Monday, 18 February 2019

Book #14

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Enid Lambert is terribly, terribly anxious. Although she would never admit it to her neighbors or her three grown children, her husband, Alfred, is losing his grip on reality. Maybe it's the medication that Alfred takes for his Parkinson's disease, or maybe it's his negative attitude, but he spends his days brooding in the basement and committing shadowy, unspeakable acts. More and more often, he doesn't seem to understand a word Enid says.
Trouble is also brewing in the lives of Enid's children. Her older son, Gary, a banker in Philadelphia, has turned cruel and materialistic and is trying to force his parents out of their old house and into a tiny apartment. The middle child, Chip, has suddenly and for no good reason quit his exciting job as a professor at D------ College and moved to New York City, where he seems to be pursuing a "transgressive" lifestyle and writing some sort of screenplay. Meanwhile the baby of the family, Denise, has escaped her disastrous marriage only to pour her youth and beauty down the drain of an affair with a married man--or so Gary hints.
Enid, who loves to have fun, can still look forward to a final family Christmas and to the ten-day Nordic Pleasurelines Luxury Fall Color Cruise that she and Alfred are about to embark on. But even these few remaining joys are threatened by her husband's growing confusion and unsteadiness. As Alfred enters his final decline, the Lamberts must face the failures, secrets, and long-buried hurts that haunt them as a family if they are to make the corrections that each desperately needs.

This was a leap of faith for me. Almost seven hundred pages from an author I’d tried once before (The Discomfort Zone) and hated. I was going on the basis of the praise emblazoned on the cover, and the excellent reviews I’d read; both of which, I know from experience, are seriously untrustworthy.

Gloriously, wonderfully, magnificently, The Corrections turned out to be a labour of love. Franzen explores the Lambert family’s depths and disasters. He throws out entirely the idea of a plot, of anything remotely linear, in fact of anything resembling a structure whatsoever. It’s an analysis of relationships, health, and how we relate to one another.

Each of the Lamberts are deplorable in their own way. The parents exude a selfishness, a blatant refusal to accept change, a maddening yearning for how things used to be, and a firm belief in their own moral standpoints. The (grown up) kids are merely guilty of inheriting selfishness from these two, projecting it into adult life, and finding the consequences of such behaviours didn’t actually suit them. It was gorgeous.

As I learned more about the characters, and as I traversed with them each idiotic mistake they made, I was able to connect these with their childhood, and with the rest of the family. Each reaction, each predicament, could almost be predicted due to the vast level of knowledge I had on each of them - except one.

Albert, the Lambert patriarch, was an enigma. Battling with Parkinson’s and the onset of dementia, Franzen paints a devastating picture of the impact they had on Albert. The subtleties increasing until the family could no longer refuse to accept the situation was executed perfectly, and evoked a lot of emotion in me. It was very well done.

This isn’t a book for everyone. It needs investment, patience, and an expectation to encounter a study rather than a story. I found it so worthwhile, and I feel more energised to take more poorly informed leaps of faith in future.

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Book #13

To Be Read at Dusk by Charles Dickens

Three ghostly tales from a master of the form, 'The Signalman', 'The Trial for Murder' and the title story, 'To Be Read at Dusk'.

This was a joy. Although, what else can one really expect from Dickens?

Anyone who’s had the pleasure to read A Christmas Carol can appreciate the mastery Dickens applies to a ghost story. Penguin have included three of his haunting short stories in this addition to the Little Black Classics range. And, since I’ve been growing increasingly disinterested in the range itself, I was very glad they did.

Although none of the three can be described as terrifying, there are underlying tones of tension and unease throughout all of the stories. Dickens knows how to unsettle, how to perfectly add feelings of the unnatural, and how to expertly garner engagement. I’d never thought to seek out any shorter works of Dickens, but after writing this, seeking out more (ghostly or otherwise) is the first thing I’ll do.

I couldn’t pick a favourite of these three; his skill permeated each of them in equal measures. His stiff upper lipped protagonists being faced with the inexplicable was just completely gorgeous, and his writing, as ever, was completely flawless.

An utter master of fiction, and my one true love. Happy birthday, baby.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Book #12

The Silver Mask by Christian Ellingsen

The gods and goddesses are dead, killed two hundred years ago. 
With their destruction the moon split apart, the sun dwindled and the land was devastated. Civilisation has re-emerged from the carnage, but twisted creatures still prowl the savage Wildlands between the city-states. 
In the skies above the city of Vasini, a falling star, a fragment of the dead moon goddess Serindra, heads to earth. In the Palace district, Dame Vittoria Emerson, darling of the city, has been found dead, lying amongst her own vomit. 
As Captain Marcus Fox of the Inspectorate hunts the killer, Dr. Elizabeth Reid searches for the remnants of Serindra determined to make sure the poisonous quicksilver it contains is not used. With Vittoria’s death threatening to draw the city’s political elite into a war of assassins, Fox and Reid must rush to expose the secrets that lie within Vasini before they tear the city-state apart. 

