Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Book #28

Columbine by Dave Cullen

What really happened April 20, 1999? The horror left an indelible stamp on the American psyche, but most of what we "know" is wrong. It wasn't about jocks, Goths, or the Trench Coat Mafia. Dave Cullen was one of the first reporters on scene, and spent ten years on this book-widely recognized as the definitive account. With a keen investigative eye and psychological acumen, he draws on mountains of evidence, insight from the world's leading forensic psychologists, and the killers' own words and drawings-several reproduced in a new appendix. Cullen paints raw portraits of two polar opposite killers. They contrast starkly with the flashes of resilience and redemption among the survivors.

Cullen was one of the reporters at Columbine on April 20 1999. A monumental, unforgettable day for everyone, Cullen continued to follow the case for ten years subsequent to the attack. He managed to access witness accounts, interviews with students, families and staff, and most informatively of all - the killers’ diaries. This book is the result of all of those little bits and pieces, all pasted together to allow us to attempt some semblance of understanding into the horror.

The most important question Cullen attempts to answer here is the first question which comes to us when hearing of such a tragedy - why? His answer isn’t what you’d expect – Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold didn’t listen to Marilyn Manson, they didn’t hate jocks, nor did they belong to the Trench Coat Mafia. Eric Harris was a psychopath (psychologists are quoted in the book describing him as a classic case) who hated humankind and was seeking a way to exterminate as many people as possible; Dylan Klebold was suicidal and depressed, desperate for love, affection, approval, but also, ultimately, and end to his own life. They were almost at opposite ends of the spectrum, yet the plan to take Columbine appealed to both of them, albeit for separate reasons.

Cullen does well here to separate facts from media conjecture and witness confusion. It’s widely believed the two boys were bullied; loners in some reports, goths in others, outcasts in the rest – sometimes they were described as all three. Eric and Dylan were fairly popular pupils, who were actually the bullies rather than the bullied. In the wake of Columbine, I imagine the loners, outcasts, and goths all over America experienced sideways looks. Cullen clearly enforces the importance of understanding that there’s no specific social group who are more likely to shoot up a school – if motivation is there, anyone is capable.

Another interesting point is that many media outlets portrayed the boys as snapping. They’d just had enough. Cullen shows us through the killer’s diaries that the attack was planned in advance; the groundwork, logistics, and itinerary were all brainstormed and confirmed. Not only this, but the massacre had been planned as a bombing, with the guns purchased to pick off survivors. No one snapped – April 20 1999 was meticulous.

Finally, to learn the police were already aware of these two, and nothing had been done to stop the attack, was frightening to me. Cullen’s descriptions of their failings before Columbine, and also during and after, are horrible.

The book is morbidly addictive, yet devastating. My heart gained weight each time I picked it up, yet I couldn’t help myself. Cullen sews together his vast collection of information into a blanket of horror that you can’t rip your eyes away from. To understand you are reading non-fiction will make you nauseous; to realise these types of terror still occur in schools, and elsewhere, twenty years later, is completely and utterly baffling. 

Friday, 20 April 2018

Book #27

The Dolphins, the Whales and the Gudgeon by Aesop

Aesop's animal fables are some of the earliest stories ever told, thought to have been composed by a slave in Greek antiquity and giving glimpses of a world that is harsh, pitiless and yet also eerily familiar. 

It’s enchanting to think how Aesop’s fables, said to be written in the sixth century, resonate so well today. Despite the fables here being written mainly from the point of view of animals, it’s clear to see that people never change.

Little Black Classics have given us a short fable on each page, with a short description of the moral, or lesson learned, after each of them. Although I had initially welcomed these explanations, I feel on reflection they made things too easy - I would have preferred to have mulled the fables over and considered their meanings for myself. The way they were set out here allowed me to plough through them, making this a very quick read.

Despite the meagre length of these tales, they all had resonance and meaning on the way we live our lives. My favourite, by far, was The Bat, the Bramble, and the Gull, which spoke to us about holding on to things. I found the behaviour of the bramble to be melancholically beautiful; a strange way to feel about a plant, indeed.

Another excellent dip into otherwise uncharted territory for me; bring me more Aesop, please. 

Book #26

Double Act by Jacqueline Wilson

No one can ever be like a mother to us, especially not stupid frizzy dizzy Rose! 

Ruby and Garnet are 10-year-old identical twins. They do everything together, especially since their mom died three years ago. Can being a double act work forever? Especially when their father starts dating again?

Whenever I start to feel like a dusty old lady, I know it’s time to transport myself back to childhood by picking up something I read ferociously a thousand times, and loved. Wilson (alongside Dahl and Blyton) is the perfect go-to for this type of behaviour.

Although I probably read this in a fraction of the time it would have taken me twenty (ouch) years ago, it absolutely hasn’t lost its gorgeous charm. Wilson is a master of creativity, telling us the story of the twins straight from their own mouths (well, pens) by designing the narrative in the form of a diary. Her use of differing typesets for each twin allows us to embrace their variances, and the illustrations by Nick Sharratt and Sue Heap are incredible in their simplicity. I was disappointed in myself this time around for merely glancing at them before getting on with the story, as I remember staring at these closely as a child, really allowing them to contribute to the story. It’s devastating to realise that adults really don’t appreciate picture books as much after all.

