When I hit you: or, a portrait of the writer as a young wife by Meena Kandasamy

This book is part of my effort this year to read author from a diverse range of backgrounds, and to read more female writers. Meena Kandasamy is from India, and is a female, so this book fell into both categories, because I haven’t read much books from Indian authors before.

I feel compelled to add a warning to this review: this book contains a lot of graphic descriptions of domestic abuse and rape, which might make you re-consider whether you would want to read the book or not. I read the story without knowing how graphic some scenes would be, and was taken aback by some of them. I will refrain from using graphic descriptions in this review though, so you can read this.

‘When I hit you’ is the story about a woman and her abusive marriage. This story of her marriage is intertwined with one about her previous big love before she married and her aspirations to be a writer. Through those stories the book narrates how she got into the marriage, what the abuse did to her psychologically, and how she managed to get out of it and continue her life. Each chapter is about a different part of her life. The parts about her past with her former lover are used, among things, to describe how her previous life with her lover and their sexual exploits are used against her by her husband to break her. Also, her old lover makes her ponder the meaning of love and sex, when comparing his actions and lovemaking to that of her husband. Neither was perfect, but you can almost image the protagonist thinking: how did I end up with a husband like this?’ The chapters about her aspirations to be a writer are partly used to show how she copes with the present situation. She does that by pretending to write the story about the abuse, instead of living it, placing herself out of the situation. However, her husband doesn’t like her writing, and she is forced to write more and more in secret and in her mind only. Her love for writing is only one thing her husband takes from her though. Slowly, everything that she holds dear is twisted by him by making it into something bad, something a good wife should not concern herself with.

The main character has no name in this story, and is only referred to as ‘she’. This is deliberately done by Meena Kandasamy, because in this way the story of ‘she’ becomes the story of every woman. Or to speak in Kandasamy’s own words: “a woman at whom society cannot spit or throw stones, because this me is a she who is made up only of words on a page, and the lines she speaks are those that everyone hears in their own voice”. In this way, the protagonist of this book becomes some kind of universal sufferer, which could be every one of us, and not the story of one woman who was unlucky. This is a very powerful method to make clear that it is not only ‘weak’ persons, who fall into abusive relationships, but that it could happen to anyone. Another reason for the choice of a more abstract character becomes clear at the ending of the book. Once the main person is back home with her parents, and starts to talk about the abuse, she gets a lot of inquiries ‘why she did not get out of it quicker’, ‘why did you let this happen to you’, ‘I thought you were a feminist’, and questions like that.  Kandasamy has experienced an abusive marriage herself, but one can understand she would rather write about it in a less-direct personal way to move the focus to the topic of abusive, and not on her personal experiences.

The writing style of this book is very emotional. Sometimes maybe overly so, however that is also a personal preference. I come from a cold country where everybody understands each other by the way a silence feels, so prose sounds dramatic to me quickly. But everyone experiences emotions in a different way, so the tone of a book is hard to judge. Beside the emotional tone, the style of the writing is very poetic. Reading, it feels like something between poetry and prose, looking at the lay-out and the sentences she uses. She tells the story in little fragments, leaving it to the reader to piece the story together, like poetry often does. The language used is also very beautiful at times, full of contradictions and other clever writing tricks. For example, in one sentence she uses ‘living day’ and ‘funeral pyre’ in the same paragraph, beautifully showing the contradictions of her life between having the live-force to want to live and the depression from living in an abusive marriage.

‘Funeral pyre’ also shows the Indian context of this book. Kandasamy is Indian, and active as a feminist, both things are apparent when reading this book. The ‘she’ of the book is also Indian and a feminist, often she is even accused of ‘ultra-feminism’ by her husband and other men. In the book the ‘she’ reflects on Indian society and the role of women in that. She feels pressure from her mother to just be the ‘good obedient’ wife, and to wait until her husband calms down. Also she is afraid what her husband might do, if she isn’t a good wife. She thinks about the burning of wives, as she talks about what happens to woman who ‘do not behave’ (funeral pyre). Of course, I do not know to which extent this book shows the reality of women in India, but at any rate it is good that books are written about strong woman, who end up in an abusive relationship. It is not a cheerful book to read, but it is something that does happen, and can happen in many different contexts, so it is good to be aware of it.

The ‘she’ in her book screams for love, but her voice is silenced by her husband and society. Eventually she realizes she is the only one who can save herself, and, thank God, she eventually does. The book ends with a powerful reflection on the meaning of one’s body, being a woman and fighting your way out of whatever oppressive situation you happen to be living in. I cannot adequately explain the power of the ending, so I’ll end this with a quote from it instead: “I am the woman with wings, the woman who can fly and fuck at will. I have smuggled this woman out of the oppressive landscape of small-town India. I need to smuggle her out of her history, out of the do’s and don’ts for good Indian Girls”.  And this does not only go for Indian girls, but for everyone!

