Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Book #45

Scottish Ghost Stories by Elliott O'Donnell

This spine-chilling collection of 'Scottish Ghost Stories' is the work of an acknowledged expert in the field of the supernatural.

This is quite an old, rare book, written back in the 19th century. My uncle gave it to me about ten years ago and I have no idea where he managed to procure it from. I really should find out, because it's a strange little read.

The stories here are written in a very old-fashioned style, which I think adds to the suspense and atmosphere O'Donnell creates. They are extremely dark, and almost Victorian, and there are no clues whatsoever as to whether or not they are true accounts. I believe they may be true stories at the core, but there does seem to be some dramatisation involved on O'Donnell's part. Further research into his personality has reported him as a lover of melodrama, so perhaps the stories only have a tiny element of truth to them. Nevertheless, I was scared!

The locality of the ghost stories is slightly disturbing. There was one set in a house in Blythswood Square, and I was a bit freaked since I'd been there only a few days ago!

The illustrations were also a bit much for me. There was one at the beginning of every new story, but now and then one would pop up mid-narrative and they'd usually be quite disturbing.

I really like it when I ghost story has an insight into the ghost's history - why they are there, how they died, why they are angry - and each of these stories did their best to explain the ghost's motives, which I really appreciated.

I'd recommend giving this one a read - if you can find it! It is, however, extremely old-fashioned and requires a wee bit of patience since O'Donnell is very randomly descriptive.

45 / 66 books. 68% done!

Monday, 28 June 2010

Book #44

No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July

A benign encounter, a misunderstanding, a shy revelation can reconfigure the world.

I think I'm rediscovering my love for short stories this year, and these have helped me on my way quite a bit. I do think I'll have to read them all again at some point to improve my understanding of them, but for a first read it was wonderful. Having said that, I didn't really love it in the way I thought I was going to, and I still can't quite figure out whether this is a good or bad thing.

I felt a couple of the stories fell flat, but I really did enjoy the majority of them, particularly This Person, which made me cry on a train because I felt I could identify with it so much.

Each of the stories have elements that are either forlorn or perverse, sometimes both. I enjoyed reading about all of the characters, and fell in love with a few of them too, despite the fact that many of them were downright disgusting.

At times it seemed like July was behind each word whispering, "It's okay, everyone really is like this, it's not just you," but realising this still makes you feel incredibly alone and strange. It's an odd feeling.

I'm finding it quite difficult to put my thoughts on this one into words. It really is quite difficult to review short stories that have been bound together as a novel, as they can all be so different.

I will say that the first few stories aren't as good as ones that come later on, so if you're planning on reading this, please persevere because it gets a lot better further in.

I'm putting this one back on my 'to be read' pile because I feel that a re-read may bring some more things into perspective for me. Prepare yourself for a future review. This one was a bit watery, I'm still overwhelmed.

44 / 66 books. 67% done!

Friday, 25 June 2010

Book #43

Poppy Shakespeare by Clare Allan

Who is mad? Who is sane? Who decides? Welcome to the Dorothy Fish, a day hospital in North London! N has been a patient here for thirteen years. Day after day she sits smoking in the common room, swapping medication and comparing MAD money rates. Like all the patients at the Dorothy Fish, N's chief ambition is never to get discharged. Each year when her annual assessment comes round, she is relieved to learn that she hasn't got any better. Then in walks Poppy Shakespeare in her six-inch skirt and twelve-inch heels. She is certain she isn't mentally ill and desperate to return to her life outside. Though baffled by Poppy's attitude, N agrees to help. Together they plot to gain Poppy's freedom. But in a world where everything's upside-down, are they crazy enough to upset the system?

There really wasn't much in this novel that I could say I enjoyed.

It's narrated by a day-patient of the Dorothy Fish, a mental institution in London. She writes in exactly the same way you'd imagine her to speak, and this took a lot of getting used to, particularly her constant use of the phrase "would of/could of" instead of the proper "would have/could have". This is blatant nit-picking, of course, since it's not Allan's language, but the narrator's. Still, I was really annoyed, and the voice I hear inside my head when I read couldn't quite come to grips with the accent.

