Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Book #33

An Independent Woman by Frances Eavesham

With nothing left from her childhood except a tiny portrait of a beautiful woman, some skill with a needle, and the knowledge of a dreadful secret, Philomena escapes her tormentor, Joseph, and the dank fogs of Victorian London, only for a train crash to interrupt her quest for independence and freedom.

Trapped between the upstairs and downstairs occupants of a great country house, Philomena hears whispers of the mysteries and lies that lurk in empty corridors and behind closed doors. Her rescuer, the dangerous, enigmatic Hugh, Lord Thatcham, wrestles with his own demons and makes Philomena’s heart race, but she must fight her passion for she can never marry.
Haunted by her past, Philomena’s only hope of happiness is to confront the evil forces that threaten to destroy her. 

I'm always dubious when authors send me their books in exchange for a review. I value my reading time, and absolutely loathe wasting it on books I don't enjoy. I began An Independent Woman with the same trepidation I would with any unknown author, and I have come away absolutely enchanted.

The story begins with our protagonist, Philomena, fleeing her life in London. Brought up by a guardian, she experiences an awful time, after his death, at the hands of his son. She decides to run away and start her own living, dresses as a boy, and boards a train for Bristol. The train derails and Philomena is found by Lord Thatcham, brought into his home, and discovered to be female shortly afterwards. To give any more of the plot away at this juncture would be an unkindness.

My above summary is even an unkindness to Eavesham. The plot is intricately weaved, and peppered with mysteries. We learn of a terrible part of Philomena's past which we know will come back to haunt her before the story is over. We're slowly drip-fed the tale of Lord Thatcham's late wife, and the strange circumstances surrounding her death. The clever way Eavesham weaves both the mysteries and the clues into the plot is effortless, and I was utterly gripped. The pace was excellent; no excess detail, no confusion, and everything happened at exactly the right time to keep the plot moving and the reader engaged.

Philomena is a wonderful character; far removed from the simpering Victorian heroines we often come across. She falls, without immediate explanation, somewhere in between the working class and the aristocracy. She's intelligent, educated, and will resolutely disagree with men should she feel inclined to. She runs from London to making a living: to start her own business. She's resourceful and a survivor; although we see her make poor decisions, we also see her repenting these and understanding her own reasoning. She's wonderful.

Each of the characters were perfectly characterised, from Lord Thatcham's feelings of duty in contrast to his feelings of desire, John's mischievous way of widening his eyes and coaxing some bread and honey from the servants, to even Joseph's disgusting lecherous winking and gag-inducing long greasy hair. I particularly loved Selena, Lord Thatcham's sister, who, although, materialistic and giggly on the surface, revealed herself to be more forward thinking than I ever could have imagined.

As always with novels set in Victorian times, it's interesting to read of the social connotations of the day. Eavesham has clearly done her research (or perhaps read one too many Austens) and focuses on the idea of a woman being her husband's property. I was also interested to read of the workings of the house (servants downstairs and masters upstairs), the differences in clothing and colloquialisms between the rich and the poor, and most of all the strict expectations that fell on women in that era.

I want to thank Ms Eavesham for sending this to me; it was exactly what I needed, and I loved every single moment. I have now bought the second novel and will begin this immediately as I can't bring myself to leave Thatcham Hall just yet, although I understand there will be no Philomena in this one. I can't wait. Thank you.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Book #32

Wailing Ghosts by Pu Songling

Some of the most macabre and wonderful of all Chinese stories, including 'The Golden Goblet', 'Scorched Moth the Daoist' and 'The Black Beast' 

These little Chinese stories of the supernatural are quaint, yet incredibly abrupt. They are nothing like Western tales of the supernatural; there's no suspense, no psychological twists, and no tales of the unknown as we've come to understand them. Instead, the stories are laid bare before us in a flash, and before we can come to terms with what we've just been exposed to, the next story comes along to hurry its wonder at us.

Each of them had what I assumed to be a moral message, however it was difficult to understand what the message was in some of them.

I'm slightly disappointed in these, purely because I felt they lacked any real impact. They were nonsense tales, with each one being more head-pickling than the last. I wonder if this is down to the translation, the affect time has on the way we find ourselves entertained, or both.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Book #31

The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things by JT Leroy

These are the stories of a young boy on the run, away from his past, hellbent towards an unknown future. Connected, they form a sometimes harrowing, sometimes bleakly funny, and often tender portrait of a complicated life.

