Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Book #38

Typhoon by Joseph Conrad

The crew aboard a ramshackle steamer faces a treacherous storm in this gripping tale, inspired by Conrad's own time at sea.

Conrad’s words are always beautiful. The ship in tumult after its captain (refusing to listen to reason) sails her into a typhoon, is described gorgeously; the panic, the claustrophobia, the water.

What I liked most was Conrad’s depictions of the character’s relationships in life. Long months at sea, away from wives and children, will have pressing effect on relations and mental health, and this is told sporadically, and well. Their letters home were fascinating and heartbreaking in equal measures.

Although I could appreciate the mastery in Conrad’s language here, there was something I just couldn’t engage with, and I can’t say for certain I completely enjoyed this. After having reflected on this for a while, I’ve come to the conclusion the sea life is not for me. My hatred for Moby Dick has completely ruined any appetite I once had for adventures on the open sea, and has not only poisoned the works of Melville, but is now bleeding its disease into other stories. Thanks again, Melville. 

Monday, 13 May 2019

Book #37

Will O’ the Wisp by Patricia Wentworth

David Fordyce wasn’t looking forward to his birthday party, an annual event he shared with his grandmother. But this year Eleanor would be there—Eleanor, whom he had not seen in seven years, ever since she’d married Cosmo Rayne.
There are mysteries concerning the late Mr. Rayne, and his lovely widow—but then David has secrets of his own. When a black clad figure crosses the line between shadow and moonlight the game is afoot in one of Patricia Wentworth’s most eerie and thrilling stories.
I downloaded this some years ago during one of my rampages through lists of free Kindle books. I wasn’t paying much attention at the time, and assumed the novel was a supernatural dive into the phenomenon which is will o’ the wisp. It isn’t.

Wentworth’s Will O’ the Wisp instead features a mystery set in Golden Age London. Although David Fordyce lost his wife at sea some years ago, strange advertisements begin appearing in the paper, implying she’s still alive.  Chills.

Although the mystery itself wasn’t the most intricate, I was (as always) fascinated by the social customs and morals present in 1920s London. The Fordyce family is ruled by Grandmamma - a formidable matriarch who will bang the gavel down at anything, whether it be wearing pressed flowers, or marrying your cousin. There was so much commentary surrounding the concerns over what people will think - wearing red shoes, being alone in a house with a man unchaperoned, divorce; I just absolutely adore immersing myself in this era.

I was fairly surprised at the lack of enthusiasm (and actually, the lack of overall reviews) for this one over on Goodreads. Although I couldn’t say it astounded me, it piqued me, it interested me, and it entertained me.  I’d never heard of Wentworth before delving into Will O’ the Wisp, however I’ve discovered she’s written a number of mysteries - I plan to conduct my next download rampage immediately around these. 

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Book #36

Gone, Baby, Gone by Dennis Lehane

Kenzie and Gennaro have been hired to find four-year-old Amanda McCready, abducted from her home without leaving a trace. Despite extensive news coverage and dogged investigation, the police inquiry has so far uncovered nothing. The case is rife with oddities: Amanda's strangely indifferent mother and her dangerous, drug-addled friends; her loving aunt and uncle; and two cops who have found so many abused or dead children they may already be over the edge.
As the Indian summer fades, Amanda McCready stays gone - banished so completely that she seems never to have existed. And when a second child disappears, Kenzie and Gennaro face a local media more interested in sensationalizing the abductions than helping to solve them, a police force seething with lethal secrets, and a faceless power determined to obstruct their efforts. Caught in a deadly tangle of lies and betrayal, they must confront the horror of what the world can inflict on its children in order to unravel a riddle that's anything but child's play.

I see crime novels as easy reads; fast-paced mysteries propelling me towards the unveiling of the culprit, peppered with a few complex characters, red herrings, and gut-wrenching twists. For me, crime is a perfect escape, a quick sojourn into a bit of the bad stuff before returning to my often heavy reading list. Lehane didn’t deliver any of this for me.

He does present some interesting moral questions here with regards to child welfare and policies. Without giving too much away, he really sets some thoughts in motion around what’s best for a child, and how to set them up with the best beginnings in life. He also provides some seriously disturbing and violent scenes; almost too gut-wrenching and sickening to read with the knowledge this happens to kids the world over. The questions he poses, and the humbling effect the brutality has on a reader, are probably the only skilful elements of this novel.

The plot moves fairly quickly, but I felt there were many descriptive passages which didn’t lend anything to the novel whatsoever. The twists and turns were there, but easily predicted (as always, look for the unlikeliest candidate and he’s your man), and fairly underwhelming. I felt there were a lot of plot points shoe-horned in there for shock value, or to reinforce Lehane’s attempts at grit.

I had no interest in Lehane’s characters. All painted as grotesque caricatures - the hardened cop, the junkie mother, the downtrodden family - there was barely any depth to their characters, a serious lack of development, and I found it difficult to differentiate between some of them thanks to Lehane’s magnolia paint brush tarring them all. The dialogue was flat, forced, and cliched, with absolutely no one shining out as a realistic character. Even the protagonists, Kenzie and Gennaro, were utterly uninteresting. 

