Guest post: Zoe Marriott on her passion for Japanese culture



This post is part of the Japanese Fiction Week, hosted here.
For more information about the week, head over here.

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Today I am thrilled to welcome Zoe Marriott, author of the fantastic Shadows On the Moon, to Portrait of a Woman. She will be talking to us about her passion for Japanese culture and her favourite books.


I'm really not an expert on Japan. People think that I am because I wrote Shadows on the Moon, which is set in a faerytale version of Feudal Japan. I've been praised for the amount of historical detail included, and sometimes people assume I must have visited Japan many times. But the fact is that I've never been there even once, although it's my life's ambition to, one day. And I've barely scratched the surface of this fascinating culture. 



I actually kind of like it that way. It means I've got so much more to learn, and that's the best way to feel about anything you love the way I love Japan. Because I really do. If Japan were a person and not a country, I would totally be it's stalker (also, wouldn't he or she be *gorgeous*?). Japan's many years of conscious and careful isolation up to the nineteenth century have resulted in a wealth of music, art, folklore, shared images and dreams and history which literally have no counterpart in any other country. In Europe and the Americas, in Russia, even in the middle east, it's possible to trace a mythological figure from nation to nation, transforming as he goes, or find a hundred different versions of the same story. Even China shares some of this. All that stops when you hit Japan. The fairytales and under-the-bed monsters, the turns of phrase that the Japanese people take for granted are utterly new and alien and all the more breathtakingly lovely and terrifying for that! 



The only other country I can think of with this kind of unexplored culture is Australia. But the aboriginal peoples of Australia were slaughtered and oppressed by white settlers who tried their best to stamp out the history of the land they had taken by force. The surviving indigenous people resent appropriation fiercely (for good reason, since they are trying so hard to recover and conserve that culture themselves!). The Japanese, on the other hand, still have a dominant and evolving cultural identity within their own nation. This allows them to appropriate freely from the rest of the world in their own media, and so it seems fair to borrow a little of their culture in return, even as an outsider. 


The obsession started young for me. Really young. So young that I can't tell you how old I was, only that I was small enough to sit cross legged in front of the television set and not get yelled at because my head was in the way. It was a Sunday afternoon and I'm pretty sure it was raining, but that's pretty much the only stuff I can remember about that day because every other braincell I have is taken up with the glorious, amazing, life-changing thing I saw. Hayao Miyazaki's animated film Laputa - now known as Castle in the Sky.

It's the story of a little orphan girl who is abducted by ruthless and ambitious men who intend to force her to reveal the secrets of her ancestor's power - the power to command a mythical floating city filled with unimaginable treasures and weapons of unbelievable power. There's a sweet, innocent love story, and sky pirates, and a moment when this tiny, round faced child stands resolute before a man who shoots off both her braids because she refuses to give up her secret to someone who will abuse it.

I'm pretty sure I never recovered. I mean, Disney was all very well (and you'll have to pry my copies of Beauty and the Beast and Tangled out of my cold dead hands) but COME ON. I'd never seen anything like Laputa in my life before. Beautiful, funny, disturbing, tragic, terrifying, unique and bittersweet, it exposed me to emotions and images that stayed with me for life. The girl flinging herself from the plane in desperation. The pendant glowing with a beautiful and sinister glow and her featherlike floating process through the sky, peaceful and serene. The glowing crystals in the underground caverns. The strangely lovely and mournful robots and their bird-like mechanical voices. The great city fallen to ruins, all covered in giant trees the size of skyscrapers and thick, jewel-like moss. When my brother tracked down a copy of this on DVD for me for Christmas one year (back before it was widely released in the English speaking world) I cried all over him. Not the reception he was probably going for. But it meant that much to me.


I think I've spent the last twenty-odd years of my life searching to recapture that feeling - the feeling of diving headfirst into a magical and unexplored country - again. Once I figured out who'd made Laputa I tracked down every other film he'd ever made and devoured them. Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Nausicaa, My Neighbour Totoro, The Cat Returns. And when I ran out of Hayao Miyazaki I moved onto Paprika and Millenium Actress by Satoshi Kon. All these are a great place to start exploring this powerful artform and beginning to gain an inkling of how fascinating Japanese culture is.


But all these are, to a greater or lesser extent, fantasy. You can pick up a lot from fantasy, but let's say you'd like to start with something a little down to earth. How about trying one of of my ultimate all-time favourite mangas? The Flower of Life by Fumi Yoshinaga. Readily available in English, it's a four volume 'slice of life' series about a diverse group of friends and acquaintances (and their teachers) in the first years at Japanese high school. It's a poignant, touching, hilarious and wonderful portrait of how it feels to be young, with the constant rush to grow up doing battle with a nostalgia for fragile innocence which is inevitably slipping away. It's also beautifully drawn, and a great introduction to manga conventions, like reading from right to left.

