Hamilton aims for the sky

Hamilton The Revolution coverThere’s a song by the comedy band Tripod with a line that goes: “I always get into stuff/ Just as it’s finishing being cool...”, and embarrassingly this often applies to me. A couple of years ago I listened to the first song of the (Alexander) Hamilton musical and thought it was good, but it didn’t blow me away. I figured I’d try it again another time.

A few weeks ago I put it on as something to listen to while cleaning the house, and this time I stuck with it; halfway through listening to “Satisfied” I was a firm fan. I kept cleaning just so that I could finish the musical (which never happens, believe me). The house was spotless by the time the last refrains of “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” faded out, and I may have cried a few times while folding the washing. How did a story about another country’s history affect me (and millions of others) so deeply?

For a start it’s incredibly well written; it’s a musical but it’s sung-through, so you can hear the entire story by listening to the cast recording. While many of the songs are incredibly catchy the story is what compels you to continue listening to Alexander Hamilton as he drags himself up from nothing to something; he’s not always likeable, but you have to admire his incredible work ethic, and he was clearly charismatic to many.

Articulate, intelligent leaders are always interesting to read about, and he surrounded himself with articulate, intelligent men and women, including my favourite character — his sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler — who sings my favourite song. Hamilton isn’t a musical that shies away from shades of grey, portraying both Hamilton and his frenemy Aaron Burr as complex rivals with a fundamental difference in character. Lin-Manuel Miranda manages to pack all this complexity into two and a bit hours by using rapid-fire delivery and lyrics that seem throw-away on the surface but unpack to give multiple meanings and allusions to hip hop masters, Shakespeare, and historical events.

Cover of Washington: A Life, Ron ChernowThere is a lot more I could say on the topic, from how I love that it’s bringing verse back to stage performance as a great tool for compelling exposition, how it’s performing America then by America now with a diverse and talented cast, how I’ve managed to have seven different songs stuck in my head at once — and yes, if you listened to this back in 2015, you already know all this stuff. But for anyone else who’s heard about it but hasn’t quite gotten around to it yet, or who loved the Kate Shepard musical (That Bloody Woman) last year, borrow the Hamilton cast recording today and give it a listen. If nothing else you’ll get a clean house out of it.

If you do already like Hamilton, I recommend Ron Chernow‘s biographies for some extra insights into Hamilton and Washington. I’ve also been reading the fantastically nerdy Hamilton The Revolution : Being the Complete Libretto of the Broadway Musical, With A True Account of Its Creation, and Concise Remarks on Hip-hop, the Power of Stories, and the New America and can thoroughly recommend it as it showcases the thought put into every single aspect of the show.

Recent Reads: Young Adult fiction

I’d be the first to admit I judge books by their covers all the time, but sometimes the blurb is so compelling I have to try the first chapter anyway. Such was the case with Noteworthy, a book with a deceptively bland cover much like the author’s previous book, Seven Ways We Lie. I mean, look at them! A+ for colour-matching but C- for covers that don’t match the content:

Cover of Noteworthy by Riley RedgateCover of Seven Ways We Lie by Riley Redgate

Actually don’t look at them, just open them up and start reading instead, because listen to the description of Noteworthy:

After learning that her deep voice is keeping her from being cast in plays at her exclusive performing arts school, Jordan Sun, junior, auditions for an all-male octet hoping for a chance to perform internationally.

I didn’t realise I needed a book about a girl going undercover in an all-male a cappella group, but I definitely did. The blurb doesn’t mention it but she auditions and spends much of the book passing as a teenage boy and (against her first inclinations) becoming friends with the other members of the group. The author describes her book as “approx. 1/3 slapstick comedy, 1/3 hideous music puns, and 1/3 explorations of toxic masculinity and performative femininity,” which is fairly accurate, so if you’re a fan of puns and a cappella and figuring out who you are while pretending to be someone you aren’t, then give Noteworthy a try. If you want something a bit darker with a larger cast of characters, each based loosely on one of the seven sins, then try Seven Ways We Lie.

