Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo

Rebel girls, good girls, ambitious girls, rebel boys, creative boys, nonconformist mothers and feminist fathers: this book is for all of them. It is one of those books I wish I’d owned when I was little. Actually, everyone should just read this inspirational book, because this is not just a book about women, but one hundred stories put together of people who have done amazing, and unbelievable things with their lives.

It is a compilation of one hundred life stories of women who succeeded at something unexpected. You will find stories of female artists, monarchs, teenage inventors, deaf motorcyclists and heroic soldiers. No two stories are alike and all women have their own field of excellence. Some are still alive nowadays and some have been dead for over centuries: apparently, the greatness of women is timeless. However, these are all women defying the odds, not just because they are women, but because they’ve achieved something no one has achieved before. From Cleopatra to Ashley Fiolek, from Florence Nightingale to Maya Angelou and from Nancy Wake to Mary Kom: a very diverse collection of women from all backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, sexualities, disabilities and passions. Some are rebellious, some are intelligent, some are stubborn, some are loving and most are all of those qualities combined.

Now, I wanted to start off this review with making clear that these women are heroes, not just because of their womanhood, but because of their deeds. This is very important to me personally, for this book is not just a product of feminists for women only. But in loads of these stories, being a woman made life just a little bit harder for them and expectations just a bit lower: they conquered it all. These are the kinds of stories that all little girls need to read, because the truth simply is that we still live in a world where women often are at a disadvantage and are not expected to be able to do a ‘man’s job’. These are the kinds of stories all little boys should read to fuel a next generation where men and women can have equal opportunities. The message of this book is simply that women are amazing.

Each story is only a page long, but every one of them has a message. Often this is an inspirational or motivating message, which leaves you with a sense of hope that you can achieve anything! But what I liked best about these stories, is that they’re not only biographical, but also told as though they are fairytales. Very simplistic and with a sort of ‘once upon a time’-feel to it. It really does read like a good night story, but the princess doesn’t need saving in this one. She saves herself. And the best thing is, these fairytales actually all came true. What could provide better role-models?

Another cool thing about this book is the artwork. Each story comes with a portrait of the woman concerned and these are all made in different styles, each matching this woman perfectly, created by sixty extraordinary female artists. These portraits finish the book beautifully. Also, the idea for this book came from two women, who wanted to give little girls someone to look up to and motivate them in their own quests in life. As a movement, women of all countries joined them and helped finish this book. This really is a product by and for women.

One portrait in particular I’d like to talk about is that of Margaret Thatcher. Ofcourse, there’s been quite a lot of controversy surrounding her, but she was one tough lady, no one can deny that. Therefor I was very pleased that she was in this book, but I was even more pleased to read that the authors didn’t avoid the subject of controversy. As I mentioned, these stories are written as though they are fairytales, but they didn’t turn her into a hero, loved by all. That wouldn’t have done her justice, but more importantly, they don’t try to sugarcoat history, just because it’s a book for children. Let me illustrate this with a quote from the book:

‘When she took free milk away from primary school children, the people disliked her. When she won the war against Argentina in the Falkland Islands, people admired her strength and determination. (…) Sometimes people tried to pressure her into making decisions she did not agree with, but she never bowed. That’s why she became known as The Iron Lady.’

Through the stories of women, this book encourages all children to fight just a little bit harder, aim higher, believe in yourself, trust your own instincts, work harder and, most of all, believe you deserve everything you’ve worked for. So:

Here’s to the strong women.
May we know them.
May we be them.
May we raise them.

Newborn Necessity Award, because no child should grow up without being read this book to

Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls (Italy, 2016)

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Thura Nightingale

 

A natural history of dragons (the memoirs of Lady Trent #1) by Marie Brennan

If you would sum up all the tropes that would make your ‘run of the mill’ fantasy uninteresting, this book will have many of those elements: there are dragons, the book is set in an alternative universe complete with different countries, cultures and languages and the main protagonist is a woman trying to be free from a society, which limits her potential because she is a woman. The only thing missing is a dark and mysterious evil power which threatens to destroy the world. However, when I read this book it turned out that it was much more than the average fantasy, and I’ll explain you why.

Instead as main objective to defeat a dark mysterious power, this book is about the scientific exploration of dragon kind by a female scientist named Lady Isabella Trent. In this book dragons are as common as lions in our world. They live in remote places and generally leave people alone. That, and because this book is set in an alternate Victorian time when scientific curiosity is just starting, caused the dragons to be more or less ignored until Lady Isabella Trent joins an expedition to study dragonkind in a country named Vystrana. Before the expedition, practically nothing is known about them and people actually only start to get interested in them when Isabella starts to write about them. This makes the book both an adventure story and the telling of the birth of a new branch of science into dragonkind.

