Cantik Itu Luka (Beauty is a Wound)

Perhatian: ulasan buku ini akan ditulis dalam Bahasa Indonesia dulu, dan Bahasa Inggris berikut.

Note: this book review will be written first in Bahasa Indonesia, then English afterwards.

Novel sastra tentang seorang perempuan Indo, keluarganya dan jiwa Indonesia melalui sejarah abad 19an

Peringatan pemicu: perkosaan, perbuatan sumbang, kebinatangan, penelantaran anak, penyalahgunahan, perang, penyiksaan, penculikan, pedofilia, pernikaan anak, bunuh diri, keguguran

Walaupun saya tinggal di Indonesia untuk jumlah enam tahun, dan belajar Bahasa Indonesia di SD, SMP, SMU dan Universitas, sebelum ini saya belum pernah membaca buku novel dalam Bahasa Indonesia. Waktu saya masih remaja, bapak saya kasih kepada saya “Harry Potter dan Batu Bertuah”. Saya coba membacanya, tetapi kosa katanya terlalu susah dan saya tidak mebaca lebih dari si kembar Weasley yg ditemu pertama kali oleh Harry Potter di kereta api Hogwarts Express. Saya pernah dengar tentang buku ini dari teman-teman dan penulis lain (khususnya tentang hal realisme magis). Walaupun ada terjemahan Bahasa Inggris, saya punya keinginan untuk membaca buku ini dalam Bahasa Indonesia. Saya sekarang membaca beberapa buku untuk proyek tulisan dan buku ini ada tema relevan. Oleh karena itu, saya pesan edisi Indonesia.

Foto ini menunjukkan “Cantik Itu Luka” ditulis oleh Eka Kurniawan. Bukunya di tengah kotak batik dan tiga buku catatan batik. Sampul buku ada gambar pantai, kota, hutan dan gunung dengan warna merah dan ungu. Ada tokoh hitam yang duduk di perahu, berkelahi di pantai, gadis dan anjing yang berlari.

“Cantik Itu Luka” ditulis oleh Eka Kurniawan adalah sebuah novel tentang seorang perempuan bernama Dewi Ayu yang tinggal lagi sesudah dua puluh satu tahun kematian. Novel ini menjelaskan kenapa Dewi Ayu menutuskan untuk mati sesudah anak perempuan keempatnya lahir. Berbeda dari kakak-kakaknya, anak perempuan ini sangat jelek dan sebelum mati, Dewi Ayu kasih satu hadiah: nama Cantik. Terus, kita membaca tentang hidup Dewi Ayu sebagai orang Indo di kota Halimunda. Halimunda diokupasi oleh tentara Jepang pada Perang Dunia II dan Dewi Ayu terpaksa menjadi pelacur. Sesudah perang, Dewi Ayu menjadi pelacur yang paling terkenal dan dicintai di Halimunda. Dia punya tiga anak dari tiga bapak berbeda dan setiap anak lebih cantik dari pada yang lain. Akan tetapi, masa sesudah perang merupakan kesempatan untuk mendapat kemerdekaan dari Belanda dan membayang negeri baru. Ada tiga cowok yang menjadi sangat berkuasa pada waktu ini: Shodancho, Kamerad Kliwon dan Maman Gendeng. Siapa yang menang perang untuk jiwa Indonesia dan menikah anak perempuan cantik Dewi Ayu?

Novel ini mencerita sejarah Indonesia dari perspektif unik. Dengan pergunaan realisme magis dan tema yang mengerikan, Eka Kurniawan menunjukkan peristiwa yang paling jelek pada periode Perang Dunia II, Revolusi Nasional Indonesia, Penumpasan PKI dan mungkin juga Petrus. Tokoh-tokoh Dewi Ayu, anaknya dan suaminya mengalamkan peristiwa ini dengan berbeda dan jelas bahwa orang perempuan sangat mudah diserang oleh tentara, preman dan bahkan keluarganya. Dewi Ayu sangat praktis, dan tanpa emosi dia menderita dan mengambil tindakan untuk memastikan dia dan anaknya aman. Kadang-kadang ada peristiwa yang tidak bisa dijelaskan seperti orang yang hidup lagi, cium yang berapi, babi yang menjadi manusia dan kutukan yang tidak bisa dipatahkan. Eka Kurniawan menggunakan hal ini untuk membuat emosi Halimunda semakin keras. Gaya menulisnya sering seperti dogeng.