Cover of Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy

Ramona Blue is the most recent novel by Julie Murphy, whose book Dumplin’ I enjoyed last year. They have similar themes of teenage girls in small towns trying to be confident in who they are while suffering from crippling doubts, but where Dumplin’s self-proclaimed fat girl Willowdean deals with this by entering the local beauty pageant, Ramona Blue is aggressively happy to stay living in a trailer with her dad and supporting her pregnant sister, definitely isn’t frustrated that she can’t go to college, definitely isn’t upset that her summer girlfriend has gone back home to her boyfriend.

In the middle of all this Ramona’s childhood friend Freddie moves back into town and they start swimming at the local pool, which Ramona turns out to be rather good at, and maybe also start having feelings for each other, but that can’t be right because Ramona has always known she was gay, hasn’t she? And she still likes girls, so what’s going on? Spoiler! it’s the elusive bisexual, now captured in fiction. I was worried when I realised the direction the book was going in but it was handled really well, and is only one strand of Ramona’s complex story.

Cover of Allegedly by Tiffany D. JacksonIf that’s still too light-hearted for you then maybe you’ll appreciate Tiffany D. Jackson’s grim debut, Allegedly.

Inspired by a similar case in Maine five years ago, Allegedly is told from the perspective of the now sixteen-year-old girl (Mary) convicted of manslaughter of a white infant when she was only nine. Her case is famous; books have been written, a film is in the works, and at the time of her trial the public were pushing for the death penalty. Eight years later she’s living in a group home while attempting to study for her SATs despite the interference of the women who run the home and the other girls living in it — while newly pregnant. The discovery that the authorities will take away her baby when he’s born prompts Mary to re-open her case, declaring she has been innocent all along. Was she? Or is she just doing whatever it takes to keep her unborn child?

Lost Austens; or, Beyond Pride and Prejudice

Cover of Lady Susan; The Watsons; SanditonNo, I’m not talking about Pride and Prejudice and Kittens. Jane Austen’s novels are justifiably well known, but her shorter works are equally amusing. If you’ve seen the film Love and Friendship then you may be aware that it’s based on a short epistolary novel entitled Lady Susan. I highly recommend seeking it out. It’s often bundled together with unfinished works The Watsons and Sanditon.

Some of my favourites, however, are the ridiculously silly short stories composed when she was a teenager. They run the gamut from murder:

I murdered my father at a very early period of my Life, I have since murdered my Mother, and I am now going to murder my Sister.

Suicide:

Cover of Love and Freindship and other storiesIt was not till the next morning that Charlotte recollected the double engagement she had entered into; but when she did, the reflection of her past folly, operated so strongly on her mind, that she resolved to be guilty of a greater, & to that end threw herself into a deep stream which ran thro’ her Aunt’s pleasure Grounds in Portland Place. She floated to Crankhumdunberry where she was picked up & buried; the following epitaph, composed by Frederic, Elfrida & Rebecca, was placed on her tomb.

EPITAPH
Here lies our friend who having promis-ed
That unto two she would be marri-ed
Threw her sweet Body & her lovely face
Into the Stream that runs thro’ Portland Place.

Hooliganism:

Cover of The Beautifull CassandraThe beautifull Cassandra then proceeded to a Pastry-cooks where she devoured six ices, refused to pay for them, knocked down the Pastry Cook & walked away.

Gold diggers:

“Oh! when there is so much Love on one side there is no occasion for it on the other. However I do not much dislike him tho’ he is very plain to be sure.”

And, of, course, cannibalism:

She began to find herself rather hungry, & had reason to think, by their biting off two of her fingers, that her Children were much in the same situation.

I also highly recommend Austen’s History of England, by “a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian”. Really any Austen will do, just read the lot and tell me what you think.

Further reading

 

Review: When Dimple Met Rishi

I read this book at the perfect time: at the end of a particularly trying week, on the first day of a particularly nasty bug.

Reading something comforting in bed with a hot water bottle was the only activity I could bear, and luckily When Dimple Met Rishi delivered in spades. A lot of the books I usually read feature unexpected (or expected) character deaths, or stressful situations, or characters coping with losing a parent (this particular trope keeps popping up unexpectedly since losing a parent myself last year, and I’m not a fan! Publishers, take note). When Dimple Met Rishi is the antidote to all that — cute and sweet, but with enough depth to not be irritating. Perfect cosy winter reading.

