The Sun Also Rises

I was incredibly surprised by the effect this book 51lmTfDL9fL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_had on me. I’m in no way a fan-girl of Hemingway’s, but the name does come with certain gravitas and expectations. Those expectations were not met.

I can’t just bash the book because that would be both dishonest and close-minded, but I had a serious problem with the aimless meandering of the story. Perhaps I’m more of a Vonnegut kind of gal, because I do need the narration to move the story forwards, if only every few sentences. By the time I was 1/3 into The Sun Also rises I had the question of “Where the hell is this going?” playing over and over in my head.

I might be biased and influenced by the search and want for strong female characters in recent years, but I hated Lady Ashley and all her whimsies. Not because I was in any way “slut shaming” her but because of her portrayal after the fact. She never could help anything, and she’s constantly miserable and in trouble despite all the men throwing themselves and their money at her. If only the broad knew what the bloody hell she wanted! Then, even though she would constantly complain to Jake about it – whom, in the meantime, she manipulates just to keep a loyal puppy close – she never actually wants to talk about it. It probably is the difference between then and now, but it was hard for me to get over all her bullshit.

The men are equally meek and jaded – the latter probably the product of the post-war decadence – but they only raise their voices after they’ve raised their glasses several times. Granted, that is almost constantly the case, but then again the drunken confrontations can there easily be dismissed as just that, leaving them inconsequential. At the end of the day (or more often than not the night), no one has said almost anything of substance, has aired no real feelings, for his/her or anyone else’s benefit, and nothing is ever really resolved. The only such moment was when Jake was finally alone and free from his “friends” to actually enjoy his day.

I’m adding an extra star because there are indisputably gorgeous moments in scenery when describing both travelling through Paris at night and through the North of Spain during the day. The other very strong points for me were the corridas and everything around their organisation. That was, apart from the drinking, where the personality of Hemingway really shone through and lent vividness and passion to the writing. The corridas of the last day of the fiesta were the moment I was actually enthralled. I wish the book had ended with the excitement of the last day and the serenity of Jake’s couple of days alone back in France. The true ending, without spoiling anything, left me with that same irritation I felt throughout the book.

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Let’s start with some Big Magic!

Hellooooo… world. And Happy New Year!

I know I’m only a month and half late with that last thing and well over a month late with my next blog post… but this is how it is in my little world of procrastination. I’ve vowed that one day I’ll get the hang of this regular posting thing but until then I just have to keep trying, now don’t I?

And just so that I don’t stop at “I’m one big lazy ass” I have to mentioned that I have been reading and working on my own book in the past month and progress has been made. bigmagic

Example number one: after finishing a couple of books I had started in 2016, a couple of weeks ago I finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. Now, after a sick spell and some guests, I finally sit down to finish this review/reflection on it.

I first discovered Elizabeth Gilbert not through Eat, Pray, Love – it might come as a shock to some but I still have neither read the book nor seen the movie – but through her podcast “Big Magic”. In fact, that’s how I learned it was she who wrote Eat, Pray, Love and, even if as reader and writer I should be, I am totally not ashamed to admit that.

Anyhow, I enjoyed her podcast and the people she called for advise had some very interesting things to say to aspiring artists of all fields. So I thought I’d give the book a try.

I also opted for the audiobook since I was already used to Gilbert’s voice from the podcast. I don’t have a great amount of experience with audiobooks, but from the little that I have, I’d say non-fiction is best when read by the author. Not just in this case, when I already know the author’s voice but I also had a great experience with Kate Mulgrew’s Born with Teeth (which for some reason I have not reviewed, hmm?)

So, typically, it’s a great deal to have the author read the work herself, and in this case, there might have been a good dose of saving grace in that voice. Only that sweet, fairy-tale-telling voice saved the narration during some passages of sappy romanticising and faux naivete. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about the romantics of being a writer – the cradling of a glass of wine in search of the right tone for this scene, switching to whisky when you’re stuck on a pivotal point in your story, drinking one too many coffees because you’ve forgotten how many you’ve had already or simply tucking in with someone else’s book and a huge cup of tea as a consolation when inspiration just doesn’t strike or a reward when you’ve met your daily goal. Apparently, beverages are an intrinsic part of being a writer :))

And that last part leads me to the debunking of Gilbert’s idea that “you should try, since it compels you, but if doesn’t work, well… the odds are rarely in our favour so move on and be happy with the fact that you’ve tried” (not a direct quote). It sounds very sweet and supportive in a forgiving motherly way, but any writer who has ever produced any non-trivial sized piece of work from a creative dissertation to a novel knows that sitting around waiting for inspiration will only get you so far. If you don’t put in the hours and the physical effort of putting actual words on an actual page (or file), you can have the most inspired idea in the world but it will remain just that – an idea. And I’m sure Liz Gilbert knows that, having written more than one book herself, so it was surprising not to hear her advocate more for persistence and honing your craft rather than just giving it a try.