I read Sarah back in 2009 and absolutely hated it. I felt it was underdeveloped, and was totally scandalised by the JT Leroy hoax. I picked up The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things expecting to experience the same kind of apathy, but actually I was surprised at how compelling, disturbing, and utterly heartbreaking this novel really is. I don't aim to comment on the Leroy hoax, as I don't find it interesting enough to look into the details. Read as a work of fiction, this novel exudes a punk cult mist which will cloud your head and leave you entirely messed up.

Narrated by a young boy, the scenes Leroy depicts for us are nothing but base. Born to an extremely young mother, he's placed into foster care until his mother now decides to claim him back. Her questionable life choices, means of making money, and ideas on how to raise a child, turn his life into the stuff of nightmares. The use of Jeremiah as narrator presents these situations to us in a naive, dream-like manner, making the reality seem far worse than it would if described by an adult.

The novel is comprised of disjointed chapters, jumping through time and back again, to confuse the sequence of our understanding. Each chapter tells a different story, and relates to a separate ordeal in the protagonist's life. They don't link well, and the result is choppy and jagged; this creates an uneasy sense of panic and chaos in the reader, and reflects our narrator's feelings of upheaval.

What sickened me most was the severe contrast between the first and final chapters. To see the boy's innocent beginnings with a foster family, and then see what he had become as a result of his own flesh and blood, was excruciating.

It's been a while since I've read something that truly tested my mettle, but this one uncomfortable read. It's a solace to be aware of the hoax, and to know this isn't the true story it was made out to be. It's a gripping, fascinating story, but if you don't hate every single moment, there's something wrong with you.

"The heart is deceitful above all things and it is exceedingly corrupt: Who can know it?"
-- Jeremiah 17:9

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Book #30

Traffic by John Ruskin

The radical Victorian art critic's excoriating defence of dignity and creativity in a world obsessed by money.

Ruskin was an art critic who was called before an assembly of men in 1864 to give his opinion on which architectural style they should build their new Exchange building. He kicks off his speech by explaining "most simply and sorrowfully I have you tell you, in the outset, that I do not care about this Exchange of yours." The lecture we're presented with is an interesting monologue on architecture in relation to morality, taste, religion, and money.

The speech is powerful, and I particularly liked Ruskin's accusation of his audience worshipping the Goddess of Getting-On, implying them of craving wealth merely as a collection, never for the spending of it; he asks them where they plan to store it all, and forces them to think how facetious this is:

You shall have thousand of gold pieces; thousands of thousands - millions - mountains, of gold; where will you keep them?

The second essay, The Roots of Honour, describes politics and economy with some injections of artistic criticism. I didn't enjoy this one as much, found it quite dull, and struggled to concentrate.

Overall, this isn't the best Little Black Classic so far. It poses some provoking questions, but I really was glad it's a mere 55 pages.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Book #29

The Death of Danny Daggers by Haydn Wilks

Cardiff. The last few days of summer. Danny Daggers is about to die. He just doesn’t realise it yet. A Leeds University student with a very popular YouTube channel, Danny Daggers is taking his alcohol-downing stunts on tour.  He’s about to find out that not everyone’s a fan.

I really enjoyed this.

Danny Daggers is dead at the beginning of the novel, and Wilks then throws us back in time to show us the string of misfortunes leading up to the event. These are given to us piecemeal, and slowly, creating an untold suspense after Wilks' skilful foreshadowing of the death. 

Wilks uses multiple-voice to give us each character's perspective, and the most delicious thing is that they all interweave, connect, and have some sort of bearing on each others' lives, and the plot.  What may seem to be an irrelevant, random piece of information will no doubt turn out to be a very important plot point later in the story. The construction is so impressive, and it really adds to the grip of the novel.

The characters are wonderful, the development and back stories excellent. Although difficult to like, they're easy to understand and relate to (dependant on your location and upbringing, I suppose). I enjoyed Wilks' excellent descriptions of Cardiff, and particularly relished some of the Welsh patter. Know what I mean, butt?

I loved the swearing, the violence, the drugs, and the vulgarity; everyone in the book was a representation of someone I've met in my life. I loved how modern-day it all was: iPhones, call centres, Richmond Superkings and two-for-one cocktails.

My only issue was Rory Gallacher. He's a wonderful character, gorgeously flawed, relatable, and admirable in a mental sort of way. His Scottish accent, however, is written badly, and he speaks in a dialect no one in Scotland would use. I felt like I'd met a guy on holiday who was trying to imitate my accent; awkward. 

