The drunken botanist: the plants that create the world’s great drinks by Amy Stewart

Despite my love-hate relationship with potted plants (they keep dying), the title of this book immediately caught my attention. Maybe that’s because I have a love-love relationship with liquors and most kinds of alcohol, who knows. While writing this review, I was sipping a good red port and musing over all the great anecdotes in this book. The book is best described as an encyclopaedia of the botanical origins of drinks, and how people came to make alcohol out of every plant they could find, such as the banana. Sometimes I really do admire the inventiveness of humans. So grab a nice drink of your choosing and let me tell you a bit more about this book.

The book is divided into three parts. The first one talks about the most common plants used to transform the sugar within into alcohol through fermentation. Amy Stewart compares the process where plants soak up carbon dioxide and sunlight to turn it into sugar which fermentation turns into alcohol, with the process where plants create oxygen out of sunlight that sustains life on earth. Both processes of indispensable importance to living on this earth. This comparison shows the reference given to a good drink in this book. This is even more articulated when Stewart talks about the best ingredients to make a cocktail, and that one should really strive to find those ingredients. The chapter ends with lesser known plants used to create alcohol, such as parsnips, the cochineal bug, and bamboo. This shows that people will try anything to get their hands on some alcohol.

The second part of the book goes into all the different botanical stuff brewers put into their drinks to add flavour such as spices, flowers, part of trees and seeds. This is where the book gets most interesting with lots of nice stories. One of them is about Bonnie Prince Charlie who got refuge on the Isle of Skye after he failed to regain the throne of England. Allegedly he gave the recipe of Drambuie, a kind of honey whiskey, as thanks to the people of Skye. There are also stories of people claiming to have more than 100 different ingredients in their spirits, stories of illegal ingredients and a liquor that gets its taste from being shipped around the world for almost four months, crossing the equator twice. The last one might sound excessive, but the resulting drink, Linie Aquavit, has a really nice taste, so I’d say it’s worth it. Although, I cannot say whether the taste comes from the voyage or good brewing of course. At any rate, it is a great story to sell the drink.

The third part of this book is an account of the final stage of cocktail making: the garnishes. This part has gardening tips for if you want to grow your own ingredients, or as Stewart claims: “mint for Mohito has to be homegrown”. Although I do agree with her, this will be frustrating to read for people who live in an apartment building like me. But still, this is a nice chapter to fantasize about your future garden you’re definitely going to have when you’re grown up and have a proper house. Besides gardening tips, this chapter gives some potential uses of garnishes to flavour drinks yourself. This includes one of my favourites: infused vodka. One tip that Stewart gives when you want to try it yourself is so great that I’ll share it here:

 (…) some plants, particularly tender green herbs like basil or cilantro, produce bitter, strange flavours if they’ve been soaked for too long. To get around this, make a small batch as a test, and taste it frequently, starting just a few hours after the infusion has begun. (p.343)

Advice few people will have problems with.

This book is a combination of a serious botanical account, with growing tips that all seemed very sensible to me as a non-gardener. Also, there are funny stories and advice how to make the best cocktails and where to find the highest-quality ingredients. The book ends with a list of recommended readings for the reader who wants to know more. This combination of informative and entertaining works very well, especially because the topic of alcohol lends itself well for humorous accounts. It is a tricky balance though, because sometimes authors try to be too funny, losing credibility during the more serious parts of a book. Amy Stewart doesn’t do that: there is a clear division between the serious and funny parts. It might not be the kind of book you will read from cover to cover in one go: that will probably make you forget all the names of the plants and drinks, even when you’re reading it completely sober. It is the kind of book you pick up once in a while and read a few chapters from to have something new to tell next time you’re enjoying a drink in a bar or pub.

One downside of this book is that a lot of the liquors and ingredients mentioned are too obscure to get a hold on. I don’t know if that’s because I’m not an American, and Amy Stewart is, that is difficult to say. In many a chapter, she talks about a delicious drink you as a reader will never be able to taste in person, because it’s from one small family owned brewery in the highlands of Scotland or something like that. This makes sense for an account of plants used for alcohol from all over the world, but is also a bit disappointing. Luckily, there are cocktail recipes in the book you can try for yourself. One of my favourites so far is ‘the ‘Vavilov affair’, which is a cocktail made with apple and bourbon. The cocktail is named after the Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov, who risked everything to preserve the wild ancestors of the apple tree. Sadly, Stalin considered him an enemy of the state and Vavilov spend the end of his life in jail. Luckily, we have a great cocktail to remember him and his love of apples by.

Drunk award for giving us so many more ways to enjoy the wonder of alcohol.

