Review: Reaching for the Stars: Poems About Extraordinary Women and Girls

reaching for the stars.jpgThe Premise: Reaching for the Stars is a collection of poems by Liz Brownlee, Jan Dean and Michaela Morgan, with each poem focusing on a different remarkable woman or girl. It is lovely.

Thoughts: obviously, with my stringent feminist ideals and commitment to buying ever book on the subject so i can one day force them on my daughter, I loved this book. The poems are aimed at younger readers (I’m going to teach them next year with 11 or 12 year olds, which I think is about right), so the language is accessible and there’s nothing particularly upsetting; even a poem about Malala is cleverly written in such a way to provoke discussion but not nightmares.

I loved the range of subjects covered here; like the recent Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli, Reaching for the Stars gives its reader impressive women from all walks of life, from Marie Curie and the suffragettes to the Black Mamba Squad (a team of women in South Africa tasked with protecting rhinos from poachers) and Tallulah Bryan, a 9 year old girl who was inspired to help homeless people in her home city of Leicester. It’s wonderful to see real-life heroics set alongside world-changing achievements; it’s a brilliant way to make the collection even more relatable to younger readers.

I am the very model of a modern girl from planet Earth,
photos documenting all the seconds I have lived, since birth
I’ve been inoculated for diseases that will paralyse
though burdened by my allergies I wheeze lots when I exercise
I’m tested till I’m dizzy in a manner most fanatical
so my maths is mathematical and writing is grammatical
with aid of a mnemonic I’ve recited all the elements
debated on philosophy to elevate my eloquence

I know that I can be most anything I have ambition for
but I’ve not any notion yet just what I have a mission for
(from I Am the Very Model of a Modern Girl from Planet Earth)

The last few poems are particularly lovely, moving away from specific female role models and into more universal comment on the state of being a girl in the 21st century; the poem quoted above is a great example of the clever simplicity of the collection, and I find it all very inspirational, even as a boring old 34 year old. The last poem, poignantly for any feminist in 2017, is titled Pillory Hillary and it’s a subtly brutal indictment of the insults lobbed at women in power. It’s easy to read these poems and compliment the intention and style, but the power mustn’t be overlooked; Liz Brownlee, Jan Dean and Michaela Morgan have done something really important here.

In Conclusion: obviously, I adored this book. I’ve already bought another copy for a friend and her daughter and fully anticipate investing in at least a dozen more as little (and grown up) girls’ birthdays come around. It’s brief but hard-hitting and completely brilliant. Please buy it. Now.

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Review: Hold Back the Stars by Katie Khan

hold back the starsPremise: Carys and Max float in space, adrift from their ship, with just 90 minutes of air left. All seems hopeless. The only thing they can do is reflect on the relationship that led them here and the world that pushed them together.

Thoughts: firstly, I thought this was YA and it quite clearly isn’t. Aside from anything else, the main characters are 25 and 27. If that’s young adult, that makes me feel quite youthful. Hold Back the Stars appears on a lot of ‘other customers bought this’ lists when you scroll through new YA books on Amazon, which is how it caught me out. Just so you know.

Anyway, aside from my genre-based confusion, there was loads for me to enjoy here. I love space-set stories, so the alternating chapters focusing on Carys and Max’s increasingly doomed plight really grabbed me. Khan creates a genuine sense of peril and fear in these sections, which kept me quite enthralled. The other thing I loved in this book was the creation of an actually-pretty-believable futuristic society.  In the novel’s present, America and the Middle East have destroyed each other, and the remaining countries have united to prevent conflict from causing such horror again. The main philosophy is that nobody is allied to a particular nation; from childhood, everyone goes “on rotation,” spending three years at a time in different territories. It’s isolating and disorienting, but it keeps focus on the individual, and individuals are less likely to cause mass destruction ( although the book may become more and more relevant in real life, thanks to recent political developments…). I was fascinated with the world Khan has created; it’s just out there enough to dazzle, but seems oddly sensible when you think about it.

The issue with all this is love, of course; moving every three years means you can’t develop a relationship, which is the whole point. The Man does not want people settling down until they’re 35, which causes a problem for Max and Carys; there’s a bit of a Never Let Me Go vibe to the middle part of the book, which is no bad thing. Overall, the romance aspect of the book engaged me less than the politics, but Carys and Max are both believable and interesting: people with whom I was happy to spend a few hours’ reading time.