Speaking of honing your craft, as a person who has a master’s degree in Creative Writing, I have to strongly disagree with Ms Gilbert’s position on higher education in the arts. Kudos to her extremely talented autodidactic painter friend who is now teaching painting himself (ironic, no?), but there have always been and always will be extremely talented people who, against all odds and under the worst of circumstances, create spectacular work and their existence does in no way negate the need of other people to be taught.

Of course, doing a course – a two month or a two year one – with the idea that you’ll come out at the other end as a well-rounded author is ludicrous. But that would be the same as thinking that “winning” NaNoWriMo means you have a finished book in December. Of course you don’t! Use you’re damn common sense.

However, just as coming out at the end of November with 50,000 words more to your project is a huge step forward, going to uni and learning structure, basic rules and in-depth analyses of writing, and (mostly, imho) getting some feedback on the spot from professionals and peers is of great use and a big advantage once you try tackling that elusive project. It doesn’t have to be a game of trial and error that might take years to yield something usable. I’m not saying you’re prepared for everything, surely you’re not, but you could have a better inkling of what you might be doing right or wrong. In short, I support the idea that no skill or rule or trick pertinent to your craft would be superfluous or not worth acquiring. The channel or media through which you might learn said skill or rule or trick is irrelevant.

An interesting line of thought that Gilbert follows at one moment is the notion that the creative idea is a living thing in search for a host and if you’re not playing good host for your idea it will eventually leave you and move on to someone else. I definitely agree that there are some things that don’t keep well over time and even more that the chance that you would be the only person to ever come up with this precise idea is very slim. It’s been millennia since the human race has begun creating art and even though evolution and the advancement of knowledge constantly open new doors for us, there are only so many paths that these doors might lead us to. Much like The Seven Basic Plots explains, there are only so many story lines that you can have, but it’s all about how you play it out.

What I took from Gilbert’s way of putting this is that if you feel/know/suspect you’ve been visited by the proverbial muse and have a great idea about, let’s say a book, it’s up to you to pursue and realise that idea. Because ideas, not unlike dreams, tend to fade the longer you wait to elaborate on them after they happen. Also, the longer you wait, the bigger the chance for someone else to get to that same idea or, as per Gilbert, for the idea to move on to someone else.

I started off with the few points that left me underwhelmed as far as inspiration and validation goes, but I would not consider the experience of Big Magic a bad one. If anything, it was several pleasant hours of having a very soothing, very laid back companion around.

There are many more examples of the author’s own quirky perspective on how you should treat your inspiration and what little steps you should take towards embracing your creative self – from treating it like a steamy love affair in a stairwell to sitting opposite a loaded gun (that last simile might not have made an appearance, but you get the idea). Her way of looking at things might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you keep an open mind and suspend your judgement for a while, you might just extract what you need to move your creativity forward, you might just find a little big magic for yourself after all.

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Rat Queens, vol. 3. A Review

I’ve been catching up on comic books ratqueens_vol03-1recently and I was so excited to get into the latest Rat Queens trade.

Little did I know (I had not read up on the series in advance, and I’m glad for that), it was also going to be last. At least for now, and at least in trade. According to the Image Comics website, there is one more single issue out there, which I might or might not have purchased already when this post goes up*. I do not want to get into the details leading up to this comics hiatus so I’ll just move on to my thoughts before I decided to investigate.

Honestly, I have mixed feelings about not seeing more of this motley crew of utterly bad ass ladies soon. I like the story and I love that in the issues collected in Vol. 3 we get a few more personal glimpses into the lives of the queens, but I did not care for the art.

Before I get to the rant about the drawing, I have to say I did enjoy the story and I’m sure it’s getting better later on. There’s the usual amount of drinking, drugs, and relatively well-meant insults in-between the swearing and the pummeling, but also secrets and intrigue and, oh yeah, a visit to Mage U. I liked the fact that we get to see the queens on their own for a while at the university and that we see more of their individuality when they’re left to their own devices. The characters stay true to themselves, even if it doesn’t move the plot along. There were a few random moments – like the one with the dragon and his garbage pile? – and some loose ends – like the one with the sword from the dragon’s garbage pile? What was all that about?

Speaking of not getting it, what happened to that art? I realise I might be a minority, or there might be some degree of solidarity in the business, but I was genuinely surprised to mostly read praise on Tess Fowler’s art on the back cover. Was it because of the underlying issues with previous artist and co-creator Roc Upchurch or just to reinforce the new artist on the series, I don’t know. What I do know is that Dee’s hair is totally out of control and those Rogue-esque white streaks framing her face did not work for me. Or it could’ve been that snout of a nose Fowler put on her. And while we’re on faces – Betty is completely unrecognisable, at least as a smidgen, and Violet’s cheekbones are more pronounced than her brother’s, which combined with the beard basically makes her look like a man. I’m all for artistic expression and creative decisions – which is why I won’t bitch about everyone (apart from Betty) suddenly gaining 10+ kg and doubling their cleavage –  but it all boils down to seeing some very rudimentary drawings by the last two chapters, some very weird facial expressions that did not fit the characters at all, and completely random things like Hannah’s tattoos being vastly different from previous issues.