Or perhaps you're in the mood for a romance - with a paranormal twist? How about Fruits Basket? It's a long running (now complete) series about a family who bear an ancient curse: they turn into animals from the Chinese zodiac when someone of the opposite sex hugs them. The story follows the misadventures of a young girl who gets mixed up with them by chance, grows to love several of them in different ways, and tries to help them overcome the curse. It starts out cute and fluffy and gets gradually darker, and is like a masterclass in subtle characterisation, presenting easy stereotypes to the reader and slowly peeling back the layers to reveal the contradictory, complex, real person beneath. Don't watch the anime though; it cuts off with a nonsensical ending nothing like the manga and left me very frustrated. 

Not keen on paranormal? Then how about just plain old hilarious? Ouran High School Host Club (again, a long running series that is now complete) is probably one of the the best mangas I've ever read. It freely mocks and subverts normal shojo (that's girl's manga) tropes while at the same time squeezing laughs out of them. Haruhi - a poor, out of place, genius scholarship student at a prestigious school full of the superrich - stumbles into the middle of a group of bored, privileged kids who run a 'host' club to amuse themselves. The tables turn constantly. One minute Haruhi is beliguered and bullied by the rich kids, the next they're scrambling to impress Haruhi. The anime for this is also superb, though it cuts off waaaay before the manga finished, so be prepared.


For shounen - that's 'boy's manga' - my recommendation is Bleach (which is also a very decent anime, if you skip the filler arcs where they were waiting for the manga to catch up and just shoved any old nonsense in there). It's a great, action-packed manga about Shinigami, Japanese soul reapers, and a young human boy who ends up accidentally taking on some of their powers and - well - kicking monster ass with a huge-ass sword. Can you ask for more? Neither the manga or the anime are complete though. I'm personally freaking the heck out over current developments, so be warned.

Now for a few recommendations in one of my favourite manga and anime categories. Yaoi. That's gay romance featuring blokes. Hyouta Fujiyama is a brilliant mangaka in this field - her books are sweet, funny and feature some of my favourite art. Spell, Lover's Flat, Freefall Romance and Ordinary Crushvols. 1 and 2 are a good place to start, if you can get them. Fumi Yoshinaga, the author of The Flower of Life, that I mentioned above, also dabbles in this field. She wrote Moon and Sandals vols. 1 and 2 and The First Class is Civil Law vols. 1 and 2, brilliant works about learning to accept other people for what they are, if you wish to be loved the same way in return. Lily Hoshino is another mangaka whose art is breathtaking. I love My Flower Bride, My Flower Groom and Love Quest. Another favourite is Little Butterfly, by Hinako Takanaga, which is three volumes, but available in an omnibus edition - a truly epic, and yet completely down to earth story of the transformations caused by true love. For anime in this field? If you can find a copy of Winter Cicada - the story of two young Samurai on opposite sides in the Japanese civil war, who fall in love - you're in for a treat, although you should have tissues handy. LOTS of tissues.

Some of these are available on Amazon or even in your local bookshop. For others you might need to go to specialist manga and anime sellers, or buy secondhand. But I promise that you will be well rewarded! Exploring Japanese culture is a journey which I don't think I'll ever come to the end of, and the more people who are travelling with me, the more fun it will be.

Zxx

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Thanks Zoe for this post! I now have quite a few books (and anime) to track down on Amazon!


You can stalk Zoe:

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit - Nahoko Uehashi | Japanese Fiction Week



This post is part of the Japanese Fiction Week, hosted here.
For more information about the week, head over here.

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Moribito is a best-selling fantasy series which has been adapted on screen, in manga form and on the radio. It is composed of twelve volumes but this review will only be about the first novel. The author, Nahoko Uehashi, is also teaching ethonology at a Japanese University.

Balsa is a spear woman and wandering warrior who tries to save people to atone for past mistakes. When she saves the life of Chagum, the Second Prince, she finds herself in the middle of old traditions and politics which will change her life. When it is suspected that the young prince's body is inhabited by a demon, the king sets to kill him. But Chagum's mother thwarts his plans by hiring Balsa to take Chagum far away from the palace and protect him. Because the knowledge has been lost in time, Chagum is falsely accused of having a demon in him. He was actually chosen to be the egg-bearer of a long forgotten god, in a journey which happens every hundred years. Chagum and Balsa have to face two deadly enemies: a mythical creature and the king's hunters.

Moribito is a lovely fantasy story which brings together fascinating characters and traditional myths. Balsa is a strong and impressive woman who was trained to be a warrior. She has an incomparable strength and set of skills which make her a deadly enemy. In a patriarchal society, she is different from most of the other women but she is highly respected. Torogai, an old woman who knows how to work magic, is also a strong female character and is stronger than several warriors. She also has a hilarious personality which helps diffuse the tension at times. Torogai's apprentice, Tanda (who is in love with Balsa), also helps protect Chagum. 

The world Nahoko Uehashi builds is filled with mystery as different people live on the same land and have different cultures and beliefs. The forgotten belief of the Moribito is part of the world where there is a parallel realm of spirits called Nayugu. Even though Chagum is set in the real world, he protects an egg in Nayugu until it hatches. The creatures of Nayugu are fascinating (especially, Rarunga, the nasty egg-eater) and inspired from Japanese culture.

