Friday, 24 February 2017

Book #13

The Steel Flea by Nikolay Leskov

An uproarious and alcohol-soaked shaggy-dog story from one of Russia's great comic masters.

A clever, amusing little tale of patriotism, one-up a ship, and the everyday man, The Steel Flea is impressive in quite how much of a story is given to us in fifty pages. 

Each page felt entirely bonkers, with the reader having to interpret what's going on, and decipher the words being used. Once used to this, however, it becomes thoroughly entertaining and comic. Leskov's humour is subtle, yet endearing, and I'm sure I would have been even more tickled had I even the smallest ounce of knowledge on the political climate at the time.

Although a good place to start investigating Leskov's political commentary, I wouldn't say it's a great place to start in Russian literature; I've definitely read better. What's wonderful about it, though, is the commentary on the relations between Russia and England at the time, and the incredible showcasing of the underdog and his fate. 

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Book #12

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit who enjoys a comfortable, unambitious life, rarely travelling further than the pantry of his hobbit-hole in Bag End. But his contentment is disturbed when the wizard, Gandalf, and a company of thirteen dwarves arrive on his doorstep one day to whisk him away on an unexpected journey ‘there and back again’. They have a plot to raid the treasure hoard of Smaug the Magnificent, a large and very dangerous dragon.

I've never read Tolkien, and I've never seen the films. The hype bypassed me, both in words and on screen, and I found it was about time I got my teeth into this saga. Sadly, it did very little for me.

Although it's quite easy to tell the story was written for children, Tolkien spends an arduous amount of time describing the surroundings, the objects, the faces, and the beards. I found my eyes glazing over as once again we were regaled with sweeping views of mountainsides and rivers. It was beautiful, but I was longing for something to happen. The pace is slow, no doubt to reinforce the length of the journey, but the spaces between significant events, or even dialogue, was mostly too long to bear, with Tolkien mentioning many times of hardship and adventure he "didn't have time" to tell us. Not to mention the people of Middle-Earth really love a good song, so there were plenty of those. Great.

Characters introduced and involved here were of a huge number, yet none of them had much depth, nor intrigue, about them. Some were killed off and I barely flinched as I was too busy trying to remember who the fuck it was.

The dwarves and Bilbo wander through roads and forests with no real plan, or clue of what they're doing, constantly relying on Gandalf to save the day each time, until he decides he's going to piss off. Now, I can't blame him for this; if I was walking about with these clueless lunatics who were consistently complaining about being tired and hungry before wandering into more bother, I'd piss off too. However, considering Gandalf had organised this entire shitemare, surely he would think to stick about. Unless, of course, we needed him as a plot device to save the day when all hope is lost.

My favourite part of the novel was Smaug's demise. Not only did our brave troupe of dwarves forget to devise a plan for killing him, they only realised they hadn't done so when they were practically in his knickers. To allow the main enemy of the novel to be defeated by someone other than the 'heroes' shows how pathetic these fools really were. Perhaps Tolkien also thought so, although I doubt it.

I really could go on a lot longer about this novel's flaws, but I need to get it out of my life. It's important to say I didn't hate it, however I couldn't engage with it, and found it entirely dull. I am also more than aware this is an unpopular opinion, however it's one I will not relinquish.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Book #11

The Old Nurse's Story by Elizabeth Gaskell

A phantom child roams the Northumberland moors, while a host of fairytale characters gone to seed gather in the dark, dark woods in these two surprising tales of the uncanny from the great Victorian novelist.

Victorian gothic is everything. It almost always sits within an old house haunted by something who had wrongs done unto them in the past; almost always involves a child, a dark and gloomy night, a family secret. It's almost always exactly the same, but I will embrace Victorian gothic like an old friend each and every time.

I'd never heard of Gaskell before reading this (thank you once more, Little Black Classics range), but I'm very glad I have. Her style is simple, yet captivating, in the sense that she spins us into a normal, dull world, only to release the most terrifying of phantoms upon us. Dead little girls banging on the windows at night - that kind of terrifying.