I did enjoy Hannah’s transformation in the end, though, and it’s the main reason I looked into when the next collection is coming out. Unfortunately, there might be some time still until we get to see what becomes of the ramshackle fellowship, especially when after seeing the cover of the last single issue, which does not feature my favourite rockabilly elven mage. From what I understand, the rat queens are not going away yet, but they’re planned to return as a webcomic before they do so in print. I’ll keep an eye out for news about it, and hope the come back will not disappoint.

 

 

*I am currently on my honeymoon, this post is scheduled since last week 😉

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Survival is insufficient

When I first saw the phrase “literary science fiction” on one book website or another, it jarred me a bit, I admit. It didn’t put me off the book, but I did start it with a grain of salt. And that’s when Station Eleven did its thing and just drew me in.

I’m starting off with the cover again, because I’d only seen the US version of it (left) until right after I finished the book and when I saw the UK one (right) I literally aahhhh-ed at it. First of all, it fits the book so well – hence the “aahhhh” – and second, it’s just soooo beautiful and so mysterious. I love the US version, too, mainly because of the super starry sky but also for the simplicity of it.

station-eleven-collage

All right. Enough with the superficial. It’s time to plunge in.

And plunge you will, especially if, like me, you’ve come across sci-fi in the description and then find yourself in the middle of a Shakespeare production. Not only are we on stage but King Lear just died!  In that same night a new kind of super-flu sweeps across North America – after having conquered the other continents already – and in a few weeks’ time it’ll have changed what’s left of civilization forever. Except Shakespeare, of course.

Talk about starting as close to the end as possible! And it keeps getting better. 20 years after Arthur Leander dies while playing King Lear, we’ve join the Traveling Symphony, who not only perform Shakespeare but play classical music as well. They hunt, they gather, they salvage and scavenge all in the name or art. Because “Survival is insufficient”. Survival is also a challenge for everyone who somehow escaped swift but gruesome death by the Georgia flu. The remnants of civilization are clusters of people living in small communities – or in rare cases isolated – across the land, but the Traveling Symphony only traverses the Great Lakes region. Until one day they have to venture outside their territory. The reason is an ominous Prophet they encounter in the town of St. Deborah by the Water.

Travelling with the Symphony does not provide repose for its members, nor does it for the reader. The matter of Station Eleven is woven from the intertwining threads of physical survival and emotional sanity, interspersed with questions of love, integrity, and religion.

Some of those threads meet again and again only to split at the end, others twist and coil for a long time before they finally meet in order to make sense of the whole picture, and others still, like Kristin and her ragged comic books, are the thread connecting the world of before with the desolation of now.

Using alternating story lines spanning decades, Emily  St. John Mandel reveals layer after layer of a story about humanity and its resilience, about love and its feebleness, about the power of conviction and its dark side, and, of course, about true art and its timelessness. A great example of a post-apocalyptic world causing momentary flashbacks to The Road.

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Are You Woman Enough to Survive…

I mentioned briefly earlier this week  that I’ve got some reviews piled up. Seems I’ll be going at them backwards because I just finished something that I can’t not comment on.

Some of you might already have bitchplanet_01-1guessed from the title of this post that I am talking about Bitch Planet. And I’m squishing all this text here because I’d like to start off by pointing out how great this cover is! For a couple of days, before I finally managed to sit down and start this, the volume sat on my coffee table, waiting… I am totally not a pink kind of girl, but this colour, the background imagery and, of course, the chained silhouette giving the whole world the finger – it’s just awesome.

The bold title is, for me, the cherry on top.

But going beyond the “pretty colours” this book just gets better and better. What I have is vol. 1 of the trade paperback or one book that collects issues #1 through #5, which is very convenient for me because of space, money, and also the wait. since I’ve fallen way behind on my reading, I have the opportunity to just binge on a big batch instead of waiting a month for the next issue. Also, my ADD and the habit of reading a couple of things at the same time would probably result in me forgetting all about the new comic book coming out this week and I can’t have reminders for everything, can I.

The downside of the trade paperback might be that it doesn’t have 100% of the extra content as the single issues, which, I’ve heard, have very nice essays on feminism and other topics that the story deals with. Which brings me to the main point of this review. This story touches on so many contemporary issues, of which a lot of people are completely oblivious – by choice or by circumstance.

The premise, in a nutshell, is that, in the near future, “non-compliant” women are being sent to an “off-world” prison commonly known as Bitch planet. And this is where things get serious – or seriously disturbing, especially if you’re a woman – right off the bat. There is no such prison for men and there are no non-compliant men. Instead, men are taking every position of power there is, those at the very top being referred to as “fathers”.

Non-compliance is an ambiguous term that could be anything the fathers might consider offensive, ranging from assault and murder to being a bad mother to “seduction and disappointment” to simply being fat. Any of that sound familiar to anyone?

The writing is so engaging, the art s beautiful, and the retro ads between issues are not to be missed. They will make you laugh and cringe in equal amounts.IMG_20161021_164348.jpg

What I loved most about this tpb (I don’t know if the single issues have that, but I will be checking about this and the essays) was the discussion guide at the end of the book.