Amy Stewart, the drunken botanist (New York, 2013)

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear


A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

In honour of last week’s International Women’s Day, I’ll review a book by one of the great feminists who have gone before us. This is the first book I’ve read by Virginia Woolf, and already I am in awe of this brilliant woman. While the book is not fiction per se but rather an essay, it is written like a fictional story. It’s an edited and extended version of the speeches Virginia Woolf held for two women’s colleges at Cambridge University in 1928. She shows the reader the thought process that led up to these speeches, about the subject she was handed: ‘Women and Fiction’. From the banks of a river in a generic university setting, to a stall in the library of the British Museum, to the bookshelves of Virginia’s own collection of literature written by women through the ages, she gives a poetic account of thinking about a tricky subject.

When she was given the task of preparing a speech about ‘Women and Fiction’, she wondered what was expected of her. Should she talk about female characters in fiction? About female authors? About what women are like? She decided the most interesting thing to talk about was all of these questions combined, to consider them linked. But immediately, she realised that she wouldn’t be able to come to a clear conclusion at the end of her speech. The true nature of women or the true nature of fiction couldn’t be determined by her, only considered. One opinion, she promises to her audience, she will give and explain: “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

To reach that conclusion, Virginia Woolf gave the subject a lot of thought. To take the listener or reader with her on this journey, she describes the past few days. She imagines her alter ego sitting beside a river in what she calls (in reference to William Thackeray) ‘Oxbridge’, an amalgamation of Oxford and Cambridge. The beadle that admonishes her for walking on the grass where only professors and students can walk, the librarian who turns her away because she is a woman, the contrast between the meals enjoyed in a mens’ and in a women’s college all steer her towards certain aspects of her subject. Why is it, she asks, that men have always made money, while women have not? Why can men leave that money to great, ancient colleges, while female scholars in their new colleges only have money for the bare necessities?

After leaving ‘Oxbridge’, Woolf’s alter ego visists the British Museum in London to do research on the physical circumstances of women in history. She doesn’t find as much as she had hoped for, and all she does find is written by men. She continues her research at home, by leafing through the books on her own shelves. While discussing female authors from the Elizabethan age until the present, she wonders what might have happened if Shakespeare had had an equally talented sister. Nothing, she argues, because this woman would not have had the chance to develop that talent, let alone have her works accepted by the public.

This brings her to her central argument: that thinking and writing requires more than raw talent and intellect. It needs the right physical and intellectual circumstances as well. For a woman to start writing good literature, she needs money to live on and a separate room to shield her from everyday distractions, things that women historically did not have. Additionally, she needs both encouragement and criticism to develop, and a tradition of female fiction to help her write as a woman, instead of trying to conform to a style created by and for men. To put it this simply does not do Woolf’s argument justice, I’m afraid. The aim of the essay is not to prove a point, but to consider the subject in all its complexity.

One of the greatest things about writing academically is, to me, to reach the state of mind in which you are both utterly concentrated and relaxed enough to let your mind wander. It is something that happens when you leave your books behind for a moment, the newly acquired knowledge fresh in your mind, and sit on the curb outside smoking a cigarette. Instead of focussing on a text, or alternatively, being distracted by things around you, you can let thoughts and facts and feelings freely associate. Perhaps you’ll come to some new realisation, something resembling truth that you could not have otherwise come up with. This state of mind is a rare thing for me, scatterbrained and lazy as I am, and even when I reach it, no great truths are likely to come out of it. But I suspect that Virginia Woolf is a master of this kind of thinking. She has a natural talent for it and I feel smarter just reading her thought process.

Her choice to write in the form of a fictional narrative is not an indulgence or mere entertainment. The images she conjures up, like a rowboat floating on the river or people stepping into a taxi, frequently return in later chapters as metaphors. They bring her arguments to life by nailing them, ironically, firmly to the real world. Her writing style makes me very curious about her novels, because it is wonderfully poetic but in no way sentimental. Read, for instance, the following quote:

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt, that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”

It is powerful and true, but when you read it aloud, you will hear that it is also beautiful. It has a rhythm, a flow to it.

Woolf ends her story by posing that maybe in a hundred years time, if women continue writing and thinking and start earning their own livings, the circumstances will be right for a female Shakespeare to appear upon the stage. Ninety years later, I wonder if we’re almost there yet. I hope that any woman reading this will keep studying, keep writing, and especially keep forming and re-forming opinions in her own beautiful mind.

