Thursday, 30 July 2015

Book #23

The Gates by John Connolly

Young Samuel Johnson and his dachshund, Boswell, are trying to show initiative by trick-or-treating a full three days before Halloween which is how they come to witness strange goings-on at 666 Crowley Road. The Abernathys don't mean any harm by their flirtation with the underworld, but when they unknowingly call forth Satan himself, they create a gap in the universe. A gap in which a pair of enormous gates is visible. The gates to Hell. And there are some pretty terrifying beings just itching to get out...

I hadn't realised this was a young adult novel before I picked it up. This isn't something that generally deters me, but opening the gates of hell isn't something I'd associate with coming of agers, and would place it more in Dante's realm.

Although the novel could be termed as serious, what with demons conquering the earth, and so forth, it's incredibly funny in a droll sort of way. Nurd the demon is to be admired in his humorous way of adapting to life on earth, and some of Connolly's social commentary had me grinning from ear to ear. Maybe something our young adults may miss, but enjoyable nonetheless.

Boswell was, by far, my favourite character. He's a courageous daschund, with only Samuel's safety and wellbeing in mind. I had wondered whether he would end up with a devastating fate (I'm looking at you, Mr Ness), but I'm pleased to report he's still operating well.

There's a great deal of physics chat in the novel, which confused me entirely. Although impressive, and although it added an appreciated scientific substance, for a young adult novel, I felt pretty stupid being confused by Connolly's idiot-guide explanations. These, thankfully, slow down after the first few chapters, before picking up towards the finale, but jeezo, what a mindbend.

Samuel had two best friends, Maria and Tom, and although the three of them came across as a Harry-Ron-Hermione unit, I was pleased to see Connolly cast Maria as the brainbox, understanding the physics behind the portal to hell, and ultimately coming up with the plan to potentially close it. You go girl.

Whilst reading the novel, I found myself imagining what certain scenes would look like filmed, and I truly believe this is a medium where the story would excel a lot better than it did in the printed word.

I must admit, I expected more of this having read The Book of Lost Things and being notably impressed. I was disappointed in many things; I felt a real anti-climax at the end of the novel where nothing really piqued. Connolly spent lots of time building up The Great Malevolence (so much so that I had thought it'd be an excellent new nickname for myself), to end up with a barely a glimpse of him. Also, the solution to the problem of the portal had huge holes in it and seemed totally rushed.

Give it a miss unless you have (strong-stomached) children.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Book #22

The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom

Eddie is a wounded war veteran, an old man who has lived, in his mind, an uninspired life. His job is fixing rides at a seaside amusement park. On his 83rd birthday, a tragic accident kills him as he tries to save a little girl from a falling cart. He awakes in the afterlife, where he learns that heaven is not a destination, but an answer. 

In heaven, five people explain your life to you. Some you knew, others may have been strangers. One by one, from childhood to soldier to old age, Eddie's five people revisit their connections to him on earth, illuminating the mysteries of his "meaningless" life, and revealing the haunting secret behind the eternal question: "Why was I here?"

(If you'd like to read a review of this novel which isn't crippled with emotion, you can do so here)

This is one of my favourite novels, and I was moved to pick it up again after the loss of my grandma. She is one of my best friends and I'm still struggling with this loss. I believed the story and its ideas could help me with my grieving process, as I'm finding it difficult to get my head around what's happening to her now. I often find myself saying "Where are you?" out loud, and not being able to sleep at night because I want to know she's okay. There is no defined art to mourning, I know, but I felt the words could help me.

Albom suggests that before you get to heaven, you meet five people who explain your place in life. They answer all of the questions that have gone unanswered in your life; why you were there, what you meant to people, and the reasons behind your pain and suffering. After this point, once you've been enlightened and understand your place, you choose your own heaven, and wait for the person whose life you are destined to explain. This is an undoubtedly gorgeous idea, and I hope whoever my grandma's five people are, at least one of them explained her reason for living was to have such a positive impact on my life, to be one of the only people brave enough to tell me the absolute truth, and to show me what being a strong woman is really all about. After this point, I know she'll be waiting for me in the biggest shopping centre in the sky.

