Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Book #21

Cold Calling by Haydn Wilks

You spend your days staring into a computer screen, trying to sell life insurance to young couples with new babies.
You spend your nights staring into a computer screen, extracting filth from and injecting bile into the internet.
You still live with the same dickhead housemate you went to university with.
Your only respite from computer screens are nights spent getting smashed with him at student bars, watching him prance around, trying to pull much younger girls.
Your life sucks and you suck at it.
One drunken night, you try something new.
Something terrible.
But something that brings you new energy, new drive, new desires.
You start eating the young.

Sick, sick, sick. Wonderfully sick.

Wilks' writing is superb again. His words are addictive, and his relatable world of the call centre, the what am I doing with my life dilemma, the mundane repetition of a life you didn't choose, makes the ultimate scenes of depravity all the more realistic, and all the more disgusting. I very rarely squirm at the grotesque in novels, but here I actually had to avert my eyes and steel myself before committing to read any more. Utterly horrendous, yet somehow delicious at the same time.

I loved the macabre mixed in with the mundane. Flesh in a Heston Blumenthal slow cooker; human bones in a council bin. None of the perverted romance in similar novels was present here (think American Psycho), nor was it welcome. Walking through John Lewis with the thought of cannibalism on your mind. Glorious.

There was something missing for me, though. I read The Death of Danny Daggers a couple of years ago and found it entirely amazing, but Cold Calling didn't seem quite as good. It was fairly short, and could've been doing with some more meat to the bones (no pun intended), and a far better ending. Maybe I'm just greedy for more baby flesh.

An excellent one for those of us stuck in the call centre life, that daily repetition of the workaday blur. I'd recommend this for a quick injection of obscenity, but I'd caveat that by suggesting you read Danny Daggers first. I look forward to seeing more from Wilks.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Book #20

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

First published in 1892, The Yellow Wallpaper is written as the secret journal of a woman who, failing to relish the joys of marriage and motherhood, is sentenced to a country rest cure. Though she longs to write, her husband and doctor forbid it, prescribing instead complete passivity. In the involuntary confinement of her bedroom, the hero creates a reality of her own beyond the hypnotic pattern of the faded yellow wallpaper--a pattern that has come to symbolize her own imprisonment.
The Yellow Wallpaper is a powerful, yet utterly horrifying, story of the Victorian rest cure for women. In those days, female mental illness was almost always put down to hysteria, with women being institutionalised for the remainder of their lives. In this short story, Gilman gives us a woman subjected to imprisonment by her physician husband due to what we'd recognise today as postpartum depression. Deprived of any sort of mental exercise, she focuses on the one thing in the room she can - the horrendous wallpaper. This soon becomes a tormenting obsession, and can be argued is the sole contributor to a descent into madness.

The sadness here is in the husband's actions and inactions. The Victorian cures leave a lot to be desired, with us being the fragile sex and all, so of course, hubby knows best. His refusal to listen to our narrator's pleas for mental stimulation, his inability to see her decline, and his clear opinion that his wife was a mere object in his life to be polished for best, were all guilty factors in the ultimate tragic end. The true tragedy is the implication that, had our narrator been given what she'd asked for, she could have had the ability to overcome the problems in her mind.

Gilman uses the wallpaper itself to symbolise the rapid loss of sanity; the further she sinks, the more the patterns on the walls undulate and morph, giving our narrator a feeling of unease, and then a grip of mania as she attempts to remove the paper. It's gothic, and Gilman's descriptions of the movements of the patterns creates an eerie, supernatural feel. When one remembers all of this is the work of the narrator's mind, rather than ghosts, it becomes all the more real and macabre.

I was very, very impressed with this little story and would urge you to read it. The other two in the edition were worthwhile inclusions, but truly paled in comparison to the titular story.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Book #19

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

Twenty-year-old Tassie Keltjin, the daughter of a gentleman farmer, has come to a university town as a student. When she takes a job as a part-time nanny for a mysterious and glamorous family, she finds herself drawn deeper into their world and forever changed. 

What an absolutely colossal waste of my time. The praise that has been written for this book, the five-star, one-sentence reviews printed on the back and front, the people who loved it! Why?!

Moore gives us pointless, grandiose, utterly irrelevant prose, holding her sparse plot points together like blu-tack that's just been urgently removed from a dog's mouth. Her philosophy, her social commentary, her embarrassing attempt at embodying a college student, were all just so trite and dull. As I neared the end of the novel, I started to speed-scan paragraphs, then pages; I missed the grand total of nothing.

