Monday, 23 November 2015

Book #52

The Eve of St Agnes by John Keats

This volume contains a selection of Keats's greatest verse - including his gothic story in verse, 'The Eve of St Agnes', and the mysterious 'Lamia' - exploring themes of love, enchantment, myth and magic.

This little volume taught me that even poetry of the greats will fail to enthral me. A real it's not you, it's me relationship with verse, the whole time I had my heart closed, praying for prose. It's a real shame there's no Little Black Classic on Spike Milligan, as it seems his poems are the only ones my tiny little mind can enjoy. I don't know what's wrong with me.

I was really excited about the gothic and mythical feel this choice of poetry promised, and I did get the gist of it, I promise. The Eve of St Agnes itself was pretty enjoyable, imbued with superstition and forbidden romance. Highly descriptive, I found myself lost in stained glass windows, and although the pace was slow, it felt like an intended drunkenness. Lamia was also interesting, sheer mythical elegance hinting at love being merely a consuming enchantment. Both longer narrative poems, this was as close to prose as I was going to get. While the shorter poems flowed beautifully, they didn't have any real impact on me.

Perhaps I'm too rash in my poetry readings. I do think certain poems, particularly the longer ones in this Keats collection, take more than one reading to truly enjoy and understand. I just didn't have the patience.

Yours always,

The Poetry Dunce

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Book #51

Sentence of Marriage by Shayne Parkinson

In nineteenth century New Zealand, there are few choices for a farm girl like Amy. Her life seems mapped out for her by the time she is twelve. Amy dreams of an exciting life in the world beyond her narrow boundaries. But it is the two people who come to the farm from outside the valley who change her life forever, and Amy learns the high cost of making the wrong choice.

I stumbled upon this book during the crazed "must find free books" spree I'm sure every new Kindle user goes through. I told myself I was being silly, and that they'd be free for a reason, scoffing at some of the titles, and rolling my eyes at the covers emblazoned with semi-clad lovers in a tight embrace. I chose Sentence of Marriage for its historical context, and I'm glad I did.

Parkinson weaves a heavy tale set against a backdrop of 1800s rural New Zealand. The way she describes her country is so gorgeous that you can almost feel the fresh air on your face and smell the farm, the bread baking, and taste the thousands of cups of tea the family must've gone through in just under 400 pages.

The story is captivating, albeit very predictable. It's pretty long, and although the plot is slow-paced, particularly when you know what's coming, the detail does it more than enough justice. I enjoyed most of all Parkinson's commentary on family ties, and how these can either bind us together, or make life incredibly difficult.

It wasn't the historical romance I expected it to be, and I spent most of the time filled with anger or trepidation. The characters are so intricately developed. Although our protagonist was painted slightly too saintly for my liking, Parkinson's ability to make me loathe many of the characters has to be commended. The worst of them being our Angel Clare wannabe, a nineteenth century fuckboy who should've been thrown to the pigs. I think I'll be hating that little bitch for a long time yet. His capability for emotional blackmail was so real to me that it turned my eyes black. The author excelled in describing this one; how awful to realise we still have men like him centuries later. If I wasn't such a lady, I'd spit.

A very sad, very revealing tale on life in the colonial 1800s. I'd recommend it to historical romance lovers (especially if it's still free in the Kindle store), but don't expect a happy journey. 

Friday, 13 November 2015

Book #50

How to Use Your Enemies by Baltasar Gracián

A seventeenth-century Spanish priest's shrewd maxims on using guile and pragmatism to succeed in a dangerous world.

This little collection of aphorisms really does reflect its title. How to Use Your Enemies gives us advice on how to go far in life by manipulating and using others, whether superior to you or otherwise. Interestingly, Gracián explains how not only to use your enemies, but also your friends. It's incredibly calculating, and surprising in places, particularly for being written by a man of the cloth.

I found it both easy and difficult to relate to all at once. Having spent the last few years of my life as an emotional recluse, and also a total bitch, I'm now trying hard (and succeeding) in opening up,  connecting with people, and appreciating them for everything they are. I remember when the opposite was true, and this behaviour is what Gracián supports. I don't agree with sizing people up and using them for my own gain, nor do I believe in maintaining a persona at all times; some of his maxims, however, would certainly be helpful in the area of work I'm in, and are ones which I'm bound to unconsciously take on board.

