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5 Fantasy Series with Brilliant Female Characters to Read While You Wait for the Next ‘Game of Thrones’

5 Fantasy Series with Brilliant Female Characters to Read While You Wait for the Next ‘Game of Thrones’

After 10 episodes of laughter, tears, screaming at the TV and one memorable too-close-for-comfort shot of the male member, Game of Thrones is over for another year. *Sob*

With the release date for The Winds of Winter still not set and the best part of a year until the next GoT series comes out, it is time to satisfy those fantasy cravings with other novels.

“But where can I find epic fantasy novels with kick-arse female characters? Isn’t traditional fantasy all about orcs running about with axes and groups of sweaty blokes fighting their way through NZ?”

Read the rest of this entry »

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{Review} The Spectacular Group Suicide – Arto Paasilinna

As read for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge

I found this review very difficult to write. Not because the writing was bad or because the plot had more holes than my knitting (I keep dropping stitches).

In fact it was quite the reverse.

From my soapbox: first things first, I don’t find the subject of mental illness funny. After even a short period of depression, it can be almost impossible to just get up and get back on with life. What I do believe is that humour is one of the best methods to break down boundaries and get people talking in earnest about taboo subjects.


Blurb
“Contemplating suicide? Don’t worry, you are not alone!”

Thus begins the attempt of two men, who feel they have nothing to live for, to found a group for other suicidal people so that they don’t have to die alone.

After attracting more members than they had believed possible, the group sits down to discuss how to go about the business of dying. Their suicide attempts become ever more desperate as they travel across Europe, trying to find the perfect place to die. At almost every turn the group is foiled… by itself.

With each attempt, the Spectacular Group Suicide members explore their own and each others’ reasons for wanting to end their lives. For the first time in months (and years, in some cases), they start to talk about what they are going through.

Paasilinna takes on one of the most difficult subjects to come to terms with. Using bleak humour, shocking (but sadly true) statistics and a surprising level of sensitivity, he tackles Finland’s greatest killer.

Review
Feel free to flame me for saying this, but I felt that The Spectacular Group Suicide was a little like some of Chekhov’s work in terms of the plot’s tragicomic element. Within the first few pages, two of the main characters meet because they’re both looking for a quiet place to commit suicide.

The plot picked up momentum which was sustained for the first third of the novel. As the road-trip/ self-discovery elements started to set in, I felt that the novel started to sag a little. The pace picked up again near the end, but didn’t feel as smooth-flowing as it had done at the start.

There are facts and figures that I couldn’t believe, even after I had verified them. The factual elements are a slap in the face and strengthen (what I believe is) the underlying message that this is an issue that should be discussed publicly.

Whilst the main issue is suicide (and its causes), Paasilinna subtly weaves in a couple of other taboo subjects, such as HIV. This was skilfully done as this allows him to create a few more multi-faceted characters (something that can be hard to find in books about social issues *coughDickenscough*) who were as quick to condemn as they were to open their hearts to others like themselves.

Some elements devolved to the farcical, which did detract from the story. So as not to drop massive spoilers, I’m just going to write: fisticuffs with fascists and leave it at that.

The other element that left me somewhat disgruntled was Paasilinna’s portrayal of almost all people who seriously consider suicide as being able to find things worth living for after a few weeks of talking to others about how they feel. Research does indicate that people who can talk about how they feel can stabilise after months of therapy. The thing is that this ‘rule’ does not work in every case. The generalisation made the ending slightly less believable and could lead to misconceptions.


Overall
Whilst it’s easy to find books that deal with death, it’s much harder to find novels that explore suicide and attempted suicide without stigmatizing these people. Paasilinna has a done a wonderful job, taking a taboo subject and some facts and creating a story that gives hope to anyone who wants to start a discussion about this subject.

Whilst I have several disagreements with generalisation and a plot that doesn’t always flow, I truly believe that this book should be read by more adults so as to decrease the taboo nature of this subject.