Akan tetapi, buku ini tidak mudah dibaca. Walaupun memang ada banyak kosa kata yang saya belum tahu (sesudah selesai buku ini, saya mengisi tiga buku catatan dengan kosa kata Bahasa Indonesia!), itu bukan masalahnya. Masalanya sebetulnya tema. Ada banyak kekerasan, banyak perkosaan dan banyak hal yang didaftarkan di atas yang sulit dibaca. Walaupun saya paham ada hal yang harus didiskusikan, Eka Kurniawan menulis tentang hal jelek dengan terlalu banyak perincian, dan saya merasa tidak nyaman membaca buku ini.

Walaupun ini buku yang penting dan menarik, itu juga buku sulit dan sering mengerikan.

Literary novel about an Indo woman, her family and the soul of Indonesia through 19th century history

Content warning: rape, incest, bestiality, child abandonment, abuse, war, torture, kidnapping, pedophilia, child marriage, suicide, miscarriage

Although I lived in Indonesia for a total of six years, and studied Indonesian in primary school, high school and university, before now I have never read a book in Bahasa Indonesia. When I was still a teenager, my dad gave me a copy of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”. I tried to read it, but the vocabulary was too difficult and I didn’t read further than the Weasley twins met for the first time by Harry Potter on the Hogwarts Express train. I had heard about this book from friends and other writers (especially about the issue of magic realism) Although there is an English translation, I wanted to read it in Bahasa Indonesia. I’m currently reading several books for a writing project and this book has relevant themes. As a result, I ordered an Indonesian edition.

Image is of “Cantik Itu Luka” written by Eka Kurniawan. The book is between a batik box and three batik notebooks. The cover is of a beach, city, forest and mountains in red and purple. There are black figures sitting in a boat, fighting on the beach, a girl and dogs running.

“Beauty is a Wound” by Eka Kurniawan is a novel about a woman called Dewi Ayu who lives again after twenty one years of being dead. This novel explains why Dewi Ayu decided to die after her fourth child was born. Unlike her sisters, this girl is extremely ugly and before dying, Dewi Ayu gives her one gift: the name Beauty. Next, we read about Dewi Ayu’s life as an Indo person in the city of Halimunda. Halimunda was occupied by the Japanese army during World War II and Dewi Ayu is forced to become a sex worker. After the war, Dewi Ayu becomes the most famous and beloved sex worker in Halimunda. She has three children from three different fathers and each child is more beautiful than the next. However, the time after the war is an opportunity to achieve independence from the Netherlands and imagine a new nation. There are three men who become very influential during this time: Shodancho, Kamerad Kliwon and Maman Gendeng. Who will win the war for the soul of Indonesia and marry Dewi Ayu’s beautiful daughters?

This novel depicts Indonesia’s history from a unique perspective. With the use of magic realism and horrifying themes, Kurniawan whos the most ugly events during World War II, the Indonesian National Revolution, the Indonesian Communist Purge and perhaps even the Petrus Killings. The characters of Dewi Ayu, her children and their husbands experiences these events differently and it is clear that women are especially vulnerable to the army, thugs and even their own families. Dewi Ayu is very practical, and without emotion she endures and takes action to ensure that she and her children are safe. Sometimes there are events than cannot be explained like people coming back to life, fiery kisses, pigs who become people and curses that cannot be cursed. Eka Kurniawan uses these elements to make Halimunda’s emotions even more intense. His writing style is often like fables.

However, this book is difficult to read. Although there is plenty of vocabulary that I didn’t know yet (after finishing this book, I had filled three notebooks with Indonesian vocabulary!), that wasn’t the problem. The problem was actually the themes. There is lots of violence, lots of rape and lots of the things listed above that are difficult to read. Although I understand there are things that need to be discussed, Eka Kurniawan writes about gross things with far too much detail, and I felt really uncomfortable reading this book.