Cover When Dimple met Rishi

Dimple Shah is almost running out the door in her eagerness to get away from her overbearing, traditional-minded mother (who wants her to find the Ideal Indian Husband) and to start studying to become a web developer. To her surprise, her parents agree to pay for the summer program for aspiring web programmers she’s been eyeing up for years.

Rishi Patel is a romantic who wants to find what his parents have achieved — a fairytale but practical marriage. When his parents tell him they’ve arranged for him to meet their friends’ daughter at Insomnia Con, he leaps at the opportunity — maybe a bit too hard, because Dimple is anything but thrilled to meet him. In fact, she didn’t even know he existed.

There are quite a few tropes playing out here, but I like them all so they get a pass. Dimple and Rishi are both engaging characters who make some stupid mistakes, and best of all they realise they do actually like each other quite quickly rather than the author coming up with flimsy misunderstandings in order to string the suspense along. Instead the conflict is through them figuring themselves out, what they want to do with their lives and careers, balancing cultural tradition/family with an American upbringing, and deciding whether being in a relationship is compatible with university study. Some of which I’m still figuring out myself, so maybe I need to a summer conference. The romance is pretty cute, and Dimple is usually quite good at pointing out when Rishi is being too smug.

I would have liked a bit more development of Dimple’s room-mate, Celia, as she is poorly served by both some of her friends and by the narrative. And some more detail on the app-building and the program would have been interesting to me. But given that it’s a book entitled When Dimple Met Rishi, I can’t complain too much if it’s all about them.

If you’re a fan of funny contemporary teen romance with geekery and Bollywood dancing, then get thee to a library and pick this one up. If you’ve already read it, have a look at:

Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

When Dimple Met Rishi
by Sandhya Menon
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781473667402

Cover to The Geek's Guide to UnrequitedCover of To All the Boys I've Loved BeforeCover of Looking for AlibrandiCover of Fangirl

Harry Potter: a personal history

Cover of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's StoneWhen I was 7, a substitute teacher read the class the first two chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I thought it was a bit rubbish and told my mother so when I got home. “I think I’ve heard about it on the radio,” she said. “It’s meant to be quite good.” Oh. I gave it another try, this time borrowing it from the library. I read it so compulsively that I finished it on a family visit to a friend’s for dinner, surfacing at the end to ask if there was a sequel. I was hooked.

That was in 1997. Over the next few years the world caught up in the same kind of madness, and I slowly caught up to Harry in age. By the time Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (the seventh and final volume) was published I was a teenager on a gap year — I still have a photo of myself in a bookshop in France on the day it was released. Like a lot of people, Harry Potter was my first experience of fandom, sharing my fiction affliction with millions of others around the world. There are a thousand stories like mine.

My relationship with the books is a lot more complicated now than it was in the beginning, but they shaped so much of my growing up that I still love them anyway. From making Harry Potter paper dolls with my best friend to writing a fan letter to J. K. Rowling (and getting a reply!), buying my first merch (Hedwig sweatshirt) in Germany in 1998, getting spoiled for who died in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix because for once I didn’t read fast enough, dressing up for a launch event at the local bookshop in 2005…

Somehow, as of today, it has been 20 years since Harry Potter was first published. Time for a re-read and a chocolate frog, I think.

Stella Duffy at the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season

Stella Duffy: writer, playwright, actor, improviser, founder and co-director of Fun Palaces, and general multi-tasker extraordinaire. How, asks interviewer Liz Grant, does she have the energy?

I like working, and I know I’m really lucky to be able to do it — my parents both left school at 14, had very hard working lives, the only time off my dad had was when he was shot down in World War II and became a POW — so when artists talk about how it’s such hard work, and they have to suffer, it makes me want to punch them. What’s hard work is raising seven children like my mother, or being a brilliant man with no opportunities like my dad. I work really hard at my job, but it’s not hard work. I know I’m fortunate to be able to do it.