Feminism award for telling the story of a strong woman who manages to save herself

Meena Kandasamy, when I hit you: or, a portrait of the writer as a young wife (London, 2017)

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Bella G. Bear

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The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

You know when sometimes you pick up a book expecting it to be good, but you’re terribly disappointed? The opposite happened to me with The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, a historical fantasy novel by Natasha Pulley. I bought it because I thought it would be an entertaining story with steampunk elements and besides, it looked pretty. I gave it to my youngest brother for his birthday, hoping to borrow it from him when he finished it (you know you do it too). When I finally read it, it turned out to be so much better than expected that I couldn’t shut up about it and now I want everybody to read it. If you like a good chase through the tunnels of the London Underground, sudden deaths under mysterious circumstances and golden firefly automatons, you’ll probably love it as much as I did.

Having said that, it is quite hard to convey why the book is so great without giving away too much of the plot, which is a big part of its brilliance, but I will give it a try. In 1883 Victorian London, the quiet Thaniel Steepleton is a telegraph operator at the Home Office. Usually his life is unexciting, until two remarkable things happen on the same day. Firstly, the Ministry gets a warning from Scotland Yard that Clan na Gael, an Irish independence organisation based in America, will bomb public buildings in London on 30 May 1884. Secondly, Thaniel finds his appartment broken into. Nothing seems to have been taken, but a golden watch has been left in his room.

The following May, a student called Grace Carrow is disturbed by an enthusiastic greeting from her best friend, Akira Matsumoto, while doing research in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. They are both outsiders in the university city, she being a woman and he being Japanese, but that’s about the only thing they have in common. Matsumoto is rich, sociable and lazy, translating Japanese poetry when he feels like it, but not doing much else. Grace is a grumpy physicist, who is scrambling to get her research done before the end of term, because it will be her last and if she doesn’t have a scientific discovery to publish an article about, her last hope to be allowed to continue her research will be gone and she will have to marry someone in London.

When 30 May arrives, all government institutions are in uproar because of the bomb threat, which is carried out in spectacular fashion. Thaniel’s life is, to his bewilderment, saved by the golden watch that he found in his room. Not believing this is coincidence and encouraged by the head of Scotland Yard, Thaniel decides to investigate the maker of the pocketwatch, a Japanese craftsman called Keita Mori. Meanwhile, Grace is working on her experiment that should prove that aether, the medium through which light is supposed to travel, exists. But the summer brings her to London and high society, where, surprisingly, she meets a simple clerk whose name is Thaniel. From this point on, their stories overlap, while they both get sucked in by the intricacies of British-Japanese relations and, in different ways, by the charms of Keita Mori, the watchmaker of Filigree Street. The story speeds up when different characters discover different secrets and sometimes decide to take drastic steps to protect themselves or someone they care about. In the final part of the book especially, you’ll have to pay attention, or you’ll miss some crucial plot points.

The book has a romantic subplot that is so subtle, that for ages I thought I was only imagining the attraction between the characters because I rooted for them so much. When the lovestory finally played out, it was sweeter and much happier than I had dared hope for. The interaction between main characters becomes even more interesting because of the change of perspective: some chapters are told from the point of view of Grace, most from Thaniel’s and a few through the eyes of Ito, the Minister for Internal Affairs of Japan. These people experience the fast-paced story very differently and often disagree with each other, which forces the reader into uncertainty about who to root for. However, we are never allowed to read from the point of view of Mori, the watchmaker. Everybody circles around him, everybody hates him or loves him, everbody wonders who Keita Mori really is.

The story becomes gradually more complicated, with chapters taking place in Japan several years before the main story, characters interacting in unexpected ways and terrific plottwists. Hardly anyone is who they say they are. I think the relationships in the story, romantic or otherwise, are so natural because the characters are very realistic to begin with. Even minor characters get some flavour to their personality, or something unique about them. None of the main characters are heroes in the traditional sense of the word, they are flawed and don’t trust each other mostly. Which is good, because they are not very trustworthy either. But they are likable, and best of all, they are not boring. Grace is a good example. Although there are many suffragettes in her circles, Grace is not one of them, like you might expect from a protagonist in a story written in the 21st century. She declares that most women are to vacuous to make good use of the right to vote. Her male best friend lovingly points her out for the hypocrite she is, but she doesn’t care and instead goes to extraordinary lengths to get what she wants out of life, including frequently dressing up as a man to do things women aren’t allowed to do.

The book is Natasha Pulley’s debut, and she has done her research on the time en places in her story extremely well. Not only are the historical events correct, but the science and inventions of the era are right as well. A Japanese museum village, for instance, really existed in Hyde Park, and the rails of the London underground often really were on the same level as the platform, which sounds incredibly dangerous. But probably the most interesting thing is Grace’s aether experiment, which is

based on the Michelson-Morley experiment that meant a revolution for physics, and eventually lead to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. In The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, slightly different conclusions are drawn from the experiment and so a kind of magic, that is supported by science, is born. The story is still a fantasy novel, with imaginative inventions, but even the inexplicable things feel probable.