Beauty and the Beast Award for imagining a world in which women can have the freedom to read, to write, and to be realistically represented in fiction

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (London, 1929)


Jo Robin

The Story Sisters by Alice Hoffman

When I was little, I loved fairy tales. I loved the idea of good prevailing over evil, even the idea of the wicked stepmother being horribly punished for her deeds, and I loved the magical elements to them. As I grew a bit older, I loved dark fairy tales: those stories that start off as fairy tales, but something has gone horribly wrong along the way, so everything has turned to shadows. This book read like one of those grim fairy tales. I was drawn to its almost poetic darkness, but I wouldn’t recommend it to any of my friends, because if you don’t know this sort of pain, please stay naïve: it’s haunting.

Imagine three incredibly beautiful dark sisters, aged fifteen, fourteen and twelve, standing in their blue dresses by the window. They speak a different, but melodic, language that even their mother can’t understand. She sees her daughters and sees their beauty, but they are unreachable and so she seems to have lost the connection to her daughters. The eldest daughter fills her sisters’ heads with tales of another realm, named Arnelle, and pushes them to act. They are like faeries, not from this world. The mother worries of course and wonders if it is wrong to save one child, over her other daughters. But how do you save a child who doesn’t ask for your help? This is how the story of the three Story sisters starts off.

Elv is the eldest and she has made up their secret language once upon a time. While speaking it, she tells her younger sisters of their kingdom Arnelle, where they are originally from and are faeries, and how they must defeat all demons. The second girl, Meg, just goes along with it, but doesn’t know why they became like this. But she likes stories and she loves her older sister, who is incredibly forceful in her imagination and actions. Claire is only twelve, but she knows something happened when they were little. Elv made up that language and that world, because several years ago, Elv saved her from a terrible fate and took the fall for her instead, on that rainy day in the summer. Now she protects her younger sisters by creating a world of their own and keeping them safe inside. There, she warns them of the demon that once tried to take her sister, but took her instead.

The story centres mostly on Elv during the second part of the book. As a teen, Elv becomes more and more withdrawn. She takes to sitting up in a tree at night, running off barefoot and using sex as a tool. She’s so beautiful; men commit suicide over her, before she’s even hit adulthood. She appears to self-destruct in every manner: drugs, sex and emotional distance. She cares for no one but her little sister; otherwise she is cold and uncaring towards everyone. Her life spirals completely out of control, all starting with her childhood trauma. Bad things happen to her and her imaginative world changes: she is now on the side of the demons and gets taken down by the dark side of her fantasy realm. She comes to believe that she must become completely evil, in order to expel all evil. Needless to say, this doesn’t do her any good.

All three girls have their own talents and together they make a frighteningly perfect family, but untouchable. Claire is the kindest girl in the world, Meg is the smartest girl in the world and Elv is the most beautiful girl in the world. But as they grow older, Elv retreats deeper and deeper into her dark mind. Claire trusts her sister completely and tries to follow her wherever she can, because she doesn’t know what happened to Elv that summer afternoon, but she knows it should have been her. As she grows up, Claire’s guilt over these events takes over her life and she retreats into solitude. Meg drifts away from her sisters, as she is the only one who doesn’t know about their trauma. She tries to live her own life, tries to look different from her sisters in appearance, but Elv punishes her horribly for her ‘betrayal’. The family falls apart and the sisters drift apart. Each has their own battle to fight in the end, and they must fight it alone.

Alice Hoffman often writes books in the ‘magic realism’ genre. The language she uses is simply amazing: poetic, realistic, moving and flowing. The magical imagery is wonderful, with magic being both dark and light in this tale. A magical reality and our harsh world flow into each other, and you can’t quite make out the borders any longer. The pace is often slow in her books, but they are page-turners. Hoffman creates atmospheres that draw you in, like when the girls are in Paris and you can smell the air and see the colours of the city. At the same time, the topics of abuse, rape, drugs, mental health, are serious ones, but she treats them with a lot of respect. It’s like she understands what survivors have gone through. The characters are generally hard to like, but I admire that, because most real people are in fact difficult to like. My favourite thing by far is how her books make us believe there is magic everywhere, whether it be good or bad, and that strange and wonderful things can happen at any time.

I read this book when I was fifteen years old and it hit very close to home back then. As an abuse survivor, I dealt with various traumas throughout my life by retreating into a fantasy world. I distracted myself by making up stories with characters that defended and loved me. I, too, made up my own language when I was so little, just to have something of my own, when I felt like the world didn’t hear me. Reading about these sisters, especially Elv, I completely understood what she was doing the entire time: she’s getting by. Children develop strange but brilliant coping mechanisms just to survive, and even though you hurt yourself in the process at times, you’re doing it just to stay alive. When I read this book for the first time, I realised that I was also going down a very self-destructive path filled with self-harm, but I didn’t want to end up like Elv. I wanted life to get better and it did! This took a lot of work on myself, the same kind of work all three sisters have to do in the end, and a great deal of kindness towards myself. But it is possible.