Not only do the people behind this great story bring up some questions but they’re keeping the conversation going. They urge you to  do more than just read the picture-book and be done with it, but rather actively think about it and discuss, talk about it. And speaking out is the first point of defiance. Or non-compliance for that matter.

I just hope I only get to live this version of the future through this series because everyone knows I can’t keep my damn mouth shut.

In the meantime, I can’t wait to get my hands on the next part, and I’m only grateful I’ve got a ton of other things to read so I can hold off until January when the next trade comes out. If you’ve not read this – check it out! You can read the first issue in digital for as little as $0.99, more than fair, I’d say.

Happy reading everyone! 🙂

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Five Excuses for Not Blogging

Holy Mackerel, it’s been ages since I’ve posted on my dear, forlorn blog!

And, yes, you’ve bit the bait – these are not five ways to let yourself off the hook, just my loose list of reason why I’ve been gone for a while.

Seeing that my last post is from three months ago makes me sad for two reasons:

  1. It must seem like I have forsaken it completely – which I have not! in fact, I have a few things that have been waiting for an edit for a long time – and maybe that I have nothing new;
  2. Time is just flying by and closing in on 30 – dear me, where has my youth gone!? – it seems to be going faster.

BUT point 2 is a little wobbly because there are a couple of good reasons for those three months slipping by without much of a trace online. One of those being…

I’m married, y’all! 😀

It feels like there should be a “finally” in that statement, but that would just sound a little desperate. It’s never been an obsession of mine to be married, but since we’re having a 9-year anniversary this year, a “finally” just fits. As our friends.

So, reasons one through four… OK, maybe one through three are:

  1. Having to plan a wedding;
  2. Spending over a month in Bulgaria for said planning, during which time I was much, much busier than expected;
  3. Having the actual wedding and tying all the loose ends thereafter (pay the staff, collect leftover alcohol and sundry items from the venue, talk video and music with cameramen, etc….). This is what I get for deciding on doing the whole shebang with lots of people and tons of details.

Good news – it all went great, everyone had a lot of fun, we haven’t had any complaints and…  Now it’s just the honeymoon left.

Which brings me to reason number four: because of… let’s just say reasons, because the actual reasons bore and annoy even me to death, we did not plan our honeymoon a couple of months before the wedding as most people do. So, now that we are back in Zürich and our lives and work mostly back to normal, there’s still the honeymoon to be planned and executed. And might I just add, we have to leave in about two weeks and have nothing organised. And I mean nothing – no plane tickets, no hotels, no packing has been discussed. I’m adding this last nugget of “fun” to elicit either some sympathy from seasoned couples or at the very least a few gasps of panic from more organised brides.

The last reason is a somewhat redeeming one, I hope, and I will be quick because of reason number four still being in play here. It is writing. Yes, even throughout the craziness and the busyness I have tried not to lose sight of the bigger goal I’ve set for myself. I have to admit, I did put of my novel aside for such a long time that I was intimidated when I had to go back in, but I am getting back on track. And in the meantime, I did keep track of the books I’ve been reading, and even though some of those reviews have been sitting unedited for weeks, they’re not forgotten and they are coming your way.

xx, y.

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A Vacation from Vacation

Ahoy, Internet!

Have you ever had that feeling you need to have some alone time to actually rest after you’ve been on vacation?

Sometimes it happens after an actual vacation because the schedule was so crazy packed with sightseeing and activities and new food to try that you haven’t had the time to actually relax. That’s what I call a “vacation hangover” – taking time to not only do all the dirty laundry you brought back but also to let the experiences sink.

Well, that’s not the vacation I just had me today. My vacation was a half-day completely disconnected from the schedule I’ve been so falling behind on. Before the first sip of coffee had passed my lips, I had already been to the post office, had an argument with my soon-to-be-husband (only mentioning this pseudo-title because the argument was, of course, wedding related.. and, oh right, I’m getting married! Ha!), and been to the store for essentials like milk for said coffee. So as soon as I finally had my cup of ok-now-you-can-talk-liquid all the tasks that I’ve had to put off from last weak assaulted me with their urgency.

In the meantime, I haven’t been home (Zürich) for 10 days – which is the vacation in question, which was more of a business trip back home (Sofia) where I had as many errands and meetings and appointments as I could possibly fit in a day – so the list of things around the house that needed attention was almost as long as my unread emails.

It’s been a while since I’d thought “You know, how about I not procrastinate with house stuff and just get to the point”. But then the state of my email came to mind and… long story short, the kitchen is clean, the laundry is folded, and I no longer have to catch up on “Younger”.

Silver lining: Podcasts are awesome and I am finally coming around to them. I listened to a few episodes of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons a couple of months ago, and thoroughly enjoyed them, but now that I’m mixing it up with Book Riot’s Get Booked and the Aussie So You Want to Be a Writer I’m really starting to settle in this new nook of learning and entertainment.

In other news, I’m so totally engulfed by V.E. Schwab’s parallel Londons that I’m afraid I’ll have to mourn the end of A Gathering of Shadows. But more about how fast and unexpectedly I’ve fallen for another fictional guy… in the review of A Darker Shade of Magic, which is coming in the next few days.

Now that I’ve successfully put off life for another half an hour, it’s time to surrender.