Liz Grant and Stella Duffy. WORD Christchurch Autumn Season. The Piano. Monday 15 May 2017. Flickr 2017-05-15-IMG_0166

Family

Duffy’s family history is fascinating — like all families it is complex and messy. While researching she discovered a great-grandmother who had given birth in Holloway prison. The reason for her spell inside? Manslaughter; “I didn’t realise the baby was so ill,” she said in court, “and neither did my (12-year old) daughter.” She worked from 9pm-6am every night (“charring” is the occupation given, scare quotes intentional), providing for her children so that she could be home to get them ready for school, only to lose a child and be imprisoned while pregnant with the next. It’s a far cry from Downton Abbey, that’s for sure, and can be seen in the hard working lives of the families in Duffy’s London Lies Beneath.

“There’s no place like home”

Probably the most interesting for me was the talk of home/not home, how once you move away from the place you grew up you effectively lose it — always missing home, but when you visit it has changed without you. This really resonated as someone who grew up in a small town but now lives in a city, with family across New Zealand as well as far away in Europe, who has lived overseas and now feels the tug of home/not-home wherever I am.

Christchurch in particular has that double-layered effect, walking down streets that have changed beyond measure in only a few years. In cities such as London and Rome the juxtaposition of past and present is even more noticeable, everything built on and around and between the layers of its own history. Duffy loves being swallowed up by such a vast, full and vibrant city, being “a small fish in a very big pond”, keeping the taniwha in the Thames fed with Kiwi accents and secrets:

Cover of London Lies BeneathYou know what they say about the taniwha, don’t you, girl?

She shook her head.

He smiled as he said, It’s homesick, of course, but the Thames is too busy and it can’t get by the ships for fear of being seen and lauded and brought ashore for our pleasure again. It doesn’t like to be looked at, not directly. And it’s bigger, much bigger now, grown full on the secrets we tell to the water. That taniwha lives off our whispers, eating up the fears and tears we tell over the side of a bridge. It’s grown fat on what we hide from in the dark, beneath the bedclothes. There’s no getting away from it either, it will follow you along the Effra or the Neckinger as easy as it rides the tide from Tilbury to Teddington.

— London Lies Beneath, Stella Duffy

Ngaio Marsh

When I first read about Money in the Morgue I was under the impression that Duffy was simply finishing an already mostly-completed manuscript, but no: Dame Ngaio Marsh only left three sketchy chapters with some rough notes and no ideas of whodunnit, where it was done or how. Helpful!

Duffy talked a little about how to recreate the tone of Marsh’s writing without the less desirable -isms that permeate 30s era novels (how to make it seem as if it were written in that time but not of that time, if you see what I mean). The answer? Steal a few of Marsh’s writing tics. “Alleyn rubbed his nose.” “His ascetic monk’s face.” “His long, elegant fingers.” Perhaps we’ll see some of New Zealand’s “primordial landscape”, too. All jokes aside, Duffy is careful to avoid any sense of pastiche or mockery in her writing, being an avid admirer of Marsh’s work.

I look forward to reading Money in the Morgue when it’s published in May 2018, and in the meantime reading Duffy’s recent thriller, The Hidden Room. If you’re interested in learning more about the historical setting of London Lies Beneath, Duffy recommends Round About a Pound a Week, written in 1913 by the trade unionist, Fabian and feminist Maud Pember Reeves. If you’re new to Ngaio Marsh’s writing then she recommends starting with Died in the Wool, a country house mystery set on a high country sheep station in New Zealand.

Cover of The Hidden RoomCover of Round About a Pound a WeekCover of Died in the Wool

The Pearl Thief

Cover of Code Name VerityElizabeth Wein has been one of my must-read authors since reading the beautiful punch in the gut that is Code Name Verity a few years ago. I’ve since tracked down the rest of her bibliography and can honestly say there isn’t a book she’s written that I haven’t loved.

This probably doesn’t make sense to you if you’re not a re-reader, but there are certain books that worm their way into your heart and you need to read them again in order to spend more time with your favourite characters. Books that make you grin foolishly or tear up on the bus. Books that make you thrust a copy into your friends’ hands and say: ‘Read this! It made me have feelings and I need you to read it so that we can have feelings together!’

Elizabeth Wein frequently provokes such outbursts from me. (Sorry, friends.) So I was very excited to read her latest novel The Pearl Thief. Technically it’s a prequel to Code Name Verity but it works well as a standalone.

