Saturday, 30 July 2016

Book #37

The Green Mile by Stephen King

At Cold Mountain Penitentiary, along the lonely stretch of cells known as the Green Mile, killers are depraved as the psychopathic "Billy the Kid" Wharton and the possessed Eduard Delacroix await death strapped in "Old Sparky." Here guards as decent as Paul Edgecombe and as sadistic as Percy Wetmore watch over them. But good or evil, innocent or guilty, none have ever seen the brutal likes of the new prisoner, John Coffey, sentenced to death for raping and murdering two young girls. Is Coffey a devil in human form? Or is he a far, far different kind of being?

The Green Mile is a wonderful work of literature. King has written this with such talent, subtlety, and originality that it really was an incredible experience for me.

The narrative remains stark, and mainly very bleak, as Edgecombe sits in his nursing home writing down the events at Cold Mountain in 1932. Using Edgecombe's memoirs as the storytelling tool is a genius method, allowing the story to adopt a personal and emotional tone, and for the reader's connection to grow as the words progress. Any other method wouldn't have worked nearly as well, and this was one of the things I loved most about this masterpiece.

King's characters were wonderfully developed, and had such depth to them. He painted them perfectly to allow us to experience them in our own way, but also to love and hate where we were supposed to. To evoke feelings of sympathy and regard for men who had committed crimes such as they had, was a master stroke for King. Seeing the emotions unfold as these men (on both sides of the cells) languish on The Green Mile, awaiting their turn in Old Sparky, is nothing short of heart-breaking.

Questions are raised here over the essence of good and evil, the death penalty, religion, and the power of the law. Most of all, King presents questions surrounding how we treat each other, and how our own acts can influence far more than we think. You'll experience some of your preconceived, or socially conditioned, opinions come to the fore, and you'll be forced to analyse, and potentially let go of, most of them.

This is the few King novels I've read which can't be categorised completely into the horror genre. Although he dabbles in the supernatural, the horror here is humanity, and he shows us this in waves. People are guilty of assuming all of his books fall into the same type, saying they've never read a King novel because they're "not into horror"; you only need to pick up The Green Mile to see his versatility, his power, and his absolute skill.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Book #36

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

Gilbert Markham is deeply intrigued by Helen Graham, a beautiful and secretive young widow who has moved into nearby Wildfell Hall with her young son. He is quick to offer Helen his friendship, but when her reclusive behavior becomes the subject of local gossip and speculation, Gilbert begins to wonder whether his trust in her has been misplaced. It is only when she allows Gilbert to read her diary that the truth is revealed and the shocking details of her past.

Novels of this era always sate my curiosity around the gender roles and social customs prevalent at the time. We read of ladies marrying lords with stiff upper lips, the most stoic well-mannered elite, and of manners and conduct being mandatory in all things. It does lead one to wonder what goes on behind closed doors; does the lady ever walk to the larder in her pyjamas, do husband and wife ever giggle and have a carry on, does the upstanding gentleman ever abuse his promises?

Brontë shows us all of this in a perceived act of defiance against the male species. She presents us with a man so loathsome, so tempted by vice, and so childish that his wife decides to take matters into her own hands, and flee the marital home, for the sake of her son. This was a big deal in the nineteenth century; where many of us women have had to gather courage in the present day, having the nerve to do this in Brontë's time was absolutely huge.

Many of these types of novels detail the wayward wealthy gent who simmers down immeasurably when married off to a blushing young woman. She tends to balm his spirits with her innocence, and reminds him of purity, religion, and truth. He settles down, and they both live a wonderful life. This is a terrible message, of course, and Anne shows us the problems with it by having Helen's aunt warn her against marrying unless she's sure, and doubtlessly in love.

Helen's plans of a peaceful marriage never come to fruition, and she finds herself abandoned for months at a time, callously attacked by her husband's tongue, and eventually finds herself in the midst of drunken gatherings at home where she is endlessly and wildly subjected to deep abuse from both her husband and his friends. Brontë writes of her oppression mildly to say the least, but the power is still there, the horror portrayed wonderfully, and the message itself profound and impactful.