Ta! 🙂

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The Girl with All the Gifts: A Review

The_Girl_with_All_the_Gifts

Quite belayed but still solid in my mind, I finally have the chance to post this review.

The Girl with All the Gifts came to my attention through a list of “to read before…” books, which I’m usually too late to get to. This time, I was right on time.

I read the blurb and only a couple of reviews – for fear of spoilers – before committing to it, and it still surprised me.

Melanie is a young girl, who’s somehow used to be greeted by Sergeant’s gun pointed at her head in the morning while other people strap her to her chair. She doesn’t mind it because she knows that she’s going to class. She likes going to class, especially when it’s “a Miss Justineau day”.

Melanie knows many things – she knows what the population of Birmingham is, she knows things about the rainforest, and all about Pandora and her box. What she doesn’t know is what Spring looks like or where her parents are or why miss J always looks said when Melanie talks about everything she wants to do when she grows up. She’s never been outside the base, but she dreams of going to Beacon, the largest city, not far away, one day. Only once she’s on her way to Beacon, it’s not exactly under the circumstances she’d envisioned.

Melanie and her classmates are all very bright, solving math problems and logical riddles, which is why they’ve never pressed their teachers or the Sergeant to go outside. Because there are hungries out there, and you don’t want the hungries to get you.

I’ve realised recently that every YA worth its salt has its crazy scientist in one way or another, especially when it comes to doctors. I was watching “The 100” while reading this book, and my mind kept wandering back to The Girl with All the Gifts any time Dr. Tsing was in the scene, if that means anything to you. It wouldn’t be much of a spoiler to tell you that Dr. Caldwell is that character – ruthless, driven, willing to give her life for science, but usually opting for sacrificing a bunch of other lives instead. Completely devoid of empathy for her subject, but ultimately fighting for the common good, Dr. Caldwell is a complicated character that you aaaalmost like but never actually root for. And at the same time you do, because you really need to know what makes those “hungries” tick and if there is a chance for humanity still.

I’m not big on zombie novels – and this isn’t one – but if I were, I’d wish more of them to be like this one. You have the monsters out for food – and you is food! – but you have ways to navigate them. You have a goal to which you’re racing, but you can’t go too fast or the monsters will get you. You have the extremely specific medical analysis of the situation, but you have no idea what to do about it. Melanie knows even less. But she learns. Fast. As she and a selected bunch of her… caretakers trudge along in search of hope and, ultimately, survival, Melanie learns more about herself and the outside world than she ever hoped – or wished – she would.

The end of the book, for me, came suddenly and right on time at the same time, so my hat goes off to M. R. Carey. The finale was seamless, thought out, suspenseful with a sense of serenity to it, a little sad but hopeful, and overall well executed. It was one of those books that I was sad to finish, but that also left a feeling of accomplishment behind. I would definitely recommend, to zombie-fans or not.

 

 

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Red Rising: A Review

red risingIt’s always hard to write a review of a popular piece of literature or an Oscar awarded movie. If you’ve loved it, it’s a bit less so, because as long as there’s praise in your words, you know at least so many people on Goodreads will stand with you on that or you can always lean on the millions of people who’ve filled the movie theatres.

When you have something less than applauding, though, there’s always this voice in the back of your head, telling you how you should think twice about this because of all those exceptional reviews.

For me, however, the exceptional reviews are not what makes the book itself exceptional. I believe that a less than stellar review can’t tear down a really good book. And since I think this book is good enough to take some three-star reviews, here is one:

Let’s start with the obvious stuff. Since this isn’t a new book – and no, I don’t usually care much about being late to the party – a lot of you probably already have an opinion about it and are clear on what was good and what wasn’t, but just in case you’re one of those who aren’t, let’s give you another point of view.

The obvious. There was some serious world building – castes, colours, hierarchy; all very well formed, in tight relationships and having specific interactions within one stratum or between members of two different ones. There’s different lingo, accessories, and even ethics from colour to colour. There were quite a few nice details intertwined in the story.

I loved the fact that the deeply buried link between the Reds and the Golds is delivered to us in the form of a song. Much like Rue’s four note song in The Hunger Games, in Red Rising we have a song as the flag of rebellion once again. Only this time, more is woven into lyrics and origin of the song.

Now, for the less obvious.

I was very much surprised when I started reading Red Rising and realised the story takes place on Mars. Cool, I thought, they’ve colonised the Solar system. I haven’t read anything like that in a long time. Then, a few days later, a character mentions them being on Mars again and I’m surprised, again. Not because my attention span is that short, but rather because there wasn’t anything Martian to the story once Darrow was introduced to the outside world.

I understand the idea of terraforming, and I appreciate the device used, but did it have to be sooo much like Earth? Couldn’t there be something, anything that could not be simulated on Mars – like snow, maybe? – or something that could have been similar but radically different, specific to Mars – Like plant or animal species? Knowing of and actually having horses is within reason, especially since horses end up being used actively during their “lessons”, but I found talk of elephants being over the top. If we’re talking future, at the rate animal species have been going extinct, even if we take into account those since men started taking notice, there surely would some that would not make the cut when colonising new planets, right?

