Friday, 19 August 2016

Book #40

More Than This by Patrick Ness

A boy drowns, desperate and alone in his final moments. He dies.
Then he wakes, naked and bruised and thirsty, but alive.
How can this be? And what is this strange deserted place?
As he struggles to understand what is happening, the boy dares to hope. Might this not be the end? Might there be more to this life, or perhaps this afterlife?

I have absolutely no idea what happened in this novel. My brain has melted all over the insides of my skull, and Ness has left me, once again, in a state of utter disbelief. More Than This is almost 500 pages of confusion and chaos becoming ameliorated with philosophic realisation. And this book is for kids.

Firstly, I just want to touch upon the fact that this book is for kids. Although, at 29 years old, I still consider myself a young adult, when I was truly the age of the target audience, I had nothing to read but empty nonsense designed purely for entertainment and for keeping us out of trouble. Yes, they had their messages -  friendship, being good, staying away from vice (not that those helped me), but I never read anything with such an impact as this. Ness is a YA writer with a certain sophistication, a certain way of landing a message more important than not stealing your friend's boyfriend (sorry, Sweet Valley High, I still love you), and an out and out love and respect for his audience. They're not stupid kids; they're clever, they're fierce, and they're ready to be tried. And in true Ness fashion, try us he did.

You're a reader. You've read books before; they tend to follow patterns. You know what's coming, vaguely. You've seen it before. You're comfortable in your literary cloud; it's nice. You try to tell Mr Ness you're enjoying his novel, but before you can voice the statement, he comes and smacks you over the head with a heavy plot twist. You don't have time to recover before the next one. The smacking continues until page 480. You're never the same again.

You are plunged into a strange dystopian crisis with Ness throwing existential questions around at speed. Finding one answer unlocks a plethora of other questions until the realisation that none of the answers really matter triggers the above-mentioned melting of the brain. You're questioning everything. You don't know what's real. Ness has ensnared you again. It's frightening, it's vivid, it's mind-fuckery. There is a very fine line between reality and virtual reality. I repeat: you don't know what's real.

Ness gives us characters with such depth, such diversity, and such humanity that our heart breaks and yearns for them. Their lives are shown to us starkly, realistically, yet tenderly, so that nothing but love could pour out for any of them. Our protagonist, Seth, and his two friends Regine and Tomasz, were just the most unlikely and gorgeous set of comrades. My heart swelled for all of them, but I doubt I'm alone when I say it swelled for Tomasz most of all. With everything going on in the world today, I would love for Ness to write, and for everyone to read, an entire story on Tomasz's life - whether it turned out to be real or not.

I'll stop rambling now. After proof-reading what I've written so far, I'm unsure I've conveyed expertly what this book really was and how it made me feel. It's incredibly difficult to review; I believe it will mean something different to everyone. The best I can do is urge you to read it, and make your own mind up.

Note: Please don't ask to borrow my copy; it's special.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Book #39

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Chafed by the "sivilized" restrictions of his foster home, and weary of his drunkard father's brutality, Huck Finn fakes his own death and sets off on a raft down the Mississippi River. He is soon joined by Jim, an escaped slave. Together, they experience a series of rollicking adventures that have amused readers, young and old, for over a century.

Where I absolutely loved reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, it didn't give me as much of Huckleberry Finn as I wanted, or as I deserved. This poverty-stricken outcast with a sensible head was the perfect foil to Tom's overactive fantastical mind, and I wanted to see so much more of him. Neither did I see enough commentary on the customs and beliefs of the time, particularly not on the race and slavery issues Twain touched upon, but never delved into. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has finally given me everything I wanted, truly living up to the title of Great American Novel.

Huck is still the same boy we met in the previous novel. He's been adopted and 'sivilized' by the Widow Douglas, and has hated every minute of it. He's so used to living in the great outdoors, that sleeping in a bed and wearing nice clothes are an irritant to him. When the chance comes for him to escape, he grasps it, and finds himself equal measures of adventure and trouble.