The interesting part of Moribito is how much it could be compared to the real world. In this land which has seen a civilization overtake another, the cultural traditions of the previous people have been forgotten or hidden under the new civilization's. No one can remember what happened when other children have become egg-bearers and the old languages and traditions have all been forgotten. History isn't a factual and objective account of what happened, it's only what the victor wants history to remember. It's quite interesting to read those ideas in a book for young audiences, especially when the reader roots for Balsa and Torogai, who want all point of views and all cultures to be represented equally in the society.

Chagum doesn't choose to be the Moribito, the Guardian of the Spirit, and he goes through an angry phase where he keeps wondering "Why me?" and thinking how unfair life is. Through her similar experience, Balsa shares some words of wisdom to Chagum and changes his perspective on things. Life is often unfair and there isn't much one can do except accept his or her circumstance and get on with things. 

I have only read the first volume of this series and I am really looking forward reading the rest. It is a book which is not only an entertaining read for all ages, but also a book which illustrates brilliantly some ideas about tradition and how civilizations are created. 

Guest review: Out by Natsuo Kirino | Japanese Fiction Week



This post is part of the Japanese Fiction Week, hosted here.
For more information about the week, head over here.

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Please welcome Nina from Death, Books and Tea for a review of Out by Natsuo Kirino.



Masako, Yoshie, Kuniko and Yayoi are four women working the night shift at a boxed lunch factory. Each have no prospects, and all want to escape. Yayoi is the one who cracks, killing her gambling husband. She turns to Masako, who gets Yoshie and Kuniko to help cut up the body. When the police come looking, all four have something to hide. But they've also got other enemies who want things-Satake, the night club owner with past convictions putting him at number one suspect, and Jumonji, the loan shark who knows what they did. With these people, the police, and the things they're being asked to do, the four women can't really think about getting out.

I am so glad that I decided to read this on holiday-hours of time to just sit and read and see this intricate story develop. I know I'm reviewing this for Japanese YA week, but this cannot be classed as YA. Sex, rape and murder feature heavily and the characters are at the youngest a twenty year old hostess. So now we've established this as being not for younger readers (something I found out a little late), on with the main review.

The only thing that I really disliked was the very final rape. Although it added a bit of continuity to the story, it was just a little too much. The other gore, rape and violence was used as plot development. But that was rape for the sake of rape. The start was a little slow. It just seemed to follow their normal lives, which I understand is useful, but it was a bit boring. Around the 50 page mark, the husband is murdered. And it goes quite fast from there.

All the main character's personal stories are fully developed both before and during the main action. It's difficult for me, as a teenager at school, to get into the minds of women and men in their thirties upwards. But it was really easy for me to understand their thinking.

The thing that got to me was how easily the women lied while being questioned by the police after the murder took place. For it to have been about a week since she killed a man, she lies, fakes tears, and gets on so easily that you wonder about the girl you were introduced to and how she was changed so much by desperation. Masako especially is a very intriguing character. I liked reading about her, seeing what she'd decide next, and so on. She was definitely changed by the murder.

The quick pace and the style of the translation kept me reading. It's also really unpredictable, with some things crossing your mind as you read. They're so mean to the characters that you wonder if they really will happen. Then you dismiss it. And then it happens.



Strength 5 tea (or 5/5) to a gritty look at the backside of Japan, the ordinary people living there, and the depths of the human psyche.

Thanks for hosting this awesome event!

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It sounds pretty awesome - I'm really looking forward reading it!

Kitchen - Banana Yoshimoto | Japanese Fiction Week


This post is part of the Japanese Fiction Week, hosted on this blog.
For more information about the week, head over here.

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Banana Yoshimoto is one of Japan's greatest contemporary writers alongside Haruki Murakami, and Kitchen is her début novel which became a best-seller in Japan. The English edition of the novel also includes the short story Moonlight Shadow at the end.

Kitchen is divided into two parts. The first part sees a young woman, Mikage Sakurai, lose the only member of her family she has left, her grandmother. She is completely lost and befriends Yuichi, a friend of her grandmother who works in a flower shop and who invites her to live with him and his mother while Mikage sorts out her life. Yuichi's mother, Eriko, was initially her dad before she decided to change sex and we get an interesting insight about what it's like to live as a transgender. Yuichi is also familiar with grief as his mother died when he was younger. The second part, still told from Mikage's point of view, sees Yuichi dealing with grief while Mikage has found a work she enjoys and is finally overcoming her sense of loss. They also both deal with their feelings for each other. The bond they share is quite unique and they're here for each other when they need it.

In Kitchen, Mikage and Yuichi realise that the world doesn't exist for their benefit and sometimes horrible things happen over which they have no control. I found the writing fascinating to read and how Mikage is seen coping with her loss. She concentrates on small things, her love of kitchens and cooking, while inside her a storm is raging. Why does everyone close to her dies? How can she survive if she is all alone? Does she still exist and is she still the same if the people who knew her the most aren't here to see her anymore?