The Old Nurse's Story was my favourite of the two, told in direct first-person narrative to a group of children. The nurse speaks of her passion for her first little charge when she was a young woman and the girl a small child, her unrest at both being shipped off to live with distant relatives, and her fright when the ultimate supernatural goings on finally occur. She feels real, her words are trustworthy, and I think I loved her a little bit. The story is cast out slowly, and she takes her time to build the suspense, the character, and the world around her. It's truly frightening, and although I have no idea why she was telling this story to children, I'm grateful to have read it.

I wasn't quite so engaged with Curious, If True. The narrator this time was a wealthy male, not nearly as likeable as the nurse. He gets lost one evening and stumbles into a house party of people who seem to have been expecting him. Each of them stinks of fairytale nuances, and it all seemed a bit awkward, if not pointless. It was as though the entire Disney back catalogue of characters had met up for a reunion in a French mansion. All that was missing was the final sentence of, "and it was all just a dream" to underline its futility. This one couldn't even hold me, and I had to keep forcing myself to go back to it.

The nurse alone has driven me to find some more of Gaskell's work and frighten myself once more. I'll hear little girls banging on my window while I sleep for some nights yet.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Book #10

A Quiet Belief in Angels by R.J. Ellory

Joseph Vaughan's life has been dogged by tragedy. Growing up in the 1950s, he was at the centre of series of killings of young girls in his small rural community. The girls were taken, assaulted and left horribly mutilated. Barely a teenager himself, Joseph becomes determined to try to protect his community and classmates from the predations of the killer. Despite banding together with his friends as ' The Guardians', he was powerless to prevent more murders - and no one was ever caught. Only after a full ten years did the nightmare end when the one of his neighbours is found hanging from a rope, with articles from the dead girls around him. Thankfully, the killings finally ceased. But the past won't stay buried - for it seems that the real murderer still lives and is killing again. And the secret of his identity lies in Joseph's own history.

You'd be forgiven if, after reading the back of this novel, you thought of it as a standard crime thriller; little girls get killed and the mystery is eked out over a number of pages until we get to the end - we've all read those. This isn't a standard crime thriller, and it's all thanks to the style. Ellory creates a little life of this novel, moving the plot along slowly, and holding us only with his descriptive prose and intricacies. His words were beautiful.

The plot focuses solely on the protagonist, and at no point are we treated to the thoughts or feelings of any other character. This grated on me initially, but the story eventually casts light on why this might be, and the revelation was somewhat glorious. Presented in what can only be described in a rough and raw fashion, it was a story of a man who was followed by Death throughout the entirety of his years.

Despite enjoying the lyrical prose and languishing pace, there were a few notable aspects here which didn't quite meet the bar for me. There are a huge number of plot holes; inexplicable actions made, mainly by Joseph, which just didn't gel with his personality, or what he was out to achieve. Ellory repeated many of his similes, and had various characters use the same turns of phrases which had originally seemed unique to the identity of the character who had used them in the first instance. Some of the situations Joseph found himself in were trite, and I have absolutely no idea how someone could suffer such bad luck as this guy did. Lastly, the finale was abrupt, rushed, and didn't answer any of the questions we had to committed to slog towards.

Although the above paragraph is slightly longer than I had intended, I don't want to portray any hate for this novel. The blurb on the back lets it down immeasurably; read this for the gorgeous style and prose, not for a quick murder mystery fix, and you're onto a winner. 

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Book #09

The Maldive Shark by Herman Melville

Stories and poems by Herman Melville drawn from his years at sea.

This is the second Melville work I've read in a few months, having previously never ventured into any of his at-sea ramblings. I felt exactly the same about this one as I did about his long famous rambling Moby Dick: underwhelmed and exasperated.

Not only did this edition reintroduce me to Melville's whimsical pointless sea life drivel, it also included words in the form of my academic arch-nemesis, poetry. He drones on and on in sentences the length of which Joyce would have been proud. I think I'd rather have read a fucking autobiography.

Bombasticness aside, his love of underwater creatures does not resonate well with an ichthyophobic like myself. Typing The Maldive Shark into a search engine almost sent my wine glass flying across the room, closely followed by my own vomit. 

Why use one word when you can use twenty, Herman? Set me on fire and call me Ishmael.