The protagonist of this story is Isabella, who more than anything wants to study dragons, but expectations of society are against that dream. Those expectations are best compared with those out of a Jane Austen book, meaning that women are meant to sit at home, do embroidery and to attract a suitable husband. Instead of bluntly defying those expectations, as is often the case with ‘strong’ heroines in stories, she achieves her dreams cleverly by bending the rules and finding people who will allow her to be herself and pursue her dreams.  Isabella is undoubtedly a strong character, but she also acts within the boundaries of society, or at least in the beginning of this book. For example, before she and her husband decide to go on the expedition, they talk about the implications the trip would have on their position in society. The fact that the characters were seriously considering that, made the book more realistic, because people did find those things important. I really liked that in this book, because it made Isabella a strong female character, who is also believable for the time she lives in.

Since this is the first book in the series, the story starts with the narration of Isabella’s youth and how she happened to go on the expedition to Vystrana. The latter part of the books tells about the expedition itself and everything that happens there. Isabella has dreamt of studying dragons since she was a little girl, but dragons are not considered a fitting interest for young ladies and she is told by her mother that if she wants to find a husband, she has to bury those interests. With the help of her father she realises that the only solution to find happiness is to find a husband who will support her love of dragons. in Jacob, a young baronet, who is also interested in science, Isabella finds a man who accepts her. He marries Isabella because he wanted a woman he could have a decent conversation with and in that way the two are made for each other.  However, as most people in Victorian time, they do not marry for love, but because of acceptance and mutual respect, and love grows with time. In Jacob Isabella found the men who will support her love for dragons and will take her on her first expedition, which is Isabella’s first step to find freedom of mind in a world in which she otherwise would have been condemned to tea and ballroom parties.

The expedition is organized by an older gentleman, Lord Hilford, and his assistance Thomas Wilker. In Vystrana they soon discover people are attacked by dragons, which is something they normally would not do. They decide to figure out why and to possibly solve the problem. The rest of the book is about their efforts to find the dragons and to get help from the local people, both not as easy as it sounds. The dragons live in caves in large mountainous regions and the local people do not want to help, because they believe the expedition is partly to blame for the attacks.

This book is written as a memoir written by Isabella as an old lady. This was a smart move of the writer, because this allowed her to reflect on the actions of her younger self explaining why she did what she did and the meaning of that in society. It also allowed the book to be a bit more scandalous than proper for a young lady, because as Isabella put it in her own words: ‘one benefit of being an old woman now, and moreover one who has been called a “national treasure”, is that there are very few who can tell me what I may or may not write.”. One example of that is when she describes having sex with her husband as a perfectly natural thing. The quote is also a great example of the wit used in this book. This book is written in the style of Victorian novels with a lot of amazing new words I did not know the meaning of, such as crepuscular*. This was well-executed by the writer, as it felt as if she was comfortable with every word she used, instead of grabbing the thesaurus whenever an opportunity for a difficult word arose.

All in all this book is a good begin of the series, and I can’t wait to read the other books. I am especially curious to learn more about the dragons because so little is known about them yet. This book combines a realistic story about people, grounded in the time it is set in, and scientific exploration and the excitement of discovery. That combination works really well in this book and makes it so much more than the average fantasy book. This book proves that it is very well possible to combine fantasy elements with other genres, such as science, to make, in my opinion, a book with more depth. Life, after all, does not only have elements of one genre. It is quite an achievement of Marie Brennan to combine the genres by writing a book with heavy fantasy elements, which still feels as believable as this book did.

* Word for animals, such as dragons, who are mainly active during twilight

Fantasy award for proving that the fantasy genre can be more than an orphan fighting a mysterious curse.

Marie Brennan, A natural history of dragons (New York, 2013)

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Bella G. Bear

Seacrow Island (Vi på Saltkråkan) by Astrid Lindgren

I’m not sure how well known Astrid Lindgren’s books are in different countries, but you must at least have heard of Pippi Longstocking. This is another wonderful childrens’ book, one that I loved particularly. Interestingly enough, the book is based on a television series instead of the other way round. Astrid Lindgren wrote the screenplay, and when the series turned out to be immensely popular in Sweden, she wrote the actual book. I haven’t seen the series yet, so this review will be purely book-based! I hope the following will make you as wistful for the days when all you did was play outside as I felt when I wrote it.