An interesting read, with some notable points, but absolutely outdated and quite chilling in places. I'll leave you with my favourite of his comments:

In heaven, everything is good; in hell, everything bad. In the world, since it lies between the two, you find both. We are placed between two extremes, and so participate in both. Good and bad luck alternate; not all is happy, nor all hostile. This world is a zero: on its own, it's worth nothing; joined to heaven, a great deal. Indifference to its variety constitutes good sense - the wise are never surprised. Our life is arranged like a play, everything will be sorted out in the end. Take care, then, to end it well.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Book #49

Look Who It Is! My Story by Alan Carr

The brilliantly funny and inimitable Alan Carr tells his life story in his own words, from growing up in a football-mad family in Northampton to his rise to become one of Britain's best-loved comedians.

I don't tend to enjoy non-fiction much, and in particular find autobiographies somewhat stale. I'd bought this one years ago, due to a real love for Alan Carr and his comedy. Being the only comedian who can make me cry real tears of laughter was the motivation for buying it, and my utter lack of enthusiasm for autobiographies was my excuse for putting it off until now.

Alan remains unforgivably himself throughout the pages. Autobiographies I've read in the past paint an entirely unrealistic picture of a celebrity's struggles to get where they are today. There's tears, there's woe, there's self-deprecation. Although Alan successfully describes his struggles, he illuminates them with his relatable wit, not making me cry real tears of laughter, but provoking a giggle nonetheless.

With any other story, I'd be irritated by the author going off on a tangent. Alan does this here, but it's so endearing and true to life that I loved it. He'd be in full flow one minute, before veering off to talk about something else that reminded him of that situation. It was like hearing a story from a friend, and I embraced it. His memories are incredibly personal, and I was pleased to share these with him, much preferring his stories from childhood and his hilarious call centre tales to reading about the ins and outs of the comedy circuit. I must admit, however, he didn't go into heavy detail about what happens behind the scenes; I've read comedy autobiographies before which have totally over-cranked this.

I'm of the opinion now, after reading this and also the autobiography of Scottish national treasure Kevin Bridges, that perhaps books by comedians are best absorbed as audio books. Timing is everything, after all, and with both of these comedians, it's their voice, personality, and sarcasm I love most of all; difficult to convey through the printed word.

I laughed, I liked it, but it's an autobiography. A nice lighthearted read for fans of Alan, or fans of autobiographies. I love you, Alan, it's been great, but I'm diving back into fiction now.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Book #48

A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees by Yoshida Kenkō

Moonlight, sake, spring blossom, idle moments, a woman's hair - these exquisite reflections on life's fleeting pleasures by a thirteenth-century Japanese monk are delicately attuned to nature and the senses. 

Due to my complete inability to appreciate poetry, I was cautiously hoping for one of the Little Black Classics to enthral me again; that's exactly what happened with Kenkō's installment, and for the first time since starting this series, I'm moved to purchase the complete edition. It's incredible to understand and relate to the feelings of a Buddhist monk, but for these thoughts to still have meaning after being recorded seven centuries ago is nothing short of breathtaking.

Kenkō's musings range from choosing a soulmate to the merits of a disorganised room. Each passage leaves you considering your own perceptions and whether you agree with him or not, you will completely understand the merits of his argument. He writes beautifully, and his wisdom set against the blossoms of mediaeval Japan is absolutely gorgeous.

One of my favourite passages was this:

As soon as I hear someone's name, I feel I can picture their face, but when I actually meet them no one ever looks as I had been imagining all that time.
Also, I wonder if everyone, on hearing some old tale, imagines it as taking place in a certain part of some house he knows, and identifies the characters with people he sees in life, as I do.
And is it just I who sometimes feels a conviction that what someone is saying, or what you're seeing or thinking just then, has already happened before, though you cannot remember when?

We gain snippets of understanding of his culture, and this learning feels in tune with his teachings. There are some mildly misogynist comments (how dare a drunk woman throw her head back and laugh so boldly!), but these are few, a clear mark of the way things were, and also set against some really lovely passages describing the elegance and delectability of women.

Whoever picked the quote to be used for this one should be commended. I'm still blown away by this Japanese monk's words transcending time, culture, and language to allow me, an unintelligent twenty-eight year old woman with no particular religious leanings, to feel and agree with his wise thoughts.