In Conclusion: I really enjoyed Hold Back the Stars; it’s the kind of space-set story I seek out and it works well as a kind of grown-up older sibling to Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner’s Starbound trilogy, which I also love. Khan has created a genuinely fascinating world with enthralling plot twists and relationships to root for. I really recommend it.

Review: Relativity by Antonia Hayes

Premise: Ethan is an exceptionally smart 12 year old, with vast swathes of knowledge of physics and maths. He’s never known his dad, who left when Ethan was just a baby. But then odd things start happening to Ethan and his dad reappears, and the truth eventually emerges.

Thoughts: there were parts of Relativity that I liked. Child characters, especially precocious ones, can often be really off-putting, but Ethan isn’t; he’s believably gifted and convincingly naive, and the depiction of his gradual discoveries of his past is intriguing. From the title, you might guess that science plays a large part in the book; I am the least scientifically minded person on the planet so some of the physics went over my head, but the principles of Ethan’s newly discovered talents were interesting.

Ultimately, I developed some serious issues with Relativity, largely down to the backstory and both of Ethan’s parents. The presentation of Claire was a little cliched: she’s a single mum who gave up her dreams to raise Ethan alone, and forever blames herself for the terrible events that changed the family’s lives forever. It felt a bit hackneyed, but worse was the way in which Ethan’s estranged father was portrayed. I soon found myself really, really hating him, which I don’t think is the point. The whole plot involves him and a terrible thing he may or may not have done; this isn’t mentioned in the synopses I’ve read and, if it was, I honestly don’t think I’d have read the book. I didn’t like how the book seemed to be pulling sympathy towards him. It just all made me feel quite uncomfortable.

In Conclusion: if you know what you’re getting going into Relativity, and troubles families a la Picoult are your thing, this book won’t trouble you as much as it did me. My personal philosophy of right and wrong is very rigid (obviously because I am perfect and all my actions are beyond reproach) which meant the moral dilemma at the heart of the book was an easy call for me, rather than something I agonised over along with Claire and Ethan.

Review: The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

the-end-we-start-fromPremise: in a dystopian version of the UK (like that isn’t what we’re actually experiencing in real-life), London is submerged by a massive flood, causing widespread homelessness and displacement. A woman gives birth and is forced to abandon her home, traveling further and further in search of safety and a future for her family.

Thoughts: firstly, this book is only 160 pages long. I point this out early because I didn’t realise this until my Kindle told me it would only take me an hour to read and I wondered if it was about to explode or something. Sometimes a short book is great (particularly for those of us with massive Goodreads challenges); it just wasn’t what I anticipated. Also, if, like me, your brain is still replaying the greatest indie songs of 2007, you are quite likely to continually confuse The End We Start From with the Editors’ song, An End Has a Start, which is a bit distracting.

Because of the brevity of the book, things seem to move quite quickly at times, before barely moving at all, which seems an adequate reflection of events in the story; the narrator leave London in a hurry and are, initially, frenzied in their movements, before settling in a variety of different, often unsatisfying camps, where there’s nothing to do except worry about the future. I don’t know if the formatting is specific to the e-ARC I read, but the writing is sparse, with a sentence making up a whole paragraph; this did make it quite difficult for me to fully immerse myself in the story. As far as I can tell, the narrator was never named, which is something I’m not a huge fan of; I wanted to feel really involved in the story, but due to this name-related distance and the short length, it didn’t really happen.

The story itself is really intriguing; I have a child and the thought of having to look after her in such an unpredictable and frightening landscape did unnerve me. I was reminded of Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus while reading The End We Start From, with its strange relationships and urgency surrounding the care of a small child, as well as the environmental disaster that precipitates the plot (look – a weather pun! I am funny). I’d have liked to see more development, probably with at least another 150 pages; I find it quite hard to be fully satisfied by a novella rather than a full novel.

In Conclusion: really intriguing, with an original writing style, The End We Start From is a book which packs a punch. I’d have liked to see some more development, but I’m sure its brevity will appeal to readers who aren’t as picky as me. I’d recommend to fans of The End of the World Running Club too.