The love and the sense of family she is given in Yuichi and Eriko's home helps her build herself back together little by little. It's always the small things in life which ground you and enable you to get on with your life. Mikage becomes increasingly passionate about food and cooking and is always preparing fabulous meals for Yuichi or Eriko, and later finds a job as an assistant to a cooking teacher. The passages with food and eating are amazingly woven into the story as a lifeline for the characters. Eating is what keeps you alive and the simple activity of preparing and eating a good meal is one of the best pleasures in life. Mikage is obsessed with kitchens (hence the title) and it is fascinating to read why it is her favourite place in the house. 


Moonlight Shadow is a beautiful short story about loss and grief and it is very fitting that it's published after Kitchen. A young woman named Satsuki loses her boyfriend in a car accident and is plagued by her grief and the feeling that she could have done something to prevent the accident. She grows closer to Hiiragi, her boyfriend's brother, who is coping with the death of his girlfriend who passed away in the same accident. Hiiragi copes by wearing his girlfriend's clothes to school. Both are lost and it is beautiful to read how a shared grief is a road you often have to walk alone. 
One morning, Satsuki meets a strange woman named Urura who introduces her to a mystical experience, which Satsuki believes is linked to her boyfriend's death. I won't spoil the experience but it is amazing. Moonlight Shadow also features food and Satsuki says how much she enjoys eating tasty food in the company of Hiiragi. 


Both stories show some of Banana Yoshimoto's trademark themes: loss, gender identity, love and friendship and the small pleasures of life. There is also an undercurrent of magical realism in both stories. Mikage and Yuichi have grown so close that they can (or believe they can, which is roughly the same thing) talk to each other in their dreams and thoughts. Satsuki gets to see something incredible and unique during the mystical experience Urura shows her. The magical aspect is only hinted and appears quite realistic since it's perceived as such by the narrators. The loss of someone close is terribly hard to deal with, and sometimes, a little hope - even if not explainable or actually real - is all you need to get you through another day.


I really loved both stories and I think they're fantastic short reads. The writing is beautiful and the emotional state of the characters is brilliantly portrayed. Even though the book is about loss and grief, the stories are quite hopeful and make you think about life in general and your place in this world. I will definitely be reading more of this author.


Note: You might want to read this book in the vicinity of a Japanese restaurant to order all the food you have been reading about!

Guest review: Norwegian Woods by Haruki Murakami | Japanese Fiction Week


This post is part of the Japanese Fiction Week hosted on this blog.
For more information about the week, head over here.


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Please welcome Laura from SisterSpooky for a review of Norwegian Woods and some of her thoughts on Japanese fiction.




I am by no means an expert on Japanese culture but it just fascinates me so.  I think I really just became drawn to the weird and wonderful beauty that was all around it. From the anime world of Pokemon (which was the first big thing to do with Japan that I remembered being obsessed with) to Manga and Cosplay that began to become more and more popular over the years as I attended comic cons around London and as I got older I began to explore more of the culture. I think the clash of the old and the new worlds made me fall in love with Japan.  I've never visited it but it's the one place in the world I want to see before I kick the bucket.  So when I started to find my love for books again during my university years I was given a book by a Japanese author that I want to shout about. I'd call this a review of sorts.
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami was a game charger book for me. I had been going along quite happily reading the same sort of books over and over again by American or sometimes English authors and then a friend gave me her copy to read and I think it quite possibly blew my mind. I'd say it's a book for an older YA audience only because of the issues of suicide and depression and references to sex but it was simply a wonderful book. It opened my eyes to books that were written by authors that don't come from a Western society and how their view on the world can be so different but the emotions behind the story are the same and raw like in any other culture.
It's a story of a young man who is in love or thinks he is and trying to find himself in the world at a time when politics and society are shifting and he's struggling to understand where he fits in the world and how his life and the life of the girl he idolises changes. It strikes so many chords and I just loved how it related to the power of music in their lives; namely The Beatles and the power their music holds for them. I think that if you've read The Perks of Being A Wallflower and want something else with that kind of power in a book I'd suggest you get a hold of Norwegian Wood as soon as you can.
It's made me want to try more Japanese authors and wondering what YA is like for Japanese readers and if it translates the same way the Western YA novels do. We all share the same feelings and have the same struggles so seeing it first hand in a book like Norwegian Wood made me want to try more. Thanks to the last Japanese YA week hosted by Portrait of a Woman I found so many more books to try and have Real World by Natsuo Kirino and Battle Royale by Koushun Takami on the TBR pile!
If Japanese Fiction Week gives you anything then let it give you that brave push to try something new. You may find your new favourite book!
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Thanks for your review and thoughts on YA, Laura! I have yet to read Norwegian Woods (though I did see the film) and I find it interesting that you compare it to The Perks Of Being A Wallflower!

Guest review: Sailor Moon by Naoko Takeuchi | Japanese Fiction Week


This post is part of the Japanese Fiction Week hosted on this blog.
For more information about the week, head over here.

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Please welcome Andrew from The Pewter Wolf who will be reviewing Sailor Moon!


Before I start, I want to quickly thank Caroline for allowing me to write for her blog again. Writing for her blog means I read books that are outside my comfort-zone and I always like to be pushed every once in awhile.