What I’m getting at is that I saw little point of the book taking place on Mars if the only difference would be a slightly weaker gravitational pull.

*Possible spoilers*

As for the lessons themselves, as soon as Darrow is “carved” and sent into the Institute – I liked the carving idea, reminded me of Gattaca – the games start resembling the aforementioned very popular trilogy with “chosen ones” fighting for their spot at the top of the food chain. Only this time, it’s the other way around and it’s the privileged ones thrown into the pit. The survival of the fittest strategy is one way of teaching youngsters the importance of proper motivation, but it’s a pretty messed up civilisation if the leaders of the ruling class are letting their children be part of a culling. Disregarding the likelihood of the rich and powerful to simply sacrifice their precious offspring, the dark twists of the future don’t stop there.

*End of possible spoilers*

There are alliances forming and loyalties shifting, betrayals and strategies. I enjoyed the character development and the plotting and strategies, although the twists and backstabbing became so frequent, I found myself anticipating the next one.

However, the mix of swords and battle scenes – and futuristic gadgets like grav-boots and concealed armour to boot – works well on my childhood love of medieval fantasy and all of it, combined with some really good writing, makes for a highly readable piece of cross-genre YA. I will not be falling over myself recommending this book, but I am (finally) starting Book Two: Golden Son today, so Pierce Brown still has my attention. Maybe the second part would win me over once and for all.

Come by in about a fortnight to find out! 🙂

 

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The Roof, the Roof… The Roof of Africa

I’ve been putting off this post for a while now. On some level, it’s the ever present self-doubt whether I’d have something new to tell you guys, but mostly it’s a big-ass project to try and fit all that information into one manageable post. On the other hand, I saw a few other accounts about this trek, which were the exact opposite of my experience on so many levels that it finally became apparent that I should tell another side of it. Here goes.

I will spare you the details about how we chose to actually do this, I’ll just tell you it was on a whim one drunken evening. 🙂 Our willingness to go, however, was still unwavering the next few days so I started the research and we bought our tickets to Tanzania a month later.

Mt Kilimanjaro, the tallest freestanding mountain in the world lies just south of the Kenyan border and is one of the most popular hikes in the world. One reason being that you don’t need any special climbing skills to scale it.

No special skills does not mean no skills at all, but the fact the people between the ages of 7 and 87 have successfully done it only goes to show that a skill you definitely need is patience and determination. Here are the main things you need to prepare (for) in order to succeed in this challenge (plus some context 😉 ):

Positive thinking and trust in yourself (and others).

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I don’t mean to downplay this or pretend to be stronger than I am, but there was never a doubt in my mind that we will reach the summit. It’s important that you have that resolve in you but at the same time to be aware that just wanting it might not be enough. There surely will be at least a couple challenging moments during your climb, and what is important in those moments is to remind yourself that you are strong and that in life you have to push yourself a little bit further, get out of your comfort zone. Mostly you should have the good sense to take a step back, take a break when needed, recuperate, and then press on with a clear mind and focus.

A Good Team

As you would learn from any other account about this climb, the mantra on Kilimanjaro is “pole, pole” – [‘po-le ‘po-le] not [pəʊl pəʊl] – which is Swahili for “slowly, slowly”. You’ll be hearing this from everyone in Tanzania – from your mountain guides to the salesperson at the souvenir shop. Basically, there is no rush in Africa, so take your time.

Sometimes though, just taking your time is not enough. Which is where the second most heard phrase on our climb comes into play – Hakuna matata! Most of you will instantly recognise it from the Lion King movies (Yep, that whole story takes place in Tanzania. Whaaat! 🙂 ) and some of you might even remember the meaning, namely, be positive. Hiking for days on end is a challenging task, even when you stay at your usual altitude. When you’re going up towards thinner and thinner air, it could be grueling.

This is when you need to get back to that resolve you have forged and say “I will not give up; I will, instead, admit I’m having a hard time and get stronger through humility”. A mouthful, I know, but not everything in life has to be short and easy and convenient.

Which brings me back to the point that there were no worries in our little group (of five) at any time before 5000m. Granted, we are all reasonably fit – each of us trains at least two different things regularly, and the one who was less active made up for it by hiking steep treks in order to prepare – but we also know fitter people than us who didn’t manage to reach Uhuru, thus overconfidence was considered a vice outside of group pep talks. What we trusted most in was the expertise of our guides. We rarely tried to walk faster than the pace they were setting for us and never rushed to get to the next camp, even if we were taking a longer break than needed.

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My first fried bananas. Delicious! 🙂

Pole, pole, we would get from camp to lunch to next camp right on time for a hot lunch (on some days) or hot water for washing up and tea/coffee and some snacks waiting for us.

This is the place to say that the team we had – thanks to Kandoo Adventures –  was excellent.

When I started the research, I was advised by a couple of people not to go for the cheapest option. Mostly because of theft stories – those stories involved people stranded on an unknown mountain with little if any equipment. So we opted for a company that offered a higher price but also had a good amount of excellent reviews online. Do your research, you won’t regret it.

