Review of a new bookish merch shop

Today I’ll be reviewing a new bookish merch shop I’ve discovered at the request of the owner – Literary Book Gifts.

At first glance the website is clean, sleek and easy to use. It’s simple to navigate, letting you choose between three main categories: women, men and tote bags. The shop sells some beautiful custom T-shirts printed with designs based on famous works of literature, such as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and more.

There’s a nice range of shirts, tank tops and hoodies, with some more general bookish designs like typewriters too.

While I have seen similar things in the world of bookish merch, I find these particular designs elegant and true to the books they’re based on. I especially love this Jekyll and Hyde tote bag and Withering Heights shirt pictured below.

Treat yo self or get your favourite book nerd something they’ll love.

You can get 20% off on anything at Literary Book Gifts with my discount code ANNMARIEMCQUEEN20

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Book Review: ‘Americanah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

‘Americanah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a work of modern art. It’s radical, sophisticated and subversive in all the right ways. And, dammit, there’s just something really sexy about reading an intellectual book and learning new things without it feeling like extra work.

I’ve read ‘Half of a yellow sun’ by Adichie in the past, so I went in with high expectations, which were met and exceeded by this book. It follows two star-crossed lovers, Ifemelu and Obinze, from their upbringing in a middle-class neighbourhood in Nigeria. However their relationship is cut short when Ifemelu emigrates to America to continue her education and Obinze, failing to get a visa, starts a new undocumented life as an illegal immigrant in England instead.

In America, Ifemelu deals with success and failure, finds and ends new relationships and eventually gets a fellowship at Princeton. For the first time, she becomes aware of race as a concept, and how differently she is treated because of her skin. She starts to document her observations in the form of a blog about race, which quickly brings her newfound fame. However despite all the luxuries of her new life, something pulls her back home, back to the Nigeria she grew up in. When she returns she meets Obinze again, who is now a wealthy, married man. As the two former lovers reunite, old sparks are rekindled and the two are faced with some tough decisions about their futures.

I once heard someone on goodreads refer to this book as a ‘500 page commentary on race’ (it was meant as an insult, I think of it as a positive thing). It’s true that ‘Americanah’ is not subtle at all about the issues of racism it tackles, and very much focuses on Ifemelu’s experience of being black in America. However it doesn’t read like a text book, or a preachy rant, it reads like a very smart, very intellectual novel written by a world-renowned race academic. As Ifemelu herself says in the book, racism is not a subtle thing, and should not be dealt with in a subtle way. As it does for all African Americans, race is something that affects every aspect of the protagonist’s life, and therefore seeps into every part of her narrative. The point of the novel is to illuminate the pervasive, omnipresent shadow that race is for those living in the Western world, and also how race is not a fixed category as its definition is tied to shifting social values.

‘Americanah’ is not just another ‘book about race’. It’s brutally honest, heartbreaking and also fiercely hopeful. It analyses the very real, very damaging consequences that race can have, from racial stereotyping, to lack of representation, to alienation and loss of identity. It’s a book about overcoming hardship and succeeding in a country that is against you purely on the basis of your appearance. It’s about miscommunication, a lack of understanding, a lack of willingness to learn. It’s a story about love in many different forms and, ultimately, two people finding each other again.

What’s ‘new’ about New Adult?

So, this time 3 years ago, I was a cute little fresher going off to Warwick University for the first time, totally amazed by the idea that I could stay up all night if I wanted to and subsist off of chocolate for weeks on end. Independence sounded really, really awesome. So I thought ‘hey let’s write a novel about this.’ I figured it was a universal experience – the excitement of leaving home for the first time, feeling nervous about living with new people, the pressure of adult responsibilities.

3 years on, I’ve finished the novel and though it turned out very differently to what I’d originally planned, I’m pretty happy with it. So I decide to start querying agents with it. I write the query letter, get some feedback on writer forums, all the while assuming that it’s a simple YA. After all, it seems to fit the criteria. My characters are all 18, still teenagers dealing with issues that are basically hallmarks of YA: relationships, drama, academic pressure, family issues etc.. I’m certain that there’s no question what genre it’s part of.

But then someone says ‘wait a minute isn’t this a new adult?’ and I’m not so sure anymore.

Ever since then, I’ve done a lot of research on what this whole ‘new adult’ genre thing is about. I’ve trailed through countless websites, book blogs, agent interviews and I’ve made some interesting findings.

From what I’ve gathered a general definition of the ‘new adult’ genre is ‘novels with protagonists in the 18-25 age range, fiction similar to YA but which can be marketed as adult as well’. Most say that the cut off point for YA is the summer after secondary/high school: any protagonists older than that count as new adult.