Usagi Tsukino is a normal girl. Until she meets a talking cat, Luna, who tells her that she’s a guardian, known as Sailor Moon, who must fight the forces of evil. Not only that, she must find the rest of the Sailor Scouts, find the Legendary Silver Crystal and the mysterious Moon Princess...


Now, I’m pretty sure most of us outside of Japan know of Sailor Moon through the TV show (where Usagi Tsukino was called Serena), so we’re a bit nostalgic on this. I watched the show when I was younger on a now-non-existing Fox Kids so I read this and went “OK. That idea comes from here!”


However, if you haven’t watch the TV show or aren’t really aware of Sailor Moon, the whole thing sounds a bit... stupid and a tad laughable. A fourteen year old self-confessed crybaby and slacker (there’s no other way to say it) is trusted to save the world with a group of other girls wearing short-skirted sailors outfit. Oh, and the main love interest is a guy who uses roses as a weapon. Seriously, roses as a weapon!


But, if you don’t take it seriously, this is really charming. There’s something about it where you go with it, with all its silliness. I am going to admit that I have very little experience with anime and manga (I have read a manga, Fake, and I have watched some anime films such as The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and some TV shows like Pokemon & Digimon [do they count?]) but the artwork in here is really good. There are some panels which are very carefully drawn, while others were silly and fun.


However, one thing fans of the TV show will notice is how fast this moves. There are six acts in volume one and, by the end of act five, we are already introduce to Sailor Moon, Sailor Mercury, Sailor Mars and Sailor Jupiter. Yeah, it moves quickly. And by the end of Act Six, Usagi discovers the identity of Tuxedo Mask (the main love interest), whereas in the TV show, the viewers realise who it is when we’re introduced to Sailor Venus and Usagi/Serena figures it out much later.


If you want something fun, fluffy and a nice, easy introduction to manga, this might be what you’re looking for. If you’re the fan of the TV show, you’ll like this. If you’re already into manga or want something more deep, then you might want to give this a miss. But if you go in this with an open mind, you might be surprised...



Click on picture to enlarge

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Thanks for your review Andrew - I watched the anime when I was younger and I can't wait to read the manga version!


Japanese Fiction Week - 18th to 24th June 2012


Hi all,

After the success of my Japanese YA Novel Week last year, I decided to organise another one and invite some other Japanese lit fans to participate!

Last time, Nina from Death, Books and Tea and I concentrated more on the Young Adult market and the Japanese Light Novels (short and sometimes in manga form). This week, we will be broadening the scope of our reads and review a variety of authors and genres.

Contemporary Japanese literature is getting more and more popular abroad. Literary writers like Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto sell millions of copies worldwide, and their books are must-reads for book fans. Manga and anime are becoming more and more mainstream with Hollywood films of popular Japanese stories bringing new audiences to the books. The success of The Hunger Games has reignited interest in the epic Battle Royale by Koushun Takami. Japan also brought us a wave of critically-acclaimed female crime fiction writers like Natsuo Kirino whose raw and violent stories are translated in many countries.