Seacrow Island is the story of the family Melkerson and the people they meet. Father Melker Melkerson is a kind, scatterbrain of a writer, who impulsively acts on his romantic ideas. He rents a summer house on an island, on no other information than the name of its location, Seacrow Island (Saltkråkan), simply because he takes a fancy to that name. Since his wife passed years ago, he is kept in check by his eldest daughter, Malin. The sweet and pretty 19-year-old acts as a mother figure to her younger brothers: adventurous Johan and Niklas (13 and 12 years old) and animal-loving, 7-year-old Pelle.

The family arrives on the island, which is situated on the edge of the Stockholm archipelago, near the open sea. They find their summer house a bit more dilapidated than anticipated, but make the best of it. Soon they meet the few real islanders, who live on Seacrow Island all year round: the family Grankvist, whose children become fast friends with the Melkerson children, old man Söderman, whose little granddaughter stays with him every summer, and various other characters. The family spend happiest summer of their lives exploring the island, botching up house repairs, falling into water a lot and playing with the Grankvist family dog: a giant St. Bernard called Båtsman (‘Boatsman’). It’s no surprise that the family returns to the beautiful island at Christmas, and the following summer as well. The only thing that endangers their keeping the summer house forever is a real estate developer, who plans on buying the house and tearing it down to build a bungalow… But that is not something the Melkersons are going to let happen easily.

The Swedish Astrid Lindgren wrote many children’s books and had a unique gift for creating glorious worlds that are full of sun and flowers in the summer and snow and Christmas traditions in the winter. When I was little, I used to think that Sweden must be some kind of paradise. After having lived there I know that it is not, but I get the feeling that every Swede harbours the secret wish that Sweden were the Sweden of Astrid Lindgren’s books.

Ironically, Astrid Lindgren herself knew exactly how hard life could be. When she was only eighteen years old, she fell pregnant and had to leave her family home in southern Sweden for the big city: Stockholm. She was forced to work long hours to support herself and, later on, her little son. When she married, life became a little easier, but she stayed in Stockholm her whole life. In her stories she seems to try and recover some of her childhood, that was so abruptly cut short. Pippi Longstocking, the indestructible little girl who shakes up the hyper-organised Swedish society with her mischief, was born when Lindgren’s seven-year-old daughter was lying ill with pneumonia. Her first book was published during the Second World War-years, when Sweden was in nervous anticipation of Germany attacking. But every time Lindgren felt the weight of such sorrow, she took up her pen and wrote stories that were full of wonders.

That is not to say that there is no sorrow in her books. Once you realise it, some rather heavy themes drift to the foreground in almost all of her books: illness, death, fear of growing up, fear of losing people you love. But all these thing are dealt with playfully, as only a child can do. In Seacrow Island, Malin hides her romantic daydreams from her family, tending to the daily tasks and almost feeling guilty hoping for something more. The boys, in turn, jealously drive away their big sister’s suitors, scared that she might leave them to start her own family: making lovesick young men fall into the sea counts as one of their favourite games. Tjorven, the Grankvists’ youngest girl, comes home one day in the midst of winter to find nobody home: her sisters, who were supposed to babysit her, forgot and went out to play in their snow fort with Johan and Niklas. She spends four hours in the snow with her dog and it is reduced to tears, not because she is terribly cold, but because everbody has forgotten about her.

These examples prove to me a very important thing: that Astrid Lindgren has not forgotten what it was like to be a child. She remembers being four feet tall, she remembers the games she played, the clothes she muddied and the emotions she had. I know how I was afraid of big changes when I was small, because whether things are perfect or far from it, somehow how things are is how they are supposed to be. The children of the family Melkerson have already lost their mother, so it’s imperative that they not lose their big sister or their creaky, leaking, perfect summer house. Reading the book as an adult, you remember being a child yourself. Once you realise that you’ve grown up, you never want the book to end, but when it does, you can become a little bit like Melker Melkerson and make silly but wonderful decisions once in a while. Like renting a summer house because you like the name of an island.