I'd definitely recommend this one. Although Wilks is an up and coming author still finding his voice (he sent me the book and asked for a review), I feel this has potential to be a cult sensation. Some of the humour and the plot points could possibly only be understood by Brits, or those of us familiar with the impact of the recession, however it's such an enjoyable read.

It's pretty special; gritty, harrowing, but disturbingly familiar. 

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Book #28

A Most Wanted Man by John le CarrĂ©

A half-starved young Russian man in a long black overcoat is smuggled into Hamburg at dead of night. He has an improbable amount of cash secreted in a purse around his neck. He is a devout Muslim. Or is he? He says his name is Issa. Annabel, an idealistic young German civil rights lawyer, determines to save Issa from deportation, Soon her client's survival becomes more important to her than her own career - or safety. In pursuit of Issa's mysterious past, she confronts the incongruous Tommy Brue, the sixty-year-old scion of Brue Freres, a failing British bank based in Hamburg. Annabel, Issa and Brue form an unlikely alliance and a triangle of impossible loves is born. Meanwhile, scenting a sure kill in the "War on Terror," the rival spies of Germany. England and America converge upon the innocents. 

I found this overly detailed, distractingly tiring, and utterly tedious. Admittedly, this isn't my genre, but I'm still amazed at how little engagement can be weaved in almost four hundred pages.

Issa escapes from captivity and pays his way into Hamburg in order to seek the man holding his father's fortune. He shacks up with a mother and son, who call a human rights lawyer to look after him. Said lawyer has a heart of gold and swears to do everything in her power to save him from being deported. Further shenanigans ensue. You're thinking this is a fast paced emotional drama, describing the emotions felt by a targeted Muslim, and those on his side. You're thinking you'll get to see the reasoning behind the chase, to understand where Issa fits in this gargantuan puzzle of national security. You're wrong. It's shit and you get none of this. You get nothing.

There were multitudes of characters introduced, many of them merging into one person due to a distinct lack of background, development, or original characteristics. Each of them is a grotesque magnification of a stereotype; the do-good idealistic young lawyer, the hardened intelligence officer, the mysterious escapee, the kind-hearted banker struggling to take on the reins of his father's empire. I couldn't understand anyone's actions; they were characterised a certain way and then began to behave in a manner entirely opposite to the personality I'd perceived them to have. This was the beginning of the end for me, as I began to see the characters and plot as a total sham, a 'can't be arsed so I'll just write this bit in' way of plot movement.

For this novel to be so emotionless despite its main themes is baffling to me. Imagine opening a government document full of jargon, code names, and people you can't tell the difference between. Imagine reading a script of conversations between the players, often forgetting who they are, or what they do. Imagine trying to then work out everyone's motives, trustworthiness, and place in the jigsaw without really giving a shit about the whole thing. Imagine how captivating that would be. Welcome to A Most Wanted Man.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Book #27

Aphorisms on Love and Hate by Friedrich Nietzsche

This volume contains a selection of Nietzsche's brilliant and challenging aphorisms, examining the pleasures of revenge, the falsity of pity, and the incompatibility of marriage with the philosophical life.

Trying to read the first few pages of this was like a slap in the face. I've never felt so utterly idiotic, so unworldly, and so stupid. I had to slow my reading down to a snail's pace, and chew each word slowly to really ensure I was picking out the correct meaning. I even read some paragraphs out loud to truly cement my understanding. Although I continued this cautionary tread for all fifty-five pages, my initial panic subsided, and I began to really connect with Nietzsche's maxims.

The volume seems a bit haphazardly put together, almost like a book of quotes: Nietzsche on love, Nietzsche on marriage, Nietzsche on tragedy of childhood. This meant a real lack of message, and made me wish I'd started my philosophy journey elsewhere.

My favourite of these aphorisms was the one on twofold kind of equality: "The craving for equality can be expressed either by the wish to draw all others down to one's level (by belittling, excluding, tripping them up) or by the wish to draw oneself up with everyone else (by appreciating, helping, taking pleasure in others' success)." An important one for me.

I enjoyed the first half (power, jealousy, revenge) more than the second half (love, marriage, husbands, wives) as this is where the sexist views began to rear their ugly heads. Despite this, Nietzsche had already mentioned that we're an evolving species of opinion, and customs of the past may seem odd to the people of the present, purely because we're used to better things, and struggle to understand. I'll let him off.

His thoughts are powerful ones to consider, and I'm glad I picked this up. I only wish I had ventured into a real Nietzsche volume before doing so. This is more of a whistle-stop tour of his views on love and hate.

