Thursday, 27 February 2020

Book #12

White Nights by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Two devastating Russian stories of solitude, unrequited love, and depravity from beyond the grave.

In White Nights, Dostoyevsky tells us of a dreamer, a loner, a man so used to his own imagination, that he becomes frightened and awkward when faced with true reality. We’re shown how such a man can become very miserable and alone, and how a chance encounter can give a man like this an entirely unbridled hope.

As always, Dostoyevsky really tears strips from the reader’s skin with his incorrigible insight into the human mind, and with his cruel plot direction. It’s almost as though he can see right through a human skull; the things he describes and undoubtedly understands about our psyche are impressive as well as frightening. He knows what he does to us with his plot decisions; he’s a ruthless genius of a man.

White Nights explores alienation, unrequited love, and the pain which arrives when a light of hope is extinguished. It’s beautiful and brutal all at once.

This edition also contained Botok, which I found both hilarious and unsettling. Attending a funeral, our protagonist suddenly discovers he can hear the voices of the dead from beneath the ground. They speak candidly and satirically about politics and aristocracy. It’s a quick jab at both of these things from Dostoyevsky, and although it’s a fun read, his commentary is clear. I would’ve liked this one to be longer, and for our protagonist to do what he aspires to, which is visit the graves of those from different classes - what would they have said?

A definite worthwhile inclusion in the Little Black Classics range - not many of them are. White Nights is 118th in the series and oh, faithful readers, I have almost completed this challenge.

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Book #11

Transfer from Alcatraz by Eddie Owens

The Private Eye: Caitlin “Red” Raeburn – ex-cop, mom, art lover and owner of the Raeburn Detective agency.
The Client: “I was involved in the deaths of eight men over fifty years ago.” Red is asked to find the evidence that will prove the historic events occurred.
The San Francisco 69ers: Red is assisted by her friends in the only LGBT motorcycle club in the world.
The Case: What seems like a routine case of background research soon turns into an action-packed search for the truth.
Faced with a warning to let the past stay buried, Red vows to follow her heart and find justice for the dead. 

I loved this new one from Owens.

Red is a private detective in San Francisco. Her most recent client is a kindly old gentleman who tells her he used to be the deputy warden in Alcatraz. He’s writing a book about his experiences, which contains some serious allegations of what went on there in the sixties. He understands his story is farfetched (to put it fucking mildly), and wants Red to help him find evidence to prove his claims. What follows is a plot full of madness, corruption, and shock after shock.

The world of private detection Owens gives us is thrilling. Add in an LGBT biker club full of some seriously serious people, a Homeland Security boyfriend who knows his shit, and a genius teenager on the autistic spectrum, and we honestly have one hell of a story.

With something constantly happening, the pace is absolutely spot on, and I quite honestly didn’t see any of the twists coming. I was carried along as though I were in the jaws of a beast, information persistently piercing my skull like teeth; all I could do was let it carry me away, and I loved it.

Owens’ characters, although not intensely explored, are all wonderful in their own way. He exposes their sores and shows us their motivations, making us understand and detest them all at once. I particularly loved all of the MC, and wanted to dig deeper into their backstories, as although what Owens did give us was gorgeous, I wanted much much more in my greed.

I’m so glad Owens considered me again for a review, and I can only hope (pray, beg) he writes another Red story so I can inhale it as deeply as I have this one. Thank you.

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Book #10

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Wise, funny, and heartbreaking, Persepolis is Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. In powerful black-and-white comic strip images, Satrapi tells the story of her life in Tehran from ages six to fourteen, years that saw the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, and the devastating effects of war with Iraq. The intelligent and outspoken only child of committed Marxists and the great-granddaughter of one of Iran’s last emperors, Marjane bears witness to a childhood uniquely entwined with the history of her country.

I jumped into this having only a shred of knowledge on Iran and the revolution. I thought my general political ignorance would leave me out of sorts here, confused and humiliated. It wasn’t so; Satrapi has painted an excellent depiction of the regime, giving us some political frames of reference, but focusing mainly on what was important - the people affected.

Growing up as the regime was taking hold, Satrapi witnessed and experienced a number of things you’d never wish on a young girl. We see how these events shape her and her relationships with others, her propensity for rebellion never wavering. She has truly created a masterpiece in black and white, showing fear and joy juxtaposed within her panels.

She begins as an easily influenced child, and we see her grow into a well-informed and knowledgable woman, self-aware and assured, completely secure in her aspirations and desires. The journey we take with her to get there is something I can’t put into words; really, I am too much of a simpleton to even attempt it.

Satrapi makes sure to reinforce that her family was far from poverty stricken, and were quite wealthy in comparison to others at the time. The horrors she experienced must be somewhat diluted in contrast to those of her poorer neighbours, and she’s beautiful enough to make this clear, a constant shadow looming behind her pictures and words.

I’ve taken something quite stark and humbling away from this, and that is that I am very privileged never to have seen war. I’ve seen it on television, from afar, from my comfortable Western home where no one wants to bomb us, and no one wants to arrest me for having a few wisps of hair showing. Satrapi has shown me the true face of war, and yet I can still only imagine. It’s not quite so much a feeling of being lucky, as a feeling of being in an incredibly revered position in the world.

A wonderfully raw memoir which I can’t quite put into words, only urge others to read.

Friday, 21 February 2020

Book #09

Nevada by Imogen Binnie

Nevada is the darkly comedic story of Maria Griffiths, a young trans woman living in New York City and trying to stay true to her punk values while working retail. When she finds out her girlfriend has lied to her, the world she thought she'd carefully built for herself begins to unravel, and Maria sets out on a journey that will most certainly change her forever.

Maria Griffiths is a fucking powerhouse. Punk rock and trans, she lets us view her life in New York City through her eyes. Maria is everything I look for in a person - a rebel, a bookseller, a purveyor of attitude, and a diehard supporter of Courtney Love. 

As we sink deeper into Maria’s inner torments, it quickly becomes apparent just how much of an impact her transition has had on her life, and how she has some unresolved issues she needs to work out. After she is dumped by her girlfriend and fired from her job in quick succession, Maria decides to escape. Gloriously, we’re able to go on this journey with her.

Maria tells us things about being trans which you can only hear directly from the lips of a trans person. Some of these things were heartbreaking, and perfectly understandable. Some of these things were completely triumphant, and had me bursting with joy. Some of these things I’d never thought of, and was embarrassed to admit that to myself. 

For example, I knew as a cis woman that society has certain criteria to which I should aspire. People have an idea of what a woman is, and how I should conform to that. Similarly, but somewhat worse, there are also definitions of how trans women should look and behave. These definitions are not the same as those cis women are forced into. The worst of these, in my opinion, is that if a trans woman is attracted to women, she can’t possibly be trans, just a seriously perverted man. These standards are simply ridiculous, and it’s incredibly enlightening to now be aware of them.

I also hadn’t considered the loss of male privilege. White men are born with this, don’t really realise they have it, and profit from it daily. Transitioning robs you of this. You are no longer within a class of people who are culturally protected by the world. You’re catapulted into a subculture and forced to find your way through it without your previously relied on privilege. On top of everything else involved in transitioning, I can’t imagine how difficult that must be.

Even if you aren’t reading this story to learn (although you should be), this is an utterly gorgeous book. Binnie’s writing style is almost as raw and punk rock as Maria herself, and I was so desperately engaged with the plot. Her characters are real as hell, and everything is just so beautifully put together.

A powerful, important masterpiece for Binnie, and one I’d recommend to anyone who wants (or needs) to learn about how our trans friends might feel. This knowledge can only allow us to be better allies. Read this.

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.