Sunday, 28 August 2016

Book #42

The Vanishing Act by Mette Jakobsen

This is a story about a snow-covered island you won't find on any map.
It's the story of a girl, Minou. A year ago, her mother walked out into the rain and never came back.
It's about a magician and a priest and a dog called No Name. It's about a father's hunt for the truth.
It's about a dead boy who listens, and Minou's search for her mother's voice.
It's a story of how even the most isolated places have their own secrets.
It's a story you'll never forget.

This book arrived with me much like the dead boy arrived on the island: unexpected and anonymous. Wrapped in brown paper instead of a thick jacket, and with mysterious front page ripped in half instead of a mysterious gold button. To this day, I am still unsure where this parcel came from, and like the dead boy, I still haven't discovered its secrets.

Although I found The Vanishing Act enjoyable, the more pages I turned, the more I realised there was absolutely nothing behind the pretty prose. Jakobsen writes gorgeously of the island, its isolation, and what's happened to its inhabitants. After the dead boy washes up, Minou considers her life's mysteries with her philosopher's mind. Through flashbacks and deep thinking, we begin to understand what's happened, but are only deeply disappointed when nothing unravels at all.

Each of the characters were fragile, eccentric works of art with no background or dimension attached to them in the slightest. The desire to find out more about them is huge, as Jakobsen writes of their quirks and ticks beautifully, but doesn't give us any more than a flicker of detail.

I enjoyed the comparisons between logic and imagination. Although Minou saw herself a rational thinker like her father, we frequently saw strong flashes of her mother's creativity and imagination shining through. It was a nice testament to the argument that one can be both logical and imaginative all at once.

This had huge potential; Jakobsen's narrative is lyrical and profound, allowing us to smell the sea and feel the frost, but there's no real goal to her writing. Although she hinted we should look at the bigger picture instead of getting lost in detail, this simply wasn't enough. I just wanted to know so much more than was offered to me.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Book #41

Ecstasy by Irvine Welsh

With three delightful tales of love and its ups and downs, the ever-surprising Irvine Welsh virtually invents a new genre of fiction: the chemical romance.

You all know how I feel about Welsh. His crass, brazen stories filled with shock, drugs, and all kinds of abuse, absolutely thrill and delight me. Every new release of his I will devour rather than savour, subsequently churning out reviews filled with crazed praise and fangirl ramblings. This time I decided to go back to his earlier work and treat myself to something more raw and rough.

Ecstasy is comprised of three short stories, all in relation to chemical romances and relationships. This is the only vein running through the three; they are incredibly unlike each other, and all brought something original to the table.

There's a certain feel to Welsh short stories which is far lighter and less fucked up than his novels. They're nice for a quick injection, and something to go to when you're not quite in the mood to have your heed blown off your shoulders into pitch black darkness. Although Ecstasy gives us (amongst other things) Austen-esque pornography, beastiality, necrophilia, deformity, and child dismemberment, we end on an ecstasy high of two people falling in love. And despite me relishing the necrophilia more particularly, love is what it's all about.

You're uncomfortable, it's grim, some of the plot twists and situations will either give you a mindfuck or the boke, but it's so good. If you're too lazy to read and interpret Scot's dialect, you are an arsehole and you have my pity.

Although I wouldn't recommend this as a starting point for Welsh beginners, it's twisted, it's clatty as fuck, and it's the boy's true early stuff. Canny beat it.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Book #40

More Than This by Patrick Ness

A boy drowns, desperate and alone in his final moments. He dies.

Then he wakes, naked and bruised and thirsty, but alive.
How can this be? And what is this strange deserted place?
As he struggles to understand what is happening, the boy dares to hope. Might this not be the end? Might there be more to this life, or perhaps this afterlife?

I have absolutely no idea what happened in this novel. My brain has melted all over the insides of my skull, and Ness has left me, once again, in a state of utter disbelief. More Than This is almost 500 pages of confusion and chaos becoming ameliorated with philosophic realisation. And this book is for kids.

Firstly, I just want to touch upon the fact that this book is for kids. Although, at 29 years old, I still consider myself a young adult, when I was truly the age of the target audience, I had nothing to read but empty nonsense designed purely for entertainment and for keeping us out of trouble. Yes, they had their messages -  friendship, being good, staying away from vice (not that those helped me), but I never read anything with such an impact as this. Ness is a YA writer with a certain sophistication, a certain way of landing a message more important than not stealing your friend's boyfriend (sorry, Sweet Valley High, I still love you), and an out and out love and respect for his audience. They're not stupid kids; they're clever, they're fierce, and they're ready to be tried. And in true Ness fashion, try us he did.

You're a reader. You've read books before; they tend to follow patterns. You know what's coming, vaguely. You've seen it before. You're comfortable in your literary cloud; it's nice. You try to tell Mr Ness you're enjoying his novel, but before you can voice the statement, he comes and smacks you over the head with a heavy plot twist. You don't have time to recover before the next one. The smacking continues until page 480. You're never the same again.

You are plunged into a strange dystopian crisis with Ness throwing existential questions around at speed. Finding one answer unlocks a plethora of other questions until the realisation that none of the answers really matter triggers the above-mentioned melting of the brain. You're questioning everything. You don't know what's real. Ness has ensnared you again. It's frightening, it's vivid, it's mind-fuckery. There is a very fine line between reality and virtual reality. I repeat: you don't know what's real.