Although this is an interesting and important book, it is also a difficult book that is often horrifying.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Magic Realism

Rigsby, WI

Comic of age webcomic set in the early 2000s

Content warning: mental illness, racism, drug use, sexual harassment

I have reviewed a few graphic novels on here that were originally webcomics. However, I don’t think I have ever reviewed a webcomic that has not yet been published and is still being updated. I first came across this artist well over a decade ago when she was creating a different webcomic called “Cheap Thrills“. “Cheap Thrills” was a story about a group of teenagers illustrated in a style the artist often referred to as humanimals but that others may recognise as furry/anthro. In 2012, the artist posted that the comic was no longer going to be updating regularly and that she couldn’t say if or when it would again. Many fans who had become immersed in the complex lives of these kids were heartbroken but understanding at the announcement. Then, in 2018, she announced something new: the same characters we all loved, but rebooted with a revitalised setting and a more sophisticated plot.

Image is of “Rigsby WI” by SE Case. The webcomic banner is of a burning house with a redhaired girl standing in the foreground holding a bicycle.

Rigsby WI” by SE Case is a coming of age webcomic about a group of teenagers called Jeordie, Beth, Anna, Erik and Frank who live in the eponymous town Rigsby in Wisconsin, USA. Jeordie, a talented artist and basketballer, navigates small-town racism as a biracial person and explores his sexuality. Beth, his next door neighbour, is homeschooled by her aunt after a tumultuous time with her family and early school years. Her best friend Anna struggles with maintaining high grades in a dysfunctional family situation, staying over with friends and her half sister more than she does at home. The friend Anna grew up with, Erik, is trying to reinvent himself to impress a girl and pursue sports. Anna also gets to know Frank, an older student who has repeated several times, who lives in the same trailer park as her sister and is known as the go-to weed guy.

This is a hard-hitting, slice-of-life webcomic that tackles a range of social issues while paying homage to the cultural touchstones of early 2000s. Each of the three chapters published so far use a slightly different style that reflects not only the season but the overall mood of the chapter. The webcomic is extremely immersive with the characters engaging with the music, fashion and historical events of the time. I was even inspired to make a playlist of the songs referenced in the comic. Case sensitively but boldly explores issues of class, race, sexuality and mental illness through realistic dialogue and extremely relatable characters. She has a real knack for capturing both the emotionally charged interactions and sheer irreverence of teenagerhood. The characters visibly develop as the comic progresses and the whole story is infused with a sense of growth.

I’m just as hooked as I was on “Cheap Thrills” and I can’t wait to watch how this comic evolves.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Graphic Novels

The Summer I Turned Pretty

Coming of age young adult novel about family and summer at the beach

More running, more audiobooks. I had seen trailers for a TV adaptation of this book that looked alright so I decided to listen to this one next.

Image is of “The Summer I Turned Pretty” by Jenny Han and narrated by Lola Tung. The audiobook cover is a picture of a teenage girl and two teenage boys in swimsuits running along a dune at the beach.

“The Summer I Turned Pretty” by Jenny Han and narrated by Lola Tung is the first novel in a young adult trilogy about a teenager called Belly who is on summer vacation. Every summer, she and her family stay with her mother’s best friend Susannah and her family. The four kids grow up together: Belly, her brother Steven and Susannah’s two sons Conrad and Jeremiah. Belly is the youngest and she has always felt like the little kid running after the boys. Nevertheless, she looks forward However, this summer, Belly is determined that things are going to be different. They are, but different in ways that she never could have expected.

This is standard coming of age novel set in the idyllic fictional beachside town of Cousins Beach. Han uses flashbacks to previous summers to build the groundwork for the dynamics between the two families, and Belly’s long-term crush on the handsome, brooding Conrad. This book is beautifully narrated by Lola Tung who also plays Belly in the TV adaptation, and she has a way of bringing all the sweetness, optimism and drama you could want in a young adult novel.

However, I frequently found this book frustrating. Although I suspect that Han was often trying to make a point, in reality Belly came across as extremely superficial. This summer, Belly’s primary currency is attention and she is constantly observing who is giving her attention, who could be giving her attention and who is getting attention instead of her. Belly is so self-involved, she completely misses what is going on with everyone around her. However somehow, despite multiple instances of incredibly selfish, bad behaviour, things do work out for her.