It is a most wonderful comfort to sit alone beneath a lamp, book spread before you, and commune with someone from the past whom you have never met.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Book #47

Wherewolves by John Vamvas and Olga Montes

WHEREWOLVES is the story of a group of high school seniors, most “military brats”, who are headed for an army-type survival weekend. The underdogs, Jeffrey and Doris, do not want to go as they fear for their safety among the disdain and cruelty of the popular students. In the background, a news report cautions of a wanted couple with alleged super-human strength supposedly brought on by a new drug on the streets. When the kids start disappearing one after the other, the remaining begin to unwittingly “act like the natives” carving spears, ready to face whatever is out there. What has gotten into them? What is out there? Can it really be werewolves? 

When the authors first sent me this novel, I wasn't too excited about it. The title immediately suggests it to be a paranormal horror, and I imagined characters cowering in the dark as a fluffy thing with teeth prowled outside their walls, trying to claw its way in. Wherewolves surprised me, as it's so much more than that, and the fluffy thing with teeth was only a small part of the horrific jigsaw I tried desperately to piece together.

The first 10% of the novel starts off as we'd expect, with a woman running for her life from (you guessed it) two fluffy things with teeth. The suspense here is unreal, and the atmosphere created is one of sheer confusion and panic. We're thrown in at the deep end, and we think we're on a chronological line with some idea of what we're dealing with. We are incorrect.

The narrative then abruptly removes us from the forest, and throws into more familiar, yet similarly terrifying, surroundings - a high school. It's here we are treated to an in-depth characterisation of each of the students, and this does wonders to help us understand their fears and motivations. It's true to life high school, with bullying, shallow relationships, and the power struggle of popularity. The knowledge we gain of the students helps make the carnage, when it comes, much more interesting as we see how humanity differs when faced with a fight or flight situation.

It takes a while to get to the violence, but the build-up makes this rewarding. The students are taken on a trip to the forest as part of their soldier training. Rather than a study of supernatural monsters, it's more of a study on the human condition, and how we treat other. The characters react to emotional abuse, each of them battling with their own inner demons carved from traumatic past experience.

The suspense, gore, and violence involved is worthy of a B-movie. I particularly liked the monsters remaining ever so slightly out of sight, adding to the tension, saving us from an overdone focus, and keeping the unknown behind the veil until the last moment. There are a good few twists thrown our way which make us question everything we've already learned; I love being kept guessing until the last gasp and being forced to change my perception, so this was a welcome device. Seeing everything come together at the end, and basking in the horror of it all was wonderful.

Vamvas and Montes had originally written this story as a screenplay, which I'm pleased to hear is currently in production. At times, it really does feel like reading a screenplay; details seem to have been added as an after thought, and dialogue takes precedence over description. This doesn't actually impact the enjoyment of the story too heavily, instead adding to the fast paced character development, which is an important factor. I do feel some more descriptive elements could have helped the novel flow more smoothly.

A true social commentary where we come to understand monsters are human, and can be made that way by other humans. An incredibly worthwhile read, which I'm glad I was asked to review - thank you.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Book #46

Eleven Minutes by Paulo Coelho

The story of Maria, a young girl from a Brazilian village, whose first innocent brushes with love leave her heartbroken. At a tender age, she becomes convinced that she will never find true love, instead believing that "love is a terrible thing that will make you suffer. . . ." A chance meeting in Rio takes her to Geneva, where she dreams of finding fame and fortune. Maria's despairing view of love is put to the test when she meets a handsome young painter.

For the first time ever, I have finished a Coelho novel with an immense feeling of pleasure. This has nothing to do with his wise words, his quotable passages, nor his life advice. I'm pleased due to the fact that I have now finished every Coelho book I have ever purchased as a young, foolish, literature fan, hellbent on the idea of experiencing every highly recommended author. If I'm ever asked what advice I'd give to my younger self, it would be "don't buy those fucking Coelho books."

Once again, he drones on in a grandiose fashion, basking in his glowing opinion of his own pretentious spiritual perceptions. Once again, he believes himself to be on a far higher intellectual plane than his readers, making metaphorical points and then placing metaphorical neon signs around them just to make sure we understood.

Maria leaves Brazil and travels to Switzerland to be a dancer, after meeting a persuasive agent in Rio de Janeiro. She becomes a prostitute purely on a whim, and Coelho's justification of this is completely dire and unbelievable. This is not real life. Maria is the dullest, weakest character yet in the Coelho novels I've read (this really is saying something); her boldly highlighted lack of education and sense of purpose hardly support her 'clever' philosophical musings given to us in her utterly boring diary entries at the end of each chapter. I came to dread coming to those italic passages, filled with apathy over what pathetic conclusions she was going to come to next. It could not have been clearer these were simply Coelho's thoughts, not Maria's.