Our protagonist was one of the worst I have ever seen in literature. Had I known her in real life, I'm not sure I'd be able to curtail my violent streak. A complete wisp of magnolia trying to be somebody with deep thoughts, but failing miserably with thoughts that would send anyone into an early grave of boredom. She coasts through this story, never having any impact on her own life, nor or the life of others, despite being given ample opportunity. She uses a vibrator to stir her chocolate milk. She takes a single book of poetry on holiday. She goes out with a Brazilian and thinks she's multicultural. I hated her.

None of the characters were believable, or even likeable, and spoke in ways no one in this world speaks. They spoke like characters conjured up for a pseudo-hipster indie movie that only indie pseudo-hipsters want to see. I cringed violently and often as they expressed their exasperating opinions and desires.

Despite being contrived, clumsy, and irrevocably colourless, Moore has taught me two things here; do not trust the opinions of others, and do not continue to waste your time with hopeless literary crap such as this.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Book #18

The Atheist's Mass by HonorĂ© de Balzac

A stunning pair of short stories about faith and sacrificial love. 

Both of these little stories are absolutely gorgeous and so important. Both were steeped in compassion, both told of the kind of devotion we have for those who aren't our lover, both were incredibly clever.

The Atheist's Mass tells of a surgeon who scorns all idea of religion, yet who is observed going to Mass four times a year. This seems entirely suspicious to the spectator, who asks questions of the surgeon on his apparent piousness. The story that unfolds afterwards is touching, thought-provoking, and completely understandable. Balzac explains the idea of an atheist respecting religion, and the faith of others, and the idea that just maybe, the atheist wishes he had something like religion to hold on to.

The Conscript is a much different story, yet all the more heartbreaking. Balzac shows us life during the French Revolution through the eyes of a mother waiting for her son to return home. The suspense created during this short story was masterful, with the ending utterly devastating.

Balzac has weaved so much into these two small tales; I wasn't expecting to be as touched as I was. They were raw, honest, and felt almost pure to read. Absolutely wonderful work. 

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Book #17

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Twenty-seven-year old Anne Elliot is Austen's most adult heroine. Eight years before the story proper begins, she is happily betrothed to a naval officer, Frederick Wentworth, but she precipitously breaks off the engagement when persuaded by her friend Lady Russell that such a match is unworthy. The breakup produces in Anne a deep and long-lasting regret. When later Wentworth returns from sea a rich and successful captain, he finds Anne's family on the brink of financial ruin and his own sister a tenant in Kellynch Hall, the Elliot estate. All the tension of the novel revolves around one question: will Anne and Wentworth be reunited in their love?

I've never read an Austen novel I didn't love, but I'm sorry to report the day has arrived. Persuasion is fairly bland, with no real dramatic events, and a lot of sitting around chatting politely.

Our heroine is a paragon of society; polite, accomplished, and ready to be of assistance to anyone who needs it. She's lovely, but also incredibly dull. We're given her history of love with Captain Wentworth without any real glimmer of her passion for him until later in the novel. Wentworth himself is dire, and we are only given a true account of his character in the final stages.

Certainly, there were elements present which I normally love about Austen; the commentary on societal norms, the fascination of rank, class and wealth, and the importance attached to grand appearances, were all there. Austen's scathing remarks as narrator also really hit the spot.

I was torn by the relentless comments on Anne's age of 'seven and twenty', which had attached to them merciless implications that she's entirely past it, and that all youth and charm are now behind her. Now, I know this is a sign of the times, but Jane, I am thirty this year and do not appreciate such assertions.

The most important thing I've taken away from this novel is the importance of decisions we make in life, the requirement for risk, and the danger of inaction leading to misery. This all resounded well with me due to what's currently happening in my life, but I did find myself frustrated at all the dancing around and subtle looks that were going on. Anne Elliot certainly is not one to take the bull by the horns.

It's not a bad book, by any stretch, it's just not the best. The words are beautiful as always, the glimpse into Victorian life, as always, delicious. It's just a bit predictable, with too many characters, and a serious lack of happening.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Book #16

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

From his rooms in Baker Street, Sherlock Holmes's brooding figure emerges into the foggy streets of Victorian London to grapple with the forces of treachery, intrigue, and evil.

This is an excellent work of twelve short stories exploring some of Holmes' smaller cases. Despite their length, they are each of them wonderfully layered, and provide a deeper insight into both Holmes' skill, and his almost sociopathic persona. I imagine there's no psychologist, dead or alive, who wouldn't have loved an attempt at fully exploring his mind. Having only ever read full novels on Holmes' cases, I wondered whether shortening his adventures would remove some of the magic. Doyle simply compresses his genius into fewer words - that's it. The enchantment is still there.

Each of the clients bring something aloof and mysterious to Sherlock's room. Doyle's imagination is unrivalled as we see the cases resolved, some in ways that could be easily predicted, but most not. Guessing the outcome can create a feeling of your own superior intellect, however the prize is being treated to how Holmes worked it all out. The pace is perfect, the characters intriguing, and most beautifully of all, we're given our first glimpse of Irene Adler.