I have to say, this is one of those rare instances where I prefer the TV adaptation to the book. Through the series, all of the characters are much more filled out, especially Belly’s mother, Jeremiah and Belly’s brother Steven. I also felt that the TV show was a lot more diverse. Unlike the book, Belly is clearly cast as Eurasian with her cultural background mentioned more than once. There are queer characters and the debutante ball, not present in the book, was a great backdrop against which to explore ideas of beauty, tradition and class. I also felt like Belly was much more relatable in the show, and had some keen hobbies and interests outside boys.

A really nicely narrated audiobook, but while I think I’ll stick with the TV series, I don’t think I’ll read any more in the series.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, Young Adult

Runemarks

Fantasy novel inspired by Norse mythology

As I have mentioned several times on this blog, I have been a fan of this author for a long time. I adored the “Chocolat” series and have really enjoyed most of her original folklore and fairy tales. I also realy liked her psychological thrillers. However, this book has been on my shelf for years and years and I have not managed to read it. I really enjoy runes, and I really enjoy fantasy, but for some reason every time I have tried to start this book I just haven’t been able to get into it. It probably isn’t helped by this cover design which, despite the embossing and gold foil, remains, tragically, quite ugly. The illustrator has actually designed some pretty iconic book covers so I am not sure what happened here. Anyway, I am trying really hard to get through my to-read pile as part of the Mount TBR Reading Challenge and when I actually made my own set of runestones recently, I figured it was finally time to tackle this book once and for all.

Image is of “Runemarks” by Joanne Harris. The paperback book is placed next to a hessian drawstring bag with runestones spilling out; each a smooth grey pebble with a white symbol painted on.

“Runemarks” by Joanne Harris is a fantasy novel about a teenage girl called Maddy Smith who has always been an outcast in her small village Malbry. Maddy has a strange birthmark on her hand, a dark orange ruinmark in the shape of a rune. With the mark comes something else: an ability to wield magic. While the townsfolk discourage anything that requires any amount of imagination, when Maddy was small she met a travelling man called One-Eye. Every season, near a large hill with a red horse carved into it, One-Eye teaches her more about runes, lore, and cantrips from old times. When he is away, Maddy practises her magic in small ways such as chasing away goblins. However, when One-Eye finally returns, he has a special request: to open a way beneath Red Horse Hill and retrieve something that will change the world.

This book draws heavily on Norse mythology, especially the gods and realms that make up the Nine Worlds. While drawing on similar motifs and themes to many of her other stories, in this one, Harris explores a different style of writing. This book is action-packed with a focus on battles for overt power and the fate of the world rather than the subtler themes often touched on in her other work. I think my favourite parts of the book were actually the Examiners, their distorted morality and struggles for control over themselves and each other. Harris explores how fanaticism can breed intolerance and hate, echoing similar messages in some of her other work. Of all the characters in the book, I think perhaps my favourite was Ethelberta who underwent the most character development and was perhaps the most relatable character in the book.

However, in finally finishing this book I was reminded why I had so much trouble with it the other times I have read it. I’m not sure if I am just not very inspired by Norse mythology or if there just wasn’t the same kind of balance between the wonder of magic and horror or danger that you find in some other fantasy novels. Maddie’s time in the oppressive, stale tunnels of Red Horse Hill just felt relentless, and each setting after the next was more and more grim. I appreciate it is a dark story, but there was no respite; no Rivendell-equivalent where we could catch our breath, get to know the characters and understand what was to come next. I think ultimately Maddie’s world didn’t really seem like one that deserved to be saved. Her town was awful, the tunnels were awful, the Examiners and whatever was in the Outlands was awful, the realms they visited were awful and all the people and gods: also pretty awful. I didn’t come away from this book feeling inspired by humanity, I came away feeling like Maddie left a bad place for several that were arguably worse.

