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.

Amazing.

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.