There's just something about the idea of foggy Victorian London, awash with mysteries and secrets, darkness and deceit, that gets me every time. Add in a man of astounding intellect and a general impatience for the dull, and you've got yourself a beautiful detective novel. I love crime mysteries, but police cars, roaring sirens, and the aid of technology completely pale in comparison to the pipe smoking, newspaper reading, telegram sending detective of Baker Street.

My only critique of these stories would be that they all followed exactly the same structure. Holmes and Watson lounge in Baker Street one morning until a client appears. The client unravels the situation they've found themselves in. The duo find a way of visiting the scene of the incident (note: not scene of the crime, as not all of these stories had a criminal aspect to them - wonderfully). Sherlock then solves the matter, and describes at length how he managed to do so. The structure worked, and I'm sure I couldn't live without the finality of the explanation, however I would have loved a little bit of variety here.

Holmes and Watson are both literary legends, and deservedly so. Doyle's storytelling skill is an absolute treasure; it takes a true master to make mysteries like these, and the way they are solved, believable, not to mention making a reader love a quite irrefutable and exasperating man.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Book #15

Five Chilren and It by E. Nesbit

The five children find a cantankerous sand fairy, a psammead, in a gravel pit. Every day 'It' will grant each of them a wish that lasts until sunset, often with disastrous consequences.

What a glorious little tale about being careful what you wish for, and full of nostalgia.

Our five children are presented as five pieces of a tight family puzzle; they work well with one another, they are each of them different, and they behave exactly as children their age should. We see them brimming with excitement and naivety at the beginning of novel, and then slowly, as each and every wish brings some level of catastrophe, we see them become careful, cynical, and crafty. They're clever kids, and they manage to wriggle out of each situation using only their wits. I did find them lightly irritating, although that's just how I feel about most children.

Nesbit's style is perfect for her target audience. Never patronising, she delivers her morals with subtlety, yet with an important weight. These kids have the opportunity to ask for anything they want from their sand-fairy, and they ask for all the things that would cross my mind (namely money, looks, and wings), yet each of these things brings misery and problems. They come to understand, with every wish, that things were much better before the wish had been made.

There's some clear racism and sexism here; although I normally write these off as a sign of the times, I was uncomfortable in places. I've read female authors from that period who would never have described someone as "just like a girl." It was disappointing.

Although the idea of having a wish every day is entirely delectable, and although I know I am cleverer than these kids, seeing the ways their dreams were thwarted each and every time has put me off limitless wishes. I would, however, like an irascible little sand-fairy to keep me company; his temperament was so exactly like my own. 

Monday, 27 February 2017

Book 14

Candide by Voltaire
Brought up in the household of a powerful Baron, Candide is an open-minded young man, whose tutor, Pangloss, has instilled in him the belief that 'all is for the best'. But when his love for the Baron's rosy-cheeked daughter is discovered, Candide is cast out to make his own way in the world. 
And so he and his various companions begin a breathless tour of Europe, South America and Asia, as an outrageous series of disasters befall them - earthquakes, syphilis, a brush with the Inquisition, murder - sorely testing the young hero's optimism.

A gorgeous tale on the strength of optimism, Voltaire satirises both the inherently optimistic, and the irrevocable pessimistic, in all of us. 

Candide is a naive wee chap. Having been taught that everything in this world is for the best, and having never been allowed access to the world to form his own opinions, not to mention make his own decisions, he is cast out of his household and forced into both of these. The series of events which follow are sent to test his borrowed philosophy. He's an incredibly bland fool; easily taken in, and incapable of any sort of subtlety or discretion.

Every single character experiences some sort of physical or mental torment, many experience a multitude of these. Voltaire shows us a world which is evil to the extreme, and show us how this knocks Candide's belief in the hopeful and promising philosophies he had been taught. Each of these harrowing moments are cast in a comical light, and this brings entertainment to our understanding. Amongst murder, rape, torture, natural disaster, and prostitution, only once does Voltaire lack humour in his telling of human misery, and that's when he shows us slavery. This felt utterly profound and quite telling of his views on that matter alone.

In Pangloss and Martin, Voltaire juxtaposes an extreme optimist with an extreme pessimist, yet allows us to realise that neither is the epitome of perfection, nor do their lives follow sensible, or peaceful courses. Voltaire shows us that neither of these beliefs are admirable, or even desirable, as he attempts to prod these two into revoking their reasoning.

Although inconceivably far-fetched at times, the nonsense works well to enforce Voltaire's point. Misery is living in every possible place, even within us, and this can almost always be traced back to the blackness of the human soul. Yet, we live on, we desire to live on, in a world where happiness can never be a constant.

I loved it.