I haven’t yet talked about the deadly samurai, the mechanical octopus, the precocious orphan girl, dozens of steam trains, the opera by Gilbert and Sullivan and the dangerous fireworks, but you should probably find out about them for yourself. It suffices to say that this is one of the most surprising fantasy books I have ever read and I hope you like or will like it as much as I do.

Jim Hopper Award for the illegal but adorable adoption of a little girl

Natasha Pulley, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (London, 2015)

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Jo Robin

Northern Lights (His Dark Materials #1) by Philip Pullman

‘Northern Lights’ is the first novel in the fantasy series ‘His Dark Materials’ by Philip Pullman. It is usually described as a coming of age tale of two children, while they roam about through parallel universes. I don’t think this description even covers half of what is going on in these wonderful books. When I was only four years old, I visited the city for the first time and I thought it was absolutely magical: like magic could literally be behind any door there. This book starts off in the magical city of Oxford.

Oxford in a parallel universe is the same city of golden light, but zeppelins are the main mode of transport and anbaric power is used to fuel their green burning lamps. In this universe, humans’ souls walk beside them in the form of an animal, a physical manifestation of their inner-self, called daemons. In this world, there is a prophecy about a child who will determine the war to come. The Magisterium is the highest form of power there and has taken control of the governments, as an international theocracy, who obey the laws of the Authority. This religious body tries to control the universities and sciences as well, and Lyra’s uncle, Lord Asriel, is often at odds with them.

But twelve-year-old Lyra knows nothing of this: she’s busy building castles out of mud and waging war with the Gyptian kids. When Lyra was only a baby, she was left at Jordan College by her uncle to receive her education there and Lyra takes great pride in her rich college home. Oxford is her whole world, but soon everything starts to change. Lyra becomes aware of the power struggles, between church and university, as she and her daemon Pantalaimon hide in the closet and witness someone trying to poison her uncle. She then learns about Dust, a subject greatly feared and forbidden by the Magisterium. At the same time, kids, especially the poor, keep disappearing from Oxford and rumours are going round that ‘the Gobblers’ are behind it. Later she meets the manipulative but gorgeous socialite Mrs. Coulter. This charming lady persuades the Master to ‘borrow’ Lyra, as an assistant for when she has to go back up North, to the icy plains of Svalbard. Lyra, up for any adventure, is more excited than ever! But before she leaves, the Master, who seems very worried, hands her an Alethiometer: a truth-measurer.

I want to get one thing straight first: Lyra Belacqua is not a nice girl. Yes, she was left by her uncle to grow up among the scholars of the prestigious Jordan College in Oxford. And, yes, she grows up without any parental guidance and there’s a lot of mystery surrounding who her parents are. And, yes, she is pretty much left to roam around the city, climb the roofs, get into fights and steal, lie and deceive. But she’s not sweet or cuddly, not even when you break through her tough exterior. She’s stubborn, wild and even manipulative. Lyra silver tongue is a cunning storyteller and a liar: absolutely untrustworthy. But she’s also incredibly determined and courageous, and even loyal to the right people. Lyra is so much more than a nice girl: She’s brilliant.

Soon Lyra finds out that people are not at all who they seem to be. She also discovers that she is far more important than just the slithering alley cat she thought she was. When she discovers her best friend Roger was taken by the Gobblers as well, she decides to rescue him. In the North, where the taken children are being kept, the mighty armoured bears rule the lands and the skies are the domain of the queen-witches. During her quest, Lyra meets a witch for the first time. Serafina Pekkala tells her of the prophecy and how the witches have always known of a child able to read the Alethiometer naturally. Along the way, they find out the Gobblers are actually agents of the Magisterium, performing an operation on these children called ‘intercision’. Much to everyone’s horror, intercision is the process of cutting the bonds between a child and its daemon, which is usually followed by great trauma and even death. So Lyra goes to war, with the help of an aeronaut, an army of Gyptians and an armoured bear.

A lot of critics have written that this book is a protest against all organised religion and the church itself. However, Philip Pullman is quite close with Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, and he has stated that these books should be included in all religious-education courses. He argues that Pullman attacks the constrictive dogmatism used when religion tries to oppress, not Christianity itself, and I agree. The Authority, in Lyra’s world, is much like our God and the Magisterium is the church. But in Lyra’s world, there is not room for personal faith or a relationship with God, as the Magisterium seeks to control everything and everyone, even the other worlds! Even the sciences are called ‘experimental theology’ in that world. But what I find most interesting is the idea of Dust, the main subject of the series, in a way. Dust is what flows through your daemon into you. Dust is also what makes the Alethiometer, an instrument of truth, function. Dust is what makes kids’ daemons change shape and adults’ daemons settle into a permanent shape. Dust is, according to the Magisterium, original sin. Through intercision one can prevent Dust settling on children and help them before all kinds of unnatural and uncomfortable feelings and thoughts can bother them. Ergo, they cut away the soul before a child hits puberty. The cutting away of any sexual desire, and therefor sin, must sound familiar, but by no means do I feel like Pullman tries to force his ideas upon his readers. As a student of theology, I found this a fascinating part of the story.