Wilson is a master at children’s story-telling, as she deals with issues most kids deal with these days; when I was growing up it was far rarer for kids to move away from home, or to even have a step-mother or father, yet Wilson trailblazed this theme. I imagine a lot of kids read this and could relate, which is valuable. Her other important quality is the skill she has in not talking down to young reader - yes, there’s a happy(ish) resolved ending, but she doesn’t shove morals down throats, nor lecture on how our behaviour should be.

Reading this again as adult was enlightening, as it’s only with years under your belt that you can understand the situation of the twins’ father and gran. Richard is an absolute villain, and although the twins hate him for finding a new girlfriend after their mum’s death, and dragging them away from their home and school to live in a new area, Wilson doesn’t quite make bold his villainy. This guy met a new woman, shoved her in front of his daughters adamant she was now going to be part of their lives, and moved them all away after sticking his mother-in-law (who had lived with, and helped him, for the past three years after his wife’s death) into sheltered housing. What an absolute dick. This didn’t even register in my ten year old mind, but now I am absolutely raging at Sticky Ricky. Poor twins.

Years ago, I was desperate for a sequel to be released and tell me of Ruby’s blossoming friendship with the Blob, and of Garnet’s adventures at boarding school. Now, I am even more desperate to find out where they ended up, dusty old thirty somethings like me. I imagine Garnet has a successful job in the big smoke, and Ruby is rotting away in prison somewhere. C’est la vie.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Book #25

The Old Man of the Moon by Shen Fu

The Old Man of the Moon is Shen Fu's intimate and moving account of his marriage - from early passion to the trials of poverty and separation - and his great, enduring love for his wife in eighteenth-century China.

The man in Shen Fu’s tale is guilty of love. He professes that he loves his wife too deeply, and recounts their love and hardships until her death. His words are beautiful, yet there was something here that didn’t quite grip me.

My favourite part was the section devoted to the old man of the moon, and learning of the couple’s beliefs that he caused them to meet, and would cause them to meet again in the next life. The couple believed in this theory so strongly that they began to worship the old man of the moon, and pray they would come back together some day. It’s very sad and poignant, particularly due to the tragedy in the final pages.

Other than this, there was nothing here for me. Shen Fu tells the tale of the couples lives, their families, the poverty they find themselves embroiled within, and although I could feel the melancholia, nothing caught in my throat. Perhaps it was the translation, perhaps the eighteenth century language - I’m not sure, yet it’s definitely not one of the Little Black Classics I would rave about, not even to the old man of the moon. 

Book #24

Be Careful What You Joust For by Ryan Hauge and Ivy Smoak

The fiercest knights in the realm are coming together to compete in the Joust for Arwin's Lance, a tournament that will divide even the closest alliances. The winner alone will have the power to start or prevent a war from unfolding across the peaceful lands of Pentavia.
House Hornbolt, a prominent family that desires peace above all else, is hosting the tournament. The Hornbolt’s have always been strict followers of tradition. The first born son wears the armor of a knight. The second takes the priestly Oath of Arwin. And the daughters get married off to the most eligible suitors.
The eldest son is the favorite to win the tournament. But the rest of the Hornbolts aren't as eager to follow the paths laid out for them. What if the second born wants to be a knight too? And what if the eldest daughter just gave her heart to a common thief?
Customs are meant to be broken. But that’s not all that threatens to shatter House Hornbolt, not when a secret deeper than the late king's grave is unearthed right before the joust.
The fate of Pentavia hangs in the balance as war becomes imminent. And the scales are about to tip.
One wrong move and everything could fall to pieces.

I was delighted to receive an Advanced Reviewer Copy of this novel, particularly after my venture earlier this year into the Game of Thrones series; I needed some more fantasy in my life, and Hauge and Smoak definitely delivered.

It’s an interesting mediaeval plot, centred around an upcoming tournament, of which the winner will have the power to decide whether or not to incite war throughout the kingdom. All of this is narrated using (a much-loved technique of mine) multiple-voice narrative, giving us a rounded view of each of the characters’ desires and motivations. It worked well here in providing descriptions of the current state of affairs within the kingdom, and to introduce us to the main players within the plot.

The world Hauge and Smoak have created is brilliantly executed, and seems to have a real depth to it, similar to Westeros. Although we didn’t travel far in Be Careful What You Joust For, far-off lands and different customs were referred to with an implication we would see more of them later in the series.

I did have a couple of problems with this novel, most of which didn’t have much of an impact on the novel (and which have been covered off already by a number of reviewers), but there’s one which I feel I have to mention – the way in which Princess Navya was described. Although not a pretty picture in comparison to the duke’s daughter, this would have been duly received without condescending remarks about her hairy arms, and the almost constant reports of her being “a monster”. The harsh repetitiveness of this type of slander didn’t sit well with me; why can’t a woman with hairy arms be beautiful? Why does natural hair growth immediately turn a woman into a monster? The implication that fair hair and a light complexion should be a prince’s ultimate desire was disappointing.

There is a lot going on here that we didn’t manage to visit within the first novel. I feel there’s whole world of intrigue out there in Pentavia that I want to dig my claws into. Although it felt like a mere toe in the water for the Pentavia series, with an infuriatingly frustrating cliffhanger finale, I would be delighted to read the second in the series. I felt the same appetite for knowledge I did with GoT, and I am desperate to learn more of the characters’ fates.