There was some good humour in the book, the narrator, 'N', was such a character and I particularly enjoyed it when she insulted people by "showing them the back of my head." I do feel that the constant repetitions, although they managed to convey N's apparent madness, got tiring in places. I found my eyes to be glazing over more than once as I was trying to wade through the drivel.

The ending was very, very disappointing and didn't make much sense to me. In fact, the entire novel didn't much a great deal of sense to me, and was a small step away from nonsense the entire time.

In all, this was a confusing book that I'm still trying to get my head around. It was a lovely idea in theory, but I really think it's been very badly executed. There is, however, a television adaptation available on 4od which I haven't seen as of yet, but which I've heard quite good things about. I just wouldn't recommend the book.

43 / 66 books. 65% done!

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Book #42

The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite by Beatrice Colin

As the clock chimed the turn of the twentieth century, Lilly Nelly Aphrodite took her first breath. Born to a cabaret dancer and soon orphaned in a scandalous murder-suicide, Lilly finds refuge at a Catholic orphanage, coming under the wing of the, at times, severe Sister August, the first in a string of lost loves.

There she meets Hanne Schmidt, a teen prostitute, and forms a bond that will last them through tumultuous love affairs, disastrous marriages, and destitution during the First World War and the subsequent economic collapse. As the century progresses, Lilly and Hanne move from the tawdry glamour of the tingle-tangle nightclubs to the shadow world of health films before Lilly finds success and stardom in the new medium of motion pictures and ultimately falls in love with a man whose fate could cost her everything she has worked for or help her discover her true self.

I was quite surprised by this, to be honest. I wasn't expecting to enjoy it a huge deal, but I ended up finding it to be quite gratifying and also rather provocative in certain places.

The story was interesting, if a bit miserable at times. It seemed that all of Colin's characters met some dark end by making one or two ill-advised choices at some point in their lives. I don't think any of them had a happy ending; Colin dealt all of them some extremely severe blows throughout the whole thing. A lovely little nuance about Colin's characterisation, however, is that we are given a great deal of history about them, and even in some cases a glimpse of their futures. This happened often, at times even with the most minor of characters, and I really appreciated it and as a result felt more affinity with her characters.

The historical setting of this novel was incredibly impressive. It was apparent that a staggering amount of research was put into this era by the author, and this alone gains a lot of respect from me as a reader. Colin went into extreme depth describing the political events that took place during these years, but also went to great lengths to correctly portray the despair and starvation people experienced during the First World War. She then went on to describe the glitz and glamour of the film industry in the early 20th century, which was a stark contrast to Lilly's earlier experiences.

The ending disappointed me in a big way. I don't want to spoil anything for potential readers, but I found it extremely unsatisfying and even after I turned the last page, I was still worrying about Lilly. It's quite obvious that Colin is a realist and not a romanticist like I am!

I'd definitely recommend this if you are interested in this period in history, or more specifically, the early years of cinema. Failing that, if you fancy a rags to riches, wartime tale with a romantic sub-plot thrown in, then it's a good one to try.

42 / 66 books. 64% done!