I'm not a religious person, but I'm open to suggestions. My grandma was a devout Catholic, so I know she'll be looked after by her Lord. Maybe the afterlife isn't how Albom paints it, but what if it is? Who are your five? Probably not who you'd expect, but one of them might be who you'd hope to see.

Although, yes, the book did what I thought it would and helped me focus on something (however fictional) that could have happened to her after she passed, it has broken my heart again in a thousand different ways. It was too soon, too close to the bone; Eddie's love for his wife who passed before him was a hot spike in my heart. It was all too familiar, and a devastating sting. I suppose extra sobs never really hurt when you miss someone, though. 

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Book #21

The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue

In this epic tale from the Viking Age that ranges across Scandinavia and Viking Britain, two poets compete for the love of Helga the Fair - with fatal consequences.

My reason for purchasing the Little Black Classics was to be exposed to forms to literature I would never think to pick up otherwise. The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue is an example: a Viking saga. I loved it.

Although this form of story involves lots of character names, their parents' names, and their parents' parents' names, this exemplifies the importance of heritage and ancestry at that time (year 990 - 1010, people, it doesn't get much more classic than this). It's difficult to get used to when the pages are filled with who was everyone's father, but you soon find retaining this information doesn't really matter, and this allows you to persevere with the plot - don't hang yourself from the family trees.

The tale is essentially that of a love triangle; Gunnlaug is promised Helga the Fair as a bride, but is asked to come back in three years once he has matured. His rival, Hrafn, gets in there first, and violence ensues. It's all about honour and pride, rather than asking the woman who she really wants to be with. But hey, tenth century, I can wash my hands of you.

As both rivals are poets, we get to read some excellent verse from both of them, and I found myself (with the help of the handy glossary) learning more about their language. The poetry gets easier to understand the further you venture into the saga, and I found myself recognising some real personality in these, which wasn't otherwise obvious in the prose.

A great little story, and a worthwhile short read. I feel more enlightened with Viking saga now than I ever was, and I'm pleased I'm learning more of literature and language the further I delve into the Little Black Classics range. 

Book #20

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Maycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch--"Scout"--returns home from New York City to visit her aging father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise's homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt.

I was so excited to read this book. To Kill a Mockingbird has been one of my favourites since I read it in school, with my understanding of its message growing each time I went back to it again growing older. You can read my most recent review of it here, and you'll see how I felt about the story. Reading that review, you'll maybe understand my overall feeling of Go Set a Watchman which is that some things should be left alone.

It's strange this novel was written after TKAB, as it seemed to be teaching me a lesson. Where I (alongside Scout) had previously held Atticus in high regard, as a paragon of virtue amongst evil, we both failed to recognise that Atticus is only a man, only human, and that humans can have flaws, and can change. For such a man to become what he did, however, is something I'm struggling to shape my mind around, however Lee explains this to us as follows:

“As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings—I’ll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes ‘em like all of us. You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers.”

Didn't we all read TKAB and feel this way about Atticus? I feel many of us will remain emotionally crippled after this betrayal.

Don't get me wrong, it was wonderful to see my old friends again, particularly Scout. She hasn't changed in her opinions, her headstrong approach, and her attitude towards Maycomb and its traditions. Other things have changed, however, whether it's characters (both personality and presence), atmosphere or honesty. 

Most of all, the childhood innocence is gone from the pages. It's purely, devastatingly, adult. There's no mystery, no naïve confusion, and the biggest disappointment of them all - no Boo Radley. Not a single mention. Twenty years have passed and I was so looking forward to hear what had happened to that kind and simple neighbour. Nothing; as though he didn't exist.

It's clear to see why Lee's publisher read the novel, and requested a book from Scout's childhood point of view. The flashbacks were the most interesting parts, full of the heart-wrenching pains of growing up, more particularly growing up a woman.

I feel really sad about this book. It's very obviously a first draft, as it meanders along, losing its way before getting back on track. It shows our much-loved characters in a dim light (even Scout was a real pain at times), and it takes away the childhood dream-like qualities of small town Maycomb. Most of all, I'm sad that this seems to have been published simply to cash in on the success of TKAB, and the jury is still out (no pun intended) on whether Lee was still in the proper mindset to agree to this. For this reason alone, it seems unfair to write a review filled with feelings of being let down when the author never had the chance to craft the story into something wonderful.