'You lack faith,' said Candide.
'It is because,' said Martin, 'I have seen the world.'

Friday, 24 February 2017

Book #13

The Steel Flea by Nikolay Leskov

An uproarious and alcohol-soaked shaggy-dog story from one of Russia's great comic masters.

A clever, amusing little tale of patriotism, one-up a ship, and the everyday man, The Steel Flea is impressive in quite how much of a story is given to us in fifty pages. 

Each page felt entirely bonkers, with the reader having to interpret what's going on, and decipher the words being used. Once used to this, however, it becomes thoroughly entertaining and comic. Leskov's humour is subtle, yet endearing, and I'm sure I would have been even more tickled had I even the smallest ounce of knowledge on the political climate at the time.

Although a good place to start investigating Leskov's political commentary, I wouldn't say it's a great place to start in Russian literature; I've definitely read better. What's wonderful about it, though, is the commentary on the relations between Russia and England at the time, and the incredible showcasing of the underdog and his fate. 

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Book #12

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit who enjoys a comfortable, unambitious life, rarely travelling further than the pantry of his hobbit-hole in Bag End. But his contentment is disturbed when the wizard, Gandalf, and a company of thirteen dwarves arrive on his doorstep one day to whisk him away on an unexpected journey ‘there and back again’. They have a plot to raid the treasure hoard of Smaug the Magnificent, a large and very dangerous dragon.

I've never read Tolkien, and I've never seen the films. The hype bypassed me, both in words and on screen, and I found it was about time I got my teeth into this saga. Sadly, it did very little for me.

Although it's quite easy to tell the story was written for children, Tolkien spends an arduous amount of time describing the surroundings, the objects, the faces, and the beards. I found my eyes glazing over as once again we were regaled with sweeping views of mountainsides and rivers. It was beautiful, but I was longing for something to happen. The pace is slow, no doubt to reinforce the length of the journey, but the spaces between significant events, or even dialogue, was mostly too long to bear, with Tolkien mentioning many times of hardship and adventure he "didn't have time" to tell us. Not to mention the people of Middle-Earth really love a good song, so there were plenty of those. Great.

Characters introduced and involved here were of a huge number, yet none of them had much depth, nor intrigue, about them. Some were killed off and I barely flinched as I was too busy trying to remember who the fuck it was.

The dwarves and Bilbo wander through roads and forests with no real plan, or clue of what they're doing, constantly relying on Gandalf to save the day each time, until he decides he's going to piss off. Now, I can't blame him for this; if I was walking about with these clueless lunatics who were consistently complaining about being tired and hungry before wandering into more bother, I'd piss off too. However, considering Gandalf had organised this entire shitemare, surely he would think to stick about. Unless, of course, we needed him as a plot device to save the day when all hope is lost.

My favourite part of the novel was Smaug's demise. Not only did our brave troupe of dwarves forget to devise a plan for killing him, they only realised they hadn't done so when they were practically in his knickers. To allow the main enemy of the novel to be defeated by someone other than the 'heroes' shows how pathetic these fools really were. Perhaps Tolkien also thought so, although I doubt it.

I really could go on a lot longer about this novel's flaws, but I need to get it out of my life. It's important to say I didn't hate it, however I couldn't engage with it, and found it entirely dull. I am also more than aware this is an unpopular opinion, however it's one I will not relinquish.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Book #11

The Old Nurse's Story by Elizabeth Gaskell

A phantom child roams the Northumberland moors, while a host of fairytale characters gone to seed gather in the dark, dark woods in these two surprising tales of the uncanny from the great Victorian novelist.

Victorian gothic is everything. It almost always sits within an old house haunted by something who had wrongs done unto them in the past; almost always involves a child, a dark and gloomy night, a family secret. It's almost always exactly the same, but I will embrace Victorian gothic like an old friend each and every time.

I'd never heard of Gaskell before reading this (thank you once more, Little Black Classics range), but I'm very glad I have. Her style is simple, yet captivating, in the sense that she spins us into a normal, dull world, only to release the most terrifying of phantoms upon us. Dead little girls banging on the windows at night - that kind of terrifying.

The Old Nurse's Story was my favourite of the two, told in direct first-person narrative to a group of children. The nurse speaks of her passion for her first little charge when she was a young woman and the girl a small child, her unrest at both being shipped off to live with distant relatives, and her fright when the ultimate supernatural goings on finally occur. She feels real, her words are trustworthy, and I think I loved her a little bit. The story is cast out slowly, and she takes her time to build the suspense, the character, and the world around her. It's truly frightening, and although I have no idea why she was telling this story to children, I'm grateful to have read it.