The plot is simply brilliant. There are a number of twists and turns I never saw coming. Also the book is far more complex than the thoroughly lacking movie adaption (in my opinion), but you won’t get lost along the way. Pullman has a great talent of describing atmospheres: the cold north up in Svalbard, the golden city of Oxford and the horrible fear-filled air around Bolvangar, where the Gobblers have taken the children. The fantasy elements are of course the witches and the kingdom of the armoured bears up North, but his magic also lies in the steampunk green burning fires, in his theological approach to fiction and his great imagery. The supporting characters are equally interesting as the main protagonist. Pullman even manages to avoid all the clichés of parallel universes as you often see; his world is far more interesting, and therefor more plausible, than anything I’ve ever read before.

When I was young I loved the fact that Lyra was a little rat, a liar and genuinely a tough girl. As I grew older, I loved the fact that the book handled such diverse themes and worlds, even the underworld in the third book: The Amber Spyglass. I especially enjoyed his description of our world in the second book, The Subtle Knife, and the main character in that one. Now a new element has captured me and this is the way he has incorporated politics and theology into his fictional world, with his own thoughts on our politics and church quite clear. In short, this is a book you can read over and over and something new will peak your interest each time. Successfully, Pullman has written a book I loved when I was thirteen years old and a book that fascinates me now more than ever.

Budding theologian award: If this won’t awaken our theological instincts and fascinations, I don’t know what will…

Northern Lights (His Dark Materials #1), Philip Pullman (New York, 1995)

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Thura Nightingale 

Kingdom of the golden dragon (Memories of the Eagle and the Jaguar #2) by Isabel Allende

As you’ve probably noticed before me because of the title of this review, this is part two in a three-part series. I only discovered that when I was about halfway through the book, so don’t let that stop you from reading this review or the book itself! Although, I admit that it would make more sense to start with the first one now you know it’s a series. I’ve only read this one so far and could understand everything that happened. Isabel Allende cleverly explains the important parts that happen in the first book throughout this one, such as Nadia’s background, necessary to understand the things happening in the second part. This only made me more curious to the first part though. The second part is a new adventure with some characters from the first book, and some new ones.

This series is written by Isabell Allende as three young adult novels. Each book in the series is a stand-alone adventure story, which is set in a different remote part of the earth. The fact that it is YA, does not mean she does not talk about the serious topics as usually present in her books, such as corruption, dictatorial politics, justice and the position of women. Each book in the series centres on Alexander, also called Jaguar, Nadia, also called Eagle and Alexander’s grandmother Kate Cold. Kate Cold works for International Geographic, which I assume is Allende’s version of ‘National Geographic’, for which she is sent to remote places in the world. In the first book it is the Amazonian jungle, in the third the plains of Kenia, and in this one, the second, it is the ‘forbidden kingdom’ somewhere high up in the Himalayas. The forbidden country is a Buddhist kingdom, closed-off to most visitors because the authorities want to keep the purity of the nature and the people’s minds intact. I have to say here that I don’t know how close to Buddhism the practises in this book actually are, because I know too little of it to say. Kate and her crew of photographers, together with Alexander and Nadia, are allowed in the kingdom to make a reportage. This trip of Kate and her family is one part of the story.

The second part of the story is about somebody called the ‘Collectionneur’ who, as his name suggests, collects valuable artefacts from all over the world.  Also, he has the wish to become the richest person in the world, because now he is only the second-to richest and he does not deal with that well. He has heard rumours about a golden dragon statue used in the forbidden kingdom to predict the future. Naturally he wants that statue. To do that he hires somebody called ‘The Specialist’ to steal the statue and the code needed to predict the future. He hopes that the statue will help him to get even richer. The specialist is the kind of villain often present in adventure and spy novels. The Specialist is smart, cunning and ruthless. Basically, if you pay The Specialist’s exorbitantly high price, the job will get done, no questions asked.