The transformation we see in Huck over these pages is remarkable and truly heartwarming. Travelling with Jim, a black man who has run from his owner, Huck treats him initially as he's been taught to treat any black slave, even considering turning him in. Slowly, as the two build up a relationship, Huck very clearly changes his reasoning, and begins to see Jim as a person with feelings and a family. He comments at one point that Jim even thinks like a white man. The build-up of their relationship is beautiful to see, and Huck's slow realisations of his own socially conditioned beliefs feel like a triumph.

Tom's appearance in the novel reinforces the difference between the two boys. At some points Tom was nothing more than infuriating, carrying out utterly ridiculous charades in order to seek adventure. Considering what was at stake when Tom was behaving in such a way, we can see he has not learned the lessons Huck has, nor does he have the same heart. Where I found Tom an entitled little bitch in the first novel, this was nothing to what I found him here.

Twain makes some very funny, yet serious, satirical comments on small town life in the United States at the time. Mainly these are in relation to attitudes on race, but he also makes clear his opinion on things like being a good person, mob mentality, and family rituals. Twain's beautiful descriptions of Mississippi were also a big hit with me, and these coming first person in Huck's simplistic narrative, were nothing short of gorgeous.

I think this book is so much more important than Tom Sawyer. Huck feels more and learns more than Tom ever did during his turn. The messages and lessons learnt here are far more ingrained than anything Tom could have achieved. An out and out classic, definitely.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Book #38

Of Street Piemen by Henry Mayhew

Radical Victorian reformer Henry Mayhew walked the streets of London interviewing ordinary flower girls, market traders, piemen and costermongers to create the first ever work of mass social observation, and the ultimate account of urban life - including an extraordinary description of the city from a hot air balloon.

Mayhew writes passionately of his Victorian London, throwing off the stereotypes, and presenting us with a realistic picture of the poor, their daily lives and struggles, and their entertainment in the penny gaffs. 

As someone who is generally fascinated by books detailing this era, Mayhew's descriptions were valuable and interesting to me, despite being dull to some. The price of street pies, the methods of catching and selling birds, the profits made by such endeavours, and the ways in which these profits were spent on necessity or pleasure, all delighted and enthralled me. They showed me the real Victorian London, and helped dissolve any preconceived fantasies.

It's clear Mayhew had sympathy for the lower classes, and had aims to highlight their struggles through his work as a journalist. Compare that to how the poor are depicted in our media today, and it seems we've gone backwards rather than forwards in the past 150 years or so. It's a sad thing to contemplate, but definitely something to hold on to.

The atmosphere Mayhew weaves into his observations creates a real gloom to London, but a gloom with a certain purpose. Although his accounts of the people were relished more by me, his detailed explanations of the city's aesthetic, whether from a fast train, a high balcony, or a soaring hot air balloon, were completely gorgeous in their originality.

I'm no Londoner, but I can only imagine the joy I would feel had Mayhew written of the streets I travel on every day, and imagining them bustling with the street markets, flower girls, and pie sellers of the era.

A truly gorgeous collection written with a keen fondness for his city; this was my first foray into Mayhew, but I'll definitely be picking some more up as soon as I can. 

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Book #37

The Green Mile by Stephen King

At Cold Mountain Penitentiary, along the lonely stretch of cells known as the Green Mile, killers are depraved as the psychopathic "Billy the Kid" Wharton and the possessed Eduard Delacroix await death strapped in "Old Sparky." Here guards as decent as Paul Edgecombe and as sadistic as Percy Wetmore watch over them. But good or evil, innocent or guilty, none have ever seen the brutal likes of the new prisoner, John Coffey, sentenced to death for raping and murdering two young girls. Is Coffey a devil in human form? Or is he a far, far different kind of being?

The Green Mile is a wonderful work of literature. King has written this with such talent, subtlety, and originality that it really was an incredible experience for me.

The narrative remains stark, and mainly very bleak, as Edgecombe sits in his nursing home writing down the events at Cold Mountain in 1932. Using Edgecombe's memoirs as the storytelling tool is a genius method, allowing the story to adopt a personal and emotional tone, and for the reader's connection to grow as the words progress. Any other method wouldn't have worked nearly as well, and this was one of the things I loved most about this masterpiece.