I wasn't quite so engaged with Curious, If True. The narrator this time was a wealthy male, not nearly as likeable as the nurse. He gets lost one evening and stumbles into a house party of people who seem to have been expecting him. Each of them stinks of fairytale nuances, and it all seemed a bit awkward, if not pointless. It was as though the entire Disney back catalogue of characters had met up for a reunion in a French mansion. All that was missing was the final sentence of, "and it was all just a dream" to underline its futility. This one couldn't even hold me, and I had to keep forcing myself to go back to it.

The nurse alone has driven me to find some more of Gaskell's work and frighten myself once more. I'll hear little girls banging on my window while I sleep for some nights yet.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Book #10

A Quiet Belief in Angels by R.J. Ellory

Joseph Vaughan's life has been dogged by tragedy. Growing up in the 1950s, he was at the centre of series of killings of young girls in his small rural community. The girls were taken, assaulted and left horribly mutilated. Barely a teenager himself, Joseph becomes determined to try to protect his community and classmates from the predations of the killer. Despite banding together with his friends as ' The Guardians', he was powerless to prevent more murders - and no one was ever caught. Only after a full ten years did the nightmare end when the one of his neighbours is found hanging from a rope, with articles from the dead girls around him. Thankfully, the killings finally ceased. But the past won't stay buried - for it seems that the real murderer still lives and is killing again. And the secret of his identity lies in Joseph's own history.

You'd be forgiven if, after reading the back of this novel, you thought of it as a standard crime thriller; little girls get killed and the mystery is eked out over a number of pages until we get to the end - we've all read those. This isn't a standard crime thriller, and it's all thanks to the style. Ellory creates a little life of this novel, moving the plot along slowly, and holding us only with his descriptive prose and intricacies. His words were beautiful.

The plot focuses solely on the protagonist, and at no point are we treated to the thoughts or feelings of any other character. This grated on me initially, but the story eventually casts light on why this might be, and the revelation was somewhat glorious. Presented in what can only be described in a rough and raw fashion, it was a story of a man who was followed by Death throughout the entirety of his years.

Despite enjoying the lyrical prose and languishing pace, there were a few notable aspects here which didn't quite meet the bar for me. There are a huge number of plot holes; inexplicable actions made, mainly by Joseph, which just didn't gel with his personality, or what he was out to achieve. Ellory repeated many of his similes, and had various characters use the same turns of phrases which had originally seemed unique to the identity of the character who had used them in the first instance. Some of the situations Joseph found himself in were trite, and I have absolutely no idea how someone could suffer such bad luck as this guy did. Lastly, the finale was abrupt, rushed, and didn't answer any of the questions we had to committed to slog towards.

Although the above paragraph is slightly longer than I had intended, I don't want to portray any hate for this novel. The blurb on the back lets it down immeasurably; read this for the gorgeous style and prose, not for a quick murder mystery fix, and you're onto a winner. 

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Book #09

The Maldive Shark by Herman Melville

Stories and poems by Herman Melville drawn from his years at sea.

This is the second Melville work I've read in a few months, having previously never ventured into any of his at-sea ramblings. I felt exactly the same about this one as I did about his long famous rambling Moby Dick: underwhelmed and exasperated.

Not only did this edition reintroduce me to Melville's whimsical pointless sea life drivel, it also included words in the form of my academic arch-nemesis, poetry. He drones on and on in sentences the length of which Joyce would have been proud. I think I'd rather have read a fucking autobiography.

Bombasticness aside, his love of underwater creatures does not resonate well with an ichthyophobic like myself. Typing The Maldive Shark into a search engine almost sent my wine glass flying across the room, closely followed by my own vomit. 

Why use one word when you can use twenty, Herman? Set me on fire and call me Ishmael.

Book #08

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell takes us on an intellectual journey through the world of "outliers" - the best and the brightest, the most famous and the most successful. He asks the question: what makes high-achievers different?
His answer is that we pay too much attention to what successful people are like, and too little attention to where they are from: that is, their culture, their family, their generation, and the idiosyncratic experiences of their upbringing. Along the way he explains the secrets of software billionaires, what it takes to be a great soccer player, why Asians are good at math, and what made the Beatles the greatest rock band. 

We've all heard of 'self-made men' rising like phoenixes from the ashes to make their mark on the world. They earn respect, they earn money, they earn immortality. We're led to believe this is due them being born with some innate talent, some irrepressible font of knowledge within them, some quality that they've grown and nurtured just to share with us and showcase their genius.

Gladwell's argument is that this is not so, that there's simply no such thing as a self-maker. Gladwell believes that success is borne purely from opportunity, and how tightly we grasp it. He explores the worlds of hockey players, software tycoons, rockstars, and Chinese rice farmers. He shows us their origins, their culture, and their opportunity, then compares each of them to the other. I realise this sounds absolutely off the charts - how can one compare a Chinese rice farmer to a rockstar? - but it works incredibly well.