After all, the main message of The Spectacular Group Suicide is that a little communication and understanding can go a long way in helping the most vulnerable around us.

 
WNI’s verdict: Wavering towards… WIN!

 

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{Summary} Cultural Buffet Challenge – Week One

First of all, I’d like to say thanks to Synthesist Chronicles and The Lupine Librarian for their recommendations. 🙂

Notes
This week has been quite exciting: after months of studying and revising, I can sit in the shade with a big bottle of water and a croissant and read for as long as I want. I can take as much time as I like to read the same paragraph or poem several times and I can get as carried away with making notes as I like without being crippled by guilt for not sticking to my daily schedule.

The only downside is that my mind’s whirling with so many concepts and ideas that every time I sit down to write a review, I only manage up to type a hundred words or so before my eyes stray back to a book or a film or my Polish vocabulary book.

So, I’ll start putting reviews up for the asterisked books in the next few days.

If you’d like me to review a particular book or film on the list, just ask. 🙂

Books Read This Week
1) The Prince – Machiavelli *
2) The Age of Innocence – Wharton *
3) The Spectacular Group Suicide – Paasilinna *
4) Sonietchka – Ulitskaya
5) Broadmoor Revealed: Victorian Crime and the Lunatic Asylum – Stevens
6) The Character of Rain – Nothomb *
7) The Gourmand – Barbery *
8) Travels Around Kazakhstan: After the fall of the Soviet Union – Deonna *
9) The Spellman Files – Lutz
10) Water for Elephants – Gruen
11) Italian Shoes – Mankell (re-read)

Films/ Series Seen
1) Dark Shadows
2) Things to Do Before You’re 30
3) The Bridge (series)
4) Medieval Lives (series) *

And I’ve completed the first CD of the Michel Thomas Polish course, so all in all, it’s been a rather good week. 🙂

 

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{Review} The Spellman Files – Lisa Lutz

You know when you read a (technically) brilliant book that ticks all the boxes but just doesn’t quite have you hooked? That’s basically how I felt about this one.

Plot
As the middle child in a family of Private Investigators who live for their work, Isabel Spellman has never had a ‘normal’ life. From the age of twelve, she and her absolutely perfect elder brother, David have been employed by their parents to complete covert assignments. The family’s work ethic is such that they even bring their work home; spying on each other with skill that News of the World would envy.

Isabel thinks nothing of this until her parents send her younger sister, Rae to find out all she can about her new boyfriend, almost destroying the relationship in the process. Furious and heart-broken, Isabel tries to leave the family business but she needs references. Her parents promise her these if she will complete one final assignment: a cold case that is fifteen years old. Little do she and her family know that this case will be the most important they have ever dealt with before.


Review

One of the strongest points in this book was the humour. From the opening scene it hits you when you least expect it and is wonderfully quirky. Lutz’s characters are equally eccentric and sometimes interesting, especially Uncle Ray, the ex-business partner of Mr. Spellman who was shocked out of his healthy lifestyle by cancer and now vanishes on ‘Lost Weekends’ with a credit card and a bottle of bourbon.

On the downside, several of these characters felt two-dimensional, especially Rae who is supposed to be the person who holds the family together. As this undermined one of the main plot-lines, it was rather disappointing. Although that being said, had Rae been more ‘normal’, several rather entertaining parts of the novel would never have happened.

For the last six percent of the book, I was engrossed in the (final) story(-line) that was introduced and it was worth the ride. I just wish it had followed a more linear format to get there.

Overall
A fast-paced and sometimes entertaining tale of a family of PIs. Sadly the characters sometimes felt over-blown and cartoonish and the story leapt from one point to the other a little too tangentially for me to settle into it.

WNI’s verdict? Wavering…

 
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Posted by on May 24, 2012 in Support your Library

 

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{Review} Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca has haunted me since I was 16, which is the first time I saw the title. It was on the list of “100 books you must read before you finish sixth-form”. For some reason I never managed to get round to reading it. I think it was because I committed the cardinal sin of judging the book by its title and deciding that it was early 20th century chick-lit and, as such, something I could get around to reading later. (Later being when I had grey hair and needed a walking stick).