His thoughts on sex are laughable. He describes the female form and how pleasure can be given to it as though he were a woman himself. Then he has Maria standing in the middle of the street and experiencing orgasm through simply being overwhelmed by life, and her surroundings. If that ever happened outwith the stupid world of Coelho, I'm sure women would have told you all about it before now.

Again, one of my main arguments against Coelho is his portrayal of women. Yes, Maria was a weak character, but he also characterised her as submissive, and typically only looking for one thing from life - a husband. From practically the beginning of the novel, Maria is desperately seeking the love of her life, and Coelho also insinuates frequently that all women are doing the very same thing. I unfortunately, couldn't relate; the only thing I want from life is a puppy. Luckily, as with all Coelho novels, the sensitive worldly dude comes and saves her from herself. How poetic, how fairytale, how utterly disgusting. The final scene was so diabolically sickening that I don't feel I want to comment on it.

Similar to Veronika Decides to Die, where Coelho simply could not help but make a cameo appearance, he makes blatant reference to The Alchemist here, displaying a plaque in Geneva which points out the Road to Santiago. When Maria questions what this plaque refers to, we're treated to the meagre story of the dull little shepherd. The reason for this isn't clear, and I can only assume the reference was included as some sort of act of pride. Pathetic.

The good news is, it's now over for me. No more Coelho. If any of my enemies would like to read these novels, I threw them out of the car window halfway down Millheugh Brae; you'll find them. Friends need only walk a wee bit further and I'll let you borrow something more intellectual and stimulating, such as Enid Blyton.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Book #45

Mad Max: Fury Road by George Miller

Four prelude stories that follow leading characters Nux, Immortan Joe, Furiosa, and a two-part story about Mad Max.

After basking in the cinematic explosion that was Mad Max: Fury Road, I was utterly compelled to see it again. My second viewing did little to quell my hunger, and I soon realised I had questions that were never answered by the script. I needed far more Furiosa than a normal woman's daily dose. Trawling through forums discussing theories of what happened to that arm was mildly satisfying, but I wanted something official, something concrete. Enter this graphic novel, duly pre-ordered months ago, and now finally in my wolfish little hands.

Miller and his collection of artists treat us to the back stories of characters in the lead up to Fury Road. This is an exciting concept, which fell on its face for me. Every single prequel here is crying out for more depth and detail. We find out how Nux made it into the Citadel as a child, by what was it about his strange laughter that made them reel him in? It took only a few pages to show us his acceptance, but this posed more questions than it answered. Immortan Joe's discovery of the Citadel, and the appointments of The People Eater and The Bullet Farmer were enjoyable, but I needed a lot more than I was given. Max's story came in two parts, which were particularly bleak, but very typical of the wasted setting.

My favourite section was the compilation of tales building up to the creation of the War Rig. I can't say this beast of a vehicle was something I needed to hear the story of, but I hadn't considered the parts coming from different places, and belonging to different people, each with their own stories. Leanne and her dolls are an incredible part of this curiosity which I won't forget in a hurry. The artwork in War Rig was noticeably different to the other issues; far more raw, with jarring colours and lines. This bolted me out of my comfort zone immediately, and did wonders for my attention. A truly incredible addition to the novel, the history of a vehicle is surprisingly macabre.

Furiosa. My Furiosa. How disappointed I was in you. I came out of that cinema brimming with utter glee that this film had treated its female characters in such an amazing way. Furiosa's gender was never questioned; her strength and determination said it all for her. The film shows her empathy for the brides, and her unrelenting desire to remove them from their abuser. We're subtly made aware of the brides sufferings, although this itself is never depicted on screen. The comic veers off in the opposite direction, with gratuitous rape scenes that seemed to be the only focus. With the film hinting at rape, and viewers simply understanding the connotations, there's something uncomfortable about the need to render so incessantly something we should simply accept as fact. The brides are shown to be weak and unable to help themselves, with Furiosa given to us as a rape apologist and a pro-lifer. We see her stopping the amateur abortion of one of Joe's children, and telling the brides they lead a comfortable life with food and water, and to be grateful for that. It's also implied that Furiosa was once a bride, which leads into other areas of analysis in relation to trauma. Despite this possibility, I was utterly disgusted. This was not my Furiosa.

Despite the need to find out more, I almost wish I hadn't picked this up. Of course, there's going to be another film, so I imagine secrets are being kept for that. I just hope some of my expectations are met there, as this wasn't nearly as good as I'd hoped it to be. What a lovely day.