To go into detail would be to give everything away, but what I will say is that the way Gladwell positions his information is engaging and educating. As a notorious hater of non-fiction books, I enjoyed his thoughts, and particularly enjoyed repeating these to others in a vain attempt to make myself sound intelligent.

I think Gladwell only had to do one more thing to nail this book for me, and he didn't do it. I wanted him to give me a female outlier; a successful and interesting woman for whom I could examine her social and cultural beginnings, understand her rise, and compare her to other moneyed girls. But alas, no woman outliers. Gladwell gave us either wives and mothers - women who had positive impacts on the success of men, but who had no real acclaim of their own to boast of, or he gave us Renee, who sat in front of a maths problem for twenty minutes and didn't manage to solve it. Hardly inspiring, Gladwell.

It's difficult, when reading this book, not to surrender into examining one's own life for missed opportunities. This is a dangerous game, as remembering missed opportunities often is. The fact remains, however, that it's our culture, our families, our environments, and even our birthdays, that create only the possibility of success. After that we need to hold on and work at it for at least ten thousand hours. Get going.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Book #07

The Great Winglebury Duel by Charles Dickens

Two of Dickens' hilarious early stories from Sketches by Boz and Bloomsbury Christening. 

This is a great insight into some of Dickens' early work. Although these short stories still include the mastery of his humour, his tongue in cheek glances at society, and his observations on social behaviour, they lack any of his serious discourses on social behaviour, and indeed, of those living in poverty - and it's not a bad thing.

The collection's namesake, The Great Winglebury Duel, was absolutely excellent. Dickens lines up a series of events and general confusion to form a completely hilarious tale of mistaken identity. In 25 pages, he built characters with glaring personalities and motivations, made me laugh endlessly, and finished it all off with an unpredictable finale that totally underlined all the frivolity.

The Steam Excursion certainly wasn't as impressive as its brother, however Dickens was at it again with his excellent characterisation. The most notable part for me was the way in which he displayed the relationships of women with an abject hatred for each other - I've always thought the subtle way in which Victorian women slagged each other off to be utterly delicious - the subtlety, the cold retaliations, and the ultimate silent defeat of one of the parties, not to mention the words they use, just pleases me immeasurably:

'How d'ye do, dear?' said the Misses Briggs to the Misses Taunton. (The word 'dear' among girls is frequently synonymous with 'wretch.')

'Quite well, thank you, dear,' replied the Misses Taunton to the Misses Briggs; and then there was such a kissing, and congratulating, and shaking of hands, as would induce one to suppose that the two families were the best friends in the world, instead of each wishing the other overboard, as they most sincerely did.


These aren't a great starting place for Dickens, and I'd dissuade anyone from taking them as such. If you're well versed on Dickens, however, these are a playful little snatch of his early work, a good view of his emergence into social commentary, and can be appreciated wholly for their humour and societal satire.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Book #06

Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

Girl with a Pearl Earring centers on Vermeer's prosperous Delft household during the 1660s. When Griet, the novel's quietly perceptive heroine, is hired as a servant, turmoil follows. First, the 16-year-old narrator becomes increasingly intimate with her master. Then Vermeer employs her as his assistant--and ultimately has Griet sit for him as a model.

The Girl With the Pearl Earring has anonymously looked over her shoulder at us for over three hundred years. She has never had a name, and has never been identified. Her mystery is in her dark setting, in her exotic head wrap, and, ultimately, in that look in her eyes. She's looking at someone, almost with an expectancy. Chevalier has not only taken her, named her, and given her a life all of her own, but has also created the very real possibility that Vermeer painted one of the maids in his household.

This account is well-crafted in it's simplistic, innocent narrative, reflective of Griet's place in the world. Historical social customs and ways of life never tire me, and I was completely taken in by Griet's need to provide for her family, her introduction to the ways of household she was employed, and even (though heartbreakingly) the spread of plague in the area. I have always been utterly enthralled at how the ways we behave towards each other change immeasurably with the passing of the years, and Chevalier has only piqued my curiosity for the Netherlands in the seventeenth century.

The descriptions of Holland in the 1600s were nothing less than wonderful. The canals, the markets, the clothes; all were depicted to create an appreciation and understanding of the time and place we'd found ourselves in. Her words are masterful in their evocation of the senses; touch and smell were particularly prevalent, and gorgeous to hold on to.

Griet's relationship with her master was hugely different from what I had expected. Although there's secrecy and tension, there's a distinct lack of romance, and that's a very important factor. Chevalier  gives us a clever girl, a worrier, a thinker; Vermeer is shown in shadow, his thoughts a complete mystery - he's even only ever referred to by pronouns - and this was the most impactful part of the novel. He cared for her, but whether or not he was in love with her neither we, nor Griet, will ever know. It's careful treading by the author, but also a courageous refusal to fall into the romance trap; I respected her so much for this.

