Sunday, 18 September 2016

Book #45

The Nightingales are Drunk by Hafez

Sensual, profound, delighted, wise, Hafez's poems have enchanted their readers for more than 600 years. One of the greatest figures of world literature, he remains today the most popular poet in modern Iran. 

In this collection of poems, Hafez focuses on three things I have found myself to be very well acquainted with: love, heartbreak, and wine. 

I will go on to proclaim myself a poetry dunce, as I do in most of my poetry reviews. I can't seem to get in touch with the rhythm and flow (something that also affects my dancing), although I am able to appreciate the words and sentiment. These seemed a bit clunky, which I am confident is completely down to the translation; the originals, I'm sure, are a much better read.

Hafez's musings on the three most impactful things in life are both heavy and light in beautiful ways. His commentary surprised me; his thinking as a man of the 14th century similar to my own in the present day (especially on the powers of wine). I particularly enjoyed his referrals to himself in third person, as though he were either guiding himself through life, or chastising his own behaviour; something I have used as a self-help tactic on more than one occasion.

Despite my idiocy in line and verse, I consume poetry now for the feelings it evokes in me. Not all of these poems evoked anything at all, but when they did, it was nothing but understanding, approval, and complete awe. A worthwhile inclusion in the LBC range, and yet another attempt to acclimatise myself to the wonders of poetry under my belt. 

Book #44

Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry

New York, 1895. Sylvan Threadgill, a night soiler cleaning out the privies behind the tenement houses, finds an abandoned newborn baby in the muck. An orphan himself, Sylvan rescues the child, determined to find where she belongs.  
Odile Church and her beautiful sister, Belle, were raised amid the applause and magical pageantry of The Church of Marvels, their mother’s spectacular Coney Island sideshow. But the Church has burnt to the ground, their mother dead in its ashes. Now Belle, the family’s star, has vanished into the bowels of Manhattan, leaving Odile alone and desperate to find her. 
A young woman named Alphie awakens to find herself trapped across the river in Blackwell’s Lunatic Asylum—sure that her imprisonment is a ruse by her husband’s vile, overbearing mother. On the ward she meets another young woman of ethereal beauty who does not speak, a girl with an extraordinary talent that might save them both. 
As these strangers’ lives become increasingly connected, their stories and secrets unfold. Moving from the Coney Island seashore to the tenement-studded streets of the Lower East Side, a spectacular human circus to a brutal, terrifying asylum, Church of Marvels takes readers back to turn-of-the-century New York—a city of hardship and dreams, love and loneliness, hope and danger. 

It takes a lot for me to pick up a novel I haven't previously heard of, judging only by the cover (for shame) and the blurb. Both of these left me spellbound in a branch of Chapters in Kitchener, so I allowed myself the plunge. Thoughts of a circus sideshow and freak show and an asylum in turn of the century New York had my brain spinning into American Horror Story territory. My excitement was off the charts.

Immediately disappointed, I found I wasn't as taken with the story as I'd initially been convinced of. Parry narrates using the storylines of four different characters, which is confusing and irritating to begin with. There's no clear link between the characters' lives, and the first half of the novel reads like a jumble and bustle of nonsense. I couldn't possibly see how these were going to come together. My downfall here was trying to constantly guess where everything was going, and becoming annoyed with myself when I realised I was wrong. The best way to enjoy this novel is to immerse yourself in Parry's words and descriptions, imagine New York in 1895, and truly understand the glory in her work.

The words were glorious and colourful, flitting from the rainbow brightness of Coney Island, to the browns and greys of the night-time slums. I could smell the streets. The detail and complexity demands an attention I was only more than happy to give, however this isn't a story that can be picked up effortlessly. You're in this for the long haul. Find a quiet few hours to devour the words, and let the strands of these four peoples' lives intertwine in your mind.

Parry's characters were gorgeous, detailed, and hopelessly real. Each of them alone, each of them flawed, and each of them broken in their own ways; I felt for them all. This was a time in which their situations and their actions were disapproved of, all of them were social outcasts in their unique way, and all of them burnt a hole in my heart.

I was excited to read of New York in this era, but it wasn't quite as glamorous as I'd imagined. Prostitution, opium dens, babies for sale, an island asylum, and a guy who mucks out the shit in the privies, all had me hitting the ground with a hard bump when I realised it was a dark New York, akin to Dickensian London, I was being shown. The grim portrayal, however, was gorgeous in its own right.

Despite my original worries, Parry wound this up so tightly. Resolving everything with care, shock tactics, and more twists than a sideshow acrobatic, it's difficult to believe this is a debut novel. Please only pick this up if you're willing to devote the time, devour the words, and decipher the text.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Book #43

I See You by Clare Mackintosh

When Zoe Walker sees her photo in the classifieds section of a London newspaper, she is determined to find out why it's there. There's no explanation: just a website, a grainy image and a phone number. She takes it home to her family, who are convinced it's just someone who looks like Zoe. But the next day the advert shows a photo of a different woman, and another the day after that.
Is it a mistake? A coincidence? Or is someone keeping track of every move they make . . .

For those not hugely used to psychological thrillers, this is a good one. The plot flicks along nicely, and you find yourself trusting none of the characters as your mind battles to find a culprit. That's all you amateurs need. For me, a psychological thriller should make me feel as though I'm being chased through a maze of mirrors: no idea where to turn next, no idea where the next attack is going to come from, and most importantly, no idea if I'm going to make it out.