The characters are what makes this book very good in my opinion, especially the women. There is Kate, the weathered international geographic writer with a great love for her grandson and her special vodka tea. There is Nadia from the Amazonian jungle who has an eagle as spiritual animal, which is also why she is sometimes called ‘Eagle’ in the book, but has actually a great fear of heights. This however does not stop her from being extraordinary brave. Finally, there is Pema, who lives in the capital of the forbidden kingdom, and turns out to be maybe the bravest of all people in the book. Isabel Allende is always most successful in writing strong female characters, who go their own way in life, not always impressed by the men who love them. This makes a nice change from a lot of the other YA books, where loving a boy seems to be the biggest occupation of females present. Here is one example from the book which makes this difference very clear. Nadia and Alexander are discussing doing something very dangerous. At a certain point Alexander ‘allows’ Nadia to go along with him, but he tells her to do whatever he tells her to. Her reply to that is that she won’t do everything he says, but will do whatever she thinks is best. Also she tells Alexander that the situation is just as dangerous for him, as it is for her, so she might as well join him, ‘so deal with it,’ I imagined her ending her statement with.

I don’t think the forbidden kingdom is one hundred percent based on a real country, but it does have a lot of similarities with Bhutan, which is also a mountain kingdom in the Himalaya. In Bhutan they also adhere to Buddhism, and Bhutan is sometimes referred to as the ‘forbidden kingdom’, because it is pretty closed off from modern society. I do not know enough about Bhutan and its political system to see how similar it is to the one in the book, but they are both monarchies. For me it is always interesting to see how writers use something we have on this earth, and shape it into something they can use in their stories. It’s the same with the way Isabel weaves spirituality into this adventure story.  Supernatural things are happening in this book, but in such a way that they are part of the story from the start, and not as a way to solve a big unsurmountable problem at the end as a ‘deus ex machina’.  It does take some suspension of disbelief to go along with the spiritual solution of problems, but once you do it makes this book a wonderful journey through the power of the mind, and the believe that there is actually magic in this world. Also inclusion of those spiritual elements gives the reader some nice ideas to ponder, while enjoying the adventure part of the story.

In conclusion, this book is a bit different from Isabel Allende’s other works, because it is aimed at young adults. However, it shares many elements prominent in her other works, such as interesting female characters, a strong moralistic component and it is written in her compelling writing style that basically sucks you in and won’t let you go until you’ve finished the book.  Because this is an adventure novel written by Isabel Allende, it is ideal for girls who love spy novels, secret society books, and all other books where the protagonist gets to do awesome things, the best thing being that the protagonist is often a women. And of course this book is also for the guys who need to be introduced into the beautiful world of Isabell Allende.

Indiana Jane award for showing that adventure books are not only a boys’ game

Isabel Allende, El reino del dragón de oro (New York, 2003)

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Bella G. Bear

Christmas Recommendations

First off, we’d like to wish all of a you a merry Christmas!
We hope your days will be filled with joy and many, many books.

So, to help you along a bit, we’ve compiled a list of books that we think suit the holidays best. These books will get you right into that Chistmassy vibe!

    1. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1843)

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      This one is a bit of a no-brainer on this list, but still important to mention. Everybody will know the story through the Muppets or another rendition of this well-known story, but when you read the book you will discover more. The book goes further than the movies, and generally speaking focusses more on the redemption part of the story. It also focusses on the importance of family and friends for a good life and how to become and stay a decent person. This sounds like a very good message for Christmas to us!

    2. Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle (1887)

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      I’m pretty sure it’s more of a personal feeling, but we really associate Sherlock Holmes with Christmas. Not that he is a particular festive person, nor do any of the stories take place during Christmas, but a good old fashion murder case, thought over by Sherlock himself, in his wing chair while smoking a pipe…to us, that’s the perfect cherry on the top of the Christmas season. I’d recommend ‘A study in scarlet’, as it is a novel and it’s chronologically the first novel: this is where you learn about the special relationship Holmes and Watson have. So maybe it will even get you a little bit sentimental!

    3. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling (1997)

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      What book better to read during the holidays of joyfulness and togetherness, than a book in which a lonely boy finally finds his true family. Also something about the whole approach Hogwarts has towards decorations and celebration, together with the people who are close to you, makes this a very suitable Christmas read. Plus, it also gives warm feelings to read a book loved in one’s youth. And Hogwarts will always be home.

    4. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie (1938)

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      Murder at Christmas, it’s that time of the year again! Our Belgian friend and his great mustache never really get to have a break… Now, imagine a Christmas scene, cozy and cheerful, all these decorations and good food; sounds lovely, right? Now imagine adding a lot of uncut diamonds, a black sheep in the family, an emotional and sadistic game and a crucial last will and testament. What do you get? Yes, murder: a wonderful locked room mystery, with a festive touch.

    5. The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E.T.A. Hoffmann (1816)

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      Yes, before there was the ballet masterpiece by Tchaikovsky, there was a book. In the story, a little girl’s favourite Christmas toy comes to life to defeat the evil mouse king. It’s an imaginative tale, with a battle and a curse and good versus evil, mostly set in the night before Christmas! Honestly, that’s what Christmas is all about, isn’t it? Imagining the unimaginable.