Book #26

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Julia and Valentina Poole are normal American teenagers - normal, at least, for identical 'mirror' twins who have no interest in college or jobs or possibly anything outside their cozy suburban home. But everything changes when they receive notice that an aunt whom they didn't know existed has died and left them her flat in an apartment block overlooking Highgate Cemetery in London. They feel that at last their own lives can begin, but have no idea that they've been summoned into a tangle of fraying lives, from the obsessive-compulsive crossword setter who lives above them to their aunt's mysterious and elusive lover who lives below them, and even to their aunt herself, who never got over her estrangement from the twins' mother - and who can't even seem to quite leave her flat.
I've come away from this novel feeling quite unsure of what I've just read, and of my feelings with regards to it. I read the book relatively quickly in comparison to other 400 pagers, as it truly was gripping. Despite this, there were many parts of the story I just couldn't get to grips with, some utterly predictable, and some (both supernatural and otherwise) laughably unrealistic. These feelings will be difficult to paint for you without spoiling the plot, however I'll do my best.

Our story focuses on the death of Elspeth, the aunt to twins living in America. She leaves her estate to them, and they fly over to London to live in her flat. We're soon made aware that Elspeth is still living in the flat in ghostly form, and the madness ensues.

London's Highgate Cemetery is featured a lot in the novel, and it really was a glorious place to write about, however morbid you may find resting places. The descriptions were gorgeous, the snippets of biography of those buried there deeply interesting, and I could feel the atmosphere of the place as I read. Elspeth's lover, Robert, was writing a thesis on the cemetery, and I was really glad to see this adding personality to the setting.

Very few of Niffenegger's characters are truly likeable or believable. My first issue was with Elspeth's name; Aunt Elspeth? You're thinking elderly aunt. She was forty-four. I kept forgetting how young she was throughout the course of the novel, which was problematic for many reasons. She's depicted as a sensible, loving woman with secrets, and we grow to feel sorry for her ghostly helplessness. Then Niffenegger throws a (predictable) curve ball, and I close the book absolutely hating the bitch.

I disliked the twins. I found them creepy, overly immature, and found Niffenegger's descriptions of their dressing alike, and being unable to function without one another, totally unfeasible. One was confident, bossy and chic, the other sickly and shy; it was pantomime. They were 21 years old, yet characterised as twelve year olds. This juvenile aura not only led me to forget they were actually adults, but was uncomfortable, particularly as the plot progressed.

Robert was wonderful to begin with, until he disgusted me not long afterwards. No more can be said on this without spoiling the entire story, however his decision process goes from "No way, this is unthinkable." to "Well, okay." without any real explanation for his actions, leading us to distance ourselves from him as we would an acquaintance who does something unfathomable.

The only real character I truly liked was Martin, an OCD-ridden fifty-something minor character whose wife leaves him as she can't cope with his habits and rituals. My heart was breaking for him, and his journey was wonderful at face value. I did have issues with this area of the story as well; his control of his condition seemed to develop too quickly, his victory at too convenient a time. Niffenegger made this totally unbelievable, with Martin incapable of leaving his flat one day, and then skipping along the streets of London the next. It's clear she researched the illness, and then strayed from a practical painful recovery to a timely one. 

Niffenegger's rules on how to be a ghost also leave a lot to be desired. Elspeth grows stronger every day by practising how to move things, beginning as a piss of mist, then growing limbs etc at a later stage. She can be seen by one of the twins, but no one else, which is never explained. And although she can move things, break televisions, and kill cats, she cannot leave the flat. Only at the end of the novel does Niffenegger explain how a ghost can escape a London apartment prison, and this method made me spit out my tea, it was so ridiculous. I'd welcome discussion on this; I laughed my head off.

I realise this review has turned out to be negative; I'd like to say more, but it's becoming a rant and I feel I've said enough. I hadn't realised I had so many issues with the plot before I sat down to type. What's confusing me is that I enjoyed reading it, and it was the type of book I'd keep picking up despite having far more productive things to be getting on with. Maybe if you're capable of closing your brain to plot holes you'll get on well with this 'ghost story'. Forget what you know, and your morals, and just go with it. Or just read it really quickly and try not to think about it afterwards.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Book #25

On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts by Thomas De Quincey

In this provocative and blackly funny essay, Thomas de Quincey considers murder in a purely aesthetic light and explains how practically every philosopher over the past two hundred years has been murdered - 'insomuch, that if a man calls himself a philosopher, and never had his life attempted, rest assured there is nothing in him'.