While the use of runes to cast spells was a fun way to conceive magic, so much time was spent explaining how the magic was limited that when it came down to it, it did seem quite implausible that the Good Guys (difficult at any time to ascertain due to constantly shifting alliances and morally grey and ambivalent gods) would even be strong enough to fight the final battle. I get that the gods are meant to be fickle and fallible, but I just wasn’t cheering for any of them.

Ultimately not my style of fantasy and I think perhaps Norse mythology is not for me.

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The Crimson Thread

Historical fiction retelling of the Labyrinth set in Crete in World War II

Content warning: war, sexual assault, family violence, torture, sexual harassment, disability discrimination

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of “The Crimson Thread” by Kate Forsyth. The eBook cover is a photograph of a young woman with fair skin, dark hair and red lipstick wearing a brown hat and navy jacket. There are figures fighting in the background and a floral design in the foreground.

“The Crimson Thread” by Kate Forsyth is a historical fiction novel and retelling of the story of the Labyrinth from Greek mythology. The book is about a young woman called Alenka who lives in Crete with her mother and younger brother. During the Nazi occupation of World War II, she is part of the local resistance. When German paratroopers land on the island in 1941, Alenka saves the lives of two young Australian men: childhood friends Jack and Teddy. However, the war is far from over and as the fighting intensifies on land and off, it becomes harder and harder to know who to trust.

This was an excellently researched book that seamlessly wove together two Cretes: the one of classic mythology and the modern one of the mid-20th century. The pacing in this book was superb. There was a lot of really challenging themes, and Forsyth knew exactly when to allow moments of tension and moments of tenderness. Some of the scenes were so poignant or full of perfect timing that they brought me to tears. The parts of the book that are hardest to read are those that are true either to the Nazi occupation of Crete or the events following Ariadne helping Theseus to navigate the Labyrinth and defeat the Minotaur in Greek mythology. Forsyth’s writing is so vivid in these moments, using motifs and metaphors that span millennia, and appealing to the universal human experience.

Alenka was such a relatable character, trying to do her best in extremely dangerous and ever-changing circumstances, including in her own home. My heart broke for her over and over. Conversely, the friendship and rivalry between Jack and Teddy was a fascinating exploration of class, disability and entitlement in Australian culture. All of the characters felt incredibly well-rounded with histories, motivations and unique personalities propelling them towards the final conflict. Forsyth has written about her experiences growing up with a stutter and writes with power, authenticity and flexibility about Jack’s stutter and how it waxes and wanes depending on the situation and his state of mind. This topic also has a particular significance to my family. During World War II, my grandfather’s twin brother’s aeroplane was shot down over Crete and never recovered. I understand the inspiration for Forsyth’s book came from her own family connection to Crete.

I have reviewed quite a few books by Forsyth on this blog, and I think this is her best yet.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Australian Books, Book Reviews, eBooks, Historical Fiction

The Orchard

Fictional podcast about a death at a mysterious girl’s school

Content warning: bullying, suicide

The time had come to choose my next running audiobook. I was flicking through the options and came across this: a fictional podcast. I really enjoy fictional podcasts and I’ve listened to more over the years than I have reviewed on this blog because I’m never quite sure if they count as books. I actually find fictional podcasts (or radio plays) easier to listen to than audiobooks: I think the extra sound editing and production makes the story more immersive, and the voice actors make the characters more distinct. Anyway, maybe I should review more fictional podcasts but in the meantime, let’s start with this one.

Image is of the “The Orchard” by Mike Jones and Mike Cowap. The audiobook cover has the text ‘Starring Eric Bana’ with a photograph of Eric Bana in a collared shirt with silhouetted images of girls running behind trees in blue light in the background.

“The Orchard” by Mike Jones and Mike Cowap is a fictional podcast about a detective and single dad called Adam Durwood who is about to resign from the force. His last case is to investigate the unusual death of a teenage boy by the orchard of an exclusive all girls’ school. His superiors are eager to write it off as a suicide but Detective Durwood is not convinced. He questions students and staff but their responses are confounding; hinting at the school’s secret history. As impartial as Detective Durwood thinks he is, something about the case is pulling him in and while he is distracted, something is pulling his daughter away from him.