Years passed and friends mentioned it more and more frequently at dinner parties or in passing. I smiled, nodded and moved the conversation on to another topic as politely as possible. Then today I saw it in the English book section of the local library and thought that I’d ease myself into my (still un-named) forthcoming reading challenge with an English classic.

Blurb
A shy, self-conscious and socially awkward young woman of 21 marries a recently widowed Mr. de Winter, whom she has known for under a month. Upon their arrival at his family home, Manderley, she is still treated as the impoverished lower-class citizen that she was before she met her husband.

It quickly becomes apparent that she can never truly become mistress of the house for as long as Rebecca, her husband’s first wife is remembered. But can the ghost of her predecessor ever be exorcised when Rebecca’s name seems intertwined with Manderley? And why is her husband so keen to avoid every mention of the first Mrs. De Winter?

Review
This book really is ‘a classic’: it embraces elements from different genres without being sucked into any one in particular. It is the story of a young woman having to fit into a new world and struggling to become the mistress of a great house. It is a gothic-tinged tale of secrets and ghosts of whispers that echo around Manderley and the first Mrs. de Winter. Each of these threads weave together to makes the story a richer experience.

The character of Rebecca was introduced beautifully and gradually took over the tale even though she never appeared in it. We only ever see her through hastily snatched conversations with people who were in awe of her. I didn’t just recognise the second Mrs. de Winter’s desperation to discover what sort of person Rebecca was; I too became equally desperate to understand what made her such a notable woman in others’ eyes.

The other character I really who never got to speak for themselves but influenced the story was Manderley. It may sound clichéd, but that estate spoke volumes about its past mistress. It is portrayed as a husk now that Rebecca, the heart that made it so full of life, is gone. Du Maurier leads the reader straight into what feels like a shrine to Rebecca and awes them with its stillness and secrets.

The one point that really got my goat and stops the book from being an all-out win (in my eyes) is Mr. de Winter’s treatment of his second wife. He calls her an ‘ignorant… little fool’ on numerous occasions and treats her as a child for the majority of the story. I’m pretty certain (slight spoiler) that his suggestion that she dress as Alice in Wonderland for the costume ball (/end slight spoiler) emphasises the ‘young girl who’s fallen down the metaphorical rabbit hole and is wondering where she is’ aspect that lingers unpleasantly in the middle third of the book.

Overall
Rebecca is the sort of book that keeps you on your toes throughout and rewards you with stunning revelations at the end. It also reminds me of To the Lighthouse and Jane Eyre at times, so if you liked either (or both) of these books then you may like this one too.

WNI’s Verdict? Wavering towards… WIN!

 

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{Review} Burning Sierra – Pierre Pelot (aka. trawling the library for more cool books)

I haven’t read a ‘Cowboys and Indians’ story since I was nine: one of my best friends was obsessed with The Indian in the Cupboard series. Then, two weeks ago I found a book in the library with the intriguing title ‘Sierra Brulante’ [Burning Sierra]. It was published locally and so I thought I’d support a local author by reading his work.

It also ties in nicely with the We Want YOU (to read French books) challenge


Blurb
Mr. Walker, the most powerful man in a small, New Mexican town is found dead by his son. Three Native Americans, a man, wife and their son have run away, taking two of his horses. Suspicion quickly falls on them and Mr Walker Junior tries and pronounces them guilty in their absence. His hatred of them seems to go beyond a quest for justice. He calls upon all the able-bodied men in town to help to find and kill the supposed murderer but few want to participate in the search. Mr Walker Sr. seems not to be missed by the other townsfolk…

Dylan Stark is passing through the town from Arkansas on the way to settle out in California. Tempted by the thousand dollar bounty that Walker has placed on the head of the male runaway, he quickly heads out into the desert in the hope of catching him. Or so he tells the other bounty hunters.

