Tumbling the building blocks: A review of Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl

Cover of How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

“So what do you do when you build yourself—only to realize you built yourself with the wrong things?”

How To Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

 It is 1990 and Johanna Morrigan is fourteen years old, living in Wolverhampton, a city in the English West Midlands, with her unemployed rock-star-wannabe father, depressed mother, two brothers, and twin babies. Johanna has more childcare duties and financial worries than any teenage girl should have to deal with and she ultimately dreams of finding a way out.

In order to make this happen, Johanna reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde–fast talking, hard drinking Lady Sex Adventurer and freelance music journalist. Johanna is determined to build herself in the best way she knows how: on the fly. As Johanna navigates her way through this adult world as a working class girl, her notes are as follows:

How to Build a Girl

By sixteen, Johanna is living the life of lots of sex, lots of drug, and lots of rock ‘n’ roll all in an attempt to build herself, but she soon wonders if during all these wild adventures whether she has gone about this whole “building herself business” in all the wrong ways, and can she change it?

How to Build a Girl is a fast- paced tale of a working class girl whose brains and way with words ensure that her everyday actions will lead to wild parties and unexpected opportunities that allow her to escape the drudgery that is Wolverhampton and somehow find success in the most round-about manner feasible.

This new book reads very much like Moran’s semi-autobiography; she also grew up in a large working class family and became a successful music journalist at a young age (although Moran declares it is pure fiction). Whatever the truth is, Moran has created an authentic teenage voice through her character Johanna. Moran puts the pubescent roller coaster on full display from the exaggerated emotional response to ANYTHING and EVERYTHING to the self-conscious body image moments in front of the mirror.

While Johanna is often over the top and highly excitable in all that she does, it is a very true-to-life portayal. Everyone as a teenager has had moments of exclaiming that it is the end of the world as he or she knows it because this or that happened etc. I believe I said this more than once while growing up…I sometimes still say it on occasion.

How to Build a Girl is also very frank about sex, specifically female sexuality. Moran does not shy away from the subject, but places it front and centre with a wank (specifically, Johanna masturbating in the dead of night next to her sleeping brother with a pillow between them for privacy, because, yes, young girls have urges too and those urges need to be satisfied). Aside from the occasional wank, Johanna also goes out and has lots of sex with lots of different people because, as Moran puts it, “it is what young teenage girls will do. It’s what I did. It’s what my friends did.” Moran said her intention behind this book and the character Johanna is to reclaim the word “slag” and “slut” from society’s shaming culture and renaming it fun names, such as “lady sex pirate” or “swash fuckler.” It’s not about shaming but experiencing. When I attended Moran’s launch at the Toronto Public Library’s Appel Salon, she described the teenage girl’s life in the perfect fashion: “It is about going out and having amazing experiences and awful experiences, which later turn into amazing anecdotes.” And she’s right, you know. After all, how many of us have gone out for drinks talking about our latest adventure in bed or otherwise, both good and bad? All of us, I would think.

While the reader may not be able to relate to everything Johanna goes through in the book, it is all honest and it is all written in a hilarious fashion that only Caitlin Moran is capable of. You may not always be able to say, “I’ve done that,” but you don’t mind going along for the ride with this fun and easy read.

Essentially, How to Build a Girl is about class, social privilege, feminism, and building yourself and rebuilding yourself as you go through life. Johanna may think she has the right building blocks at first, but she soon learns there is no right or easy way to build yourself. Johanna Morrigan is a beautiful work in progress and Caitlin Moran’s book ends with a promise that we haven’t seen the last of this spunky teenage girl.

5 out of 5 book thumbs up

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How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran, published in Canada by HarperCollins Canada, © 2014

Available at Indigo, Amazon, and independent bookstores everywhere.

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Cambions, demons, and distals, oh my! — A review of Servants of the Storm by Delilah S. Dawson

Servants of the Storm book cover

“…the whole reason I got out of the fog was to go back to the Paper Moon Coffee Shop and look for signs of Carly. When I saw her last week, I was on my pills. Without them what will I see tonight?”