This was a really eerie, well-scripted story with exceptional voice acting. There was a surprisingly stellar cast of characters, with Eric Bana as Adam Durwood, Magda Szubanski as Barbara and Gary Sweet as DI Simes. Bana in particular was a standout and captured the nuance of dogged detective and struggling dad perfectly. Each episode was only about 20 minutes or so, which was a pretty ideal length for a short run. There was quite a sinister vibe and I found this podcast really quite creepy to listen to when I was running by myself at night after work. The story covered a range of issues, and I thought one of the most compelling elements was the impact something like a catastrophic car crash can have on a family, the way we process grief and what you would do to get your family back.

As enjoyable as the podcast was, the closer I got to the ending the less convinced I was with the plot direction. I thought that there had been some really strong groundwork around the school, secret societies and the way alumni connections can be used to propel students towards success. However, the final reveal in the story took a completely different path that I found less interesting and much less convincing.

An enjoyable story with a great cast that didn’t quite land the ending.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy, General Fiction, Magic Realism, Mystery/Thriller

The City Inside

Science fiction novel set in futuristic India

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.

Image is the of “The City Inside” by Samit Basu. The eBook is a stylised, futuristic version of a city with colourful rooftops, digital icons of people and a temple in the far background against a night sky.

“The City Inside” by Samit Basu is a science fiction novel set in Delhi, India in a not-too-distant future. The story is primarily about Joey, a young woman who has an extremely successful job as a reality controller: managing and editing the livestream content of her influencer ex-boyfriend Indi. However, her personal life pales in comparison; despite having a luxury apartment, she spends most of her free time sleeping at her parents’ house where her family carefully avoid saying anything controversial. Meanwhile, Rudra, the estranged son of a wealthy man who has been living incognito among struggling migrants, reconnects with his family at his father’s funeral. Avoiding his brother’s attempts to join the family business, when he bumps into Joey who offers him a job, he accepts. However, as Indi’s ambitions grow bigger and Rudra’s family interests begin to reveal their true nature, Joey and Rudra realise that corporate power and sinister conspiracies run much deeper than either of them could have possibly realised.

This was a richly conceived book with exceptional and completely plausible worldbuilding. Basu draws on contemporary sources of power and influence and imagines how they may have evolved a decade from now. Influencers have merged with reality TV: carefully curated content with fictionalised storylines and strategic advertising placements. Airborne-illnesses, increasing temperatures and air pollution have normalised mask wearing, filtered air and avoiding the outside. The setting in Delhi brings further layers of complexity and nuance; drawing on ethnic tensions, historical protests and political influence to create a conflicted present still grappling with caste, wealth and freedom of speech.

Joey was a really interesting character whose personality at work and personality at home seem almost completely incompatible, raising questions about how much her memory is influenced, and by whom. Joey is politically engaged enough and fluent enough in progressive discourse to be aware of her own moral shortcomings, and tries to make what little difference she can through her work. In contrast, Rudra’s attempts to completely distance himself from his family prove to be inadequate in counteracting the harm they are causing to society. However, any kind of political action is dangerous, and Basu pushes the reader to make up their own mind about what is right, what is wrong and what is understandable.

While I really enjoyed the setting and the character development, I did find the plot a little confusing. The book draws on cyberpunk traditions in science fiction and using digital spaces, avatars and social media to create and recreate reality, social connections and even business deals. However, between a meeting in one of these digital spaces, subject to surveillance on multiple levels, and the action really kicking off, I found it hard to keep track of exactly what was happening. Basu is quite a subtle writer, leaving a lot to the reader to interpret themselves, but when crucial plot items were happening I found that I was hoping for a little more clarity and a little less like scenes whipping by me in a speeding train carriage.

An intricate and highly original premise that conveys a lot but becomes a bit muddied towards the end.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, eBooks, Science Fiction

Heartstopper: Volume 1

Queer romantic young adult graphic novel set in the UK

Content warning: homophobia, sexual assault, disordered eating, mental illness, bullying

I saw lots of trailers for the Netflix adaptation of this graphic novel and suddenly copies of it were for sale everywhere. It looked unbelievably cute and I had a book voucher leftover from Christmas, so I picked up a paperback copy of the first volume.