This book, however, is not only a dark fairy tale, but also a tale of hope. It’s about girls claiming their own selves back and learning to stand on their own. It’s a story of forgiveness, mostly forgiving yourself: second chances in life, when you allow yourself to grant yourself a second chance. It’s about coming to terms with the past and letting go of tormenting yourself. I started this review off by saying that I wouldn’t recommend this book to any of my friends, because they haven’t been hurt like this. I would however recommend this to any survivor or someone who’d like to learn about these topics. For me, this book was very healing. To me, it is a story of love, especially self-love.

Recovery award: Hoping that this can help others, as it has helped me

Alice Hoffman, The Story Sisters (New York, 2009)


Thura Nightingale 

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.”

This is the first sentence of ‘Uprooted’ by Naomi Novik, and it is a good sentence to start this review with because it is very telling of the magical atmosphere of this book. This is a fairy tale inspired story, which talks in metaphors and long descriptions of magical woods. Also, it is full of grumpy magicians, curiously happy villagers considering what happens to them, and a witch who forges magic into a sword. But it is also more than a fairy tale because usually, those fall a bit short on character development, of which this book has plenty. Finally, it has an interesting way to deal with magic.

This is the story about Agnieszka, Nieszka for her friends, and how she finds out her own powerful magic while trying to defeat an ancient evil rooted in the woods surrounding her village. At the beginning of the story we don’t know much about the woods though, besides that sometimes people disappear and when they return, IF they return, they are corrupted. Corrupted people first act as the person they were before, but after a while, they kill everything in their path. This threat creates an ever-present shadow under which the villagers live out their innocent existence. To help deal with the threat there is the Dragon, which is the name of the magician living in a tower in the valley. He only comes out when the wood threatens to overtake a village in the valley. Then he does his magic in an angry huff and disappears again. He does not have a sunny personality and the villagers mostly fear him and try to stay as far away from him as possible.

As a payment for his help, the Dragon asks for a girl from one of the villages every ten years. Nobody is sure what the Dragon does with the girls, but when they are free after ten years of service, they are different. They cannot root in their home village anymore and usually disappear to one of the big cities to live out a questionable existence. Lots of stories go round as to what the Dragons does with them, one worse than the other. The fact that the Dragon usually picks the most beautiful and talented girls does not help. Here comes Agnieszka in the story. She is from the village next in line to give a girl to the Dragon. She is not worried about being picked though because her best friend Kasia is beautiful and talented and has been prepared her whole life to be taken. Agnieszka, on the other hand, is very clumsy, messy and seems to get herself into weird situations all the time without meaning to. However, when the Dragon comes to their village for the choosing, Agnieszka is picked to everyone’s surprise. Here Agnieszka and the Dragon’s story begins.

Initially, Agnieszka is very afraid living with the Dragon because she doesn’t know what he wants with her. But the only thing he asks of her is to recite spells with him, which always leave her exhausted afterwards. Also, he scowls at her for being dirty, untidy and clumsy when she spoils his meals. Somehow Agnieszka has the feeling the Dragon expects her to be better at magic and other things, but it never happens. But everything changes when she discovers a small black notebook with spells in them from a mysterious ‘Baba Yaya’. Opposed to the Dragon’s strict formulaic magic, Baba Yaga’s magic shows a way to do magic by directing the magical force with suggestions of the goal. This more intuitive way of magic comes naturally to Agnieszka. This discovery of her own way to do magic shifts the power balance between the Dragon and Agnieszka and makes it more equal and their interactions become more interesting because now they start to learn from each other. Also from this moment onwards, Agnieszka starts to listen less and less to the Dragon and to do her own magic, which causes him to walk off in more angry huffs. Magic is an important element of the story, especially the different ways of doing magic, and how that informs interactions between characters. This is further explored in the relationship between Agnieszka and the Dragon. The two shapes of magic are best explained in the form of different kind of recipes. The dragon’s form is a very strict recipe from fancy five stars restaurants of which you have to follow exactly every step to get the same result every time. Agnieszka form is a family recipe, where you have to feel how to use the recipe, which leads to a slightly different result every time but still undoubtedly the taste you were going for.