What an utter marvel this is; I’m still in awe. 

I’ve read a lot of fantasy recently, a lot of it being through authors requesting reviews as Ellingsen has done here. The Silver Mask is utterly unique in its charm; not many fantasy novels feature murder mysteries alongside falling stars and terrifying hybrid creatures, yet here we are. There is something in this fantasy which doesn’t feel fantasy at all - it feels real, and this was Ellingsen’s triumph.

His crafting of Vasini is stellar. Their political factions, their rebels, their elite, their peasants - all were given to us in a beautifully believable box, and I loved learning about this society. Ellingsen peppers the pages with letters, newspaper articles, and other documents to help us learn of Vasini’s history, and to help us understand the motivations of his characters. This felt very much like a ‘show don’t tell’ approach, which I’m always irrevocably on board with.

My only complaint here is in relation to these documents. I was sent a digital copy, and most of the letters and articles are maddeningly difficult to read in this format, purely due to size. It would be helpful if they were enlarged slightly; this would have stopped the stares in public as I sat with my nose inches from my Kindle, reading the words aloud. Although there are worse sights on Glaswegian public transport; I have seen them personally.

The plot is fast moving, engaging, and completely addictive. Ellingsen favours short, snappy, sectioned off chapters, flitting through locations and perspectives to give us a rounded view of what we’re dealing with. He organically brings characters together, raising tension, and making the story one which is absolutely impossible to tear yourself away from.

The characters were gorgeous, raw, and magnificently flawed, yet slightly lacking in backstory. I’m torn with this thought as I’m unsure whether in-depth explorations of their pasts would have added to the plot, or have slowed it down and affected the deep engagement I had in the storyline. It’s also worthwhile remembering this is the first of a series, so perhaps deep dives into the characters’ past lives are still to come.

Again, a marvel. I am so pleased to have been asked to read this, and I am very much looking forward to reading more about Vasini. 

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Book #11

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

Now, we all know the basics of punctuation. Or do we? A look at most neighborhood signage tells a different story. Through sloppy usage and low standards on the internet, in e-mail, and now text messages, we have made proper punctuation an endangered species.
In Eats, Shoots & Leaves, former editor Truss dares to say that it is time to look at our commas and semicolons and see them as the wonderful and necessary things they are. This is a book for people who love punctuation and get upset when it is mishandled. From the invention of the question mark in the time of Charlemagne to George Orwell shunning the semicolon, this lively history makes a powerful case for the preservation of a system of printing conventions that is much too subtle to be mucked about with.

I have very high standards when it comes to grammar and punctuation. I’m no pedant or stickler, and would never angrily accost someone for errant use of an apostrophe, but I do like things to be done properly. I recognise, however, I am no superwoman, so bought this book in the hopes of learning something.

There was some really interesting information on the origin of punctuation, on uses which have now fallen out of fashion, and on the poor members of the punctuation family who have now become extinct. I found this insightful, and (I have to be honest), quite exciting. Write me off immediately as a saddo; I don’t care.

My problem was the main thing I learned here, which is Lynne Truss is a horrible person. I worked this out quickly (reading a couple of pages of the introduction should do it), and it marred the book for me entirely. No one wants to listen to someone they dislike, and let me tell you I disliked Truss.

Her commentary reeked of her own self-importance, she slagged off anyone with the audacity to make a punctuation error, and even threatened people with death, guns, and violence should they incorrectly punctuate a sentence. There is no fucking need.

She seems to forget not all of us are from the same background. We’re even treated to an anecdote of a punctuation novel she was reading whilst all the other girls her age were out having abortions. I’m not kidding. This holier than thou attitude permeated through each page, completely disengaging me and, frankly, making me hate her. And she ticked every single dirty box in my book - classist, ableist, sexist, even racist. It was foul.

Although peppered with interesting tidbits, I would happily forego anything I learned from this to go back to a life where I had never read it.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Book #10

Hannibal by Livy

The remarkable account of Hannibal crossing the Alps with his elephants and winning the Battle of the Trebbia.

I struggled with this. Perhaps the disappointment began when I realised this wasn’t an account of the life of our favourite cannibal. Instead, it details the Carthaginian invasion of Rome.

My assumption is that there’s military insight here, alongside political commentary. I can’t really confirm, as my eyes were glazed over the entire time. I can barely remember a thing; I was thinking about what I was going to have for dinner. Not even the macabre notion of bringing elephants along to cross the Alps appealed to me here. I was out.

The plan is to continue the Little Black Classics range until I’ve read each one I’ve already bought. After that, no more. They are taking up precious reading time and provoking an irrevocable ire in me which I no longer wish to feel.