Will Dylan Stark kill a man who may be innocent or will real justice be carried out?


Review
For the age group that it’s targeted at, it’s a good read. It deals with issues such as racism, segregation and loyalty very well. The main villain, Mr. Walker is sadistic and thoroughly bad with no redeeming qualities and the hero, Dylan Stark does oscillate from a bit flat to mildly tortured about his (mixed-race) heritage. That is not to say that the characters are badly written; they’re OK but they aren’t ground-breakingly different from other good or bad guys in the genre. Most of the other characters are more nuanced, especially Stark’s side-kick.

The style is another strong point: when Pelot writes about the burning sun and walking over torturous dust that burns the feet, you feel every detail that he describes as you walk through the desert with the characters. When he writes about racial issues, you squirm.

Overall
Sierra Brulante is a good novel for younger readers, especially those who enjoy reading about the USA ‘back in the day’. Whilst I’m not crazily in love with it, I’m interested enough to want to read the next two books in the series.

Wild Night In’s Verdict? Wavering towards WIN!

 

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{Essay} Geisha by Liza Dalby (Reading, Berkshire: Vintage 2000, 1998, pp 357)

Български: Традиционно облекло и прическа на г...

Български: Традиционно облекло и прическа на гейшата Deutsch: Typische Nacken-Schminke English: 2 Maiko (apprentice Geisha) conversing near the Golden Temple in Kyoto, Japan. Parts of the kimono and the special make-up are clearly visible. Français : Deux maiko arborant le kimono, la coiffure et le maquillage traditionnels. Türkçe: Tipik ense makyajı Русский: Традиционная косметика и причёска гейши (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dalby’s Geisha is referred to by her as ‘an interpretive ethnography’[1] in which she has two main aims. Firstly, to make the geisha world understandable to people from different cultures not merely by describing the customs of this group, but by explaining the cultural meaning and significance of events and objects that, if taken out of context, or out of order in this book can appear at first sight to be unrelated to the group, such as the Buddhist festival of Bon (the Feast of Lanterns).

 Her second aim is to answer the question of what it means to be a geisha in contemporary Japan by using her own knowledge, experience and observations. It is the second of these two goals that makes the book have particular significance in this field of study: Dalby is frequently referred to as ‘the only foreigner to have become an actual geisha’[2][3] as one Geisha community whom she was studying encouraged her to join them for a year so that she could experience life from an insider’s perspective as opposed to that of an external observer. Furthermore, as a result of living in Japan for several of her teenage years, Dalby was bilingual in Japanese, which allowed her to interact fully with all people she encountered whilst a geisha. This has resulted in the greater part of Geisha being written in the first person. Dalby tells the reader from the start that they ‘will not be permitted to forget that his understanding is being shaped by Ichigiku [the geisha name she took on joining the geisha world]’[4]. It is arguably this unique perspective that makes this work so important as Dalby has gained an understanding of geisha which she has been able to link to Japanese culture without exoticising either, a trap that other authors often fall in to.[5]

 

Although Dalby’s specialization in Anthropology had been cross-cultural studies, Geisha revolves around geisha within Japan with no attempt made to compare it to similar groups from any other culture, although Dalby names several that share similarities as her main goal was to ‘explain the cultural meaning’ of all that she encountered in the geisha world. She often makes a point of explaining the differences between geishas’ behaviour and customs not only compared to those of Japanese non-geishas, but also between geisha from different geisha communities. In order to do this, Dalby leads the reader straight into an eight-chapter section (the first of three-such sections) on relations; those of the geisha community as a whole before dwelling on those between the people from the teahouse she worked in as a geisha. Dalby then goes on to explain the history of geisha from the sixteenth century until the time she was in Kyoto as a geisha. She also mentions several traditions, such as mizu-age[6] that have shaped geisha history and tradition.