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Book #41

Blood on the Streets: A-Z of Glasgow Crime by Robert Jeffrey

For more than a hundred years, Glasgow has been right up there in the major league of big-city crime. From Madelaine Smith and Oscar Slater, by way of the Bridgeton Billy Boys and the Norman Conks, through to modern villains like Paul Ferris and Tam McGraw, Glasgow's streets have spawned a succession of fascinating tales of true crime. Films, plays and books have long chronicled the evil-doings of experts in crime, such as Walter Norval and Arthur Thompson, and the hard men who never flinched at doing their bidding. Notorious gangs, like the Penny Mob, the Cheeky Forty and the Cumbie, have also had their stories told in print and on celuloid. Even in the twenty-first century, as the new Glasgow polishes a growing reputation for sophistication and culture, blood still gets spilled on the streets and scams of one kind or another are always in the pipeline. The A-Z of Glasgow Crime is a compelling journey through an extensive history of crime and crime-fighting in a city where the illicit is never far away. From the tough streets of the east-end to the leafy avenues of the west-end; from murder behind velvet curtains in the douce homes of the wealthy to the violent and bloody street battles on postwar housing estates - all this and more is covered in gripping detail in Jeffrey's definitive true-crime guide to a city with a notoriously violent history.

I don't read a lot of non-fiction. Maybe I should read more, I'm not sure. Maybe if I were more accustomed to reading non-fiction I'd have enjoyed this a bit more. Again, I'm not sure, but the fact remains that I didn't really enjoy it at all.

It started off okay, I was quite excited to read about Glasgow crime, but I lost interest pretty quickly.

I think this was mainly due to the structure of the book. It was set out using subtitles of alphabetical order, which was all very well and good, but since a lot of the stories involved were interlinked, it meant that certain people or events were mentioned before I had come to their section of the book. It also led to an abundance of repetitions, which was incredibly frustrating. I found myself quite confused with the chronology of events, thinking that one thing had happened before another, and being mistaken. I think the book would have worked better if it had been written in more of a chronological order, a timeline of Glasgow crime, rather than an A-Z.

There were also a number of spelling and grammar mistakes that were peppered quite frequently throughout. These were, however small, met with a huge sigh on my part, and ruined the flow of the writing for me.

However, most aspects of the book were interesting and enlightening and I feel that I've come away from the book knowing a lot more about Glasgow and its dark corners than I previously did.

41 / 66 books. 62% done!

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Book #40

The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson

A son of the manse, Mack has grown up in an austere and chilly house, dominated by a joyless father. Unable to believe in God, he is far more attracted by the forbidden cartoons on television. Father and son clash fatally one day and it may be guilt which drives Mack to take up a career in the Church. This minister, who doesn't believe in God, the Devil or an afterlife, one day discovers a standing stone in the middle of a wood where previously there had been none. Unsure what to make of this apparition, Mack's life begins to unravel dramatically until the moment when he is swept into a mountain stream, which pours down a chasm before disappearing underground. Miraculously Mack emerges three days later, battered but alive. He seems to have lost his mind however, since he claims that while underground he met the Devil.

I had been looking forward to this one. It had been recommended to me by at least two people, perhaps more, so I had very high expectations. I did enjoy it, but I think perhaps I didn't quite understand where things were going because of my limited knowledge of religion.

I really liked that the book was a manuscript written by the main protagonist before his death. The manuscript had been dug up by a publisher who was looking to make it into a book, and so we are allowed both Gideon's views, and also the views of an outsider. For this reason, though, we are told from the off exactly what the macabre ending will be, and this ruined the whole thing for me somewhat.

I did love Gideon. He really appealed to me, mostly coming across as sweet and vulnerable at times. I found myself completely supporting him and his decisions, which seemed strange at times because his decisions tended to be quite risqué. I am still not entirely sure what attracted me so much to this man in the first place.

I also really liked that the story was set in Scotland, fairly local compared to other books I read, and also that some parts of it were written in Scottish dialect. There was even a section with some helpful translations, and I felt considerably smug about not having to use them.

The epilogue consisted of the publisher interviewing characters who had appeared in Gideon's manuscript. I felt there was so much potential here to uncover some secrets, or tie up some loose ends, but not much was given.

I think there may have been a few messages in here about religion, beliefs and morals, but I've missed them entirely. I am a complete dunce when it comes to Christianity, not to mention other religions, so it is highly likely that I have missed some sort of great hidden symbol implanted somewhere in the novel.