Image is of “Heartstopper: Volume 1” by Alice Oseman. The paperback book is resting against a legal graffiti wall beneath a simple representation of the Ukraine flag, blue and yellow, twisted in the middle, partially covered by a hot pink tag. Above the flag are two stylised leaves, also in blue and yellow, which reflect the colours used in the TV adaptation to represent Nick and Charlie. The cover is of two teenage boys in school uniforms, one with dark hair and one with light hair.

“Heartstopper: Volume 1” by Alice Oseman is a graphic novel about a quiet teenage boy called Charlie who goes to Truham Grammar School for Boys. At the beginning of the year, his school starts a new ‘vertical’ form group to take attendance and Charlie’s seat is next to a boy called Nick, the captain of the school rugby team. Although they are quite different, they become fast friends, and begin spending time together outside school. Charlie is the only openly gay student at Truham and even though he is developing feelings for Nick, all his friends are adamant Nick is straight. But maybe, just maybe he might like Charlie back.

This is an incredibly sweet and readable graphic novel that gently and courageously tackles a number of different social issues but especially coming to terms with your sexuality and identity as a teenager. I just adored how respectful Charlie and Nick are with each other and that only becomes more apparent as the series progresses. Oseman brings to light the loneliness of being the only openly LGBTIQA+ student in the school and how being forced to keep things secret can leave you vulnerable to abuse. I really liked how Oseman struck a balance between the supports Charlie has around him, especially his friends and his sister, and his vulnerability to bullying, negative self-talk and restricted eating.

One of the most unique and striking things about this graphic novel is the use of motifs like leaves, flowers around the panels to emphasise what is going on emotionally in the story. Oseman’s art style overall is quite simple yet expressive. I really liked that they shared earlier drawings of the comic from years before it was published online as a webcomic (which I was inspired to read and which is still being updated). From reading many webcomics, and even trying a couple myself, I know how difficult it is to find a consistent style while your art steadily improves from all the practise. While maybe not my favourite graphic novel from an aesthetic point of view, Oseman’s style is definitely unique more than adequately conveys the story.

Which brings me to the Netflix adaptation. If I liked the graphic novel, I loved the TV series. It was beautifully filmed, immaculately edited and very well-acted. I understand Oseman was one of the writers for the show, and I almost think this story really came to life in film. The show kept some of the embellishments of the comic with certain scenes split into panels like a comic or animated leaves and flowers floating across the screen. The secondary characters felt much more filled out as well, and while the TV series remained very faithful to the comic, almost scene for scene, it seemed like a much richer story. So much thought was put into characterisation, sets and even colour palettes. I watched it while I was sick at home with COVID and am not ashamed to admit that I watched the entire thing three times. The music was exceptionally curated and you can listen to the Heartstopper ‘mixtape‘ as well for the full sensory experience. Sometimes it feels like everything on TV is really depressing or intense or dark or scary, and it was so lovely to watch something that was warm and sweet, yet utterly compelling.

A thoroughly enjoyable and inclusive story that you can check out for yourself in book, webcomic or TV format.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Graphic Novels, Webcomics, Young Adult

The Forty Rules of Love

Historical fiction novel about Sufism and love

Content warning: sexual assault

Quite some time ago I started collecting these beautiful Penguin by Hand editions. There were six books written by women published with embossed covers inspired by different types of craft. I have three in my collection (so far) but have only reviewed “The Help” and “The Postmistress“. This book is just as beautiful as the others with a gorgeous tactile embossed design inspired by cross-stitch. I actually can’t believe it has been over five years since I last reviewed a book in this series. I feel like I have picked this one up and put it with a handful of books to read on several trips, but it has never made it to the top of the pile until now.

Image is of “The Forty Rules of Love” by Elif Shafak. The paperback book is resting on a red scarf with dark amber beads laying diagonally across the top of the photograph. The cover has a cross-stitch design with whirling dervishes and a border of a dark and light blue zigzag design.