    6. Fairytales: The Singing, Soaring Lark by the Brothers Grimm (1815)

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      Fairytales are perfect for Christmas, because they can so easily be read aloud to children or friends. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm traveled for years to collect German folk tales. The ones we all know are wonderful, but it’s worth it to look into some of the lesser known stories, like ‘The Singing, Soaring Lark’. This story is about a brave young woman whose perseverence leads her to encounter a dragon, lions, a griffin and many other things, all to reunite her family. It’s only a few pages long but it contains several plot twists and, greatest of all, a woman saves the prince for once.

    7. Crime at Christmas by C.H.B. Kitchin (1934)

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      I can’t tell you why it feels so right to read about horrific murders on such a hopeful, holy day, but it does. Crime at Christmas has the classic setting of a wealthy family that plays parlor games with their guests in their big house, until Christmas morning brings a gruesome discovery. Your Christmas might be miserable, but stockbroker-turned-detective Malcolm Warren has it worse: it’s bad enough that someone has died, but a death makes the whole holiday awkward, and that’s not what he signed up for when he accepted the invitation to Beresford Lodge.

    8. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)

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      Christmas is supposed to be a time of magic, but how do you keep that magic alive when you’re father is away at war and money is tight? That is the situation the four sisters and their mother find themselves in, in this book. However, as is also shown in this book, Christmas is also a time of sharing and spending time with your loved ones without worrying about the materialistic side of life. This book will show you how Christmas can be enjoyed when you have little, by sharing what you have, and will also warm your heart, because of the obvious love the four sisters and their mother share.

    9. Babette’s Feast by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) (1958)

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      A lot of people associate the holidays with lots of food, family and good spirits (not just of the alcoholic kind). This Danish story, though not set during Christmas, is all about food. In the story, a refugee from France just appears, so just the idea of a refugee changing the lives of others is already deeply connected to the Christmas story to me. But this stranger tries to convince these pious sisters and their guests to enjoy life just a little more, so she offers them this fantastic meal, that in the end they can’t help but enjoy, without fearing for their souls. It’s a wonderful pure tale on just enjoying the earthly things. Even though it’s mostly people eating food, the characters change over the course of the meal and it’s a wonderful story of people coming together and really opening up to each other.

    10. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1838)

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      Dickens is Christmas. Though hardly historically accurate, he paints a picture of a snow covered London, with carriages and bells, warm churches and family dinners. The story starts off with complete poverty though: a young boy, whom terrible things happen to and a mysterious plot in which somehow an insignificant boy appears to be crucial. But through the actions of women mostly, he finds his family in the end. What could be more Christmassy: the message of hope, through a child in poverty and dispair, as he escapes from the dark criminal underworld of London. Also, Dickens is mostly known for creating brilliant characters and this book has some of the best in my opinion. A book everyone should read at least a dozen times, so why not at Christmas this year?

    11. Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950)

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      This story is about four children, who find themselves in a magical, hidden land called Narnia that is cursed by an evil snow queen: it’s always winter, but never Christmas. The children learn that, according to a prophecy, their arrival means that the rightful King of Narnia will return. Not only does he bring back Christmas, but he will defeat the White Witch, free her prisoners and forgive the traitors. Does that sound familiar? It might, because The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is not so much a Christmas story as it is an allusion to the original Christmas story.

    12. The original Christmas story in the Bible

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      We decided that creating a list of stories to read over Christmas simply wouldn’t be complete without the story that started it all.
      The original story of the birth of Jesus can be found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, in New Testament of the Bible. Luke 2:1-20 is probably the most well known version of the story, but there’s a lot of the story we know from the Christmas books we read as a child missing from there. You will find the birth of Jesus there, the angels singing and the shepherds visiting. However to find the three kings and the story of an angry King Herod, you will have to turn to Matthew 2: 1-12. These two gospels appear to give two very different accounts of the birth of Christ, but as they are often thrown together in populair books or series, it’s best to read both gospels. The annunciation by the angel, which sets the story, can be found in both Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1: 26-38. And this is really what Christmas is all about: the birth of Christ and a light of hope in a seemingly dark world.

We hope you all have a great holiday!

Crime at Christmas by C.B.H. Kitchin

Last week, Thura and I reorganised my bookshelves. The book collection in my one-room-appartment had got a bit out of hand and Thura is, after all, the daughter of a librarian. As a result, after some hours of work and a bottle of port, all my books are now sorted by genre, use and origin. Placed quite appropriately next to the cookbooks, there’s a small section I am very proud of, exclusively devoted to Christmas books. One of the books you’ll find there is Crime at Christmas, which according to its cover is a ‘classic festive mystery’.

