’d rather read a summary of the book than the actual book, and that thought only got more true as I continued. Seveneves has some interesting characters and a really interesting premise, but it’s also full of diversions. It’s like Victor Hugo writing science fiction, putting in large explanations of waste disposal on the ISS instead of in Paris’s sewers.

If you like a lot of theory in your books, this really delivers. It takes a Big Idea — what if the moon exploded? — and follows what might happen next. Not “what does Protagonist do next?’, but what might happen, scientifically speaking, and what could humanity achieve using science as a response.

I’m not going to make any claims about the legitimacy of the science here, because I don’t know enough to judge. It feels confidently written, but it could all be confident mumbo-jumbo as far as I know. Most likely, it falls into that realm that’s good enough for most readers, but contains enough slight issues that someone with a PhD in astrophysics would go “well, actually…” until their brain exploded. The book includes a lot of detail to convince you, either way. As a fantasy reader, used to the “well it’s magic” explanation, I could happily have skipped all of it, and often did. As long as it doesn’t contradict itself, I’m perfectly fine with handwaving.

But Seveneves is the exploration of that Big Idea and the science that follows, and so in that sense, the explanations weren’t superfluous at all. It all depends on whether you want to read about What Happens After The Moon Explodes, or What This Set of Compelling Characters Does After the Moon Explodes. For the first, we need the science and the explanatory detours. For the second, they just get in the way. Unfortunately, I’m the second kind of reader.

So to me, reading Seveneves felt like being talked through a spider diagram. We start off on one solid topic, like the need to dock new ships onto the ISS. Then we step onto a more specific branch — how does docking work in space typically, for example. Then onto a narrower branch — how does it work on the space station specifically? And on and on, to more and more specific branches, until we’ve travelled really far from the story. Then the explanation is done, and we catapult back to the plot until another science fiction distraction pops up.

That said, Seveneves does have a plot. After jumping around a little in the beginning, it seems to settle onto two protagonists: Dinah, a robot-engineer doing research on ISS for a private company, who is quickly dismissed as Not Much Use once the moon explodes, and Doc Dubois, a celebrity scientist who realizes that the exploded moon will eventually bring about The End of the World. People have to figure out how to turn the ISS into a survivable habitat for humanity within two years, before everyone left standing on earth is wiped out, and these two characters are our main perspectives on the story.

But, ultimately, they’re not the protagonists of the novel. Seveneves‘s protagonist is that hypothetical concept — what if the moon exploded? — and everything else is centered around that.

As a result, the novel feels somehow disconnected and plodding for a character reader like me. The story skips around a lot, skipping important character moments I would have wanted to read to instead focus on those scientific explanations. The nail in the coffin, for me, was reaching part three, which is set 5000 years in the future. Since the idea is the protagonist, it doesn’t really matter in the novel that our previous characters are all long, long dead… but it mattered to me as a reader. Without any of the familiar characters I cared about, I lost any remaining reason to chug through the book’s meanderings. I feel like I finished the book at the end of part 2, and even that was much, much too long.

Seveneves has an often engaging writing style, some interesting characters, and moments of true tension and drama. But those things are sparsely scattered over more in-depth theoretical thought, so although this might be a great book for hard science fiction fans, it’s not one that I personally can recommend.

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Having A Bad Time: The Theory of Undertale


Last year, I wrote a post gushing about why everyone should play the indie game Undertale, which you can read here if you haven’t played the game. This post is chock-full of spoilersRead at your own risk.

Maybe I have a bit of an analysis addiction. Because although Undertale is an amazing, heartwarming, heartbreaking, thought-provoking video game that I think everyone should experience, my favorite thing about it isn’t the characters or the humor or the music or the story. It’s how darn meta it is.

Undertale is a game designed to make you think about games. It takes all our assumptions about game mechanics, about our roles as players, about how we are supposed to interact with and think about videos games, and rips them apart, forcing us to examine them in more depth.


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Hugo Nominees 2016: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin


Much of history is unwritten. Remember this.

According to the official summary, The Fifth Season is about a woman searching for her daughter in a post-apocalyptic world. Technically, that’s true. But it doesn’t really capture the essence of the book.

The Fifth Season is set in a world that faces apocalyptic geological events, called Fifth Seasons, fairly frequently. Everything in society is built around preventing a Season, if they possibly can, or else surviving one if it comes along. The world also has magic users, called Orogenes, who are feared and hated for their ability to control the forces of the earth — or to kill people, if they use their power untrained. They work to prevent earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other potentially Season-causing catastrophes, but society despises them none-the-less.