This essay explores the 'art' of murder in the same way one would take time to appreciate a painting, a sculpture, or a work of fiction. It begins with a letter to Blackwood's Magazine describing a group of gentlemen who meet and discuss the aesthetics of murder, and their merits. The author of the letter, utterly condemning this practice, urges the editor to join him in vilifying this group of men, and encloses a lecture from the group which has mysteriously found its way into his hands. This sets the essay up well, however what follows is a long discourse on the murder of philosophers, going back as far as Cain, after which we are given no conclusion on either the continuation or disbanding of our group of amateur murder admirers.

It's well-structured, and detailed without too much excess, but it's definitely an odd read. I really felt I was in a room of educated gentlemen, listening to the lecture, and giggling in the right places whilst feeling slightly naughty. The language changes from English to Latin frequently, and then back again, but rather than distract my reading, I took this as a learning experience (thanks to the translations) and a sign of the time the essay was written. This is something I'm really thankful for in the Little Black Classics range: opening my eyes to new language and teaching me something new.

What struck me most was a small note at the beginning of the novel, detailing de Quincey's fascination with a series of murders by a John Williams, which took place in 1811. Williams was arrested and found hanged in his cell a few days later. The note explains de Quincey returned to this in his writing many times over the years, and it seems in this essay he's commenting on the public's macabre enchantment of murder, and their perverse interest in the gory details. As we know, this is still the case in our modern day, and it'd be delightful to read de Quincey's lecture describing the well known murders of our time

Sed fugit interea, fugit irreparabile tempus,
Singula dum capti circumvectamur amore.
[But meanwhile time is flying, flying beyond recall,
while we linger, captivated by our love of detail.]

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Book #24

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Christopher John Francis Boone knows all the countries of the world and their capitals and every prime number up to 7,057. He relates well to animals but has no understanding of human emotions. He cannot stand to be touched. And he detests the color yellow.

Although gifted with a superbly logical brain, for fifteen-year-old Christopher everyday interactions and admonishments have little meaning. He lives on patterns, rules, and a diagram kept in his pocket. Then one day, a neighbor's dog, Wellington, is killed and his carefully constructive universe is threatened. Christopher sets out to solve the murder in the style of his favourite (logical) detective, Sherlock Holmes. 

I last read this novel around eleven years ago, and have been prompted to pick it up again as my friend bought tickets for us to see the stage show in a few weeks. I remember enjoying the book so much that I never returned it to the school library, but after reading it again with a more mature mind (ha!) I wonder how much I truly understood, and whether I enjoyed it in the same ways as I did this time.

Christopher Boone is a mentally challenged teenager who discovers his neighbour's dog murdered. A traumatic experience for anyone, but Haddon shows us how this experience is processed through Christopher's highly logical, yet dysfunctional, mind by writing the story using first-person narrative. As Christopher plays detective in order to find out the identity of Wellington's murder, not only does he find the murderer, he also uncovers some heartbreaking secrets a bit closer to home.

I think my seventeen year old self probably loved Christopher as a character, and I know she'd like his quirkiness, and his constant refusal to cooperate. He's endearing, and it's lovely to understand what's going through his mind. The contrast to this, however, is seeing how his behaviour affects those around him, and how this contributes to the breakdown of both of his parents, and ultimately their marriage. Although Christopher is highly analytical, and observant of the smaller things in life some of us wouldn't register, he lacks a real understanding of other peoples' emotions. How one person's mental health can contribute to another's is something I don't think is widely recognised, and it's an important message for an author to land.

Younger JK would also have loved the book's unconventional structure. The chapters are numbered using prime numbers as Christopher prefers these. We're given an abundance of diagrams, maps, graphs, and maths problems to explain his coping mechanisms. The simple, yet detailed, prose makes the book easy to read, but in a rapid and raw sort of way, which reflects our narrator's condition.

It's interesting to note that Haddon is a child development psychologist. I'm not as clued up on Asberger's and/or autism (Christopher's condition is never named) as I should be, so it's reassuring the book is written from a perspective of knowledge.

I read the majority of the book in one sitting, and have come away with my head truly fucked. I have begun to process life the way Christopher would (only a little bit, with not as much mathematics), and it hurts. Haddon's writing allowed Christopher's panic towards the end of the story to seep into my skin, and I've found myself still feeling stressed and panicked long after the last page. I know this will last for a short while, but to experience it even slightly is disturbing, enlightening, and heartbreaking all at once.

A very poignant look into the life of an interesting young man, but also very thought-provoking. It's definitely one we should all read at some point. I'm looking forward to the stage show!