We were definitely happy with our bunch of people. Our main guides, Richard and Deo, were very positive, had a good sense of humour, and generally took great care of us. Our third guide, unfortunately, had to go back down around the 4th day due to AMS (aka altitude sickness). He had spent too much time up at the crater the week before and it got to him. It only goes to show that even the most trained body could cave under extreme circumstances.

The porters also seemed to be mostly in good humour despite the heavy load they were schlepping  uphill. We had little actual contact with them, mainly because we were starting at different times and were hiking at radically different paces. We’d start right after breakfast, which the chef and his team had prepared for us while we were waking up and packing up our stuff for the porters to carry. The rest of the group would stay behind to pack up our tents, including the dining tent we had all to ourselves during meals and down time, the kitchen tent, the portable toilet, their own equipment, and they would then take us over somewhere en route, get to the next camping spot long enough before us to set up so that when we get there, there’s already a camp there with tea and coffee waiting for us. How amazing are these guys?!!

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Close to 8 am, everyone is hard at work packing up. Simba Camp (2671m)

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Our “dining room/lounge”. Very posh compared to our expectations.

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The whole team @ Mawenzi Tarn Hut (4302m)

Picking you travelling partners is also something that you should choose with some care. Spending 6 or 7 days with someone practically 24/7 can be straining. There’s a good amount of stories out there of couples fighting when they reach high altitudes, friendships threatening to fall apart, etc., etc. Fortunately, we had very good weather and we were all in good shape so there was little opportunity for animosity to settle in. Also, we were really well fed all the time, hence hunger wasn’t an issue.

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Luckily, the few times the weather was not great, we were already in the camp.

Food

Keeping your energy up is important. If you get a good team with a good chef, like we did, you will not be lacking food. We had brought so much snacks – energy bars, chocolate&fruit bars, nuts, berries, etc. – we brought half of it back. And we were full all the time. There were soups (excellent to DSC_0742keep you hydrated without forcing yourself to drink tasteless water), there was rice, pasta, potatoes, veggies and meat (separately, because we had a vegetarian in the group), and there was even cake in the end! How they managed to bake a cake in a tent, I’ll never know, but it was awesome!! :))

Another sign that we were acclimatising well was the fact that we did not lose appetite at all. Not until we reached the ridge anyway, by which point no one was even remotely thinking about food. I’m saying it’s a good sign because we were told on every other meal that we should eat well to have energy because any day now, with the rising altitude, we’re probably going to lose appetite. At least that’s what happens to most people. We were making jokes about it, but it might have proven crucial as there was little chance for snack-breaks on summit night. Some of the guys said they’d managed to eat on the go, but it wasn’t possible for me so I only had one tiny chocolate bar somewhere on the way and they say you burn as many as 4000 cals during the summit – mostly because of the cold and the low oxygen levels.

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Snack break w/ excellent view of Mawenzi

Equipment

We have to mention equipment. I can’t imagine anyone planning to embark on this kind of trip not prepping for it properly, but just in case let’s accentuate how important having the right stuff is.

An example – one person from our group opted for a summer-temp sleeping bag + a warm liner in stead of a good high-altitude sleeping bag and spent at least one night very uncomfortably until he managed to “hack” the system with a down layer. Another complained it was too hot in the proper sleeping bag (for -15 to -30°).

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N. testing the full coverage of the sleeping bag

The key is to know your preferences but also know your equipment. If you can get your hands on an extreme sleeping bag (N. and I borrowed ours), it’s not a bad idea to test it out – sleep out on the balcony if it’s cold enough, for example.

 

Keep in mind that having at least one bottom and one top piece of base layers is a must anyway, so you can (and probably will) sleep in those once you get to 4000+m. I know I did 🙂

Speaking of base layers – do have them, but don’t overdo it with the clothing. All of us brought back clothes we hadn’t put on once. It was mostly the fact that we stocked up on merino clothing so we didn’t need to change every day, but it’s also a pain to have repack your bag every day, plus your porter will probably be grateful for every pound you spare him. Anyway, base layers are very important – that is bottoms, a long sleeved shirt, and socks and gloves as well.

Hand warmers! I had a pair of thin merino gloves underneath my skiing gloves and my hands were freezing the last couple of hours. Also, I had conveniently forgotten the hand warmers specifically bought for the occasion – do not make that mistake. The ones that
react with oxygen and last for hours are about 5gr per bag, so carry a couple with you regardless of whether
you need them or not. If you do, they’ll really make a difference; if you don’t, you might be able to help out a fellow climber or just plain not use them.

IMG_20160316_095403Shoes! You must already be aware that shoes are crucial. Get comfortable, durable shoes. I went with my good old Boreals that I’ve had for 8 years (and have used during at least 4 of them, hehe) and I did not have any troubles  But if you’re only getting proper trekking boots now, wear them in at least a couple of months before the trek and stack up on good socks. From our experience, it’s better to have a spare pair or two of socks than a spare t-shirt. On summit night, I had two pairs of merino socks and there was a time when my feet were also pretty cold. Now, I have pretty bad circulation so my hands and feet get cold easily, so again, know yourself but be prepared. Plasters and anti-blister sprays or sticks should also be part of your emergency kit.