Ultimately, I'm grateful this captivating girl has been given a story. However fictionalised it is, it's a beautiful one I won't forget for some time. Absolutely gorgeous.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Book #05

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

A brutal triple murder in a remote Scottish farming community in 1869 leads to the arrest of seventeen-year-old Roderick Macrae. There is no question that Macrae committed this terrible act. What would lead such a shy and intelligent boy down this bloody path? Will he hang for his crime?

Detailing a triple murder committed in a rural Scottish village, the book takes the form of a series of documents, akin to a case file, pertaining to the crime. Where I had initially thought these would be debilitating to the plot, I actually found them somewhat delectable and all-encompassing. Witness statements, medical reports, a written account from the prisoner himself, and a detailed portrayal of the trial, all fused together to create an utterly unforgettable work of fiction.

The whole thing is steeped in pure brilliance. For a time, prior to a quick bout of research, I truly believed I was reading a non-fictional historical account. Burnet has everything en pointe - his nineteenth century dialogue, his Highland way of life, his in-depth and overwhelming commentary on the psychology of a criminal, and most importantly, his preface. It's nothing less than delicious, and it had me tearing through the pages, starving.

Each of the sections are masterfully unique in their style. Roddy's account of his actions was written fully, and beautifully; Burnet somehow creates a fresh rustic atmosphere of a small pastoral village, juxtaposed against an ache of tension, misery, and gloom. You can smell the sea breeze and feel the earth under your feet as the men work the crops, but your heart is covered in reek due to the heavy foreshadowing Burnet has already laid upon you. You know what's coming, but you don't know yet how it comes, and when it does, you're not ready.

The various other documents feel different in their own ways; the witness statements filled with emotion, the medical reports incredibly unfeeling and clinical, and the psychologist's section was given to us with the pomposity and self-assurance one could only expect from a man of such acclaim in the 1800s. Although the transition from one section to next felt jarring, it was important to feel this in our journey through the documents.

I reached the back cover completely overwhelmed by the little details, nuances, and clues Burnet had scattered across the pages for me and which, although acknowledged, I steamrolled over in my desperate desire to take in more of his words. I cannot stress how clever this was, and how entirely satisfying this cleverness is to reflect on.

Impressive, excellent, and completely unique. I loved it.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Book #04

Sketchy, Doubtful, Incomplete Jottings by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

A selection of the most insightful maxims and reflections from one of Germany's greatest ever thinkers. 

Sketchy, doubtful, and incomplete indeed.

I've never read Goethe before now, and whilst I'm sure he was a great thinker, this was an awful introduction to his work. Comprised of small quotes lifted from other works, they're given to us piecemeal, with absolutely no context surrounding them. Many are painfully obvious, many make no sense whatsoever; all are entirely forgettable. Even now, I'd be unable to recite one that had had an impact on me.

At least it lives up to the title; a sketchy, doubtful, and incomplete waste of time. I plan to try The Sorrows of Young Werther, and I hope to fare better.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Book #03

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by JK Rowling

It was always difficult being Harry Potter and it isn’t much easier now that he is an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, a husband and father of three school-age children.

While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted. As past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places.

Any time JK releases a new novel, I'm all over it like a Dementor on an escaped Azkaban convict. This one, I refused to buy until I had been to the play. And it was painful, it was horrible, it was brain chaos, knowing I could learn the story if I wanted to, that I was shunning my wizarding world, that all my favourites were in there, waiting for me. But thank Dumbledore I did, because it was so incredibly worth it.

I'll try to keep the review focused around the plot of the play, but I do have to express my joy, disbelief, and utter wonder at the things that were happening in front of me in the theatre. As someone who goes often, and knows all the tricks, I can only explain some of these as pure magic. There's simply no other explanation.

Reading the script before seeing the play would have entirely ruined the whole thing for me, and I thank my past self for making this decision. A script of a play is unable to convey any sort of depth, realness, or indeed, magic. It's raw until the director and producer put their own build on it, and the actors work on transforming themselves into their characters. If you've read this, disliked it, and haven't seen the play, it's not JK's fault - it's your own.

The plot is gorgeous, bringing back our favourite and least favourite characters, and plunging them again into a crisis that can only involve Dark Magic. It'll be difficult for me to describe without giving anything away (a man gave me a keep the secrets badge, and I promised him I would), but it's an entirely different take on the wizarding world, on Hogwarts, and on Harry.

It's completely different to the series, and isn't a rehash of what we've already experienced. It's mature, and the difference is in the format - no lengthy, fascinating descriptions of the setting; no seeing into the characters' thoughts; everything had to be conveyed by dialogue, and that naturally had to change the tone of the story. I wonder if that's why many people were disappointed.