The novel has three orogene protagonists. There’s a young girl, Damaya, whose parents just discovered she is an orogene. There’s a young woman, Syenite, who is trying to climb to the top of the orogene ranks and has just been sent on a seemingly run-of-the-mill mission with her new mentor. And there’s Essen, a middle-aged woman living in hiding whose husband just murdered her son and kidnapped her daughter after realizing that they were orogenes.


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Watching It Burn: Eliza Hamilton and Narrative


Like most of the internet, I’m currently completely obsessed with Hamilton. And since I’m a sucker for meta about narrative and perspective… let’s talk about Eliza, shall we?

Eliza’s story is preoccupied with her place in the musical’s narrative. As the story progresses, she moves from asking Alexander to “let [her] be a part of the narrative” of his life, to erasing herself from the narrative after his betrayal, to finally creating the narrative herself after his death.

You can see how Eliza’s story in the musical grew directly from the fact that there isn’t much left of her story in real life. Women are often left out of historical accounts, leaving us to scrape together the tiniest pieces of evidence to guess at their feelings and actions. None of Eliza’s letters to Alexander survive, even though she worked hard to ensure that Alexander’s correspondence, including his letters to her, were preserved. She left her own feelings out of the narrative of Alexander’s life, even though she was its main curator. So what is a musical to do when representing her?


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Hugo Nominees 2016: Uprooted by Naomi Novak


On the back of my copy of Naomi Novak’s Uprooted, author Maggie Stiefvater says that it “feels as if it has always existed and has been waiting patiently for me to return to it.” I couldn’t think of a better way to describe this enchanting novel about fairy tale magic. Uprooted is a spellbinding novel, and even on the first read, it feels like a familiar story that you’re finally coming home to.

The plot is slightly difficult to describe, but the tone is perhaps summed up by the first line: “our dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.”Agnieszka’s valley is ruled by the Dragon, a mysterious sorcerer who lives in his tower and emerges once every ten years to choose a girl to work for him. The girls come back changed — seemingly fine, but unable to return to live in the valley for long — and the villagers decide it’s a small price to pay for the Dragon’s protection against the evil Wood that lurks nearby. Everyone in the valley knows that Agnieszka’s best friend, Kasia, is going to be the girl chosen this year. But when the untidy, disorganized Agnieszka show a hint of magical power, she is chosen instead.

Uprooted invokes a lot of dark fairy tale tropes — the evil Wood, enchantment in food and water, the maiden whisked away to the tower — with a writing style that gentle echoes the feel of a fairy tale while adding more character and emotion and depth to the style. It’s incredibly readable, and I found myself tearing through the pages. I couldn’t read it fast enough.

Agnieszka is an interesting character, but the real protagonist is the valley, with the Wood as its antagonist. The Wood is a living, breathing evil entity, waging war against the kingdom, desperate to grow and corrupt until nothing good is left. In a sense, Agnieszka is an extension of the valley, the force fighting against the Wood, and her magic is deeply rooted in her home and in the natural world around her. She does have a dose of “special snowflakeness,” in that her magic is uniquely powerful and works differently from absolutely everyone else’s. This is explained somewhat by her connection to the valley and a potential link to an old mythical witch called Jaga, but it’s not really explored in depth, which might frustrate some people. She’s just Special, because she’s the Valley, and we have to accept that.

The friendship between Agnieszka and Kasia drives a lot of the plot, and is one of the book’s greatest strengths, outside its world building. Both Agnieszka and Kasia are fully realized people, and there is so much nuance in the loving relationship between them. Kasia has spent her life knowing she’s going to be chosen by the Dragon, and Agnieszka has spent her life knowing she’s going to lose her best friend. Agnieszka’s selection allows the novel to explore the resentment that lingers under the surface of these assumptions, how Kasia knows Agnieszka was always glad it would be her best friend and not herself, how Agnieszka feels both resentment and relief at not being the Special One. The two characters’ love for one another plays a huge role in the story, and that love is giving a compelling amount of depth and shade.

The Dragon, meanwhile, is a familiar trope. Whether that’s fun or tired will depend on the reader, I think. He’s the grumpy, rude, distant sorcerer whose heart will eventually soften toward Agnieszka, but not enough to actually be nice to her. He’s grouchy and closed off, he never explains himself, and his way is always the right way. And lets not forget the kidnap thing, which he never even considers could be upsetting for the girls until Agnieszka points it out to him. The romance between the Dragon and Agnieszka feels as inevitable as it is unnecessary, and although its rooted in magic in an interesting way, it’s exasperating that a novel that’s so inventive in other ways trips into that familiar trap of “older guy who is a jerk mentor and young girl who falls for him even though he’s never ever nice to her.” SPOILERS (highlight to read): At the end of the novel, Agnieszka seems to step away from the Dragon, going to live in the Woods to help end its corruption, and I was so delighted by this. She had the cliche romance with the Dragon, but in the end, he wasn’t going to change and become any less closed off, and she had her own story and her own life to live. Except, of course, that’s not the ending at all. He returns on the last page, she takes his hand, and that is that. Disappointing, I thought, when it could have been so much more original.