 

The second section deals with differences between geisha from different communities as well as discussing what Dalby claims is the main factor that unites all women who choose to become geisha both at the time of writing and historically: ‘an inclination towards the arts’[7] and to what extent the training and emphasis on each geisha’s ‘gei’, literally ‘art’[8], but in this case taken to mean the branch of artistic study they chose to perfect as it is that that makes up ‘the walls of their world’.[9] The final section is much shorter and deals in much more detail with ‘gei’, kimono etiquette and the place of geisha in contemporaryJapan.

 

The layout of the book and use of the first person and anecdotes, combined with facts and insights into the cultural mind-frame make the book more and more readable as one goes along. Whilst the history of how geisha came to have their current role in Japanese society is essential, the sheer volume of information combined with understanding the geishas’ mentality, particularly in the first section can feel overwhelming at times. Dalby has included a lot of illustrations in the form of maps, photographs and wood-block prints that are related to each section of Geisha, which are interesting and informative. She has also included pie-charts to illustrate some of the findings from her own research, which, coupled with quotes from some of the responses to her questionnaires, shows where her research was limited or her earlier conclusions had been proven wrong and in what way they were.

 

For the most part, Dalby chose not to hypothesise on the behaviour of geisha and their world, and instead to draw conclusions from her observations and experiences. As a result, the book feels much more fluidly written than it would probably have been, had it been based on a particular question, as opposed to illustrating the ‘flower and willow world’, or ‘karyukai’ as it is called in Japan and trying to understand what it means to be a geisha. Each section leads on to another and illustrates not only this world, but also contextualises it within Japanese society, for example the section on the position of Japanese wives in Japanese society.

 

One of Dalby’s conclusions (from the 1970’s) was that geisha were going to continue to exist into the 21st century as they are a part of Japanese tradition, even though their numbers would inevitably decline. This is true as there are 700 or so geisha inJapan. Dalby writes convincingly and authoritatively on the subject

 

In conclusion, Geisha is an important addition to ethnographical texts about geishas as it understands their place in Japanese society and their culture fully and is able to explain these behavioural patterns and beliefs succinctly, making them clear to the reader. As a geisha, she experienced their world in a way that few observers could hope to and has been able to note fascinating incidents and conversations that would be nigh-on impossible for someone who did not participate in this world to. It seems that had it not been for Dalby’s ‘deepening involvement in the geisha world’[10] and her American upbringing, she would not have been able to understand or explain so thoroughly her observations to the Western reader.

 

Word count: 1,028

 

Bibliography
Primary Text

Geisha, Liza Dalby,Reading,Berkshire: Vintage 2000, 1998, pp 357

 

Secondary Texts

 Geisha: The life, the voices, the art, Jodi Cobb, Knopf:United States, 1995, pp 115

 The Gei of Geisha: Music, Identity and Meaning, Kelly Foreman, Ashgate: SOAS Musicology, 2008 pp 158

 


[1] P. xvi

[2] Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha, who has rekindled Western interest in geisha by writing about their world in such detail and with such understanding. Dalby acted as a consultant for both the novel and the film of Memoirs of a Geisha, although she felt that they ignored most of her advice.

[3] Fiona Graham, fromAustralia has also completed geisha training; however her frequent disputes with other geisha from the community she works in has cast some doubt as to whether she has done this training in order to promote her own ethnographical research.

[4] P. xvii

[5] Jodi Cobb’s Geisha: The life, the voices treats geisha very much as a throw-back to previous centuries and misunderstands the place of older geisha, placing an emphasis on the desirability of younger geisha. According to Dalby and to men who frequent tea-houses a good geisha is one with wit and character, something that younger ones are still working on building (as a result, this makes them less desirable as older ones).

[6] The sexual initiation that was needed for a woman to become a geisha after years of being an apprentice or ‘maiko’

[7] P.223

[8] From which the term ‘gei-sha’ is said to be derived

[9] P. 222

[10] P.199

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2012 in 12 in 12, Books, Support your Library

 

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