Our leading lady was one of the strongest female characters I have ever met in Victorian literature. All of the plights she endured were met with nothing but grace, dignity, and complete resilience. She chose her battles carefully, she considered all options alongside their consequences, and she decided her time to strike. Throughout the entire novel she remained a beacon of purity and religion, never erring from her path of the most incredible righteousness. Never a martyr, never a complainer; she turned the other cheek until the fate of her child was in jeopardy. Then she rose.

My only issue with the novel was our narrator, Gilbert Markham. Markham falls in love with Helen when she moves into the looming gothic home in his town, and does not rest at all until she is aware of his undying love. His persistence, blind determination, and complete lack of self-awareness infuriated me. He would refuse to leave Helen alone, employing a frighteningly relatable "let me love you" act which is typical of men even these days who haven't been allowed to have what they want. I'm not sure Brontë meant for the reader to hate him quite as much as I did, but I was pleased to see his pig-headed manner improved by the finale of the story.

This is a wonderful, important novel, which makes me wonder why I have never read Anne before. I loved Emily first, then Charlotte pushed ahead of her in terms of literary prowess. I have found over time that it's futile to compare the Brontë sisters, but Anne, Anne, you have stolen the heart from my rib cage.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Book #35

Circles of Hell by Dante

Ten of the most memorable and most terrifying cantos from Dante's Inferno.

Knowing myself to be an imbecile of poetry, it was clear I was going to struggle with this one. I have had notions in the past of reading The Divine Comedy, but these best laid plans have never come to fruition. What better tool to use to ease myself into this masterpiece than a small collection of cantos from Inferno?

It didn't work for me. I was so excited by the first canto, becoming absorbed and exhilarated by understanding what was going on, and clicking into symbolism and rhythm. The language was gorgeous and powerful throughout, and for the duration of that first canto, I truly thought I'd discovered something spectacular. Then I was plunged forward in the story, to a different setting, another utterly random canto, and I lost hope. I could no longer understand where I was, what Virgil was showing me, nor the reason for my being there. I was thrown forwards nine times, and became more irritated with each shove.

This random selection would be wonderful for those who have previously read Dante, survived, and would like another whistle stop tour. It's an entirely confusing experience to never have read of Dante's Hell, and then to be presented with it in a piecemeal, illogical fashion.

I'm disappointed; I was so excited to read this, but I truly feel this is one best experienced as a whole. I have no doubt The Divine Comedy will remain on my bucket list for years to come.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Book #34

The Vanishing by Tim Krabbé

Petrol gauge broken, anxiety and tempers flaring, young lovers Rex and Saskia, heading for the South of France, pull in at a service station to refuel. The moment they stop they make up and Rex buries two coins in the base of a fence post as a sign of their love. Saskia goes off to buy cold drinks and vanishes. Eight years later Rex is still haunted by her. Then one day he sees scrawled on the grime of a yellow car parked outside his window the words REX YOU'RE SO SWEET, and the obsession burns in his blood again.

I'm yet to fathom why I utterly loathe every cult novel I choose to pick up. It could be something to do with the hype: the pretentious reviews declaring every apparent thriller a masterpiece. Perhaps it's the expectation of something new being crushed with every turn of the page, or the blame could lie with the many better written books I've experienced.

The Vanishing seemed to me like something I'd enjoy. It's a mere 100-odd pages long, so I believed these meagre pages were going to pack a very strong punch. I soon discovered a very bland, detached tale of abduction, one which evoked nothing more than languor in my limbic system. There is absolutely nothing original or striking here; girl goes missing, guy mourns and tries to find her for eight years, guy bumps into murderer, spoiler spoiler spoiler, the end.

I'd love to say this would perhaps be better in the original Dutch, but I don't hold much store by that suggestion. The plot was pitiful. The characters are one-dimensional and as dull as an afternoon in the British Lawnmower museum. Krabbé did nothing to make me hold onto them, and I was almost glad of the protagonist's ultimate situation. Even the middle third, where we venture into the mind of the villain, was weird, disjointed, and completely lacking any sort of justification.

Once again, other reviewers see something wonderful that I've missed completely. My literary maturity is either off the scale, or seriously lacking. 