However I don’t think it’s just about ages. It’s about where the characters are in life. In New Adult fiction the characters have far more independence; they’re thinking about future careers, figuring out who they are outside of the family dynamic, learning to mature and basically transition into responsible adults. For all these reasons, I think the ‘New adult’ genre is a great idea. The themes NA fiction deals with are different to YA and I’m glad someone decided to coin it. The problem is hardly anyone seems to know about it, much less understand what it is. As someone currently trying to get an NA book published, I’ve realised that it’s still not widely accepted as an established genre category and because of this is very often overlooked, even by people working in the industry.

Most class NA as a branch of adult literature. Amazon categorises it under the broader genre of ‘Women’s fiction’ which I really object to. For one, the whole idea of ‘fiction for women’ seems kind of sexist and automatically excludes a male audience. It reinforces the old stereotype that women only read romances and men read crime/thrillers/historical/basically everything else since there’s no ‘men’s fiction’ genre. Furthermore, New Adult isn’t really geared towards one gender or the other. It’s about the challenges and joys of growing up, something which everyone should be able to relate to equally.

Going on from this though, I am disappointed by what i’ve seen of the NA fiction already out there. Most of it seems to be glorified sex scenes with a little plot on the side. Sure, that stuff sells apparently, if we’re judging by Fifty shades of Grey, but frankly I want books with a little more substance. I want to see books about friendship, about real-life issues like racism, sexism, trauma etc.. I want to see complex characters who have more ambitious goals than getting the guy/girl. I want to see books where romance isn’t the main plot at all.

The thing is, I think all of this will come. I think at the moment it’s still a developing genre, but that with more awareness and recognition in the publishing world New Adult has the potential to become an increasingly diverse and significant category of literature. And if self-publishing is the way to make that happen, then I’m not complaining.

Review: Number 9 Dream by David Mitchell

“Dreams are shores where the ocean of spirit meets the land of matter. Dreams are beaches where the yet-to-be, the once-were, the will-never-be may walk awhile with the still are.” 

Rating: 5/5 stars

I’ve just finished reading the novel ‘number9dream’ by David Mitchell, acclaimed author of ‘Cloud Atlas’ which was recently made into a film. It’s his second book and was shortlisted for a Booker prize (though in my opinion it should’ve won one.) Though it must be clear by the rating I gave it, I was thoroughly impressed with this novel. It’s the sort of book that makes you question your own sanity, as well as the author’s, but that’s what I loved about it. By the time I’d finished reading it I was beginning to wonder if I was in a dream or not as well.

I was given this book as a present from a friend who said it ‘reminded her of Haruki Murakami’ (who I absolutely adore). She couldn’t have been more right: not only is ‘number9dream’ in the same vein as this Japanese cult author, it is actually inspired by it and freely acknowledges ‘Norwegian Woods’ as its inspiration within the text. There are certainly many aspects shared by both books: the writing style, the surreal image of Tokyo and the characterisation of the two female protagonists (Ai Imago and Midori) have clear similarities. It seems the Beatles are a very popular muse in literature nowadays.
‘Number9dream’ is a coming of age story at heart. Much like Norwegian Woods, it’s about coming to terms with identity, finding love and dealing with loss. Eiji Miyake, the protagonist of the novel, travels to Tokyo with the goal of finding the father he’s never met. However along the way he gets side-tracked, falls in love and gets in trouble with the Yakuza. I guess that’s the simple summary of the story. Except the narrative structure is far more complicated, as it contrasts the parallel universes of reality and dreams, to the point where you’re no longer sure what’s real and what isn’t. So basically, it’s a 418 page existential crisis in bound print.
Eiji’s story is the over-arching backbone of the novel, and everything else within is perceived through his point of view, including his fantasies. Each chapter, or ‘dream’, features another of these ‘illusions’ that Eiji uses to escape from reality, sometimes through video games, or books, or film. In fact one of these ‘illusions’ has recently been made into a short film: it’s called ‘The Voorman problem.’ Fun fact: my screenwriting professor this year helped produce it! Another of my favourites was the chapter ‘Kai Ten’ in which Eiji reads the journal of his great uncle, who was a Kai-Ten torpedo pilot during the 2nd world war. Through these illusions, the author manages to showcase a number of different narratives and ways of story-telling, creating a compelling blend of voices.
One of the things I love most about this novel is its blatant pretentiousness. I know that sounds a bit strange, but it takes a lot of skill to pull off something so experimental. Though there are a lot of detailed, banal and very realistic descriptions of Tokyo, it’s clear the author is not confining his writing to the category of ‘believable.’ In fact a lot of the dialogue is precocious, quirky and witty in a way that real people just aren’t. But that’s okay, because it’s good dialogue and even though it’s a bit cheesy, sometimes cheesy can be good when done in the right way. The author doesn’t just make his meaning obvious, he goes a step further and has his characters actually discuss it. Oh, the irony and meta-drama.
One very apparent example of this is the chapter ‘Study of Tales’, which is a collection of children’s stories that Eiji reads. They are more like thinly-veiled allegories for the writing trade and publishing business, each story dealing with a different aspect including the search for originality and the effect of the internet revolution on publishing.
Overall, I love this book because despite the magic realism side, the heart of the narrative contains genuine granules of human truth. Eiji tries to escape from reality to deal with the loss of his sister, but in the end he has to face his past in order to heal. One of my favourite quotes from the book is this: “maybe the meaning of life lies in looking for it”. A valuable piece of advice, it’s the reminder that meanings are not a fixed point to strive for but something that can change and evolve with us.