Japanese literature is booming and for this week, we will be presenting you with some of the best Japanese books (we think) available in English!

~~~

Here's what you will be reading this week:

Mon: Introduction post (you're reading it now :))
Tues: Review of Sailor Moon by Naoko Takeuchi, by Andrew from The Pewter Wolf
Wed: Review of Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami, by Laura from SisterSpooky
Fri: Review of Out by Natsuo Kirino, by Nina from Death, Books and Tea
Sun: Guest post from Zoe Marriott

We all hope you will find some new interesting books or genres you want to dip into.

Have a lovely week!

Girl Meets Boy - Ali Smith



Summary from Amazon:
"Girl Meets Boy" - It's a story as old as time. But what happens when an old story meets a brand new set of circumstances? Ali Smith's re-mix of Ovid's most joyful metamorphosis is a story about the kind of fluidity that can't be bottled and sold. It is about girls and boys, girls and girls, love and transformation, a story of puns and doubles, reversals and revelations. Funny and fresh, poetic and political, "Girl Meets Boy" is a myth of metamorphosis for the modern world.

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There are things in life which I can never truly explain. They can be fundamental to my essence as a person, or a mere whim, but I can never find the right words to explain exactly why that is. Being a reader is one of these things. I love reading. A large part of my time is spent reading, or talking about reading and even thinking about reading. That's just what I do. Other readers understand (we even have a secret handshake and everything), but to non-readers or occasional readers, I find it hard to put into words what reading does to me, why I do it so much and why that's what I do when I could easily spend time watching cricket or becoming an astronaut. 

After finishing Girl Meets Boy, my first thought was - "THAT'S why I read". That's it. There hasn't been a better example than the 180 pages of this book to remind me why I am a reader. The story is rich, unpredictable, deep, funny. The characters are quite simply mesmerizing, whether they're too involved in their routines or projecting ideas to the universe. And the writing is just exquisite. An elaborate dish you're both eager and almost too afraid to start eating for fear of never being able to experience that first impression again

I'm going borderline lyrical on this (fine, I've reached and passed that border) because I just fell in love with the book. Which is appropriate because this book is about love. And not just any kind of love. That incredible feeling you have when you fall in love for the first time. When you feel yourself falling and falling and falling into immense all-encompassing emotions you never thought your heart could hold. This book has some of the most beautifully written love scenes I have ever read.


Set in Inverness, the book is told from the point of view of two very different sisters, Anthea and Imogen. When Anthea is wild, spiritual and clever, Imogen (Midge) is serious, unobtrusive and very eager to please and succeed. Midge works at a bottled water company, Pure, and wants to evolve in her role despite being surrounded by sexist men. There is only one person she likes, Paul, but she fears he might be gay. Midge manages to get Anthea a work experience position at the same place, but Anthea doesn't really care much about her career or the company. One day, everyone in the company witnesses an eco-warrior trespassing and writing something against Pure on a wall.  Everyone is appalled except Anthea. She immediately falls for Robin, the girl who painted the wall (and who she happens to mistake for a boy at first). After falling for Robin, Anthea questions her sexuality and her identity. After this happens, Midge can't stop thinking about the consequences of her sister being gay.


The political ideas behind the characters' stories bring more depth to the book and make it very inspiring to read. I loved the idea that every little thing can have a bigger impact in the end. There are also quite a few statistics about gender inequalities which are just shocking and almost make you want to grab a paintbrush too. 


The book is an interpretation of the story of Iphis, in Ovid's Metamorphosis. The girl who was brought up as a boy to prevent her father's wrath and who appeals to the gods on the day of her wedding to be changed into a boy so that she can make her future wife happy. The story of Robin and Anthea is wonderfully told from the point of view of the two sisters. I loved reading the passages in Midge's point of view, seeing all the doubts in her head, as well as her beliefs. Her transformation was one of the most interesting things in the book. 


I'm going to stop now, because I could go on for hours. But do read this book for the sheer beauty of its writing and for the journey. 
~~~
Here are some quotes I'd like to share:


Robin telling Anthea about Iphis:
"The thing is, Iphis and Ianthe had actually, for real, very really, fallen in love.
Did their hearts hurt? I said. Did they think they were underwater all the time? Did they feel scoured by light? Did they wander about not knowing what to do with themselves?"


Anthea about Robin's smile:
"Then I saw her smile so close to my eyes that there was nothing to see but the smile, and the thought came into my head that I'd never been inside a smile before, who'd have thought being inside a smile would be so ancient and so modern both at once?"