Monday, 4 July 2016

Book #33

The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows by Rudyard Kipling

Kipling first became famous for his pungent, harsh and shocking stories of northwest India, where he grew up. This is just a small selection from his inexhaustibly contentious and various early work. 

This is an excellent collection of Kipling's short stories, and far more darker than expected. He draws on his experiences in colonial India, and his tales border on the macabre, and often supernatural.

The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows itself is a very bleak and melancholy story of an opium addict. The title comes from the very aptly named opium den the narrator frequents; where all hope is lost, and all one can hope for is dying in the quiet on a clean mat. The narrator is numb to all but his vice, and is senselessly content to pay the extortionate prices imposed by the landlord. Sad, hopeless, and somewhat horrific, this is a very very good story.

My favourite of the five stories was The Bisara of Pooree, named after a carved wooden fish in a silver box which can bring love only to those who steal it from its previous owner. Those who buy, find, or are given the object are condemned to a life of bad luck. The magic and the paranormal seeped through the pages here, and Kipling presented a wonderful ending.

I found each of the tales here to be gorgeous in their own way, however particularly loved the two mentioned above most. Kipling really was a man who knew how to weave a story. His structure and descriptions plunge the reader directly into India, and we experience the colours, sounds, and smells to a wonderful degree. I enjoyed the use of unexplained exotic language, and the subtle hints at customs quite unknown to me.

This is (quite ashamedly) a wonderful introduction to Kipling for me. I hope to read more of his work later in the year.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Book #32

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton

Summer 1924: On the eve of a glittering society party, by the lake of a grand English country house, a young poet takes his life. The only witnesses, sisters Hannah and Emmeline Hartford, will never speak to each other again.  
Winter 1999: Grace Bradley, ninety-eight, one-time housemaid at Riverton Manor, is visited by a young director making a film about the poet's suicide. Ghosts awaken and old memories - long consigned to the dark reaches of Grace's mind - begin to sneak back through the cracks. A shocking secret threatens to emerge, something history has forgotten but Grace never could. 

I completely underestimated this. Picking up a Richard and Judy Summer Read brings a dread of easy reading, shallow entertainment, and the standard boy meets girl fluff. Although it was definitely an easy read, it also gave me all of the things I love reading about; English manors, the relationships between upstairs and downstairs, the social expectations of the era, and best of all, a glimpse at the madness of the 1920s. With breezes of Downton Abbey and Atonement, I fell deeply into this story.

Grace has suppressed her memories of working at Riverton, and now lies in a home for the elderly. She's contacted by a film director who is creating a work based on the events at Riverton involving the suicide of a progressive poet. Grace is invited to visit the film set, and the shock of it brings her earlier life to the fore. We're then treated to the details of the family, their troubles, and the ultimate scandal that finally ripped the family apart.

Despite many reviews blasting Morton's narration, I enjoyed it immeasurably. The foreshadowing was rife, yet effective, and although many claim to have guessed the final twist, I was kept enthralled until the end. Grace's narration flitted from past to present rapidly, but I found that wonderfully believable as conversations and events triggered her memory into continuing Riverton's story. My one wish would have been to see Grace's transformation from servitude to independence, and her life after Riverton.

Morton's characters were wonderful, and the differences between the sisters were engrossing. I particularly loved Hannah, who was incredibly liberal before her time, desiring more than anything to see the world and experience its adventures. From reading many other books set in this era, many of the female characters only desire a husband. This made Hannah so refreshing for me, and made her real journey only more devastating. Emmeline was adored by me for different reasons; starting off dreaming of her debut and a wealthy husband, she is captured by the 20s and becomes a real party girl. Although the men flock to her, she has no real intentions with any of them, excepting the one she cannot have.

The lives of the sisters are described perfectly by Grace, and she weaves a realistic yet enchanting story of war, hierarchy, love, and friendship. The finale was beautiful, and I was pleased to see many loose ends tied up on Grace's deathbed. Her last visit to Riverton was poignant, and I shivered as she conjured up images of her old friends and colleagues.

A truly excellent debut novel, and an engrossing Gothic tragedy. Never again will I scoff at a Richard and Judy Summer Read