Ender’s Game – Best of Sci-Fi

So, it took me three whole days to finish reading the novel ‘Ender’s Game’ by Orson Scott Card, and then move quickly onto the film. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it’s one of those books that you can’t put down, that makes you forget your body’s annoying need for things like sleep, that makes all other tasks in life seem dreary and completely unnecessary because, dammit, you could be reading instead.

I digress, but my point is that it was very hard to tear myself away from this particular book and it became a bit of an addiction. Let’s face it, beautiful prose is basically a Literature student’s version of substance abuse.

I’ll be focusing only on the novel today, though I may blog in the future about the film adaptation also. I’m going to choose the top 5 things I love about the novel. 

The Originality – I have to admit, there has been a LOT of sci-fi ‘stop the alien invasion’ fiction around lately, but Ender’s Game has got to be one of the most creative and original concepts I’ve seen in a long time. For one, the aliens aren’t actually the main focus. Yes, they’re the driving force of the plot, but that’s all they ever are: a mysterious ‘enemy’ that must be defeated, except no one really knows why until the very end, leaving us to question the morality of it throughout most of the book.

The Detail: Card’s writing style is very easy to read and get into. He delves right into the story and constantly moves the plot along at a pretty fast pace. No time to stop and dawdle on the majesty of the universe, or waste a few pages describing the artful space chair (cough Charles Dickens cough take a hint). There’s a nice balance between dialogue, description and emotion. Enough so that we as the reader have the chance to connect with Ender and feel sympathy for him, but not so much that we start to hate him for being a whiney brat. Though I did find some of the action scenes in the battle room hard to visualise because of the whole ‘null gravity’ thing, I liked that Card didn’t try and patronise readers by over-explaining everything and instead trusted us to use our own imaginations. He’s fantastic at the whole ‘show but don’t tell’ thing, a skill which has been drilled into my head by every creative writing guide I’ve ever read.

The side-plots: I liked how the author wasn’t afraid to shift perspective from Ender to some of the other protagonists, making the plot that much more complex. General Graff, for instance, provides an interesting insight into how the bureaucracy has chosen to justify using children as military weapons. His relationship with Ender, too, can be seen as almost paternal. The other big plot line is that of Valentine and Peter: Ender’s siblings. After all, if a 10 year old military space commander is believable, then why not a 14 year old megalomaniac intent on world domination? Peter and Valentine’s little political stint makes a nice real-world contrast to all of the intergalactic conflict happening in Ender’s life, and in a way reminds us that the futuristic society that the novel is set in may not be all that different from our own.

The supporting characters: I found that every one of the supporting characters had their own distinct personality traits, and there was something to either love or hate about all of them. Sometimes, especially with the bullies like Bernard and Bonzo, it’s how they react to situations and how they are provoked. Sometimes it’s the language they use: certain slang words, a way of speaking. A lot of the time it’s through Ender’s relationship with them, most notably Alai and Bean.

Ender himself – ah. How do I even begin? Of course you have a soft spot for him. Everyone does. Even the people training him to commit genocide. Admittedly, I do have a soft spot for misunderstood clever boys (cough Sherlock cough) but Ender is a special case. Maybe because he’s always getting bullied and everyone loves an underdog. Maybe because he actually defends himself. But I think the main reason is that despite being a child prodigy, he still retains his innocence and compassion. ‘Ender’s Game’ is just as much about Ender’s humanity as it is about him being a badass military commander. He feels guilt for hurting others, but does it anyway because he knows he has to. It seems like the reluctant hero is always the most loved.

Overall, it’s a brilliant book that deals with a lot of dark themes. Honestly, it doesn’t seem like YA at all, even though it would technically be in that genre as the protagonist is only 10 years old for most of it. Somehow, Card made the entire concept of a kid in the military very believable, and while telling Ender’s story simultaneously questions the morality and ethics of warfare. Though it may be set centuries into the future, Ender’s Game relates to timeless issues affecting all of us – what makes us human? How far can we go while retaining our humanity? To destroy monsters, you must become one. I have no idea who came up with that quote, but it seems very applicable to Ender Wiggin.