Servants of the Storm by Delilah S. Dawson

Since Hurricane Josephine swept through Savannah Georgia, life hasn’t been the same. Leaving behind nothing but death and destruction, there is little brightness to the lives of Savannah residents, especially for Dovey after witnessing her best friend, Carly, being swept away in the torrential swamp waters. Since then Dovey has been in a medicated haze, numb to everything and everyone around her…that is until the day she sees Carly at their favourite café. Dovey begins to think that she is seeing things that can’t be real and, determined to know the difference between what is real and what is fake, she stops taking her pills. Suddenly Dovey is seeing the real Savannah, the darker Savannah full of fear-feeding demons. She learns that the storm that took Carly away from her was no act of mother nature but a demon takeover that hasn’t ended yet but is about to.

Desperate to save her friend, Carly, Dovey teams up with an alluring stranger named Isaac, who is also wrapped up in this demon infestation. However, as Dovey continues to search for Carly in the shadowy corners of Savannah where nightmares are real, she begins to realize that this hunt she is on may be a dangerous trap that she had always been meant to fall into.

At the beginning of the book, I was hooked. Dawson gave you little time to ease into the story with the sudden arrival of Hurricane Josephine that leaves Dovey’s life torn asunder. The reader is immediately caught up in the action, also swept away by the hurricane. You feel the emptiness Dovey is left with in the aftermath, and you also feel her sudden rise in hope when she catches a glimpse of Carly leaving their favourite café in the same outfit she last saw her in. Through the majority of the book, the action continues to happen at this fast and invigorating pace. I found myself always tensing at the turn of every page and the beginning of each chapter, unsure of what dark and ghoulish being Dawson would pull from the childhood closet next.

The one up-side to this suspenseful structure is that it leaves the reader little time to notice the flaws. While this book was full of excitement and intrigue, the characters are, for the most part, one-dimensional. The only character with some actual depth is Isaac, and this is because he has an interesting and mysterious background that is revealed to us in only small tidbits at a time. In comparison, Dovey and her friend Baker are very superficial. Baker is the cute dork who grew up to be a handsome dork who has fallen (unprecedentedly) in love with Dovey, and Dovey is the once-drugged-now-seeing-demons girl who won’t give up on Carly. That about sums it up. However, you can happily ignore the limitations of these characters simply by being caught up in the pure creativity of this plot line. I mean, how did Dawson come up with the whole phenomena of demons eating the tips of people’s pinkie fingers (i.e. distals) thereby making them distal servants now and in death to that said demon? Pretty creepy stuff, and fascinating!

Unfortunately the action started to slow down in the latter half of the book and suddenly the details, or lack there of, became more obvious. Due to the consistent lack of character development, I had trouble becoming wholly invested in Dovey’s story apart from her search for Carly. Her conflicted emotions regarding Baker and Isaac felt irrelevant and unsubstantiated. Dovey also has a very dull way of reacting to all the crazy shit that goes down in this book. I mean, the amount of fear and disbelief Dovey displayed paled in comparison to my own. I felt like Dovey needed to take some lessons from the reader, because she obviously wasn’t seeing what I was reading.

Also, not to spoil anything, but the ending was very unexpected. It was a sad attempt at the unresolved literary ending that instead became one of those cliché endings in horror films (you know the ones I’m talking about). Upon closing the book, I kind of just sat there with my lips pursed thinking, “Yup…that happened. Alrighty then.”

While Servants of the Storm has its faults, I will admit that I did initially get caught up in the story. It was an unusual read for me, a southern Gothic, which is what made it enjoyable. I still responded to the book’s content, therefore, the book was never an entire loss for me. While it may not have been a challenging read, it is definitely of the young adult genre and something any demon-loving, science-fiction fan would enjoy.

3 out of 5 book thumbs up

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First Reads copy via Goodreads provided to me by Simon and Schuster Canada.

Servants of the Storm by Delilah S. Dawson, Simon and Schuster Canada © 2014.