Strawberry Award for staying up late on warm midsummer nights

Astrid Lindgren, Seacrow Island (Stockholm, 1964)

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Jo Robin

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson

Sit back, enjoy, but don’t be too alarmed, and just read this little excerpt from the book to set the mood:

‘I imagine, dear reader, that you’ve had some experience with heat. Perhaps you’ve tipped a boiling kettle at the wrong angle and the steam crept up your sleeve. If you’ve only had these kinds of minor incidents, I want you to imagine something new. Imagine turning on one of the elements of your stove. It moves towards orange and finally –finally!- an intense glowing red. Kind of beautiful, isn’t it? Now, lower your head so that your eyes are even with the top of the stove and you can peer through the shimmering waves rising up. I want you to trace your fingertips of your left hand gently across your right palm, noting the way your skin registers even the lightest touch. Now, slam that sensitive, responsive hand directly onto that glowing element.’

This is how the unnamed narrator and main character of the story starts off, when describing the accident that nearly ended his life, at the beginning of the book. After crawling drunk, as well as high, behind the steering wheel, he becomes convinced he is being chased by archers from the woods, and steers his car down a cliff, which catches fire soon after. Through a miracle he survives, but badly burned and determined to end his own life as soon as he is capable. We follow him through his gruesome hospital months of harvesting skin (debridement) and multiple surgeries. While enduring all of this, the narrator tells us bits of his awful childhood and young adulthood, filled with nothing but drugs and the porno films that made him famous. Losing his penis in the fire is actually one of the main reasons he spends his days fantasising about suicide.

That’s when Marianne Engel shows up, a runaway patient from the psychiatric unit, who takes a special interest in our main character. As he is lying there, being cynical about everything in life, in the bed, she completely ignores his complains and basically just tells him she’s happy to see him again. He, however, is quite sure they’ve never met before. As time goes on, she keeps on visiting him and she tells him different stories about couples in love. Finally, she starts telling him the story of how they first met, when she was a beguine nun at Engelthal monastery and he was a mercenary, also badly burned then.
Marianne never lets go of her story of being a 700-year-old woman and he starts to accept that as just a part of her, as they grow a special kind of bond.

The second part of the book centres around his release from the hospital and him living with Marianne Engel. Another special thing about this woman is that she claims to have several hearts and carves gargoyles and grotesques as a living. These hearts go into the gargoyles as she finishes them. Slowly, he starts to recover and she starts carving in their basement like her life depends on it. She also reads him books, Dante’s Inferno especially, and they take up a special part of his life. To wrap this up: the ending was unexpected, beautiful and heart wrenching, but I won’t spoil it for you.

Let me start off with the characters. They are interesting, unique and deeply, humanly flawed. Our hero, because he is hero simply because he is so human, is a cynic, vain, mean, conflicted and eventually the one that shows us true beauty lies within. He pierces through all the things people say just to make you feel better, as I’m sure a burn victim can like no other, and is painfully honest in his thoughts. This is just wonderful to read. He is the one writing this book for us and he is quite self-conscious about that, but slowly starts to believe in his own self-worth. Marianne Engel is almost bird-happy, seems to be without a care in the world at times and at others she really does seem like she has the knowledge of over 700 years of living. She is wild, complicated, beautiful and a mystery. We never really get to know her all that well. We only know her through the stories she tells, but isn’t that the best way of getting to know anyone? Their bond is so strong through the stories they tell. And their relationship is so unique, that it left me jealous as well as filled with love.

So, is Marianne Engel actually a 13th century nun, who miraculously lives forever? Or is she simply a schizophrenic, as our main character suspects at the beginning of the story? Here are the facts: She has the penmanship that the 14th century bookmakers used to have at that time. She knows every detail of what happened during those years and they all match up with the history books. She is psychiatric patient, a volatile, wild woman, but completely calm when telling her tales. She never lies about anything else. She is convinced that she was a beguine nun once and that our narrator was a soldier under her care 700 years ago. So is she crazy? It doesn’t matter. The main character stops caring about the literal truth of it all quite quickly, and that’s beautiful. This was probably my favourite thing about this story: the stories people tell don’t have to be factual; they just have to tell us something. Who are we to decide what history is?

Getting back to the bit of the book I quoted at the beginning of this review: the writing style makes the book. The imagery Andrew Davidson invokes is so vivid, so painful, and so pure, that it sometimes hurt. It’s like looking at a train wreck: it’s horrible, but you can’t look away. The book starts off with a bang, literally. But as this books keeps telling you: love is pain. The book switches between the actual plot and the stories people tell. It’s a fantastic tale, an intertwining of entangled stories that come together in the end. It’s a love story, but not one about two people in love: it’s a love story just about the concept eternal love, which leaves you with the warmest feeling.

Hail Mary Award: For the awesome women 14th century beguine nuns were

Andrew Davidson, The Gargoyle (Edinburgh, 2008)

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Thura Nightingale