King's characters were wonderfully developed, and had such depth to them. He painted them perfectly to allow us to experience them in our own way, but also to love and hate where we were supposed to. To evoke feelings of sympathy and regard for men who had committed crimes such as they had, was a master stroke for King. Seeing the emotions unfold as these men (on both sides of the cells) languish on The Green Mile, awaiting their turn in Old Sparky, is nothing short of heart-breaking.

Questions are raised here over the essence of good and evil, the death penalty, religion, and the power of the law. Most of all, King presents questions surrounding how we treat each other, and how our own acts can influence far more than we think. You'll experience some of your preconceived, or socially conditioned, opinions come to the fore, and you'll be forced to analyse, and potentially let go of, most of them.

This is the few King novels I've read which can't be categorised completely into the horror genre. Although he dabbles in the supernatural, the horror here is humanity, and he shows us this in waves. People are guilty of assuming all of his books fall into the same type, saying they've never read a King novel because they're "not into horror"; you only need to pick up The Green Mile to see his versatility, his power, and his absolute skill.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Book #36

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

Gilbert Markham is deeply intrigued by Helen Graham, a beautiful and secretive young widow who has moved into nearby Wildfell Hall with her young son. He is quick to offer Helen his friendship, but when her reclusive behavior becomes the subject of local gossip and speculation, Gilbert begins to wonder whether his trust in her has been misplaced. It is only when she allows Gilbert to read her diary that the truth is revealed and the shocking details of her past.

Novels of this era always sate my curiosity around the gender roles and social customs prevalent at the time. We read of ladies marrying lords with stiff upper lips, the most stoic well-mannered elite, and of manners and conduct being mandatory in all things. It does lead one to wonder what goes on behind closed doors; does the lady ever walk to the larder in her pyjamas, do husband and wife ever giggle and have a carry on, does the upstanding gentleman ever abuse his promises?

Brontë shows us all of this in a perceived act of defiance against the male species. She presents us with a man so loathsome, so tempted by vice, and so childish that his wife decides to take matters into her own hands, and flee the marital home, for the sake of her son. This was a big deal in the nineteenth century; where many of us women have had to gather courage in the present day, having the nerve to do this in Brontë's time was absolutely huge.

Many of these types of novels detail the wayward wealthy gent who simmers down immeasurably when married off to a blushing young woman. She tends to balm his spirits with her innocence, and reminds him of purity, religion, and truth. He settles down, and they both live a wonderful life. This is a terrible message, of course, and Anne shows us the problems with it by having Helen's aunt warn her against marrying unless she's sure, and doubtlessly in love.

Helen's plans of a peaceful marriage never come to fruition, and she finds herself abandoned for months at a time, callously attacked by her husband's tongue, and eventually finds herself in the midst of drunken gatherings at home where she is endlessly and wildly subjected to deep abuse from both her husband and his friends. Brontë writes of her oppression mildly to say the least, but the power is still there, the horror portrayed wonderfully, and the message itself profound and impactful.

Our leading lady was one of the strongest female characters I have ever met in Victorian literature. All of the plights she endured were met with nothing but grace, dignity, and complete resilience. She chose her battles carefully, she considered all options alongside their consequences, and she decided her time to strike. Throughout the entire novel she remained a beacon of purity and religion, never erring from her path of the most incredible righteousness. Never a martyr, never a complainer; she turned the other cheek until the fate of her child was in jeopardy. Then she rose.

My only issue with the novel was our narrator, Gilbert Markham. Markham falls in love with Helen when she moves into the looming gothic home in his town, and does not rest at all until she is aware of his undying love. His persistence, blind determination, and complete lack of self-awareness infuriated me. He would refuse to leave Helen alone, employing a frighteningly relatable "let me love you" act which is typical of men even these days who haven't been allowed to have what they want. I'm not sure Brontë meant for the reader to hate him quite as much as I did, but I was pleased to see his pig-headed manner improved by the finale of the story.

This is a wonderful, important novel, which makes me wonder why I have never read Anne before. I loved Emily first, then Charlotte pushed ahead of her in terms of literary prowess. I have found over time that it's futile to compare the Brontë sisters, but Anne, Anne, you have stolen the heart from my rib cage.