Cover of The Pearl ThiefJulie arrives at her recently deceased grandfather’s estate in Scotland in 1938, having come home early from boarding school. No one’s around so she wanders down to the river in her brother’s kilt and an old jersey, enjoying the summer afternoon. She falls asleep tickling the trout… and then wakes up in hospital with a giant bump on her head and no memory of what happened.

This is only one of the mysteries she has to solve, as missing scholars, dead bodies and stolen river pearls start to pile up, along with a lot of unfounded local suspicion toward the Scottish Traveller community. Which is awkward as Julie is getting to be quite good friends with two Traveller siblings, Euan and Ellen. Will they figure out the real culprit before the Travellers are framed for the crime?

So many of my favourite things contained in one book: mystery, archaeology, librarians, and Julie running around the moors dressed as Davie Balfour from Kidnapped!, kissing the local girls. Sound like you? Reserve a copy of The Pearl Thief now and beat the rush! And if you also have feelings about Elizabeth Wein’s books and need to share, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

The Pearl Thief
by Elizabeth Wein
Published by Disney-Hyperion
ISBN: 9781484717165

ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Cover of Rose Under FireCover of Black Dove, White RavenCover of A Coalition of LionsCover of The Sunbird

Review: Dear Ijeawele

Cover of Dear IjeaweleI first came to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s work via The Thing Around Your Neck. I like short story collections for discovering new authors because there’s so much less commitment — I read a couple of stories and if I like them I continue; if not, I’ve only lost a few minutes of my time. The former, in this case.

I finished The Thing Around Your Neck (full of eloquent, insightful and sometimes snarky observations on being Nigerian in Nigeria vs. the US) and later had my heart broken by Purple Hibiscus. Since finishing Americanah in 2013 Adichie has stepped away from fiction to write concise manifestos of feminism: first We Should All Be Feminists (fairly self-explanatory), and now Dear Ijeawele, on how to raise a feminist. Both are very short and easy to read so you can easily finish one in your lunch break.

It’s all very common sense stuff but depressingly it apparently needs to be said. Things like: Don’t let motherhood consume you. Share parenthood equally. Bin the concept of gender roles. (That last one especially difficult to do in today’s blue and pink segregated toy aisles.)

I cannot overstate the power of alternatives. She can counter ideas about static ‘gender roles’ if she has been empowered by her familiarity with alternatives. If she knows an uncle who cooks well – and does so with indifference – then she can smile and brush off the foolishness of somebody who claims that ‘women must do the cooking’.

Some advice is more specific to raising an Igbo daughter, but you can easily substitute your own cultural heritage in her suggestion to cultivate a strong sense of identity, or in recognising the pros and cons of the society you live in.

Teach her never to universalize her own standards or experiences. Teach her that her standards are for her alone, and not for other people. This is the only necessary form of humility: the realization that difference is normal.

I wish someone had sat me down as a child and explained some of these things to me. Especially that I don’t have to be nice to everyone: kind, yes, but I don’t owe it to other people to be nice to them when they are hurting me. It can be difficult to have opinions on the internet without being stomped on, but that doesn’t mean we should silence ourselves.

I don’t have any children but I have an interest in making this world easier for everyone to live in, and the suggestions in Dear Ijeawele seem like a good place to start.

Cover of The Thing Around Your NeckCover of Half of a Yellow SunCover of Purple HibiscusCover of AmericanahCover of We Should All Be Feminists
Dear Ijeawele, Or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN: 9780008241032

Knights and Princesses Day

Knights and Princesses fun dayHear ye, hear ye!

The Princess and the PonyThe populace of Central Library Peterborough invite one and all for an afternoon of medieval entertainment, to take place from 1-3pm on Saturday the 25th of March. There will be crown decorating for those of royal blood, and shield making for any knights in need of armour. Catapults will be created and tested! If you are of an active disposition we invite you to attempt the quest, or if of a more mellow nature try out some medieval crafts and board games.

Prizes will be granted for the best costumes so bring your sense of chivalry and your best royal and/or knightly outfit to win! All welcome. This is a free event.