Trekking poles. I almost forgot about this but you should definitely not! They might not be of huge help on the way up – although I did rely on them a lot whilst dizzy and sleepy – but they will be of huge help on he way down. Your last day will start around midnight (practically the day before, if you’re anything like me who rarely goes to bed before midnight) and it will consist of 1000 or a bit more metres elevation going up and then more than 2000 m down (to Horombo hut at 3700m). I will not post a picture of it, but exactly one month later a third of my big toenail is still purplish-black and I can tell you exactly when that happened – on the way to Horombo, on a seemingly flat but actually covered in very uncomfortable stones path. I was wearing my lower, lighter shoes, which don’t hold  the foot by the ankle, so my toe got bruise from the hours of repetitive ramming in the same spot. Even if those shoes are also excellent and have served me well on four continents now, the length of the descent and the stress builds up for all your parts. So do your feet, knees (especially), and even spine a favour and use your walking poles.

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Sunrise at Horombo Hut

Hygiene

I read in a post somewhere how gross it was and how hard it was to not have a shower for six days, and I have to tell you… Oh, just grow a pair! All it takes is a pack of baby wipes and you’re good to go. If you want some extra cleanliness, you can do what I did and bring additional packs of antibacterial face and intim wipes, even wet toilet paper. (TP is generally a good thing to have – be it for standard usage or sudden nosebleeds). Also, liquid disinfectant is a no-brainer. As for showers, trust me, you will not be wanting to get wet above 3000-3500m anyway, so just figure out an in-tent cleaning routine. I used to bring rose water and cotton wads with me on camping/festivals but you run the risk of it freezing higher up on Kili. Our team also provided hot water and soap for washing up every morning/evening and TP as we also had a portable toilet (which we mostly skipped whenever possible, but we had it all the same) so you can check with your company about that if you don’t want to over-prepare.

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Morning walk to the camp WC pay-off (4300m)

Medicine

And speaking of bodily functions, you should definitely have at least basic medication with you. For us, luckily, only some pain killers were needed, but anything from Nurofen or the likes for headaches and stomach aches to Imodium, antihistamines, etc. should definitely be thought of. As should vaccinations and malaria medication, but that is something you should take care of with a doctor, so I will not be giving out any advice about it. Definitely go consult a specialist for any medical concerns you might have!

One very important thing – NO ASPIRIN if you’re going to be taking Diamox for AMS. Why? Short answer – it’s dangerous. Long answer: “Large or regular dosing with aspirin and other salicylates should be avoided as acetazolamide can potentiate salicylate toxicity by causing metabolic acidosis and enhancing the penetration of the salicylate into tissues. In addition, salicylates decrease the elimination of acetazolamide, which could result in CNS toxicity.”  For an even longer or more extensive one, click here or just google it.

As for the Diamox -a lot of people say that you can avoid taking it if you just drink enough water, but I think that is highly subjective.  Talk to your guides about the symptoms of AMS – such as headaches or dizziness – they should have a good idea how to apply the Diamox if unsure. The key thing is that, if you get severe symptoms, it’s useless to only then start taking it, but if you’re only getting mild discomfort that is obviously caused by the altitude, you can start taking it. That’s what some of us did and we only had more pronounced symptoms at the very top (or on the way down as it was for me). A friend who’s done the climb himself said we were taking too small a dosage, so make sure you talk to a doctor about it. The big downside of the Diamox is that it’s a diuretic and you have to drink at least 3-4 liters of water a day. 2+2 = a lot of pee breaks and getting up at night.

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Our solitary camp at School Hut (4800m)

The altitude sickness itself, I did not know what to expect. I keep coming across stories about people hallucinating and losing awareness of where they are and what they are doing, and it sounds kind of scary, to be honest. What I felt wasn’t exactly new, just the circumstances were. As I was dragging myself down a dusty scree, which was uncomfortable even in the best of times, in my mind, I kept going back to my teenage years when we’d get so drunk (I’m from Europe, it’s OK! :D) that walking in a straight line would become a challenge of its own. You know, that nausea and the headache that just won’t go away; you’re fluctuating between wanting to and dreading that you’ll vomit because you’re not sure it’d help at all. So you just keep trudging forward because you’re only chance is to manage to get to a bed or a sofa, just not the nearest bench, and sleep it off. Well, I had a full day of walking still ahead of me so my options were more than limited. The thing is, the only thing that could really help me at that point was just going low. As soon as I got to around 4500 m everything was soon back to normal. The headache was gone, my appetite was back and we could finally bask in the sense of achievement because WE’D BLOODY DONE IT! WE CLIMBED MT KILIMANJARO!!

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The exhilaration was stronger than the fatigue 

Well, this is my “list” of things to think about when planning to climb Kilimanjaro and partially my account of our climb. A more literary account might appear at some point, but I’m not making any promises. I hope you enjoyed this, please use the comments to tell me if I’ve left something crucial out or just to share your experiences. Ta!

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The chameleon and the mountain

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Another view of Mawenzi peak (5100m)

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xx, y.

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