Sunday, 18 November 2018

Book #82

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Dept. of Speculation is a portrait of a marriage. It is also a beguiling rumination on the mysteries of intimacy, trust, faith, knowledge, and the condition of universal shipwreck that unites us all. 

A heartbreakingly raw account of a woman’s life and thought processes.

The prose is gorgeous; structured in tiny vignettes, we almost sail through the wife’s tragedies and joys, fleeting or otherwise. It’s emotional, it’s abstract, and yet it’s completely real. Offill’s choice of structure here has had far more of an impact on me than, say, a standard linear first-person approach. The small snippets documenting marriage, children, and adultery, form a scrapbook of pain and anger, but also highlight some of life’s little moments of bliss.

I would have a liked a more satisfactory conclusion, however, with the novel being so true to life, perhaps a nice tied up ending wouldn’t have fit. We continue.

Other than that, I’m finding it difficult to describe exactly what I enjoyed so much about this little novel. Perhaps it’s just come along at the right time in my life, allowing me to connect with it as much as possible. Perhaps it’s just one of those novels where you can’t put your feelings into words. And strangely, it’s not one I will be shouting from the rooftops and urging everyone to read. I do feel strange about this.

Beautiful, evoking, and charged. I’ll remember this one for a while. 

Friday, 16 November 2018

Book #81

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

Here is a story told inside out and back to front
Five Dunbar brothers are living – fighting, loving, grieving – in the perfect chaos of a house without grown-ups. Today, the father who left them has just walked right back in. 
He has a surprising request: Who will build a bridge with him?
It is Clay, a boy tormented by a long-buried secret, who accepts. But why is Clay so broken? And why must he fulfil this extraordinary challenge?
Bridge of Clay is about a boy caught in a current, a boy intent on destroying everything he has in order to become everything he needs to be. Ahead of him lies the bridge, the vision that will save both his family and himself.
It will be a miracle and nothing less.

I am being very strict with myself in the writing of this review, adamant not to make Bridge of Clay vs. The Book Thief comparisons. One quick one though - Bridge of Clay pales in comparison. God, I’m devastated; it was painful.

We are shown the lives of five brothers and their parents through lenses smeared with metaphors. Zusak’s flowery language, and use of time travel, made the plot utterly confusing, disengaging, and difficult to get through. I almost didn’t finish.

It was like a dream, in the worst way possible. No sense of time or space, no idea what’s happening, no connection to the confusing, misty characters around you, and everyone consistently speaks in riddles.

There are many reviews stating that it takes a while to get going, but I found the opposite to be true. Filled with excitement and adrenaline, I plunged in, only for my hope to dissolve slowly with each page turn. I felt it started with promise (it’s Zusak), and just descended more and more into the abysmal. Most notably, my tolerance for the style, my suspension of disbelief, and my wavering patience, gave out immediately after a majorly tragic event which should have affected me, but didn’t - couldn’t. I wanted it over with.

One more comparison (sorry) – I feel Zusak has misunderstood the success of The Book Thief. Yes, he also used many metaphors and symbols in that story, alongside flowery language. But, it’s almost as though he’s written a metaphor or something of ‘poignance’ into every sentence of Bridge of Clay, believing that’s what makes a bestseller. But, at least for me, it’s not about the quotable parts. The Book Thief was entirely about the characters and how he built them. The Dunbar brothers will disappear from my literary memory very soon.

My advice here would be to give it a try, but if you’re considering giving up after 100 pages, it’s not going to get any better for you. If this review disappoints you, please know it’s not the review I was expecting to write. 

Friday, 9 November 2018

Book #80

A Slip under the Microscope by H.G. Wells

Three disturbing, mysterious and moving stories from Wells, science-fiction pioneer.

Oh, the Little Black Classics formula strikes again! Smack ‘em with a few collections which make them want to put pins in their eyes, then present something so wonderful that they will continue with the series. As this range goes, it’s probably the only admirable ploy they have used.

These are two beautiful stories from the master of science fiction, and yet there is no science fiction to behold. Some may be disappointed in this, but I found both stories incredible in their own ways.

The Door in the Wall was powerful. Wells speaks of regret, of wonder, and of a potential utopia only accessible when you least expect it. I loved that there could be many interpretations of Wallace’s encounter with the green door – psychosis, raw wanting, the afterlife – any of these can be applied here, and the beauty of it all is that Wells allows us to spin our wheel of thoughts to land on whichever interpretation we see fit. Very infrequently do I finish a story only to turn it over in my head for hours afterwards, and I have an unbridled respect for authors who can provoke my thoughts and feelings in this way.

A Slip Under the Microscope wasn’t quite as thought-inducing as The Door in the Wall, and yet there was something simplistically resonant here for me. Wells allows us to consider the importance of honesty in contrast to the importance of self-protection, and how the consequences of being an upright and honest person sometimes don’t manifest themselves positively. As someone who truly believes in openness and honesty, this was actually a bit of a blow, but also an important possibility to consider.