Need help getting into character? Check out my list of favourite books about knights and princesses for kids and teens.

Cover of Sir Gawain the TrueCover of The Princess in BlackCover of Tuesdays at the CastleCover of The Winter Prince

All About (Nasty) Women — WORD Christchurch

This blog talks about two live-streamed talks from the Sydney All About Women event, but after looking at their website I’ve realised how many interesting talks are happening that aren’t live-streamed. For instance Life on Mars, about Carmel Johnston’s year living in the HI-SEAS Mars simulation on Hawai’i. (I just re-watched The Martian so it caught my eye.) Luckily All About Women is filmed and put on Youtube so those of us who missed out can still watch when they’re uploaded.

Geena Davis on Gender in Media

If you’re skeptical that media representation and the lack thereof can influence the way we view ourselves and others, Geena Davis and her institute on gender in media can provide a few facts that might change your mind. In 2012, the year of Cover of Brave: The essential guideBrave‘s Merida and The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen, the participation of girls in archery competitions more than doubled. Which is great! What’s not so great is how rare that positive representation actually is. The gender disparity in film is just as bad now as it was 1946, and that’s not an exaggeration. I recently read Jessica Chastain’s essay on how amazing and rare it was to work on a set that has 20% women (The Zookeeper’s Wife, directed by Niki Caro). 20%! Sometimes she was the only woman on set at all. I sometimes forget, working in a field that is so woman-friendly, how isolated we can be in the workplace.

As depressing as those facts are I highly recommend having a look at Geena Davis’ website and the footage of her All About Women speech when it goes up. In person she is very, very funny and has inspired me to look even more closely at the media I consume. I recommend you do likewise, particularly animated children’s movies, which from the stats seem to have the worst record of gender disparity and negative stereotyping.

Backstage interview with Jessa Crispin

Crispin rejects the label of feminist because today’s feminism isn’t feminist enough. Too many people are calling themselves feminists, she says, by just co-opting the ideology others have created rather than inventing their own. To make real change we need just a few really hardcore radical women willing to tear down the system, we don’t need to convert everybody to the cause.

If feminism is universal, if it is something that all women and men can “get on board” with, then it is not for me. If feminism is nothing more than personal gain disguised as political progress, then it is not for me. If by declaring myself a feminist I must reassure you that I am not angry, that I pose no threat, then feminism is definitely not for me. I am angry. And I do pose a threat. — Jessa Crispin, Why I Am Not a Feminist

Cover of Why I am not a feministI found listening to Crispin frustrating because while I agreed with some of what she said (feminism needs to be more inclusive racially and economically) I disagree with how she thinks we should solve it. Slacktivism is a problem for many causes, not just feminism, so rather than sneering at the lip-service feminists as not being feminist enough, why not work to inspire more of them to take more active roles in achieving gender parity?

If you were there (or have read Crispin’s book, Why I Am Not a Feminist), I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Nasty Women

So many smart, articulate ladies on this panel. Some of the best quotes:

No one is looking after us, it’s only us. And if you don’t get active in democracy, you get Trump. — Van Badham

 

The moment we shut up we let them win. — Yassmin Abdel-Gamied

 

Cover of Shrill: Notes from a loud womanSimply presenting my body to the world and insisting that it has value is a political act. It freaks people out. — Lindy West

 

You have the strength of all the women with you, who came before you, and who will come after you. — Van Badham

 

We have to mobilise everyone. Tell our kids that activism and standing for office are part of our civic duties. —Lindy West

 

It’s when people mobilise around the issues that are actually more important than the vacuum of hate, that opinions can change and we’ve got to have hope in that message and our capacity to organise, to speak to people about what’s really important to them. It’s only a tiny percentage of people who are really defined by hatred and will vote hatred more than anything else. — Van Badham

 

The idea of changing the entire world is overwhelming, but the idea of having an impact on the few people who are around us is very very achievable. — Yassmin Abdel-Gamied

One (very small) way that I try to make a difference is to support marginalised authors by buying, reading and reviewing their books. It takes very little effort on my part and I get to read great books! Win-win. If you’re looking for new authors to read I recommend We Need Diverse Books as a great place to start.