Throughout both the play and the script, I had some constructive thoughts on both. I initially thought it too clean the way our trio had made their way in life. But, why shouldn't they? I thought there was a lack of problem solving and clues that JK had expertly weaved into the novels. But, this thing lasted, in total, around five hours to watch - how could she possibly add anything into it without losing something important? I've talked myself out of every single remotely negative thought I had - and I could probably talk you out of yours.

Lastly, I'd love to round off by talking at length about my one of the characters, but I won't do this in the interests of keep the secrets. Let's just say I have a new favourite Slytherin.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Book #02

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they're broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever. 

I feel as though someone is holding my heart in their clenched fist.

When I've tried to explain this book to people, all I can say, dumbly, is "it's about four friends". In essence, this isn't the case at all; the book is about Jude and his three friends who loved him immeasurably. It's about Jude's shadowy past, about how he struggles, and how his friends try to show him he's loved across the majority of all of their lives.

A beautiful friendship enduring decades, the loyalty, and the talent of all these men, had me brimming over with love. Then there was the abuse, the injuries, the self-loathing, and the utter heartbreak of someone unable to see their own worth, each of these facets bending shadows and light into one another like hallucinations.

Jude's story is gut-wrenching, utterly harrowing, and is told in stark, unforgiving prose that spares absolutely no detail of the cruelty; hammering us time and time again with more incidents, more sadness, more abject sin. That Jude's past sufferings could not and would not leave him, that his guilt and horror for these hindered even the most simple pleasures in life, that his chances at happiness were snatched away from him was a build-up of pressure that my senses couldn't bear to withstand. Yanagihara's skill here is unquestionable; writing without romanticism and without absolution is brave, utterly original, and (I quite honestly feel this) somewhat heroic.

Yanagihara's characterisation is utterly flawless, and the story wouldn't be anywhere near as impactful without it. She makes us fall in love with four friends, helps us understand their pasts, their motivations, their relationships, and their needs. She gives us secondary characters with such amazing depth that we fall in love with them too. She makes them our friends, and we're in this horrible journey with them until the end, unable to let go.

The story itself is incredibly difficult to read, but the book is never difficult to pick up. No matter how grim, no matter how heartbreaking, the mastery of Yanagihara's writing will motivate you to read on. It's not lyrical, it's not flowery pretentious wordiness; it's raw, it's honest, and it's clean. She layers, she hints, she foreshadows, she bends time. It truly was expertly executed.

Sometimes I wonder if thoroughly loving a book involves hating it just as much. I couldn't recommend this to anyone unless I knew they had the strength, the staying power, and the heart to take it. It's a bleak, profound, and important commentary on humanity and its power. It's 700 pages of love and pain, and in itself, quite sincerely, a little life.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Book #01

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

The monster showed up after midnight. As they do.
But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…
This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.
It wants the truth.

My grandma died just over a year ago after a short battle with cancer. The last night I saw her she didn't look like herself; she was so thin and frail, she couldn't talk to me, and I was absolutely terrified. I had known what was coming, and I knew then it would be the last chance I had, but I pushed all of that down that night. I couldn't kiss her as I was leaving because I was so scared, and that is something I've hated myself for ever since. I didn't let my monster come walking, and I didn't say the things I wanted to say. With A Monster Calls, Ness has given me Conor, and he's shown me that it's okay. It has to take an incredible author to evoke realisation like that in a reader, but more particularly, in me.

Conor's story is both poignant and heartbreaking. This kid is thirteen and shouldering problems that could put a thirty year old down for life. The monster arrives at seven minutes past midnight every night to tell Conor confusing and twisted fables that seem ridiculous to him, but which have untold bearing on his life, and help him to understand and interpret the things he's going through. He learns to let go, whether that be metaphorically, or quite literally, and he learns that everything he's feeling is okay.

Watching Conor experience everything in this way is moving and heartbreaking, and most of all, unfair. Life will unfold in ways we would never want it to, but Ness shows us it's how we react and look after ourselves that truly matters.

Ness writes in a beautifully simple yet lyrical way, with the realism of ordinary life juxtaposed against the magic of the monster's arrival. One moment we're safe at home or school, the next we're involved in the most horrific of everyday struggles, and then finally we're in the arms of the monster and he's telling us why. As a book targeted to a young adult audience, Ness is (as ever) careful not to patronise, yet succeeds beautifully in landing his message bravely.

I'm lucky enough to have the edition illustrated by Jim Kay, and it was completely gorgeous. Each page was peppered with small drawings, which added a magical importance to the words. Best of all were the larger pictures spanning two pages; these utterly took my breath away, and gave a brilliant depth to the monster and the setting.

An incredible story; one you'll read with an ache in your heart, but one which holds serious lessons on grief, loss, and acceptance.