Set in a big city house in Hampstead at Christmas time, with an array of family members, house guests and domestic staff, the story reads like a game of Cluedo. Malcolm Warren is the narrator of the story: a stockbroker, who was invited to the house of one of his clients to celebrate Christmas with the family. He is a stuck-up and whiny man, who sprains his wrist in the first chapter during a game of musical chairs. “To my great relief I found that I could walk without any difficulty. Evidently I still had legs, if not arms, ” he tells us, before he retires to bed to recover. He keeps this dramaqueen attitude throughout the book, taking to bed every time a dead body turns up. He ought to know that while in the midst of a murder mystery, nobody has time for your complaints about a ruined Christmas or bruised arm.

In the first two chapters, the many characters who stay at the house are introduced. These people will, later on, all either be under suspicion or become victims themselves. They are, besides Warren and probably some anonymous other staff, the following people:
Mr Quisberg is the owner of the house, a rich businessman with a foreign accent, although Warren can’t quite guess what country he comes from. He is the third husband of Mrs Quisberg, who has five children from her two previous marriages, one of whom spends Christmas in Switzerland with his cousins. The other four stay at Beresford Lodge for the holidays. They are Clarence James, a somewhat sulky painter and poet; Amabel Thurston, a pretty blonde socialite who is engaged to a loud and somewhat rude man called Leonard Dixon; Sheila Thurston, who has just finished school; and Cyril, who is only twelve years old and recovering from an operation. He is tended to by the beautiful, dark Nurse Moon and regularly visited by the house doctor: McKenzie. Staff members Warren meets are Edwins, the footman and Mr George, the butler. The other house guests are Harley, who is Mr Quisberg’s secretary, Harley’s elderly mother and finally Mr Quisberg’s best friend: Dr Martin Green. The doctor is a big and eccentric man, whom some people call a genius. Warren takes an instant liking to him, but like all the other characters, he seems to be involved in some sort of secret business.

At dawn on Christmas morning, a body is discovered on one of the balconies, and Warren gloomily guesses that this will mean the end of the festivities and his comfortable holiday as a pitied ‘invalid’ in Beresford Lodge. He now has to be nice to the shocked members of the family and he is no longer the centre of attention. He isn’t really interested in finding out what happened, although he fancies himself a bit of an investigator, but he is bored and so he observes and asks questions. As an unobstrusive, mildly unpleasant person and by sheer luck, he manages to overhear quite a lot of things. He tells the readers about his own selfish thoughts and feelings as well, which makes him such an irritating character that the story becomes quite funny in my opinion. I can, however, imagine how people could be impatient with this story, waiting for the detecting to begin. Luckily, a second death occurs, and this time Warren is sparked into action by fear of being implicated in what is, this time, clearly a murder and not an accident. Clues involve mysterious flute playing, secret meetings on the heath and midnight fireworks.

The book is concluded by a ‘Short Catechism’, in which Kitchin imagines questions the reader might have, and has them answered by Malcolm Warren. Kitchin uses this opportunity to have his narrator explain why he deems detective stories worth telling: because they present a nice puzzle, and because they are studies of ordinary life by way of the contrast with something terrible. Warren uses a lot of words to explain it and seems rather proud of his thoughts. From this strange piece of meta-story I got the idea that Warren wasn’t just an invented character made obnoxious for comic effect, but actually quite like Kitchin himself and the obnoxious part was just accidental. I think I take back what I said in an earlier review: that writers of murder mysteries must be very interesting people. I have only read this one story by Kitchin so he might have cleverly fooled me, but I don’t think I should like to meet him. His book was fun, though!

And that is exactly how you should approach this book, I think: a fun read. If you expect a dark, gritty mystery, you will be disappointed. This is a story full of self-important characters who overreact and have not-so-deep thoughts and try to get on with their spoiled lives in the big house. We’re not talking Scandinavian psychological drama here: this book is an unashamed whodunnit. I do have to admit I was a little thrown by the ending. The mystery is resolved by the police while Warren, the narrator, isn’t quite there yet, and has to be brought up to speed by an inspector. This felt a bit sudden and I would have liked to follow Warren till he figured everything out by himself. But we can’t have everything we want, as Warren’s thwarted Christmas plans prove. He has a way of dealing with his disappointment, though, and I’ll leave his advice with you: “Apparently I was the only drinker in the room. ‘Better one than none,’ I thought, as I poured out my second glass.”

Downton Abbey Award for all those breakfasts taken in bed.

C.B.H. Kitchin, Crime at Christmas (London, 1934)

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Jo Robin

Zombies, Run! by Naomi Alderman & Six To Start

Let me start off with a little bit of personal information: I hate running, or jogging. I have this problem that whenever I run, I start thinking to myself after a few minutes: why am I doing this? And then I have to stop. Another piece of information about me: I do love hiking, survival, climbing and any kind of self-defence. After a rough period in life, I’ve found that I am much happier and more comfortable in my own skin if I feel strong. I used to try and explain this to my friends by saying: ‘If ever a zombie apocalypse were to occur, I want to feel like I’d be able to survive it.’ And then I read about this app called Zombies, run! and it was perfect.