Paul and Imogen's thinking:
"I feel met by you, he says afterwards. It's weird.
(That's exactly what it feels like. I felt met by him the first time I saw him. I felt met by him all the times we weren't even able to meet each other's eyes.)"


~~~

Also, Nymeth has posted a lovely review of this book on her blog Things Mean A Lot with some other quotes (here)




Girl Meets Boy, by Ali Smith | 2007 | Canongate | I read the ebook version

Interview with Andrew Prentice and Jonathan Weil about Black Arts



After gushing about the book, the trailer and the book launch of Black Arts (here), I am positively thrilled to received the authors on the blog today to answer a few questions about their writing.

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Hi Jonathan, Andrew,

Congratulations on your wonderful book and welcome to Portrait of a Woman!

It was lovely to meet you at your book launch and I devoured the book in just a few days. I loved how rich, atmospheric and dark the story was and I can't wait to read the second book in the Books of Pandemonium series!


My first question to you would be: how did you meet and how and when did you decide to write a book together?

We first met at school: we got to know each other better in our sixth form English class, and editing the school newspaper together. After school we went to different universities, but stayed friends, and when we finished we decided we wanted to write an epic graphic novel that reimagined all of human history. We got about sixteen pages in until reality intervened and we had to get jobs. After floating around a bit we landed a very strange job for an aquarium/sushi tycoon: we wrote dialogue for robots and put on Nativity circuses in the snow in December, as well as scripting animation and comics. We learned a lot about how not to do things there. When we were sacked in one of the blood-lettings that periodically swept the company, we tried to write comics again. It was then our agent spotted us. She hinted that we might make better authors than artists, which was a very wise suggestion. With her encouragement we decided to change our comic proposal into a novel.  


Very wise suggestion indeed! I really loved the book and really liked how you managed to write with one voice. Writing a book together, how easy is it? Do you split the tasks or scenes by "specialty" or do you write everything together?

It took us a while to iron out the kinks in the system, but we've been collaborating on various projects for nearly fifteen years, so we know each other pretty well.
We don't have specialties - we just split the chapters between us, and then rewrite each other's drafts. In the end, we've found that writing with one voice is a matter of bashing each chapter back and forth - like a long tennis rally. We both have an idea of the tone and rhythm we are aiming at. It's very hard to get there at first draft, but by the time a chapter has been swapped seven or eight times, it usually gets the zip and zing that we are listening for.  


That method clearly works! What are the hardest and the best parts of writing a book with another person?

The hardest part is accepting that one of your treasured phrases or pet ideas Just Isn’t Right.  The best comes when ideas start to spark off each other – a semi-serious remark by one person gets misunderstood by the other, in a way that actually makes much more sense than the original . . . and ends up leading both of you to something great that neither could have achieved alone.


It does sound like you two could invent quite a few things together. When I was at your book launch, you hinted that the story hadn't started exactly like it is now, what was your initial idea?

We've always been writing about a vast historical conspiracy, magic, and mayhem, and the book has always been set in the grotty, treacherous streets of Elizabethan London. The initial plot was a very different beast. There was more high politics (Sir Francis Walsingham, the Armada, religious persecution and court intrigue) and the magic system was completely different.
That said, through five major redrafts, we've slaughtered a dozen different plots, hundreds of characters and millions of words. Their frozen corpses lie behind us like French troopers on the retreat from Moscow. We particularly mourn Sir Julius Jamstock, the talking dog from drafts four through to eight. He was amazingly fun to write.


Well I do hope we'll get to see Sir Julius Jamstock in action in future books. How much research did you do on the period and on magic / black arts in general? Was being historically accurate an important concern for you?

Real historical detail is usually richer, sicker and more unexpected than anything you could come up with yourself. A really important change came when we decided to base the magic in what they actually believed at the time. We'd been using a completely made-up system until that point, but the story really came alive when we decided to take on the central belief of historical renaissance magic – the idea that you did magic by striking deals with devils.
That said, you don't want to clog up the story by showing off how much research you’ve done. We try to use real historical details like a spice, adding to the fun and lending their flavour to the things that we invent ourselves.


Which part of Jack's story did you enjoy writing the most?

Dialogue is always the most fun, especially thieves' cant. Mr Smiles' and Sharkwell's conversation became a kind of competition between us as to who could come up with the most elaborate villain-speak.


Dialogues definitely were some of the best parts of the book! Beth Sharkwell is quite possibly one of my favourite characters; she is strong, passionate and full of surprises. How did she come to life and was she inspired by anyone in particular?

In some of the earlier drafts we had two female characters – Beth Plaistow, a slightly priggish sailor’s daughter who hated all thieves, and an older character called Queen Moll.  She was based on ‘Moll Cutpurse,’ a real historical figure from the early seventeenth century – a cross-dressing, pipe-smoking bandit queen who once robbed the roundhead General Fairfax on Hounslow Heath. She didn't quite fit into the final version, so we took what we liked about her and put it all into Beth – and that was when the character really came to life. Stuck-up Beth Plaistow became stick-’em-up Beth Sharkwell, thieves’ princess – but still with a bit of the old Class Monitor, follow-the-rules-or-else quality that we’d put into the original character. 


So now I'm fascinated by Mary Frith aka Moll Cutpurse ' I'll definitely be looking up some books to read on her. What was the strangest idea either of you came up with for the book (which may or may not have ended up in the final version!)?

In one of the early drafts there was a scene where Jack jumped a galloping camel (which was on fire) off a cliff to escape from pirates.  There was a football match where the goals were giant wheels of cheese three yards across.  There was a man who had to be tethered by a rope to the ground at all times, or he'd fly off and hit the moon.  There are loads more, but it’s a little depressing to list them: hopefully we can recycle the best bits in later books. 


A galloping camel on fire? Yes please! You mentioned that it took 5 years for you both to write the book. What did you learn during those years as writers and what did the story and the characters bring you on a more personal level?

We definitely thought that writing a book would be easier than it turned out to be. We learned an enormous amount – much of it through the sage advice of the editing team at David Fickling Books.  Perhaps the biggest lesson we learned was about consistency. To start with we were trying to do too many things. The story oscillated between comedy and horror, joke-driven magic and serious world-building. The result was a mess. We've learned to pare our ideas down, and be much more ruthless. The book is better for it.
Although this process has been frustrating at times, we're so lucky to be allowed to do this.  Writing a book with your best friend is the best job in the world.


Yes indeed, sometimes less is more. You are currently writing the second book in the Books of Pandemonium series, what can you tell us about it? Is it set in the same time period? What will Jack, Beth and the Intelligencer have to face?

It's going to be immense. Beth is trapped in the eighteenth century – Jack wants to rescue her from the clutches of the Worst Man in London – but Beth ain’t so sure she needs rescuing. Meanwhile, the imp is threatening rebellion and Kit is working on a time-travel scam to become the greatest gambler ever. Oh, and they’re going to find out who the real bad guys are. We are having so much fun!

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Wow! That sequel sounds positively awesome! Thank you both so much for answering my questions and good luck with the writing (and don't forget the galloping camel!)

You can follow the authors on Twitter (@prenticeweil)

Lollipop and Grandpa's Back Garden Safari - Penelope Harper and illustrated by Cate James



Summary:
Back gardens have never been this exciting! Lollipop and Grandpa are intrepid explorers, always on the lookout for the next adventure! It’s often just the two of them against the world in their expeditions, armed only with ham sandwiches and imagination. In this book they set out on an exciting expedition in the back garden where they encounter Chimpan-trees, a Hippo-potta-compost and even a Croco-logus. They’re prepared for action, but will Lollipop and Grandpa make it back home safely?
~~~


I was given this book a little while ago and I completely fell in love with it. The story is charming, imaginative and heart-warming. It's great for kids who want to have some adventures in their garden or in the park - instead of a boring patch of grass, they can discover a world full of danger and scary creatures like the Chimpan-trees or the Croco-logus. Any corner of the garden can transform into a scary creature and there really isn't a peaceful place to eat ham sandwiches!