Gennaro, actually, gets a whole paragraph here to herself. A victim of the curse of male writers, she was presented as nothing more than a quick mind on a gorgeous, and overly described, body; that’s it. She’s a hologram; an ideal - great tits and a man’s mouth seem to be the fantasy for many a male author. Her characterisation, and the fact she was the only female character depicted with half a brain, made me cringe painfully. Oh boys, please do better.

Having now read a few Lehane creations, I’m tempted to write it all off and claim Shutter Island as his only success. Although I managed to finish Gone, Baby, Gone, it’s very doubtful I’ll return to Lehane again, and will most certainly never cast my eyes on a Kenzie and Gennaro story as long as I live.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Book #35

How To Be a Medieval Woman by Margery Kempe

Brave, outspoken and guaranteed to annoy people wherever she went - including exasperated fellow pilgrims in Jerusalem and her long-suffering husband - Margery Kempe was one of the most vivid and unforgettable voices of the Middle Ages. Whether travelling alone, getting herself arrested or having visions of marrying Jesus, Margery repeatedly defied feminine convention - and also managed to compose the first autobiography in English, despite being unable to read or write. 

Margery Kempe was an incredibly pious woman in medieval times, and believed she had a higher personal connection to God than other people. Despite being unable to read or write, she compiled an autobiography entirely through diction on her spiritual experiences. It is from this book that Penguin have taken excerpts to comprise How To Be a Medieval Woman.

Being entirely without religion, something of a cynic, and in desperate need of something to get my teeth into, I couldn’t connect whatsoever with Kempe and her spiritual ramblings. Her narrative is extremely heavy and tedious, her superiority irking, and her deep devotion (which I imagine is supposed to be inspiring) feels like a telling off.

The blurb and title very much portray this little book as being filled with social commentary on how medieval women spent their days. I’m convinced Kempe was one of few medieval women with a speed dial to heaven, so Penguin has yet again failed in this collection for me.

Another little black slog. 

Friday, 3 May 2019

Book #34

A Star-Reckoner’s Lot by Darrell Drake

Ashtadukht is a star-reckoner. The worst there's ever been.
She commands the might of the constellations... though her magic is as unpredictable as the die rolls that decide its fate. But star-reckoners are humanity's first defense against divs, so if Ashtadukht is to fulfill her duty, she must use every trick at her disposal—risks be damned.
An excuse. A lie she tells herself. All that remains of a life she should have had. She travels the empire to hunt down the div that brought her world to ruin. The longer her pursuit, the more her memories threaten to consume her. The darker her obsession becomes.
Every spell is a catastrophe waiting to happen, every div a tale of its own, every tale a thread in her tapestry of vengeance. This is the story of her path... a warning to those who would follow in her footsteps.
Ashtadukht is a star-reckoner. The worst there's ever been. Hers is no hero's journey.

Drake tells the story of Ashtadukht, a star-reckoner in Sasanian Iran. She is contracted on missions to hunt and defeat the curse of the people - the divs. In addition to this, she is hellbent on finding and destroying the div who once ruined her life.

At the beginning of the novel, Ashtadukht’s missions tend to span only one chapter, with her showing up and sealing the deal for her contractors pretty quickly. This gave a vignette style feeling to plot until it began to grow and spawn and larger tale centric to Ashtadukt’s history.

A star-reckoner is someone who can command the magic of the stars in order to create some sort of reaction. This is usually useful when defeating enemies - divs - in a fight, but I’ll be damned if I could work out the method of reckoning, the history of it, or how it worked. Later in the novel, planet-reckoning is also introduced, and I was truly, truly stumped. I feel the reason for this is the massive time leap from Ashtadukht being a young girl and identified with reckoning abilities, to her being a fully-fledged reckoner. A little bit of learning alongside the character would have gone a long way for my tiny brain.

I found it difficult to concentrate throughout. I struggled to follow along with the plot, and certain events would occur which would throw me completely as I’d no idea where I was, who I was amongst, or even why I was there. There’s a real disjointed feel to the way the plot progresses, and the confusion began to affect my motivation for reading on.

The characters were pretty interesting in their interactions with each other, but there was a noticeable lack of backstory for each of them, and where we were gifted with some commentary, it was sparse, and often raised more questions than it answered.

Despite the above, this is a rich tale. Sasanian Iran is not a common setting for any type of contemporary novel, never mind fantasy novels. Reading of the lore and myth from this time was enlightening, and it’s clear to see Drake has a strong passion here. His premise was excellent, his writing beautiful. 

My disconnection was in how it was all put together; the lack of backstory, the jarring flow. I honestly couldn’t say whether this would have an impact on anyone else reading this novel - I imagine it’s something that would only affect certain readers. I definitely wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading this; it just wasn’t for me.