One of my favourite things about this book was that not one of the ways of doing magic ‘won’ over the other. At a certain point,  Agnieszka goes to the main city of the country where she meets more magicians, each with their own style (such as the witch forging magic into weapons). In the story, each of these styles seems to be a personal choice, and they all contribute in their own way to overcome the corruption of the woods. It felt much more realistic to explain magic as having a diversity like this, rather than letting Agnieszka’s way revolutionize the magical institution with her intuitive magic and to let her be the hero of the story. This also made for interesting character development in the story. First, the dragon was aggravated by Agnieszka way of magic and tried to force her into his own strict ways. At a certain moment, he admitted there was something to her way, and eventually they found a way to cooperate. In the end that is what saved everyone from the corrupted woods. The evil is defeated by many people working together with their own talents, and not by one person galloping valiantly into the distance with a raised sword, who is somehow better at everything than all other persons in the book. This message of the need for cooperation was further emphasised with the most important spells in the book, ‘the summoning’, which can only be casted when two magicians work together.

The writing style of this book was tough. It was written with a lot of metaphors explaining the outcome of the magic, which, for me, was sometimes hard to follow. For example, Agnieszka describes her magic as finding a way through a dense forest. In general, it is not the kind of book you can read through quickly. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but at times I found myself wanting to read on quickly, because the story was so scary, but lost the focus somehow. So this is the kind of book that, on the one hand, is best consumed slowly, but on the other hand, about halfway through the build-up is so intense you want to finish it in one go. Until about halfway the book is all fun and games. After that, it turns out that the corruption is not only in the woods, but has roots everywhere and people start dying in quick succession… This long build-up is not a bad thing though, because through the atmosphere of unnamed horror of the woods which slowly creeps up on you, you have time to become really scared before the actions quickens.

So, in the end, this is a very creepy book about a forest I would never set foot in myself, although I love hiking. It is a beautiful fairy tale for everyone who loves a story full of magic and creepiness and who doesn’t mind taking a long time to digest a story. I promise you this one is worth it, even if it’s only for all the scenes where the Dragon sighs because Agnieszka manages to get herself into a mess again.

Fairytale award for giving us an awesome fairy tale to tell children when they’re old enough to cope with creepy trees

Naomi Novik, Uprooted (New York, 2015)

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

This book is dedicated to an often-overlooked class of people: the intelligent, sympathetic, single women who are the oil that make the machine of society run smoothly. They are the women who are volunteers for local church events, who give advice and time to anyone who asks for it and who do all the things that men think ‘just happen’. They’re the caregivers, the volunteers, the babysitters and the people who take the dishcloth from the office kitchen home to wash. They’re the women who don’t draw a lot of attention to themselves and live a quiet life. People keep asking them to do things, fix things, help with things, because they can’t possibly have something better to do, can they? They are the ‘excellent women’: esteemed as much as they are unappreciated.

If there is one society that is built upon such women, it is England just after the Second World War. Barbara Pym knew this society like no other and wrote about it in a subtle manner with hilarious wit that all too often hit some painful truths. Her satires are sadly not well-known today, at least outside of the UK, but they are extremely worth reading. Excellent Women is a good place to start: Mildred Lathbury is in her early thirties, unmarried, respectable and an altogether ‘excellent woman’. She does what she is supposed to do and in return expects to be allowed to live an undisturbed quiet life, but the people around her have other plans for her. Friends ask for her help, the vicar asks for her time, and men ask for her attention (she is single, so she must be interested). Mildred is smart and a sharp observer of her fellow human beings and, as a result, goes through life with raised eyebrows and an occasional sigh. She tells us the story from her supportive but anxious perspective, and it is one of the funniest satires of ordinary life I have ever read.

New people have moved into Mildred’s building. They’re the pretty anthropologist Helena Napier and her husband Rocky Napier, a dashing navy officer. The couple thinks of themselves as very modern and they’re not too happy that they have to live in a small flat in an unattractive part of London, sharing a bathroom with Mildred. Nevertheless, they decide to bring some fun into Mildred’s life. Mildred, however, hasn’t asked for fun. She is old-fashioned and a bit repressed and would like to keep it that way.

Mildred is the first-person narrator of the story, but it is as much a satire of herself as it is of the other characters and of society as a whole. Mildred is in constant debate with herself whether she’s too curious about other people’s business. Is she an annoying busybody, or just naturally concerned about other people because she doesn’t have a family of her own to take interest in? She’s very awkward, although she’s good at standard polite conversation because her late father was a vicar. As a result, it makes her nervous when people don’t behave as she would expect them to. Helena Napier, who has an academic profession, doesn’t cook for her husband and talks freely about the conflicts in her marriage, is a mystery to Mildred.

