Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Book #08

Mastermind by Steven Kelliher

Karna was just like any other comic book fan. He dreamed of fighting alongside colorful heroes and taking down dastardly villains. In Titan Online, the most popular VR MMORPG going, he finally got the chance to live out his cape-donning fantasies.

That is, right up until he was killed by the game’s number one ‘hero’. A man who serves only himself in a constant grind for money, fame and adoration. Forced to start from scratch due the harsh game mechanics, Karna finds a new mission; bringing balance back to Titan Online.
With a strange new power and some unlikely allies, Karna hatches a plan to save the game, and get a bit of revenge in the process.
When the heroes can’t be trusted, it’s up to the villains to save the (virtual) world. 

I really enjoy these LitRPG books. There’s a lot they offer that other genres just can’t cater for, such as contrasting online/offline lives (geek-like at home, god-like in game), digital relationships, the impact of online events to the offline self, even the morals involved in killing other players; the opportunities are endless, and it’s completely glorious.

Kelliher’s construction here is worthwhile of his genre. Rather than an every man for himself melee of characters, he opts for a heroes vs. villain style for Titan Online. This easily bolsters the superhero angle he’s portraying, and adds an immediate tension to the game by identifying two warring camps. That our protagonist himself is a villain (gasp!) seeking vengeance on a hero (swoon!), is quite honestly sublime. I know I’m sick of heroes, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

The beauty here for me was in the reasons for the revenge, and the questions this uprooted. Are all heroes inherently good? Should we worship and adore them as such? Or are heroes on a dangerously delicate precipice, balancing precariously between goodness and corruption? If we worship them, surely they can take advantage of this and use our adoration to get away with all sorts? A few real life ‘celebrities’ spring to mind just as I type this.

And god, aren’t villains just a repressed and misunderstood race? Do we want to see them rise up from the gloom and defeat the white-toothed perfect heroes who all the world has placed on a shiny pedestal? I can only speak for this girl, and this girl really, really does. There’s something special here about rising up against what you know to be wrong, about being small yet victorious, about people coming together to take down the man. I loved it.

My only (tiny) criticism is Kelliher’s intense focus on the in-game plot lines. I’d have loved to have found out more about Karna the human; childhood, friendships, loves and hates, anything. Why does he prefer the virtual world to the real one? What happened to you Karna?!

I really did like this. Kelliher is a great storyteller with excellent pace and style. I was delighted at the subtle hint at a sequel towards the end, please inject this in my veins once available. Such a good LitRPG that I’m off to pick up a controller. 

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Book #07

The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

Stephen is an ideal child of aristocratic parents—a fencer, a horse rider and a keen scholar. Stephen grows to be a war hero, a bestselling writer and a loyal, protective lover. But Stephen is a woman, and her lovers are women. As her ambitions drive her, and society confines her, Stephen is forced into desperate actions.
In the early twentieth century, an aristocratic couple is expecting a child. Father is convinced the baby will be male, so decides upon the name Stephen. Baby arrives; surprise! It’s a girl. Do we christen her with a female name? Hell no, we chose Stephen, so Stephen she shall be. Just how fitting that name would be was unknown to them at the time, but oh the implications of it keep us wondering. What a gorgeous little gem this book is.

The story spans Stephen’s life from birth into her thirties. Often regarded as a strange (queer) child, she mystifies and confuses her peers and neighbours. She has an innate hatred for feminine clothing and hobbies, preferring instead to wear trousers (mostly due to the handy pockets, ”Her legs felt so free and comfortable in breeches; she adored pockets, too, and these were forbidden—at least really adequate pockets.” - still a frustration), practice fencing, and go hunting with her father.

When Stephen, as a pre-teen, develops strong feelings for one of the maids, quite who Stephen is becomes a bit clearer to us as readers, but not necessarily to Stephen. She knows she’s not like other people, but can’t understand why. What follows is a gorgeous account of coming to terms to oneself, learning the trials involved in love, and overcoming a world which doesn’t seem to want to accept you.

This book was classed as obscene, and banned in 1928. It felt strange to be reading words written in the same classic style I’m used to, and yet having these words depict issues which feel a lot more modern. Very few classic novels deal with these types of themes, and it was a truly incredible experience reading of them. I think it’s easy to forget our LGBT brothers and sisters of times gone by, and it’s difficult to imagine the added stress and oppression that came with a stiff upper lipped society. Hall writes candidly of loving openly, and being persecuted for it, of wanting the same rights as others, but being denied them, of being the same, and yet treated so differently. It’s a heartbreaking account of LGBT lives in the 1920s, and an important one to learn. 

Despite Stephen’s masculine name, mannerisms, and clothing, she was and remained, female. Had she been born a man, she could have had everything she wanted with little to no obstacle. Simply due to her birth gender, and attraction to women, she was denied almost everything her heart truly needed, and this is the biggest heartbreak.

I’m so glad I picked this up. Hall’s commentary is so raw, it’s utterly glorious, and she should be respected for what she was - an LGBT trailblazer in an age of scandal, shock, and narrow-mindedness.

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Book #06

The Lifted Veil by George Eliot

In this chilling novella of Victorian horror, George Eliot explores clairvoyance, fate, and the possibility of life after death.

I’ve never been a lover of Eliot’s writing style, and this offering from Penguin was a lovely reminder of why this is. 