This is a book review of course, but I would like to start off by telling you a little bit about the app that started it all. Six To Start created the app in 2012 and it’s basically an audiobook with different seasons and episodes, and you are the main character. The idea was to incorporate fitness into a cool story where you are the hero of the tale, which is great for your confidence. You are Runner 5, and as you walk or jog outside, you have a radio connection with a lovely man named Sam, who coaches you through the post-apocalyptic world where you complete a mission every time. He tells you to RUN!, to pick up stuff and every now and then you hear zombies breathing down your neck and you are forced to sprint. As the story continues, you find out more and more about what has happened, different characters and what you can do to help. During the first episode, you are in a helicopter, which crashes, and you have to run for the gates of your township, in order to escape a horde of zombies. The thing is, in the beginning you know very little about how the zombie apocalypse came to be. Who Runner 5, your character, actually is, is quite unclear, but is also left up to you to fill in, which is great. Mind you, this app does make you a little paranoid, but it’s so much fun. It doesn’t even feel like a workout; you’re just running for your life.

You don’t really need the app in order to enjoy the book, but the setup is much the same and it was based on the bestselling app. The book Zombies, run! is also a combination of fitness routines and just a great story. The book is written as a ‘ministry of recovery publication’, as a guide to ‘keeping fit and living well in the current zombie emergency’. You will find fitness routines here, but also a lot of how-to’s, on how to protect your home, barricade a door, keep your spirits up, map your area and find other survivors. In addition there’s the story of what happened during the apocalypse, different kinds of zombies, a few recipes and case studies of other survivors. If you like any kind of story that deals with a subject as though it is real and happening right now, this is just the book for you. Once again, mind the paranoia in you.

The book is divided in seven different parts. Section one is ‘the home front’, where you will learn some exercises to build muscle and stamina from home, as well as some basic chores to keep you occupied and healthy. Section two is ‘venturing forth’, which is all about scoping your neighbourhood, and how to walk and run, or even swim and cycle, safely, while recognizing any kind of danger. Section three is ‘building a community’, where you will read testimonies by other survivors, learn how to take care of others and yourself with food and medicine and just work and train together after the apocalypse. Section four is ‘fit for battle’, which teaches you how to actually kill a zombie, how to make weapons on your own and how you can prepare yourself for that fight. Section five is ‘fit for survival’, and this section mostly focuses on how to be prepared and vigilant at all times. Here you will learn what items to pack and collect and how to stay alive, basically. Section six is ‘food for heroes’, on where to find food (and water!) and how to prepare it. And the last section is ‘your ministry and you’, in which the ministry thanks you for your service (and for staying alive so far) and shares with you their plans for the post-apocalyptic future.

I very much love books that deal with these fictional situations of creatures as though they are real. I also enjoyed encyclopaedias on dragons or faeries very much when I was little. This book pretends to be in the midst of chaos, and after reading a few pages on how to survive, you get right into it. I tried to barricade my door. I checked my stored food supply. I suspected passers-by of being zombies. Soon, you are convinced this book will save your life. And even though there isn’t an actual zombie invasion going on right now, I do believe this book is all we will need if it does happen. And if it doesn’t happen… well, it’s just a fun read.

The idea of building an app or book that makes a workout feel like less of drag and more of a battle for survival was brilliant to me. But then I found out a bit more about the fan base this story has, and I found an even better component to it. And yes, because it is a story, a lot of fanfiction is out there and people create a whole background for their personal Runner 5. But what I found, and it really touched me, was that this story has helped a lot of people with depression. Not only is there a community of support to this story, that can be found on forums and Tumblr, but when depressed it can be very hard to do anything at all. When you use the app, however, there’s someone constantly telling you that you are their hero, that you’re saving everyone (simply by walking!) and that you’re doing great. This is such a powerful message. The same goes for the book: you will get excited about going outside and scoping the area and train a little. Just moving about a little is another massive leap for someone with depression. The app and the book can all be done at your own pace and you will still be the hero of the story. So, for someone struggling with a low self-esteem, physical difficulties, obesity, depression or whatever that holds them back from going outside, this story can be an actual lifesaver.

Of course you don’t have to exercise in order to enjoy this book. You can read it for fun or to study some zombies, without actually doing the workouts. But this really is one of those experiences that you have to try out for yourself. You can just try the app, and I guarantee you will actually look forward to running, simply to find out how the story continues. But the book is a great addition or can even be read on its own. You may actually start to do some squats, because survivor Sara Smith told you that’s what she did in order to live. You may try the rationed risotto recipe. You will certainly have a good time reading this book, just as fiction. For now.

Fitness award: zombies breathing down my neck are the only motivation I’ll ever need to run

Naomi Alderman & Six to Start, Zombies, run! (London, 2016)

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Thura Nightingale