All the same, she is a keen observer and can describe a character in half a sentence. We can probably all understand what she means by ‘the priggishness that fair men sometimes have’, or the kind of person that is meant when Mildred thinks ‘Fond of her? Yes, of course I was, but I could see only to well that she might be a very irritating person to live with.’ The people around her don’t give her half as much thought as she does them. They use her by making demands of her and talking to her about themselves, and get her entangled in their chaotic lovelives: Helena and Rocky, who fight and even break up, Father Julian Malory, who takes it for granted that he can always marry Mildred if nothing better comes up, and even Julian’s fiancée at one point, who eagerly proposes that Julian’s sister Winifred live with Mildred, because she doesn’t want Winifred around once she and the vicar are married.

The exasperation Mildred feels but never expresses is very comical, but also a little painful. It reveals loneliness: Mildred is alright on her own, but she would like to marry a good man and have a family. She just doesn’t think it’s realistic and the men around her, even her friends, just see her as a respectable woman who is always available to tend to any of their needs. No-one is really interested, and Mildred is not interested in them romantically either. The only man she has a crush on over the course of the book is Rocky, but she doesn’t take her own feelings seriously. In the end, she is not desperate for marriage, even though everybody assumes she must be. She is independent in an undemonstrative way, simply by not being cool, just unapologetically herself, as is witnessed in the following exchange:

“Oh, they’re drearily monogamous,” said Helena, “and very virtuous in other ways too. Much better than many of these so-called good people who go to church.” She turned a half-amused, half-spiteful glance towards me.
“Well, Mildred, what would you say to that?” asked Rocky.
“Church-goers are used to being accused of things,” I said. “I have never found out what exactly it is that we do or are supposed to do.”

I think Mildred Lathbury will be fine in the end.

Pomona Sprout Award for the portrayal of smart, strong hufflepuff women

Barbara Pym, Excellent Women (London, 1952)


Jo Robin

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

‘When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home…’ This is the start of this iconic novel by S.E. Hinton, which she wrote when she was only sixteen years old. In many US schools, this book is a standard part of the curriculum; even though the book has also been banned due to the gang violence it contains, underage smoking and drinking, abuse references and strong language. When reading it, however, you can understand how this story survived the test of time: teenagers and their problems never really change. Also, it is clear this book was written by a teenager.

Ponyboy Curtis, a young boy of 14, believes the world is divided into two groups of people: Greasers and Socs (Short for Socials). He and his older brothers, Sodapop and Darry, and their friends Johnny, Dally, Two-Bit and Steve are all Greasers. After the death of Ponyboy’s parents, Darry suddenly got hit with the responsibility of taking care of his younger brothers. Quite often the Socs attack the Greasers, as they see them as nothing but poor scum. The Greasers and Socs are divided by their socioeconomic status and each live on their own part of town, as Ponyboy explains, as the narrator of the story.

They story starts off as Ponyboy walks home from the movies and gets jumped by a couple of Socs, and they even pull a knife on him. His brothers and friends come to his rescue, but it’s quite a regular occurrence when you’re a Greaser, apparently. Dally, described as the toughest of their gang, takes the younger boys, Ponyboy and Johnny, to the drive-in, where they meet two Soc girls. Cherry and Marcia are actually really nice to Johnny and Ponyboy and they spend some time talking. Ponyboy even opens up to Cherry, how he feels like his brother Darry hates him now, after their parents’ death. However, the girls’ boyfriends show up, Bob and Randy, and they feel like the boys are trying to ‘pick up on their women’. Avoiding a fight, the Greasers leave, but Johnny and Ponyboy decide not to go home just yet. Johnny’s home life is simply terrible, with drunk and abusive parents. Before they know it, they fall asleep outside.

It’s the middle of the night when Pony wakes up and he rushes home. Darry is furious with worry and in his rage he hits Ponyboy. The kid then storms out again and meets Johnny outside, but that’s when the Socs, Bob and Randy, turn up. Ponyboy attempts to look tough and spits at one of them when provoked, and when a fight breaks out the two boys are heavily outnumbered. The Socs try to drown Ponyboy in the fountain and he loses consciousness. When he wakes up, he finds that Johnny has stabbed Bob and he is dead. Heavily panicked, they turn to Dally, who makes a plan for them to get on the night train and makes them hide out for a week in the country, hoping it’ll blow over in the meantime.