So yes, no time machines, invisible men, or extraterrestrials, but some really gorgeous prose on humanity. This is definitely up there with some of the most enjoyable titles in the Little Black Classics range.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Book #79

Going to the Sun by Eddie Owens


Danny and Beth are high school sweethearts in small town Montana, looking forward to graduation before they join the army.
Then a tragic accident tears their lives apart.
We follow both of their stories: one to prison and one to war.
They are finally reunited in a desperate race to save the people they love.

I reviewed Owens’ Fat Jimmy and the Blind Ballerina last September. I absolutely loved this novel, and was pleased when Owens got in touch to ask me to review Going to the Sun.

This was a really interesting concept, and an entirely different approach than that taken with Fat Jimmy. Owens tells the story of two American high school sweethearts, whose lives diverge on separate paths, only to be brought together again after a tragic, devastating crime.

The only characters who were truly developed and well-rounded here were Beth and Danny themselves. Any smaller characters weren’t given the same depth or structure, yet watching Beth and Danny grow was great. Both emerged from their teenage years in ways I hadn’t expected, and the events which shaped them were clearly documented by Owens – except one.

Beth grew from a virginal schoolgirl into a woman who found fun and release in no strings attached sexual relationships. Although I don’t see a problem with this in any person, her many trysts peppered throughout the pages felt like pointless filler. Other than the interpretation of Beth becoming her sister (who is called slut an uncomfortable number of times in the first few chapters), I felt there was no reason for us to be shown this side of Beth; it had no bearing on the plot, on Beth’s character, or on any sort of overall development, and felt tacky to me.

The plot itself is complicated and gritty, as we follow Beth through life in the military, and Danny through life in prison. They both learn valuable, and similar lessons, and Owens is bold enough to make these lessons clear to us. It’s a long story, mainly focussing on the growth of our protagonists. Owens slowly filters information to us in the first three quarters of the novel, only to ramp up the pace in the end. There wasn’t enough time spent on a slow path to the ultimate climax, and it felt very much as though the finale was jammed in at the end to ensure some shock value.

Despite the above, I did enjoy working my way through this and learning alongside Beth and Danny. Their complicated relationship with each other, their growth, and both of ending up in dangerous environments, appealed to me, and kept the plot going nicely. A good novel for someone looking for a good military or prison read – or both. 

Friday, 2 November 2018

Book #78

26a by Diana Evans


In the attic room at 26 Waifer Avenue, identical twins Georgia and Bessi Hunter share nectarines and forge their identities, while escaping from the sadness and danger that inhabit the floors below. But innocence lasts for only so long--and dreams, no matter how vivid and powerful, cannot slow the relentless incursion of the real world.

This was absolutely gorgeous and heartbreaking in equal measures. Evans skilfully explores the twin bond using a perfect blend of magical realism. Her prose is beautiful, her characters perfect, and her story utterly gut-wrenching.

Georgia and Bessi were born 45 minutes apart to an English father and a Nigerian mother. Although born in England, we see them grow in both the suburbs of London and in Lagos. Evans contrasts the cities, and the emotional effects they have on the twins, starkly, and this impact is one of the main drivers to the overall tragedy of the novel.

I adored each and every one of these characters purely for their rawness, their struggles, and how each of them rub against each other, creating sparks. The father is an alcoholic, forcing the mother and the girls to tiptoe around him, unsure of how he will react to a messy house, a cold dinner, or any other aspect of life which seems out of place. The mother is homesick for Lagos, poisoned by depression, and filled with regret. The oldest sister rebels, the youngest can’t work out her role in the family. And the twins, oh my heart, the twins.

The most important message from the story is that of how childhood can mould us irrevocably; how one single event, however minor, can have debilitating effects on us in later life. It’s bleak, and it’s horrible, but it’s so true to life. I felt Evans dealt with it perfectly; the red days, the yellow days, the unable to leave the house days. How others can’t understand why it can be so bloody difficult to drag yourself down to the shop for a bottle of milk.

Towards the end of the novel, things became incredibly mystic, and strange. I didn’t dislike this, although I’m now reading many did. I interpreted this in two ways, and I am yet to decide which one I prefer. I like the folk story the twins’ Nigerian grandfather told them, and I liked the way they reacted to it. For this to come true for them in the end was, I felt, poignant and fitting. Alternatively, this could be viewed purely as an eventual coping mechanism, which is also a perfect conclusion. Both meanings running parallel, for me, really underline Evans’ skill for weaving her magical realism throughout the pages and the lives of the family.

Finally, after finishing the novel, I did some frantic Googling to find more information on Evans; for the main part, trying to find some of her other work. What I found was so akin to the plot of 26a, it was painful. I am so sorry, and I can understand why this book is so well crafted.

A complete masterpiece of words, I would (and will) urge anyone to read this. Beautiful, real, and utterly agonising.