In comparison to the giant that is I Let You Go, this is a disappointing sister. It lacks suspense, impact, and doesn't pack nearly half as much of a punch as its predecessor. Most of all, it instilled absolutely none of the panic and confusion that the debut did so expertly.

Mackintosh's characters were boring, flat, and unlikeable. This wasn't for lack of depth; we were given every inch of their history to the point it was unnecessary and utterly dull. The protagonist, Zoe, was completely beige and irritating - the worst type of character to try and support. I was completely apathetic with regards to her domestic woes, pathetic daily struggles, and even the scary situation and her fate. I was just tagging along because I'm nosey.

The other characters were as equally bland, and written as caricatures of themselves. Zoe's children are your typical son who likes to stay in his room, and daughter who gets an older boyfriend, and making her mother feel like she's losing her. Then we have a cheating ex-husband who drives a taxi, and a live-in partner who's the more intellectual, sensitive sort. Groundbreaking.

I liked the modern day premise of using technology to commit crimes; it was clever, and surprisingly still quite original considering how we all use it in this day and age. Everything just seemed so contrived and completely predictable. Readers know how to eliminate suspects; if you're only halfway through the book and someone's having the finger pointed at them - it's not them; if you meet someone and think it couldn't possibly be them - it probably is. We need this to be flipped on its arse in order to shock us. Mackintosh did not achieve this, despite having done so in her previous novel.

Worst of all, the finale was completely disappointing. No shock horror, no heart hammering in your chest, no real good vs evil devotion encouraging you to root for anyone. Just a dull, half-hearted ache in your head that translates to, could someone just die so I can start reading something else?

This isn't like pulling teeth - it's readable, and it's enjoyable to a degree; I just feel Mackintosh has fallen into the success trap, with an excellent debut novel doing so well rendering a need to rush out a second as soon as possible. A real shame; this could have been a belter, but it felt shallow and rushed.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Book #42

The Vanishing Act by Mette Jakobsen

This is a story about a snow-covered island you won't find on any map.
It's the story of a girl, Minou. A year ago, her mother walked out into the rain and never came back.
It's about a magician and a priest and a dog called No Name. It's about a father's hunt for the truth.
It's about a dead boy who listens, and Minou's search for her mother's voice.
It's a story of how even the most isolated places have their own secrets.
It's a story you'll never forget.

This book arrived with me much like the dead boy arrived on the island: unexpected and anonymous. Wrapped in brown paper instead of a thick jacket, and with mysterious front page ripped in half instead of a mysterious gold button. To this day, I am still unsure where this parcel came from, and like the dead boy, I still haven't discovered its secrets.

Although I found The Vanishing Act enjoyable, the more pages I turned, the more I realised there was absolutely nothing behind the pretty prose. Jakobsen writes gorgeously of the island, its isolation, and what's happened to its inhabitants. After the dead boy washes up, Minou considers her life's mysteries with her philosopher's mind. Through flashbacks and deep thinking, we begin to understand what's happened, but are only deeply disappointed when nothing unravels at all.

Each of the characters were fragile, eccentric works of art with no background or dimension attached to them in the slightest. The desire to find out more about them is huge, as Jakobsen writes of their quirks and ticks beautifully, but doesn't give us any more than a flicker of detail.

I enjoyed the comparisons between logic and imagination. Although Minou saw herself a rational thinker like her father, we frequently saw strong flashes of her mother's creativity and imagination shining through. It was a nice testament to the argument that one can be both logical and imaginative all at once.

This had huge potential; Jakobsen's narrative is lyrical and profound, allowing us to smell the sea and feel the frost, but there's no real goal to her writing. Although she hinted we should look at the bigger picture instead of getting lost in detail, this simply wasn't enough. I just wanted to know so much more than was offered to me.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Book #41

Ecstasy by Irvine Welsh

With three delightful tales of love and its ups and downs, the ever-surprising Irvine Welsh virtually invents a new genre of fiction: the chemical romance.

You all know how I feel about Welsh. His crass, brazen stories filled with shock, drugs, and all kinds of abuse, absolutely thrill and delight me. Every new release of his I will devour rather than savour, subsequently churning out reviews filled with crazed praise and fangirl ramblings. This time I decided to go back to his earlier work and treat myself to something more raw and rough.

Ecstasy is comprised of three short stories, all in relation to chemical romances and relationships. This is the only vein running through the three; they are incredibly unlike each other, and all brought something original to the table.

There's a certain feel to Welsh short stories which is far lighter and less fucked up than his novels. They're nice for a quick injection, and something to go to when you're not quite in the mood to have your heed blown off your shoulders into pitch black darkness. Although Ecstasy gives us (amongst other things) Austen-esque pornography, beastiality, necrophilia, deformity, and child dismemberment, we end on an ecstasy high of two people falling in love. And despite me relishing the necrophilia more particularly, love is what it's all about.

You're uncomfortable, it's grim, some of the plot twists and situations will either give you a mindfuck or the boke, but it's so good. If you're too lazy to read and interpret Scot's dialect, you are an arsehole and you have my pity.

Although I wouldn't recommend this as a starting point for Welsh beginners, it's twisted, it's clatty as fuck, and it's the boy's true early stuff. Canny beat it.