The structure of the novel also feels slightly off. The plot goes off in a lot of different directions, and although you can look back at it and see how Agnieszka’s story led her from A to B, it seems to take a lot of detours that don’t feel cohesive to the story. Agnieszka is trying to befriend people at court! Agnieszka is modifying a prince’s memory, which is mentioned as dangerous multiple times but never really comes into play again! The novel also shrugs off its fairy-tale feel for a good chunk of the story, turning to a more battle and human focussed plot, which I found quite confusing. Eventually, this all becomes clear, but I had a lot of questions in the middle there, and that uncertainty didn’t seem to be deliberate. But when Uprooted focusses on the magic of the Wood, it is phenomenal. Gripping and nuanced, original and yet familiar.

Uprooted certainly isn’t a perfect novel, but it is a very good novel, and definitely worth a read. I’m not sure if it’ll be top of my Hugo ballot, but it’s definitely worthy of consideration.

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Captain America: Civil War


Captain America: Civil War was probably my most anticipated Marvel movie ever.

I mean, that’s not a particularly difficult title to achieve. I only finally saw Guardians of the Galaxy about six months ago, enjoyed Ant Man more than most of their movies, and still haven’t seen the first Captain America, despite watching Agent Carter. But The Winter Soldier was fantastic — when I finally watched it, a year after everyone else — and I couldn’t wait for the clever plotting and high emotional stakes that Civil War promised to provide.

So, does it live up to all that hype and potential? The rest of the world seemed to think so, judging from its score on Rotten Tomatoes, but my response was far more muted. Not “omg best movie ever,” but that solid, “yeah, it was good” feeling you get when you don’t regret seeing a movie, but aren’t exactly going to be thinking about it much once you leave the theatre.

Which is a solid result for a superhero movie, but perhaps not what the movie wanted to be. Unfortunately, Civil War is never quite as philosophically interesting as it aspires to be.


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Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood


loved Jessica Spotswood’s historical fantasy series, the Cahill Witch Chronicles, so when I heard that she was releasing her first contemporary, I was desperate to read it, even before I had any idea what it was about.

In Wild Swans, Ivy Milbourne struggles with a family legacy of great talent and great tragedy. Her great great grandmother was a famous portrait painter, but killed herself and two of her daughters when she drove her car in front of a train. Her great grandmother was a Pulitzer prize winning poet, until she was murdered. Her grandmother was a famous artist, until she drowned herself in the bay. Her mother was a talented singer, at least until she ran away when Ivy was a baby. And Ivy… Ivy doesn’t know what she is. She wants to live up to her family legacy, but she’s never discovered any particular talent, and she has no idea what she wants to do with her life.

Wild Swans is a quick read (I devoured it in less than a day), but it’s not a beach read. Two big story threads intersect in the novel. The first is Ivy’s struggle to live up to her grandfather’s expectations, the promise of her family’s legacy, and her struggles with being, as she claims, mediocre. The other involves her mother, who returns to live with Ivy and her grandfather after being out of contact for fifteen years, bringing two younger daughters with her.

Despite that second dramatic set-up, this is mostly a low-key book: family drama in a small town where everyone knows your business, and a rising high-school senior who feels she’ll never live up to expectations. And it’s beautifully written. Sweet and compelling, with emotion that feels real. I noticed sentences because they hit me in the heart, not because I was thinking, “wow, the author really worked hard on that sentence.” After reading a whole bunch of artsy, overwritten YA novels, more concerned with authorial voice than engaging the reader, Wild Swans is like a breath of fresh air. Effortlessly magical.

If I had one complaint about the book, it would be that the mother character felt a little one-dimensional until near the end. She’s incredibly unlikeable, cruel and destructive, and although that’s a valid character choice, there was part of me wanting to see a sympathetic side to her. It shows up eventually, but it’s complicated, and I never felt like I fully understood her perspective.

Another element that might be good or bad, depending on your taste, is that Wild Swans feels like a slice from the character’s lives over a set period of time. They lived their lives before the book began, and they continue afterward. I found the ending satisfying, but it’s not a neat ending, where everything feels tied up or resolved. The characters’ lives continue after the book closes, and many elements of that future remain uncertain. Personally, I liked this about the novel, but I can imagine that others might find it unsatisfying.

But either way, Wild Swans is a fantastic book. Great characters, great writing, and incredibly readable. It’s lowkey, and it’s wonderful. Definitely recommended!

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