“The Forty Rules of Love” by Elif Shafak is a novel within a novel. The first story is about a mother called Ella who lives with her husband and three children. Her days are mostly spent on housework and preparing elaborate meals for her family. Despite being in the family home day in, day out, her family seem to be drifting away from her and her life feels meaningless. However, when she gets a part-time job reading for a literary agency, suddenly everything changes. The first book she is asked to read, the novel within this novel, is called Sweet Blasphemy by an author called A. Z. Zahara. This, on the other hand, is a historical fiction story set in today’s Iran in the mid-1200s about a Persian poet called Shams who befriends and becomes the spiritual instructor of an Islamic scholar known as Rumi. At the beginning of the story, we learn that Shams had a pivotal impact on Rumi’s poetry and that he was murdered. As Ella reads the story of Shams and Rumi, she begins to feel more and more inspired by love and decides to email the author.

I am no expert in poetry, but this book has just reaffirmed to me the strength of Iran and Persia‘s poetry tradition. My favourite parts of the books were by far the Sweet Blasphemy chapters. Shafak uses a range of characters to examine different parts of Persian society: a novice, a beggar, an alcoholic, a sex worker, Rumi, members of his household and even the person who killed Shams. There was an incredible magnetism between Shams and Rumi and even if their relationship was strictly platonic, it certainly felt very romantic. I also really enjoyed Shams’ rules and how each rule tied into the theme of each chapter. It was also a fascinating history of the origin of whirling dervishes.

I did find, however, that I was much less invested in Ella’s story. Somehow compared to the historical significance of Shams and Rumi and the mark they made on poetry and religion, Ella’s difficulties with her family, love life and career just weren’t as engaging. I could see that her story did serve to bring modern relevance to Shams and Rumi, but I’m not sure it was enough to keep me compelled.

A beautifully written novel, especially Shams and Rumi’s story, but a little unevenly paced.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Penguin By Hand, Pretty Books

Conversations With Friends

Fiction novel about writing, sexuality and infidelity

Content warning: self-harm, alcoholism, chronic illness

A couple of years ago I listened to a book by this author and I thoroughly enjoyed it. A couple of months ago, I saw a trailer of a TV series adapting another of her novels. So when I was choosing my next audiobook to listen to while running, I thought I would try it out.

Image is of “Conversations with Friends” by Sally Rooney and narrated by Aoife McMahon. The audiobook cover is yellow with stylised drawings of two young women with their eyes covered by small strokes of coloured paint. There is a small circle in the bottom right corner with a photograph from the TV adaptation.

“Conversations with Friends” by Sally Rooney and narrated by Aoife McMahon is a novel set in contemporary Ireland about a young university student called Frances who is also a poet. She performs her poems together with her best friend and ex-girlfriend Bobbi. After their performance is noticed by renowned writer Melissa, she invites them to her home to be photographed for a feature article. There, they meet Melissa’s husband, an actor called Nick. As the novel progresses, Frances and Nick are drawn to each other, and the interplay between the four characters becomes more and more complicated.

While sometimes it can be difficult to discern pace listening to an audiobook, this is a slow-paced book that explores the power dynamics between emerging and established figures in the literary world. Outwardly quiet and composed, Frances has a tumultuous inner life where she is constantly evaluating and weighing up her complex and fraught relationships. Frances obscures her family life and financial situation from her new community and remains acutely aware of class differences.

I have to say, I did not enjoy this book nearly as much as “Normal People”. The magnetism and impeccable tension between Marianne and Connell was absent in this novel; replaced instead with awkwardness, repressed feelings and many, many things left unsaid. There are a lot of parallels between this story and “Normal People”: isolated young university student, a sexual relationship devoid of commitment, a summer trip to France (replaced with Croatia in the TV show). While the novel is hyperaware of Frances’ inability to confide in others and discomfort navigating all these complex relationships, it does nothing to get the reader onside. Despite McMahon’s excellent narration, there was no humour in this book. I didn’t feel invested in these characters or sympathetic to their lives. I didn’t feel like I learned anything or got a unique perspective. At the end of the novel, I was indifferent to Frances and who she might have a relationship with.

I have tried watching a few episodes of the TV adaptation, and I just couldn’t get into that either. I think, ultimately, this was not as engaging a story and ultimately I was left feeling disappointed.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, General Fiction