Although I read through it quite consistently, I never really felt that I was being pulled into the story enough. I actually feel a bit depressed when I think about the story in general; it's definitely not a happy book. I'd recommend it to anyone with interests in religion or Scottish literature, but for those who are looking for something a bit more supernatural, like me, my advice would be to give it a miss.

40 / 66 books. 61% done!

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Book #39

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Esther Greenwood is at college and is fighting two battles, one against her own desire for perfection in all things - grades, boyfriend, looks, career - and the other against remorseless mental illness. As her depression deepens she finds herself encased in it, bell-jarred away from the rest of the world. This is the story of her journey back into reality.

I have to say I was reluctant to read any Plath at all to begin with. I had never experienced any of her work - whether poems or prose - and I was dragging my heels mainly because of the manner in which she had died. I thought this novel would be incredibly dark and depressing, but I was really surprised. I have nothing but praise for this book; I enjoyed every single word of it.

The timeline of the novel bothered me slightly to begin with. Scenes were flitting to and fro, and I found it confusing at times to work out where I was. I soon realised, however, that this was Esther's descent into madness, and everything began to fall into place.

It is interesting to see Esther's decline, actually. At the beginning of the novel, she comes across as a sort of plain, naïve, young woman, who is coming of age. We follow her exploits, some which are hilarious, until a certain point comes where she leaves New York and enters into her depressed state. She becomes a completely different person, and it's like a change from black to white.

Esther's decline is worrying for these reasons, but I was also shocked at how much I felt myself relating to her, and understanding entirely where she was coming from. At first, this made me think that I was also doomed to depression and madness, but on closer inspection, I believe that many women will be able to relate to Esther.

Plath's prose is so eloquent that I am tempted to read some of her poetry, even though I am not such a huge lover of poetry in general. The writing is truly incredible, and the image of the bell jar is one I will keep with me for a while. The idea is so clever, simple and true that it's one I can't possibly forget, and one which has given me endless love for this novel. I just wish I had been able to find out sooner how wonderful a writer she really was.

39 / 66 words. 59% done!

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Book #38

Paris Tales translated by Helen Constantine

Paris Tales is a highly evocative collection of stories by French and Francophone writers who have been inspired by specific locations in this most visited of capital cities. The twenty-two stories - by well-known writers including Nerval, Maupassant, Colette, and Echenoz - provide a captivating glimpse into Parisian life from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day. The stories take us on an atmospheric tour of the arrondissements and quartiers of Paris, charting the changing nature of the city and its inhabitants, and viewing it through the eyes of characters such as the provincial lawyer's wife seeking excitement, a runaway schoolboy sleeping rough, and a lottery-winning policeman. From the artists' haunts of Montmartre to the glamorous cafés of Saint-Germain, from the shouts of demonstrators on Boul Mich' to the tranquillity of Parc Monceau, Paris Tales offers a fascinating literary panorama of Paris.

I found this breathtaking. I'm not sure whether this was because of the writing (which was wonderful!) or because I am quite obsessed with the city of Paris, having lived there for a while and having fallen head over heels in love with it.

I love reading about the different parts of Paris and the kinds of people who live in them, and this was an excellent collection. Some of the stories I couldn't understand fully, and they were a bit too poetic for my tastes, but I really enjoyed the majority of them.

The photographs were also a highlight - I find pictures of Paris to be fantastic, and they give me such a longing sense of nostalgia that I find it quite difficult not to sit and gaze at them for ages. The metro map on the last page was also a treat - I found myself sitting tracing routes I'd taken many times and thinking about how lovely the city is.

A lovely light read - I'd definitely recommend it if you're a bit of a Paris romanticist like myself!

38 / 66 books. 58% done!

Friday, 4 June 2010

Book #37

You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers

Will and Hand are burdened by $38,000 and the memory of their friend Jack. Taking a week out of their lives, they decide to travel around the world to give the money away. They can’t really say why they’re doing it, just that it needs to be done. Perhaps it’s something to do with Jack’s death – perhaps they’ll find the reason later. But as their plans are frustrated, twisted and altered at every step and the natives prove far from grateful to their benefactors, Will and Hand find that the world is an infinitely bigger, more surreal and exhilarating place than they ever realised.