The Lifted Veil read like a druggy nightmare. Her eloquent meandering sentences, her insufferable characters, and the banal haziness of it all was far too much for me to endure and remain smiling.

The second inclusion, Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, made some astute points, but woefully emitted beams of petulance and self-assertion to such an extent that I felt even less endeared to Eliot, and I continue to maintain that Victorian chick-lit is good.

I’ve tried and failed to tackle Middlemarch on many occasions, and after The Lifted Veil, I feel I’ll never attempt it again. 

Monday, 3 February 2020

Book #05

Wrath of Storms by Steven McKinnon

Serena’s fearsome power is growing stronger. After conning her way aboard a luxury airship in search of clues about her past, she walks straight into a sky pirate’s trap. But after her powers are unleashed and apocalyptic visions invade her mind, Serena realises the greatest threat may be herself…

As Damien Fieri struggles against his bloodlust, connections in high places conspire to keep his killer instincts sharp. He’d love to confront the clandestine forces that turned him into a living weapon—but can he find a way to do it that doesn’t shed more blood?
Can Serena and Damien bend their powers for good, or will they become dangerous pawns in a much deadlier game?

I love this series. McKinnon’s world of airships, gods, stone men, corrupt politicians and a siren, has always gripped me by the throat. I’m lucky enough to have been asked to review his books from the beginning, and have never been disappointed. His style and engagement are exquisite, and I wonder if (PSA: tooting one’s own horn) my fangirl attitude and reviews are what led to me being thanked in the acknowledgements of Wrath of Storms. Thank you.

There’s much of the same stuff good stuff here as in Symphony of the Wind. McKinnon brings back the characters we became so invested in, and continues to display their complex yet heart-rending relationships. He’s the type of author who will take a scythe to his characters, and although I hated him for this, it really propels the plot and lodges your heart somewhere alongside your intestines. His world-building is still glorious, and we learn more about the wars between communities, the histories, and the grudges. And I love a good grudge. It’s all becoming very intriguing and completely maddening all at once.

What’s different? This one is absolutely fucking relentless. There is constant action, eternal violence, and persistent disturbance. When you think you’re finally being given a break, McKinnon smacks you with bullets, knives, shortswords, all over again. I thought Symphony was fast-paced, and I now realise I was a fool. The pace is utterly unreal, and did well to convey the utter horror and chaos his world has become. Books that make you theatrically gasp in public are always good ones (albeit upon reflection and not at the time).

There’s a huge cast of characters, which is something I generally feel is unneccessary and confusing, however McKinnon’s skill allows him to render each of them individual and memorable. Back stories and motivations of even the smallest of characters were explored, and I loved it. There’s some particularly good commentary on collective hysteria giving comfort to the morbid and horrid, making me consider our current political climate (before eating a wee bit of cheese and pretending it’s all okay). 

Nothing is predictable here. You honestly cannot fathom in your head what’s about to happen next. It’s so intricate, so expertly planned, that all you can do is allow yourself to be dragged into the fray and hope like hell you’re prepared.

Once again, I’m so intrigued to find out the fates of my beloved characters in McKinnon’s next instalment. Although I’ve abandoned all hope for the safety of my favourites.  

Saturday, 25 January 2020

Book #04

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other follows the lives and struggles of twelve very different characters. Mostly women, black and British, they tell the stories of their families, friends and lovers, across the country and through the years.

2020 marks the tenth year of me reviewing every single book I read. It’s become something familiar and routine - read book, sit down, type up thoughts, post, select next book, repeat. I don’t find it difficult to report my thoughts my feelings, and I’m pretty capable of putting these together succinctly and efficiently. Until, of course, a book like Girl, Woman, Other arrests me with its power and renders me utterly incapable of describing how it made me feel. It’s a frustrating feeling, but also one which reinforces my confidence in majesty of the book.

As 2019’s winner of the Booker prize, it would be completely superfluous for me to say this book is a triumph, but it is. A masterpiece. A sensation. And fuck it, yeah, a tour de force.

a tour de force, he says, although I would never use such a cliche, you understand

Evaristo writes of twelve women, each of them black (although some unaware), each of them British, and each of them incredibly engrossing, inspiring, and educating. We dig deeply into their lives, their strengths, and their failures, alongside the ways in which the colour of their skin manifests itself as an obstacle to be overcome. There’s a lot to learn and retain, particularly if you’re a white woman, like me, sitting reading in your white privilege bubble.

Evaristo has a unique style; irrevocably captivating in its simplicity, yet clutching your heart in its fingers. It’s profound, and it’s stark, elegant yet raw. The unstoppable force of her text brings joy, sorrow, hope, grief, hatred, love, and most of all, the strength of friendship and coming together.

The greatest of devices here is that each of these women are interlinked, directly or otherwise, throughout the pages. They all brush shoulders with, unknowingly influence, or flicker in and out of each other in a really realistic and gorgeous way. I can’t begin to describe the feeling when you suddenly realise someone being described has been mentioned before, and piecing this together is one of the most satisfying parts of this book.

I wish I had more (or better) words to describe the warmth I feel for this book and the women within it. All I can do now is urge you to read it (and to those of you who read my reviews and know me personally - I will be urging you to read it when I see you), and hope you’ll be blown off your feet as I’ve been.

Bernardine, thank you. I have never read anything from a Booker prize winner quite like this, and it was so so deserved.