Available at Indigo, Amazon, and independent bookstores everywhere August 5, 2014.

Saying hello to being twelve again: A review of Something Wiki by Suzanne Sutherland

something wiki

“…I put all my ideas and feelings out there online, everything I’m thinking and wondering about, and then some other geek in some other corner of cyberspace a million miles away sees what I’ve done and deletes it.”

Something Wiki by Suzanne Sutherland

When we’re young and impressionable preteens, we are always ready to think the world is out to get us (frankly, I don’t think it changes all that much when you’re an adult). We struggle with fitting in, with making friends, and with keeping those friends. Suzanne Sutherland’s second book Something Wiki is all about that childhood drama we all go through at one point or another, maybe more than once (speaking from experience).

Jo Waller is a geeky twelve years old, who has a cool older brother named Z (at least according to her), three friends, a bad complexion, and wears over-sized hand-me-down band t-shirts her brother left behind in his room. She also has a secret: She edits Wikipedia. However, she doesn’t just edit it, she makes it her own online journal of random scrawls on different pages, which also immediately get deleted, or sometimes even responded to, although in a rude manner (Three friends is plenty, Jo. Ignore the cyber troll). Being twelve is rough, and Jo thinks she has the worst luck when everything goes from normal to all wrong in a small span of time. Her friend list shortens to one, her brother comes back home to live with his pregnant girlfriend in the basement, and Jo’s face won’t cooperate with her hormones. Jo can’t seem to see a silver lining in all the drama, or if she can survive it.

I probably could have read this book a lot faster than I did, but I received the ARC from Net Galley, and I don’t have an e-reading device. I also stupidly opened it on Adobe Digital Editions at work without realizing that that was where it would stay until I finished it. Needless to say, due to these lovely limitations, I was reading Something Wiki on my 30-minute lunch breaks (when time allowed).

If I was a decade younger, I would have given this book five out of five book thumbs up. It is a simple and easy read for someone my age, which is why it is a young adult/children’s book . This book is absolutely relevant for that younger demographic. I know I sure could have used a book like this growing up, as Jo goes through many of the same problems I experienced myself with problematic friends, troublesome hormones, and the whole unrequited crush-thing. It is no picnic going through this alone, and if you’re reading about Jo’s life, you might not have to (fictional or not, it’s relevant).

Jo is a very believable character. Sutherland’s characterization is spot on. Writing from a younger person’s perspective is a difficult task, but Sutherland does it with ease, and a bit of personal “dorky” flair. Besides identifying with Jo on basically EVERYTHING she goes through, I found myself chuckling at her quirky behaviour and her honest responses to the topics of sex and pregnancy.

The layout of the book was a great style choice as well. Having Wikipedia entries at the start of every chapter not only highlighted the book’s title, it also gave us an in-depth look at how Jo expresses herself. Humorous and upfront, she says what she feels without sugarcoating it.

If you want to meet your twelve-year-old self again, I definitely recommend giving this quick-and-easy read a chance. Or, if you have someone you know currently occupying that difficult age, perhaps suggest Something Wiki to them, because deep down, we are all insecure and unsure at that age, at all ages really, but we are also unique, incomparable beings — our own brand of dork.

4 out of 5 book thumbs up

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e-Galley provided to me by Dundurn via NetGalley

Something Wiki by Suzanne Sutherland, published in Canada by Dundurn © 2015

Available at Dundurn, Indigo, Amazon, and independent bookstores everywhere January 3, 2015.

 

Stealing Hitler’s words: A review of The Book Thief

Cover image of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

“It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and it will become busier still.”

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

It is simple enough for me to say that I love most books, but there are few books that have also had the ability to dominate my emotions in such a way that they are torn from my inner core and put on full display, smeared across the pages. The Book Thief is one of those books. It is also one that I have been wishing to read for awhile now and now that I have, I am very glad that I did. While I’m late to the bandwagon, I think it is appropriate that I read it now; not only has a movie adaptation been released, but Markus Zusak, an already bestselling and well-known author, also won the annual Margaret Edwards Award this year for his contribution to young-adult literature in the US.