I was really disappointed in this because I had heard lots of nice and lovely things about Dave Eggers.

It was extremely slow-paced and failed miserably to grab my attention. It was dry, it was flat, things happened, but they didn't really. I felt like Eggers was trying really hard to be profound and different in his approaches to themes, but it just bored me to death.

Travelling around the world is an exciting thing in itself. Travelling around the world to give large sums of money to random strangers is super exciting, and something that people should want to read about. Eggers has made these exciting adventures seem like the last thing I'd ever want to do with my life. He seems a bit too aware of his own cleverness, and he's smug with it, so this gives us a sense of overkill. I felt like I was reading a dream. A boring dream.

And the twist at the end! My reaction was something along the lines of, "Ugh, are we doing this?" It was ridiculous, and reminded me of the way a kid in primary school might end a creative writing adventure.

I had been hoping to get a few more of Dave Egger's books, but I'm really reluctant now. I wouldn't recommend this.

37 / 66 books. 56% done!

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Book #36

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Johnny Truant, a wild and troubled sometime employee in a LA tattoo parlour, finds a notebook kept by Zampano, a reclusive old man found dead in a cluttered apartment. Herein is the heavily annotated story of the Navidson Report. Will Navidson, a photojournalist, and his family move into a new house. What happens next is recorded on videotapes and in interviews. Now the Navidsons are household names. Zampano, writing on loose sheets, stained napkins, crammed notebooks, has compiled what must be the definitive work on the events on Ash Tree Lane. But Johnny Truant has never heard of the Navidson Record. Nor has anyone else he knows. And the more he reads about Will Navidson's house, the more frightened he becomes. Paranoia besets him. The worst part is that he can't just dismiss the notebook as the ramblings of a crazy old man. He's starting to notice things changing around him.

This book is such an oddity; I've never read anything like it. I barely even know where to begin here. I can't even decide how I feel.

First of all, it doesn't read like a story, it reads like a dissertation. I think this can be very deterring for casual readers, and this book is certainly not a light read. It requires a huge amount of effort from the reader, and it can be absolutely draining in places. I'm actually finding it quite difficult to explain my feelings for the book as there are so many layers to it.

It's presented as a thoroughly researched, extremely factual document. However, most of the references presented in the footnotes are entirely fictional, and the majority of people mentioned do not exist. The details present in the book are incredible, and there is no doubt in my mind that there are very few people in the world who could interpret these in their entirety, and successfully separate truth from fantasy.

I did really enjoy the typography. Different fonts were used for each narrator, and occasionally the text was arranged in such a way to evoke some empathy for the characters. For example, if the setting was a tiny corridor, the text only took up the tiniest square in the middle of each page. This forces the reader to quickly flip the pages, reading only one or two words at once, and therefore causing a slight panic or excitement. There were also some sections that were extremely claustrophobic, with hundreds of words crammed into differed sections, haphazardly distributed across the pages.

I also loved the comparisons to labyrinths and the analysis of the Minotaur. Greek myths always arouse my interest, and I found the similarities described here, not to mention the ones I derived for myself, absolutely astounding.

The tale is extremely post-modern in the sense that absolutely nothing is resolved in the end, and everything remains mysterious. I'd have liked a small portion of closure to reward my perseverance. I got nothing! I feel like my brain is spinning, still, trying to work out what just happened.

I feel like I'm rambling now. How very ironic considering what I'm reviewing. I shall end by saying that this has to be the most exhausting story I've ever come across. It's such an intricate mind-bend that it almost reminded me of a parallel universe. I really wouldn't recommend this if you're not prepared to work for it, I know many people who are planning on reading this book, so bear that in mind.

36 / 66 books. 55% done!