The illustrations by Edinburgh-based illustrator Cate James are simply fantastic. They're very stylish and evocative and play on textures as well as colour. The font is really easy to read and Penelope Harper's story is well-paced, funny and an amazing springboard for children's imagination. 

This is an adorable book for grandparents to read to their own little explorers and this is the start of an amazing picture book series about Lollipop's adventures with her Grandpa. Thumbs up from me!


Lollipop and Grandpa's Back Garden Safari, by Penelope Harper and illustrated by Cate James | 2012 | Phoenix Books | Age 3 to 5 | Gift

Black Arts - Prentice and Weil - Book Launch and thoughts on the book



A couple of weeks ago, I attended the book launch of Black Arts written by Andrew Prentice and Jonathan Weil. We were invited to Nightjar in Old Street and, after getting slightly lost *cough*, I luckily spotted Darren from Book Zone for Boys in front of the entrance!


The bar definitely fitted the atmospheric feel of the book and we were served Edwardian cocktails which were slightly stronger than expected, having a bit of an effect on the crowd. I chatted with the other two bloggers in attendance, Darren and Liz from My Favourite Books, as well as met Conrad Mason (author of The Demon's Watch). There were some speeches from David Fickling (Publisher), Simon Mason (Editor) and the authors. They were all incredibly entertaining and I haven't had such fun at a book launch in a while. It was great to hear from David and Simon what caught their eyes in the story and how much they believed in it. Then the authors talked, explaining how the idea for the book started a little while ago and how it evolved. They also stressed the importance of writing with one voice. They were hilarious!


THE cocktail


The authors during their speech


The cake!


~~~ 


Summary from Amazon:
Elizabethan London: a teeming city of traders and thieves, courtiers and preachers, riff-raff and quality, cut-throats - and demons. When scrunty Jack the 'Judicious Nipper' picks the wrong pocket at the Globe Theatre, he finds himself mixed up in an altogether more dangerous London than he could have imagined - a city in which magic is real and deadly.
An outbreak of devil-worship has led to a wave of anti-witch fervor whipped up by the Elect, a mysterious group of Puritans recognizable from their red-stained right hands, led by the charismatic Nicholas Webb, a growing power at Court. Rumour has it that he wants to purge the city entirely and build a New Jerusalem. Jack has his own reason for hating him: he saw him kill his mother.
Helped by Beth Sharkwell the Thief Princess of Lambeth, Kit Morely the Intelligencer and Dr Dee the Queen's Wizard, Jack pits himself against Webb's Puritans. But this is no straightforward struggle. Things are not as they seem. In fact, ever since his encounter with Webb, there has been something wrong with Jack's vision. He keeps seeing things. Demons.
Black Arts is the first in a series of thrilling time-travel adventures, each bringing the past to glorious life, as Jack and his companions hurtle from one epic struggle to the next.

~~~ 


After talking to both the authors and to Darren who had loved the book, I was really excited about reading it. The story is absolutely amazing, the atmosphere becomes quite nearly a character in itself and the plot is spell-binding. 


The story of Scrunty Jack, nipper extraordinaire turned dangerous witness for the religious groups fighting for the control of London, is amazing. On one side there are the witch, wizards and others, on the other a group of Puritans led by Nicholas Webb. After getting an eye and a hand in contact with a magic powder, Jack can see and feel London under a new light, or rather, see it as it truly is.


I haven't felt so strongly about a book in a long time, it has elements of historical fiction, of social history (Charles Dickens/Victor Hugo style), but also of adventure and magic/horror/fantasy. The story is very rich and it is so brilliantly balanced that you never feel overwhelmed. There's just the right amount of thrill, historical hints and fantasy to keep you reading until the very end.


The story is very dark and I think teens will love it. It definitely reminded me of when I was a teen and devoured horror books all the time (I am still scarred now by some of the stories I read), so it's definitely a must read if you're into this type of books.


Before starting the book, I did wonder how a story written by two people could work and not feel like there were "two" voices talking, but Black Arts doesn't feel that way at all. I can see how the two authors have been able to bring so much to the story without the storytelling being affected. 


The cast of characters is very colourful and they all have a lot of depth so it's quite interesting to start the book with an opinion of one character and finish the book with another. I *adore* Beth Sharkwell, I can't wait to read more about her.


I truly cannot recommend this book enough. If you love dark settings, strong characters and a fascinating story, you will love this book.




Here is the chill-tastic trailer for the book:






The authors have done a great Q and A on the David Fickling Blog, check it out here!


All photos courtesy of Harriet Venn - thank you!!