On that rewarding note, in The Book Thief, Markus Zusak tells his story in a fascinating combination of first- and third-person narration. The first-person narrator is Death personified, but not in the stereotypical fashion you would automatically imagine. No, Zusak’s perception of death is like that of meeting an old friend, which is very humanizing, almost comfortingly so. There is no figure cloaked in dark robes carrying a scythe, but rather he arrives as a source of solace for the numerous dead and dying during the war.

For a quick summary, although I’m sure everyone knows this by now, The Book Thief follows the life of a young German girl, Liesel Memminger, who is given into foster care by her mother for her own protection. It is on this journey to her new home that Liesel commits her first act of book thievery, on her way to becoming the infamous book thief. Death comes into contact with her for the first time here when her brother passes away in his sleep, and it is during her brother’s brief funeral that Liesel finds and takes The Grave Digger’s Handbook, accidentally left in the snow presumably by a young grave digger apprentice. It is upon this discovery that Liesel’s obsession with books and words is born, and under the guidance of her accordion-playing foster father, Hans Hubermann, she learns to read.

The narrative shifts between Liesel’s experiences occasionally interjected with Death’s own narration as he watches Liesel and collects the dead across Europe, revealing the turmoil occurring beyond Liesel’s everyday activities on Himmel Street. These activities range from stealing books from the mayor’s wife’s library to refusing requests for kisses from her best friend and partner in crime, Rudy Steiner. However, dangerous times come to Himmel Street when Max Vandenburg, a Jewish man in hiding, knocks on the Hubermann door, the result of a promise to the wife of a dead comrade after the First World War. As the war comes closer and bombs are fly overhead, Liesel’s world is both opened and closed, as she realizes the sheer force encapsulated in the words she has learned to read — words that can be used for good as well as for evil.

While the book starts out somewhat slowly, there is a lot to love about the craftsmanship behind Zusak’s writing, which is both elegant and moving. His decision to tell his story through Death’s eyes is ingenious. Immediately, the reader is forced to bear witness to Death’s sharp matter-of-fact statements on the rising number of dead and the Jewish “showers” while at the same time being lulled by the innocent play between Liesel and Rudy, as they exchange humorous endearments from “saukerl” to “saumensch.” Zusak also reveals the uncanny understanding and insight of a child that adults often overlook, such as the simple comment made by Rudy’s brother Kurt in regards to the fallen dominoes looking like dead bodies. Zusak captures this in each of his young characters, creating children with indomitable spirits that observe and fight back in their own way with the rest of the adult world.

The book is one of those tools Liesel uses to fight back with, and it is used as a motif throughout the novel, highlighting the power of words. In addition to using words for defiance, Liesel also uses them as a shelter for herself and others, especially when she reads to Max during his sickness or to the rest of Himmel Street while in the basement during the bomb raids. Significantly, Max also revitalizes the power of words for good, inscribing his story onto the painted-over pages of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which is just one example of the remarkable use of symbolism employed within The Book Thief.

While I wish to find fault with Death’s early spoiler in the novel, which forecasts Himmel Street’s heart-wrenching destruction, I cannot manage it. Death was made even more relateable with this addition of a human fallacy and I was no less enthralled by what I read despite knowing how it would end. I still followed each character’s timeline, almost desperately so, mentally exhausted by the emotional attachment I had developed for them. So true-to-life, these characters literally breath on the pages — Death’s preparation was not enough.

A poignant read that is devastatingly brilliant and absorbing from start to finish, Zusak reveals a World War II Germany that is rarely touched upon. And, just like Death, we, the readers, are haunted by these humans Zusak has introduced us to. Liesel, Rudy, Hans … they are the types of characters that resonate and are well worth carrying around long after the last page is turned.

I am haunted by humans quote from The Book Thief with Death and Liesel holding hands

5 out 5 book thumbs up

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The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, published in Canada by Knopf, © 2005

Available at Random House of Canada, Amazon, Indigo, and independent bookstores.