Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Book #29

Kidnapped by Olaudah Equiano

The searing autobiography of Olaudah Equiano - African slave, sailor, and finally a free man - which fuelled the eighteenth-century abolitionist movement.

A harrowing autobiographical insight into Equiano’s kidnap as a young man, and subsequent life as a slave.

The writing is raw and simplistic, lending feelings of astonishment in response to the situations and behaviours he relates to us. It’s always unsettling to me reading of historical mistreatment such as this. I try to be shocked at my ancestors, but, knowing my ancestors to be what they were (amongst other things - the worst kind of people), I can’t conjure shock, only disgust. I felt deeply for Equiano, finding sections difficult to swallow, but with no surprise in my stomach. 

Penguin have taken sections from the full length autobiography in order to compile Kidnapped, and (despite having never read The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, and therefore being unable to comment on its entirety) I feel they’ve once again botched this by throwing sections in at random, and not taking care over what’s included. I understand a lot of Equiano’s life was spent on the sea, so he will speak a lot of sea voyages, and it’s important these are documented. Despite that, I felt Penguin should have focused more on him as a person, the relationships he built, the struggles he faced, and his feelings, rather than choosing to throw a load of sea battle chapters at us. We weren’t even permitted to read of his ultimate liberation.

I’ll definitely be seeking out The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, as I feel this is an important work from what I’ve read so far, having had strong influences in the abolitionist movement. I also feel, from Penguin’s poor cut and paste job, that I’ve missed learning something of great significance. It’s only more ammunition for my argument that the Little Black Classics range has been a crippling disappointment.

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Book #28

The Blighted City by Scott Kaelen

To challenge the gods is to invite their wrath. 
So it is written of Lachyla, the Blighted City, in the Codex of the Ages. But who reads codices? And who really believes the tall stories of the Taleweavers?

Kaelen has weaved wonder with this one.

Three fleeblades accept a quest to enter an abandoned city and retrieve a burial stone. Despite the death’s head symbol imprinted on every known map of the place, the freeblades set out confident in their skills and experience, planning to bring the stone home for a hefty payment. Things go sour very quickly, and the freeblades soon realise the reasons for the city’s desertion as they become embroiled in its histories. This is all I can give you without spoiling the gorgeous experience of this novel.

Initially, I plodded along with this, failing to connect with the plot or the characters. But, in a true fantasy slow-burn fashion, Kaelen dribbled subtle taunts into his prose, eked out the personalities of the characters, and teased me with lore until I was utterly engrossed, and desperately in love with the characters.

Kaelen uses the perspective of three different groups to expand our perspective, and this worked incredibly well in building tension and foreshadowing. Their differing viewpoints were explored, allowing us to compare and contrast, and to sympathise or condemn as we see fit.

His scene setting was to die for. Entering the city of Lachyla with the trio, I immediately felt the gloom, I could smell the horror, and even taste the dead. His intricate descriptions of the desolation lent a perfect ability to visualise and step into his world.

My only criticism would be the drawn-out ending; I felt things could have been tied up more quickly, and there were a few extraneous moments which could have been removed completely. There was no negative impact to my overall enjoyment of the novel, but I did feel tightening up the ending could have created more of a final impact.

There are some really important questions asked here on enjoying and appreciating life. Would you want to live forever, or for a short, fulfilled, time? On closing the book, I felt mournful and thoughtful in equal measures, and it’s important to remember that when there’s a choice to be made, not everyone decides upon the same path.

I really enjoyed this introduction to Kaelen’s work, and I’m very grateful to have been asked to review this. He hints of other places within the vicinity of Lachyla, and I can only hope we get to see some of these places in the next instalment.

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Book #27

The Yellow Book

Offering an entertaining introduction to the fin-de-si├Ęcle, this selection from the notorious magazine The Yellow Book includes stories and poems by famous writers such as Arnold Bennett and John Buchan, brilliant pieces by lesser-known writers such as Ada Leverson and Ella D'Arcy, and illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley.

I hadn’t heard of The Yellow Book before picking this up, and its story is absolutely fascinating.

Launched in 1894, The Yellow Book was a literary magazine filled with prose, poetry, and illustrations from some seriously distinguished contributors such as Henry James and H.G. Wells. Its yellow cover was controversially chosen as a not so subtle nod to the yellow covers of French erotic fiction. Notably, Oscar Wilde was reported to have been arrested whilst carrying a copy of The Yellow Book, but unsurprisingly this turned out to be a copy of a yellow-covered illicit novel.

