Sunday, 30 March 2014

Book #10

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

It began for our narrator forty years ago when the family lodger stole their car and committed suicide in it, stirring up ancient powers best left undisturbed. Dark creatures from beyond this world are on the loose, and it will take everything our narrator has just to stay alive: there is primal horror here, and menace unleashed - within his family and from the forces that have gathered to destroy it. His only defence is three women, on a farm at the end of the lane. The youngest of them claims that her duckpond is an ocean. The oldest can remember the Big Bang.

This will be difficult. There is absolutely nothing I can say to pin this book down into a book review. I can't think where to start, what I could possibly write to summarise the plot, the characters, and my feelings on this one. But I'll bloody well try.

Gaiman shows us our world as it is, and as it absolutely should be, through the eyes of a seven year old boy who never tells us his name. We are shown normality and order before being injected with the idea of things which always stay just out of sight, of cracks in our universe where the paranormal creeps in. The realisation that nothing is as it seems is a big one here, and the feeling of the world opening up to something far bigger, is completely terrifying.

The story itself has a dream-like quality to it. You float through it as though it's a tangible fog, something to struggle through. You're confused in places; you don't know what's real and what isn't. You're frightened, then relieved; in mortal danger but ecstatically happy. It doesn't make sense, but you trust the process.

What frightened me most about this story is the idea that children are more perceptible to worlds or creatures which aren't quite what we're used to. Gaiman reminds us that adults never think to stray off the paths they usually take, to never look for anything out of the ordinary. Does this mean that the monsters we encountered in our childhoods are real? Do our memories hold things which aren't of this world? Have years of being sensible clouded our memories, and made us only believe in what's in front of us? A fascinating thought, but horrific nonetheless.

It's as difficult to pigeon-hole this novel as it is to review it. I am in a relatively unique position where, having only previously read Coraline and none of Gaiman's other masterpieces, I am as unbiased as they come. However, what I can truly see here is that Gaiman is in a total league of his own when it comes to defining genre. Yes, I could maybe say this was a fantasy novel. I could maybe say it was about magic, or the supernatural. Nothing fits properly, though. This is a Neil Gaiman novel, and that is the only way it can be described. I loved it.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Book #09

300 by Frank Miller

The army of Persia - a force so vast it shakes the earth with its march - is poised to crush Greece, an island of reason and freedom in a sea of mysticism and tyranny. Standing between Greece and this tidal wave of destruction is a tiny detachment of but three hundred warriors. But these warriors are more than men… they are Spartans.

I found this absolutely beautiful. Dark, broody, gritty and gory, but visually spectacular; I don't think I was fully prepared for how much I was going to love it. Graphic novels aren't my forte as such, and so I doubt I can do justice to this in my review, however I really did love it.

The words to pictures ratio here is very much in favour of the aesthetics. Being a person who appreciates words more than anything, I found this difficult to begin with, but quickly adapted to what really mattered. The drawings were excellent, the colours rich and fitting, and the pace of the story was hugely directed by the drawings themselves (with a bit of help from our good old words). The pictures command you look at them, take them in, and really live with the Spartans. The book is a brilliant size and shape, too; huge landscape pages that really work well with the panels.

With the words being sparse, there is very little in the way of character depth or development, excepting the story of King Leonidas' childhood. The story is told by a surviving Spartan to his fellow countrymen, to instil passion into the ensuing battle for revenge. This allows the book to move away from being a novel as such, to being a parable illustrating the importance of glory, honour, patriotism, and loyalty.

I found this an absolutely beautiful portrayal of the 300 Spartans. It's a wonderful war story, by no means historically accurate, but a fascinating work of fiction.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Book #08

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

Written when Orwell was a struggling writer in his twenties, this novel documents his 'first contact with poverty'. Here, he painstakingly shows a world of unrelenting drudgery and squalor - sleeping in bug-infested hostels and doss houses of last resort, working as a dishwasher in Paris's vile 'Hôtel X', surviving on scraps and cigarette butts, living alongside tramps, a star-gazing pavement artist and a starving Russian ex-army captain. Exposing a shocking, previously-hidden world to his readers, Orwell gave a human face to the statistics of poverty for the first time - and in doing so, found his voice as a writer.

This account is wonderful, but horribly, horribly depressing at the same time. Orwell gives us an semi-autobiographical account of his years in poverty in both Paris slums and London workhouses. His accounts are shocking and grimy, but full of life, character, and sheer resilience.