As the boys hide out in an old church, Ponyboy starts reading ‘Gone with the wind’ to Johnny, to kill time. After about a week, Dally shows up and takes them to get some food. When they return however, the church is on fire. Hearing the voices of children, Ponyboy runs inside the building in flames, followed by Johnny and then Dally. They manage to get all the kids out, but the three Greasers are all injured. After being rushed to the hospital, Ponyboy is reunited with Sodapop and Darry, his oldest brother even breaking down in tears. Johnny is not doing so good unfortunately, but the next morning Ponyboy does find out that Johnny won’t be charged for manslaughter and the three of them are proclaimed hero’s in the papers. The only problem now is the impending fight between all Greasers and Socs, to settle their rivalry once and for all.

The storyline is quite simple in this book, but the characters are wonderfully well-developed and realistic. Each of these Greaser boys has his own problems, aside from poverty and a bad reputation. Johnny comes from a abusive home, is described as looking like a puppy that has been kicked too many times, but he’s also very valuable to have on your side in a fight. Steve is mostly rude and cocky, but he loves cars and cares deeply for his friends. Two-Bit is eighteen already and the ‘oldest and the wisecracker of the bunch’. He drinks a lot, likes knives, but also loves Mickey Mouse and chocolate cake. Dally lived rough for years in New York, is the meanest of the Greasers, but in the end, all you can think is that he deserved better. Darry is athletic and smart, but now he just works non-stop to take care of his brothers, and remember he’s only twenty! Sodapop appears to be funny and easy-going, but he’s quite sensitive, describes himself as a dropout because he’s dumb and actually wants to marry his girlfriend. Ponyboy is the heaviest smoker of the family, but he’s also athletic, intelligent and sensitive. The point I‘m trying to make here is that none of these boys are perfect, but they are real. They all have a character trait or flaw that one can identify with.

Now the Greasers deal with stigmatization daily. They have very little money, no fancy house, but, as they put it, they do have hair (and a love for Elvis Presley). For this reason they take great pride in keeping their hair long and creating fancy swirls with lots of grease. Incidentally, in each character description in the book, hair takes up a big part of it. When Johnny and Ponyboy hide out in the church, they cut their hair to prevent recognition and Ponyboy bleaches his hair. He is embarrassed to no end by the way he looks. Also, he is now different from the rest of the gang. This of course is nothing new. All kinds of subcultures identify through simple outer appearance and especially the poorer communities place great emphasis on it. Think of the original working class Skinheads in London. But having something that makes you a part of a group can be very important. It makes you a part of something bigger and it creates some sense of having something, even though you appear to have nothing. Greasers are being judged no matter what, but in the end, even Ponyboy hopes for a world where a boy won’t be judged by the amount of grease in his hair. However, the bond these boys have is amazing. Often they feel like no one thinks anything good can come from a Greaser, like the world has given up on them and they’re so angry at the world for that (I think every teenager can relate?). Their gang is like their family and they take pride in their identity and even their bad reputation. I’d like to illustrate this with one of my favourite scenes of the story:

“I am a greaser,” Sodapop chanted. “I am a JD and a hood. I blacken the name of our fair city. I beat up people. I rob gas stations. I am a menace to society. Man, do I have fun!”
“Greaser…greaser…greaser…”Steve singsonged. “O, victim of environment, underprivileged, rotton no-count hood!”
Juvenile delinquent, you’re no good!” Darry shouted.
Get thee hence, white trash,” Two-Bit said in a snobbish voice. “I am a Soc. I am the privelaged and the well-dressed. I throw beer blasts, drive fancy cars, break windows at fancy parties.”
And what do you do for fun?” I inquired in a serious, awed voice.
I jump greasers!” Two-Bit screamed, and did a cartwheel.”

But, something extraordinary happens when Ponyboy meets Cherry. I actually really like Cherry, not as a character, but for what she does to and for the other characters. Cherry is Bob’s girlfriend and when Ponyboy first meets her at the movies, they talk status. Cherry tells Ponyboy how he probably assumes the Socs have it so much better at the rich side of town. And she says to him: ‘Things are rough all over.’ This is true of course. When her boyfriend Bob gets stabbed, she finds it hard to pick a side. Yes, she understands Bob could be a terrible person, but she also knew a different side to him. But the Socs deal with the same pressures of being an teenager: all the prejudices, doing well in school, love and friendship. If anything, that’s the moral of this book and story: we each have our issues, but we all have different sides to our personality, that only come out under certain circumstances.

In the end, when everything has settled down after the chaotic events of the story, Ponyboy descides to write down what happened to him. Yes, his teacher told him to write a story for extra credit, but Ponyboy is also just the kind of kid who loves books. He has the makings of a writer. So he starts writing: ‘When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home…’

Coming of age award: I would recommend this book to any kid as their first coming-of-age novel 

S.E. Hinton, The Outsiders (New York City, 1967)


Thura Nightingale 


Saga vol.1 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples


first page
Am I shitting? It feels like I’m shitting!”