The notoriety attached to the quarterly doesn’t seem to be derived from its content (excepting the alluring and provoking illustrations from Beardsley), but rather its cover, its female writers, and its introduction of new ideas and movements.

Penguin have included some prose, poetry, and illustrations in this little glimpse into what The Yellow Book had to offer its readers. The prose detailed tragedy, machinations, and even the supernatural. Beardsley’s illustrations were gorgeous in their simplicity, and it was clear to see why they would have caused a few blushes in the 1890s. Even the poetry enthralled me - particularly Stella Maris by Arthur Symons - poetry evoking anything is me is an unheard of phenomenon.

Including some of The Yellow Book’s offerings in the Little Black Classics range has been a masterstroke by Penguin; it’s piqued my interest, taught me something, and has made me determined to read more from this infamous periodical. I can’t say every one of these little black books has intrigued me in such a way, but this was my main purpose of making my way through the range, so my faith has been somewhat restored. Perhaps I should move from black books to yellow ones.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Book #26

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph? 

I have recently found myself in a strange fascination with Henry’s reign, due for the most part to my stunning discovery of Six: the Musical. I knew I had a few fictional novels chronicling those times, so I decided to dig out Wolf Hall and get going - wow.

This book is enchanting and taxing in equal measures. Cromwell has been logged in the history books as one utterly bad dude, and yet Mantel manages to render him human; a man doing his job. He’s low-born, and practically emotionless, yet this ability to feel nothing is an invaluable asset in this cutthroat world. He shoots rapidly up the Tudor ladder until he’s almost sitting in the king’s lap. I felt like a spy in the camp, following his political and social decision making, and it was bloody glorious.

However, it’s quite a challenge to become acquainted with Mantel’s writing style here. Although it’s beautifully structured and incredibly engaging, she opts to refer to Cromwell for the most part as ‘he’. Despite occasionally clarifying with a rare ‘he, Cromwell’, this lends a very confusing aspect to situations where there are a number of males in the room - which is, regrettably, a frequent occurrence.

Patience is essential in reading Wolf Hall. You need to reread; you need to understand completely what’s happening, and that sometimes doesn’t happen immediately. There’s long heavy prose on politics (to quote Anne from Six: “Politics? Not my thing.”), and a huge number of characters to remember - most of whom are referred to at times by title, and at times by name. It doesn’t help that about 80% of them are called Thomas. Once all of the above is grasped, you’ll experience a gorgeous immersion in history.

I must admit, Wolf Hall has made me realise my main interest in Henry’s reign doesn’t have anything to do with Henry at all - it’s the wives. Although here we see Katherine’s downfall and Anne’s succession, a few strains are showing in marital life, and Jane is already beginning to show her face more. I understand the sequel’s focus is to be on Anne’s undoing, and let me tell you, I am here for it.

Don’t lose your head.

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Book #25

Green Tea by Sheridan Le Fanu

From the pioneer of horror fiction, this tale of a clergyman tormented by a demonic creature is one of the greatest Victorian ghost stories.

Green Tea is, admittedly, a very odd name for a Victorian horror novel. Green tea is not something which sparks fear in the hearts of men, nor does it lend any implications of the supernatural. Le Fanu presents a macabre and unsettling tale, the events of which transpire solely due to the drinking of green tea.

Using a balance of the inexplicable and the scientific, Le Fanu tells the tale of a clergyman who is experiencing a constant demonic presence by his side. Although this premise, and the form the apparition takes, seem unlikely, we’re given various scientific explanations from our learned protagonist to support and analyse the poor religious man’s affliction.

The writing is typically Victorian, and you do need your wits about you in places, but it’s steady. The story is laid out in the form of letters from our protagonist to a fellow doctor. He explains the clergyman’s symptoms, and the story he has been given. I liked that we were never allowed to witness the supernatural happenings first-hand; they were spoken of to our protagonist, and then committed to letter, allowing Le Fanu to weave feelings of uncertainty and evoking considerations.

Although terribly short, I loved this little gothic exploration of green tea and demons. Le Fanu leaves the finale entirely open to interpretation, further supporting the Chinese whispers style of storytelling, and creating a final sense of uneasiness as you close the book. I’d definitely recommend this one for fans of Victorian horror.