Although aspects of the book read like diary entries of Orwell's time mired in poverty, some chapters are reserved for his own opinion on the situation, and turn discursive. He translates London slang for us, gives his opinion on Parisian plongeurs, and even makes suggestions on how tramps could be further supported by changes in the law. There is no 'high and mighty' feel at all, and these pontifications add so much more to the essay by making the reader think on the political aspect of poverty, language, and Orwell's unlucky situation in general. 

The sights and smells of poverty are portrayed wonderfully. Orwell bundles you into the poorhouses with him, and explains how his unwashed peers smell, how the hard stone floors feel to sleep on, how incredibly difficult and disgusting it is to attempt to sleep with the breath of another man in your face. He shows us his days without food and the suffering that comes with these. We see how hunger can evoke fights and violence, and how important a penny in one's pocket really is.

Although we are given statistics on the staggering numbers of men and women living in poverty at this time, Orwell really humanised them and showed them to us as those who have run into bad luck. He explains that many of the tramps would relish a day's work; they simply can't find any work to bring them out of their situation. He explains many are taken for alcoholics, but although some would love to drink all day, they simply can't afford to. His sympathy is apparent, and this glides, by proxy, into the feelings of the reader.

This is something everyone should read, for realisation purposes. Although I was aware poverty is very much still 'a thing', reading of these experiences in the 30s was shocking, and really opened up a thought process on how it looks now. At the end of the book, Orwell says he feels he's only seen 'the fringe of poverty'. If that was the fringe, how far deeper does it go? If Orwell only saw the fringe, that means you and I are far luckier than we have ever imagined, and know nothing of the real world of poverty.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Book #07

Lost Souls by Poppy Z Brite

At a club in Missing Mile, just outside New Orleans, the children of the night gather. They dress in black and they're looking for acceptance. There's Ghost, who sees what others do not; Ann, looking for love; and Jason, whose real name is Nothing, seeking the deathless truth about his father - and himself. But into Missing Mile tonight come three beautiful, hip vagabonds: Molochai, Twig and seductive, green-eyed Zillah. They are on their own lost journey, slaking their ancient thirst for blood, aching for supple young flesh.
I do love a good supernatural vampire story. Having serious reservations about the sexy, glittering vampire phase which has swept through modern culture in recent years, it's a breath of fresh air to read about the darker side of the race. Brite certainly doesn't disappoint in her shock levels, maintaining vampire traits of old, but mixing these with a new habits.

The plot is essentially the story of Nothing, who runs away from home as he feels he doesn't below. He gets in tow with a bunch of vampires, and the festivities begin. The killings are disgusting, the sex scenes are disgusting, the incest in particular is absolutely disgusting. The story seemed unstable to me, with no real sense of direction. Maybe this was a nod towards the nomadic lifestyle of the vampires, however I didn't enjoy the lack of orientation here.

Brite does a lot with setting and atmosphere, and it's often brilliantly portrayed. There were some creepier parts of the novel where I was genuinely terrified, and that doesn't happen often to me. I could see events unfolding behind my eyelids, and they truly were frightening in places. Brite was visual and illuminating, more so towards the end of the novel. Her depiction of gothic New Orleans in the 90s was wonderful; so heavy and alive with people, supernatural or otherwise. Despite the glow, I never once felt I wanted to be a part of this particular Mardi Gras.

I liked the attempt the novel made to add depth to characters, and we were given some insight into the past lives of most of the characters. This, however, wasn't quite enough for me, and I wanted to know more in particular about the vampires themselves. They were born in the 20s; surely stuff has happened in all those years to shape how disgusting and immature they were. One of them, a far older and composed member of the race, was completely different, and more capable of remorse than the others. The only implied reason for this was his age, and a suggestion that he was getting a bit fed up. I wanted some further explanation to this difference in character, but none was given.

This novel came highly recommended by many of my reader friends. Trusting their judgement, I launched myself into it, but just didn't feel the same passion for the story, the characters, and the messages. There were parts of the story I really liked, some characters I could completely get on board with, but overall I couldn't understand my friends raving about it. I soon realised, however, I was reading the novel too late; it's something you can identify with better in your teenage years, whilst feeling out of place and alone. Something alternative and out there; entirely sex, blood, and rock and roll.