Ness gives us characters with such depth, such diversity, and such humanity that our heart breaks and yearns for them. Their lives are shown to us starkly, realistically, yet tenderly, so that nothing but love could pour out for any of them. Our protagonist, Seth, and his two friends Regine and Tomasz, were just the most unlikely and gorgeous set of comrades. My heart swelled for all of them, but I doubt I'm alone when I say it swelled for Tomasz most of all. With everything going on in the world today, I would love for Ness to write, and for everyone to read, an entire story on Tomasz's life - whether it turned out to be real or not.

I'll stop rambling now. After proof-reading what I've written so far, I'm unsure I've conveyed expertly what this book really was and how it made me feel. It's incredibly difficult to review; I believe it will mean something different to everyone. The best I can do is urge you to read it, and make your own mind up.

Note: Please don't ask to borrow my copy; it's special.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Book #39

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Chafed by the "sivilized" restrictions of his foster home, and weary of his drunkard father's brutality, Huck Finn fakes his own death and sets off on a raft down the Mississippi River. He is soon joined by Jim, an escaped slave. Together, they experience a series of rollicking adventures that have amused readers, young and old, for over a century.

Where I absolutely loved reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, it didn't give me as much of Huckleberry Finn as I wanted, or as I deserved. This poverty-stricken outcast with a sensible head was the perfect foil to Tom's overactive fantastical mind, and I wanted to see so much more of him. Neither did I see enough commentary on the customs and beliefs of the time, particularly not on the race and slavery issues Twain touched upon, but never delved into. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has finally given me everything I wanted, truly living up to the title of Great American Novel.

Huck is still the same boy we met in the previous novel. He's been adopted and 'sivilized' by the Widow Douglas, and has hated every minute of it. He's so used to living in the great outdoors, that sleeping in a bed and wearing nice clothes are an irritant to him. When the chance comes for him to escape, he grasps it, and finds himself equal measures of adventure and trouble.

The transformation we see in Huck over these pages is remarkable and truly heartwarming. Travelling with Jim, a black man who has run from his owner, Huck treats him initially as he's been taught to treat any black slave, even considering turning him in. Slowly, as the two build up a relationship, Huck very clearly changes his reasoning, and begins to see Jim as a person with feelings and a family. He comments at one point that Jim even thinks like a white man. The build-up of their relationship is beautiful to see, and Huck's slow realisations of his own socially conditioned beliefs feel like a triumph.

Tom's appearance in the novel reinforces the difference between the two boys. At some points Tom was nothing more than infuriating, carrying out utterly ridiculous charades in order to seek adventure. Considering what was at stake when Tom was behaving in such a way, we can see he has not learned the lessons Huck has, nor does he have the same heart. Where I found Tom an entitled little bitch in the first novel, this was nothing to what I found him here.

Twain makes some very funny, yet serious, satirical comments on small town life in the United States at the time. Mainly these are in relation to attitudes on race, but he also makes clear his opinion on things like being a good person, mob mentality, and family rituals. Twain's beautiful descriptions of Mississippi were also a big hit with me, and these coming first person in Huck's simplistic narrative, were nothing short of gorgeous.

I think this book is so much more important than Tom Sawyer. Huck feels more and learns more than Tom ever did during his turn. The messages and lessons learnt here are far more ingrained than anything Tom could have achieved. An out and out classic, definitely.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Book #38

Of Street Piemen by Henry Mayhew

Radical Victorian reformer Henry Mayhew walked the streets of London interviewing ordinary flower girls, market traders, piemen and costermongers to create the first ever work of mass social observation, and the ultimate account of urban life - including an extraordinary description of the city from a hot air balloon.

Mayhew writes passionately of his Victorian London, throwing off the stereotypes, and presenting us with a realistic picture of the poor, their daily lives and struggles, and their entertainment in the penny gaffs. 

As someone who is generally fascinated by books detailing this era, Mayhew's descriptions were valuable and interesting to me, despite being dull to some. The price of street pies, the methods of catching and selling birds, the profits made by such endeavours, and the ways in which these profits were spent on necessity or pleasure, all delighted and enthralled me. They showed me the real Victorian London, and helped dissolve any preconceived fantasies.

It's clear Mayhew had sympathy for the lower classes, and had aims to highlight their struggles through his work as a journalist. Compare that to how the poor are depicted in our media today, and it seems we've gone backwards rather than forwards in the past 150 years or so. It's a sad thing to contemplate, but definitely something to hold on to.

The atmosphere Mayhew weaves into his observations creates a real gloom to London, but a gloom with a certain purpose. Although his accounts of the people were relished more by me, his detailed explanations of the city's aesthetic, whether from a fast train, a high balcony, or a soaring hot air balloon, were completely gorgeous in their originality.

I'm no Londoner, but I can only imagine the joy I would feel had Mayhew written of the streets I travel on every day, and imagining them bustling with the street markets, flower girls, and pie sellers of the era.

A truly gorgeous collection written with a keen fondness for his city; this was my first foray into Mayhew, but I'll definitely be picking some more up as soon as I can.