Undoubtedly still a must-read, despite its imperfections. I enjoyed returning to Maycomb, but I didn't like returning as an adult. All future visits from Scout and I will be as children again. 

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Book #19

The Bride Stripped Bare by Anonymous

A woman disappears, leaving behind an incendiary diary chronicling a journey of sexual awakening. To all who knew her, she was the good wife: happy, devoted, content. But the diary reveals a secret self, one who's discovered that her new marriage contains mysteries of its own. She has discovered a forgotten Elizabethan manuscript that dares to speak of what women truly desire, and inspired by its revelations, she tastes for the first time the intoxicating power of knowing what she wants and how to get it. The question is: How long can she sustain a perilous double life?

I feel I've wasted so much of my precious reading time on this dull as dishwater novel. For those of you who are completely uninterested in the sexual awakening of a woman in her mid-thirties, this story is, in short, three hundred and seventy four pages of utter drivel. For those of you who feel you still may like to read this piece of crap, read on.

This book attracted me as it opens with our narrator's mother explaining her daughter's disappearance, and how she had found a 'manuscript' amongst her belongings. Sounds pretty mysterious and interesting, and I believed the subsequent pages would be filled with reasons for the narrator disappearing, or worse. I was fooled.

What comes next are three hundred odd pages describing an unhappy marriage, a chance meeting with a foreign bloke in a cafe which turns into routine shagging, falling back in love with the husband, shunning the foreigner before deciding she still fancied him, getting pregnant by the husband, falling in love with her new son and bleating on about how happy she is in motherhood. Then the mother comes back on to the pages to tell us that's the end of the manuscript, the car was found at the top of the a cliff along with the wee guy's pushchair, but no bodies were found, okay bye. I could barely keep my eyes propped open.

Did she run away or did she jump? I honestly don't care. What reasons did she have? She couldn't decide which man to choose, despite them both being little shits.

The novel is written in second person narrative, which I found insulting. "You jump into a cab and ask the driver to meet you in a hotel room with his disgusting taxi driver pals." Excuse me, no I did not. Our author is clearly trying to appeal to her readers by putting us in the protagonist's shoes; ones I'd ideally like to lace up and start running away

I'd avoid this for many reasons (one of which being I've just told you everything that happens). I'd love to comment on the language and devices used, the characterisation and the relationships, but I'd have little praise, and I'd really like to get this book out of my life as quickly as possible.


Sunday, 12 July 2015

Book #18

As Kingfishers Catch Fire by Gerard Manley Hopkins

As Kingfishers Catch Fire is a selection of Gerard Manley Hopkins' incomparably brilliant poetry, ranging from the ecstasy of 'The Windhover' and 'Pied Beauty' to the heart-wrenching despair of the 'sonnets of desolation'. 

As a literature lover, I pride myself on being able to analyse a piece of text and pick out themes, symbols, plot devices, and subtle 'between the lines' commentary. The fact that I am completely unable to do this with poetry is something I'm embarrassed of, and that I really want to work on. Reading this collection, however, didn't grasp me as much as prose would, and I struggled to motivate myself to finish the fifty pages. Maybe poetry just isn't for me.

Hopkins was a priest, so there's a lot of religious rambling going on in the poems. He also refers a lot to the beauty of nature and the benefits of enjoying this.  I found I could understand some of the poems, maybe five or six or so, but the rest utterly confused me.

It seems futile for me to continue with this review, given that I totally missed the point of the poetry, and came away feeling ignorant and underwhelmed. I'll leave you with my favourite one, which had me thinking a lot about people who come and go from your life:

The Lantern Out of Doors

Sometimes a lantern moves along the night,
That interests our eyes. And who goes there?
I think; where from and bound, I wonder, where,
With, all down darkness wide, his wading light?

Men go by me whom either beauty bright
In mould or mind or what not else makes rare;
They rain against our much-thick and marsh air
Rich beams, till death or distance buys them quite.

Death or distance soon consumes them: wind
What most I may eye after, be in at the end
I cannot, and out of sight is out of mind.

Christ minds: Christ's interest, what to avow or amend
There, eyes them, heart wants, care haunts, foot follows kind,
Their ransom, their rescue, and first, fast, last friend.