Jup this is how Saga starts. This one picture sums up perfectly the book’s style: blunt, sensational, graphic, colourful and not afraid to break some conventions of what should and should not be in a book.

Saga is the name of a series of graphic novel space-opera sci-fi books. Space-opera is a subgenre of sci-fi, usually explained as a story with a lot of drama, spaceships and aliens, usually set in outer space and with a lot of shooting with laser pistols. Often there is not really an underlying moral to the story, but massive amounts of clichés to make up for that. The main purpose of the story is entertainment, so there is no need for originality. However, before we lose half of our readers, I’ll quickly say that Saga is much more than that! Some space-opera, such as Saga, manage to both entertain and to tell a great story with a lot of originality. If you strip all the sci-fi elements of this book, it is a story about parenthood, marriage, and how to make it work under difficult circumstances, living in a war, and how to deal with a world that seems set on tearing your family apart. Saga is a series of graphic novels. There are 8 parts so far, each called a volume. Volume 8 came out last December, and I thought it good to re-visit volume 1 in this review before I read that one. Therefore this review will mainly focus on volume 1 of the series.

The whole Saga series encompasses many different stories and characters, all in one way or another connected to the main characters and the war. The main characters in this volume are Alana, Marko and Hazel, visible on the cover. Alana and Marko are two star-crossed lovers, literally and metaphorically, from the two opposing factions in the war that has taken over the whole galaxy. Alana is from Landfall, a technologically advanced planet. Marko is from Wreath, a moon of Landfall, where they use magic. Wreath and Landfall have been at war for centuries, but recently, the war has spiralled to the rest of the galaxy, forcing all species and worlds to take sides. There is nothing but hate and contempt between the people of Landfall and Wreath, which makes Alana and Marko’s love a disgrace and unthinkable. To make matters even worse, Alana is carrying Marko’s child, which we see being born in the first pages of the book. Their child is named Hazel. This child is seen as an abomination and as a danger to the war, because it shows that a relationship between the two factions is possible. Therefore both forces in the war hunt our little family to kill them. A big part of the story is about how our family flees from various hitmen, hitwomen, hitspiders and other parties set on either killing or kidnapping their child.

Their flight takes them through many different worlds, all bizarre, but awesome, in their own way. Also, they meet many different people along the way, showing the wide range of different species in the world of this book. For example, the planet where the story starts, Cleave, has a forest where spaceships grow in the shape of trees. A tree spaceship: how awesome is that! Another example is the people from Robot Kingdom, an important ally of the Landfallians, who have a television head instead of a human head. One of them, Prince Robot IV, heir to the throne, is one of the people pursuing our little family. Another person pursuing them is ‘the Stalk’, who is basically a spider hitwoman, a character a really did not need to confirm my fear of spiders. Below is a picture of her showing her in all her terrifying glory. All these species work in the book, however crazy they might sound. That, for me, is the most crucial thing for good sci-fi. This is a very graphic book though in its depiction of violence and sex, so if that’s not your thing, this book is probably not for you.

Artwork is generally speaking a very important component in a graphic novel. In this particular series, Fiona Staples is the artist and Brian K. Vaughan the writer. The artwork is what initially attracted me to this series. Fiona Staples uses a lot of bright colours, which is something that I personally love. This also served another purpose though. It helped to make a visual separation between all the different worlds and characters. By using such a broad spectrum of colours, Fiona gave each world and characters its own personality. It is immediately clear by the colour use whether we are in a creepy forest or in a kid’s playground. This made switching between all the different story arcs and characters easy to follow. Also, Fiona has her own style, which is something one always can admire in artists.

This book demonstrates how war can divide a universe, but also shows how a lot of people try to live their life as normal as possible. There are many scenes of war in this book, but also a lot of ‘normal’ scenes of family life and television. Luckily, the dramatic and violent parts of the story are alternated with funny parts or light-hearted randomness. For example, the book ends with the greatest fear of every new couple: your parents (in-laws) come live with you. All in all, this is a great series for anyone who loves a story with a lot of drama and colour. This story gives you so many different worlds to travel to and species to meet that it’ll keep you entertained long after you’ve finished the book. But be careful: this book will rip your heart out. It is not called ‘the game of thrones of sci-fi’ for nothing.

 Arachnophobia award for giving us another reason to hate spiders

Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples, Saga vol. 1 (Berkeley, 2012)

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear