Saturday, 12 May 2018

Book #33

Lips Too Chilled by Matsuo Basho

A selection of Basho's most magical haiku.

I was confused to begin with here - they are not haiku! The syllables are all wrong! I soon realised that translating haiku is no mean feat; a choice has to be made between committing to the original meaning and feel of the haiku, or ensuring the words fit the structure. The former was chosen, and it was absolutely the right thing to do.

Basho, in such a tiny number of words, conveys seasons, nature, and feeling beautifully. It was amazing what can actually be evoked in such concise little verses. Being a novice, it could very well be the case that I’ve misinterpreted some, if not all, or sometime important has completely swung over me, however I found them beautiful in their simplicity.


Come, let’s go
snow-viewing
till we’re buried.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Book #32

Catharine by Jane Austen


Catharine, an orphan living with her maiden aunt in Devon and sorely missing her absent friends Cecilia and Mary Wynne, is delighted by the visit of her cousin Camilla Stanley, a spirited if somewhat silly young woman. The Stanleys bring a taste of high society, but the arrival of their unreliable son Edward introduces company of a different kind.

As Austen stories go, short or otherwise, this one didn’t quite hit the mark for me. I can make exceptions for this being a very early work, and also an unfinished one, but the only real joy here is seeing the workings of Austen’s young mind.

Catharine’s story is very similar to those of women in Austen’s later works. A naive, innocent heroine becomes caught up in society life before a young gentleman enters and throws her world into a spin. Although we will never get to hear whether or not their lives tangled up together enough that it led to marriage, we can assume by the well-known Austen formula that she got her man in the end.

I found this difficult for a few reasons, mainly due to Austen’s inexperienced punctuation and general errors. There was a distinct lack of paragraph breaks which meant reading overwhelming walls of text without relief.

Having said all that, it’s amazing what Austen has accomplished with this at a mere seventeen years of age. Her mark is all over it - the beautiful character building, the little hints at the ridiculousness of societal customs, and yes another nineteenth century fuckboy. I would have loved to discover what happened next, but I imagine there are parts of both Catharine and Edward littered throughout some of Austen’s more well known characters.

This is a worthwhile investment in your time if you’re an Austen fangirl as I am. On it’s own, however, it’s a bit disappointing unless you’re going in with the knowledge of its incomplete state. 

Book #31

In the Woods by Tana French


As dusk approaches a small Dublin suburb in the summer of 1984, mothers begin to call their children home. But on this warm evening, three children do not return from the dark and silent woods. When the police arrive, they find only one of the children. He is gripping a tree trunk in terror, wearing blood-filled sneakers and unable to recall a single detail of the previous hours.
Twenty years later, the found boy, Rob Ryan, is a detective on the Dublin Murder Squad and keeps his past a secret. But when a 12-year-old girl is found murdered in the same woods, he and Detective Cassie Maddox (his partner and closest friend) find themselves investigating a case chillingly similar to the previous unsolved mystery. Now, with only snippets of long-buried memories to guide him, Ryan has the chance to uncover both the mystery of the case before him and that of his own shadowy past.

This had such promise; I was gripped for the first two hundred pages. A murder detective whose two friends went missing as children, leaving him as the only survivor, is now investigating a killing which took place in the very same woods as their disappearance. The premise was delectable – is the murderer the same person who was responsible for the crime twenty years ago?

French weaves the mystery very well; her pace and tone build immeasurable tension, and her construction of characters and their relationships is as relatable as it is intricate. The first third of the novel is filled with hints, new information, and a lot of character backstory, beginning as all excellent crime novels should.

The middle third is dull, repetitive, and mostly unnecessary. At this stage, I was loathe to pick the novel up; nothing was happening other than bad decisions, red herrings (oh, I do love a red herring, but these were utterly pointless and droll), and some serious annoyances with regards to French’s characters, both in their decisions and behaviour.  I should add these mistakes are French’s, and not the characters’ own, but yet I began to hate each of them with a passion. This thing could easily have been a couple of hundred pages shorter without losing any important plot development.

Finally, the plot picks up its pace again and becomes exciting, but not entirely satisfying. For a murder mystery to be really enjoyable, it needs closure and atonement. And, guys, we need to solve the fucking mystery.

I can’t recommend this. It’s difficult to say precisely why without doing a deep dive into the spoiler sea, but I will say I feel I’ve been cheated by an excellent beginning, which morphed and dissolved into an utter waste of time. 

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Book #30

TwoSpells by Mark Morrison


Sarah and her twin brother Jon are heirs to an ancient magical realm and its most valuable treasure, an enchanted library. The library endows readers with the supernatural means of crossing into the uncharted inner-sanctum of the second dimension, inhabited with peculiar and sometimes perilous creatures. 
The children are emboldened with a wondrous mystical gift that no other being has ever possessed. But fate intervenes and triggers a disastrous inter-dimensional war that disrupts the fabric of time and space spanning multiple universes, tearing destiny a new and savage pathway. 
The two must rescue their world from a phantom hybrid alien race controlled by a demented dark-wizard, Jeremy Sermack. They will either assimilate or be exterminated. 
Will they be the saviors the prophets spoke of, or will they retreat to the perceived safety of their distant homeland? 

When I received Mark Morrison’s email asking me to review TwoSpells, I felt as though he had been living inside my head. Magic, strange creatures, an enchanted library? The premise is strong; it felt a bit like Harry Potter meets The Pagemaster (which is, by the way, a completely underrated Macaulay Culkin classic). I had to say yes.

Morrison eases us in gently to his world, peppering strange yet small happenings throughout the initial pages accompanied by a reassuring tone implying we’ll soon get to the root of these unsettling creatures and new mysterious words we kept bumping into. There was a tension tinged with excitement – what is this place, and what am I going to be part of?

We’re dipped into small mysteries for the first half of the novel, then everything really kicks off. There was a lot going on, most of which I felt could have benefited from further explanation. A few things happened out of the blue where I felt the twins should have had more questions, instead they were quite blasé, taking things as they come, but without any inquisition, I was left in the dark. There were also characters introduced at the beginning of novel who didn’t make an appearance until towards the end, and I had forgotten their stories and where they fit in. It felt like utter chaos, and I couldn’t keep track of what was happening, or why.

The world is gorgeous and exciting, yet I feel some of the more fast-paced scenes could have been edited out to make room for either some lore or backstory. The finale is an incredibly frustrating cliffhanger, so I was pleased to learn Morrison plans to make this series – it would have been a maddening ending otherwise!

Thanks again for allowing me to read and review this. 

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Book #29

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle


From his rooms in Baker Street, Sherlock Holmes grapples with forces of deceit, intrigue, and evil in Victorian London.

I own a very large, very travel-unfriendly copy of The Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes. In a bid not to overwhelm myself, I’m reading each of the novels in stages, usually one a year. This time, it’s The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, and instead of an entire story devoted to one case, I was treated to a number of smaller tales, quickly wrapped up yet enlightening in their descriptions of Sherlock’s acumen, and wide in their variation of strange crimes. Although definitely not quite as compelling as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, this is definitely a worthwhile addition.

Interestingly here, we’re given a few tales where Sherlock has missed the mark in his deductions. Although I can see this is an attempt to make him more relatable (we also hear of his school days, and family), he still remains untouchable, and a bit of sociopath.

There’s definitely a formula which made the stories predictable, except in the last story The Final Problem in which Moriarty is introduced. I’d have loved to have been present when this was initially released - the shock, the disbelief! Wow. The formula, however, is very much the same as it was in Adventures, which makes me yearn for a case with a bit more depth and intrigue.

Despite not being the best, there’s always delight in Sherlock’s explanation of events and how he came to solve them. Watson’s love for him is there as his friend and chronicler, and they both remain, as always, very close to my heart.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Book #28

Columbine by Dave Cullen


What really happened April 20, 1999? The horror left an indelible stamp on the American psyche, but most of what we "know" is wrong. It wasn't about jocks, Goths, or the Trench Coat Mafia. Dave Cullen was one of the first reporters on scene, and spent ten years on this book-widely recognized as the definitive account. With a keen investigative eye and psychological acumen, he draws on mountains of evidence, insight from the world's leading forensic psychologists, and the killers' own words and drawings-several reproduced in a new appendix. Cullen paints raw portraits of two polar opposite killers. They contrast starkly with the flashes of resilience and redemption among the survivors.

Cullen was one of the reporters at Columbine on April 20 1999. A monumental, unforgettable day for everyone, Cullen continued to follow the case for ten years subsequent to the attack. He managed to access witness accounts, interviews with students, families and staff, and most informatively of all - the killers’ diaries. This book is the result of all of those little bits and pieces, all pasted together to allow us to attempt some semblance of understanding into the horror.

The most important question Cullen attempts to answer here is the first question which comes to us when hearing of such a tragedy - why? His answer isn’t what you’d expect – Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold didn’t listen to Marilyn Manson, they didn’t hate jocks, nor did they belong to the Trench Coat Mafia. Eric Harris was a psychopath (psychologists are quoted in the book describing him as a classic case) who hated humankind and was seeking a way to exterminate as many people as possible; Dylan Klebold was suicidal and depressed, desperate for love, affection, approval, but also, ultimately, and end to his own life. They were almost at opposite ends of the spectrum, yet the plan to take Columbine appealed to both of them, albeit for separate reasons.

Cullen does well here to separate facts from media conjecture and witness confusion. It’s widely believed the two boys were bullied; loners in some reports, goths in others, outcasts in the rest – sometimes they were described as all three. Eric and Dylan were fairly popular pupils, who were actually the bullies rather than the bullied. In the wake of Columbine, I imagine the loners, outcasts, and goths all over America experienced sideways looks. Cullen clearly enforces the importance of understanding that there’s no specific social group who are more likely to shoot up a school – if motivation is there, anyone is capable.

Another interesting point is that many media outlets portrayed the boys as snapping. They’d just had enough. Cullen shows us through the killer’s diaries that the attack was planned in advance; the groundwork, logistics, and itinerary were all brainstormed and confirmed. Not only this, but the massacre had been planned as a bombing, with the guns purchased to pick off survivors. No one snapped – April 20 1999 was meticulous.

Finally, to learn the police were already aware of these two, and nothing had been done to stop the attack, was frightening to me. Cullen’s descriptions of their failings before Columbine, and also during and after, are horrible.

The book is morbidly addictive, yet devastating. My heart gained weight each time I picked it up, yet I couldn’t help myself. Cullen sews together his vast collection of information into a blanket of horror that you can’t rip your eyes away from. To understand you are reading non-fiction will make you nauseous; to realise these types of terror still occur in schools, and elsewhere, twenty years later, is completely and utterly baffling. 

Friday, 20 April 2018

Book #27

The Dolphins, the Whales and the Gudgeon by Aesop


Aesop's animal fables are some of the earliest stories ever told, thought to have been composed by a slave in Greek antiquity and giving glimpses of a world that is harsh, pitiless and yet also eerily familiar. 

It’s enchanting to think how Aesop’s fables, said to be written in the sixth century, resonate so well today. Despite the fables here being written mainly from the point of view of animals, it’s clear to see that people never change.

Little Black Classics have given us a short fable on each page, with a short description of the moral, or lesson learned, after each of them. Although I had initially welcomed these explanations, I feel on reflection they made things too easy - I would have preferred to have mulled the fables over and considered their meanings for myself. The way they were set out here allowed me to plough through them, making this a very quick read.

Despite the meagre length of these tales, they all had resonance and meaning on the way we live our lives. My favourite, by far, was The Bat, the Bramble, and the Gull, which spoke to us about holding on to things. I found the behaviour of the bramble to be melancholically beautiful; a strange way to feel about a plant, indeed.

Another excellent dip into otherwise uncharted territory for me; bring me more Aesop, please. 

Book #26

Double Act by Jacqueline Wilson

No one can ever be like a mother to us, especially not stupid frizzy dizzy Rose! 

Ruby and Garnet are 10-year-old identical twins. They do everything together, especially since their mom died three years ago. Can being a double act work forever? Especially when their father starts dating again?

Whenever I start to feel like a dusty old lady, I know it’s time to transport myself back to childhood by picking up something I read ferociously a thousand times, and loved. Wilson (alongside Dahl and Blyton) is the perfect go-to for this type of behaviour.

Although I probably read this in a fraction of the time it would have taken me twenty (ouch) years ago, it absolutely hasn’t lost its gorgeous charm. Wilson is a master of creativity, telling us the story of the twins straight from their own mouths (well, pens) by designing the narrative in the form of a diary. Her use of differing typesets for each twin allows us to embrace their variances, and the illustrations by Nick Sharratt and Sue Heap are incredible in their simplicity. I was disappointed in myself this time around for merely glancing at them before getting on with the story, as I remember staring at these closely as a child, really allowing them to contribute to the story. It’s devastating to realise that adults really don’t appreciate picture books as much after all.

Wilson is a master at children’s story-telling, as she deals with issues most kids deal with these days; when I was growing up it was far rarer for kids to move away from home, or to even have a step-mother or father, yet Wilson trailblazed this theme. I imagine a lot of kids read this and could relate, which is valuable. Her other important quality is the skill she has in not talking down to young reader - yes, there’s a happy(ish) resolved ending, but she doesn’t shove morals down throats, nor lecture on how our behaviour should be.

Reading this again as adult was enlightening, as it’s only with years under your belt that you can understand the situation of the twins’ father and gran. Richard is an absolute villain, and although the twins hate him for finding a new girlfriend after their mum’s death, and dragging them away from their home and school to live in a new area, Wilson doesn’t quite make bold his villainy. This guy met a new woman, shoved her in front of his daughters adamant she was now going to be part of their lives, and moved them all away after sticking his mother-in-law (who had lived with, and helped him, for the past three years after his wife’s death) into sheltered housing. What an absolute dick. This didn’t even register in my ten year old mind, but now I am absolutely raging at Sticky Ricky. Poor twins.

Years ago, I was desperate for a sequel to be released and tell me of Ruby’s blossoming friendship with the Blob, and of Garnet’s adventures at boarding school. Now, I am even more desperate to find out where they ended up, dusty old thirty somethings like me. I imagine Garnet has a successful job in the big smoke, and Ruby is rotting away in prison somewhere. C’est la vie.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Book #25

The Old Man of the Moon by Shen Fu

The Old Man of the Moon is Shen Fu's intimate and moving account of his marriage - from early passion to the trials of poverty and separation - and his great, enduring love for his wife in eighteenth-century China.

The man in Shen Fu’s tale is guilty of love. He professes that he loves his wife too deeply, and recounts their love and hardships until her death. His words are beautiful, yet there was something here that didn’t quite grip me.

My favourite part was the section devoted to the old man of the moon, and learning of the couple’s beliefs that he caused them to meet, and would cause them to meet again in the next life. The couple believed in this theory so strongly that they began to worship the old man of the moon, and pray they would come back together some day. It’s very sad and poignant, particularly due to the tragedy in the final pages.

Other than this, there was nothing here for me. Shen Fu tells the tale of the couples lives, their families, the poverty they find themselves embroiled within, and although I could feel the melancholia, nothing caught in my throat. Perhaps it was the translation, perhaps the eighteenth century language - I’m not sure, yet it’s definitely not one of the Little Black Classics I would rave about, not even to the old man of the moon. 

Book #24

Be Careful What You Joust For by Ryan Hauge and Ivy Smoak


The fiercest knights in the realm are coming together to compete in the Joust for Arwin's Lance, a tournament that will divide even the closest alliances. The winner alone will have the power to start or prevent a war from unfolding across the peaceful lands of Pentavia.
House Hornbolt, a prominent family that desires peace above all else, is hosting the tournament. The Hornbolt’s have always been strict followers of tradition. The first born son wears the armor of a knight. The second takes the priestly Oath of Arwin. And the daughters get married off to the most eligible suitors.
The eldest son is the favorite to win the tournament. But the rest of the Hornbolts aren't as eager to follow the paths laid out for them. What if the second born wants to be a knight too? And what if the eldest daughter just gave her heart to a common thief?
Customs are meant to be broken. But that’s not all that threatens to shatter House Hornbolt, not when a secret deeper than the late king's grave is unearthed right before the joust.
The fate of Pentavia hangs in the balance as war becomes imminent. And the scales are about to tip.
One wrong move and everything could fall to pieces.

I was delighted to receive an Advanced Reviewer Copy of this novel, particularly after my venture earlier this year into the Game of Thrones series; I needed some more fantasy in my life, and Hauge and Smoak definitely delivered.

It’s an interesting mediaeval plot, centred around an upcoming tournament, of which the winner will have the power to decide whether or not to incite war throughout the kingdom. All of this is narrated using (a much-loved technique of mine) multiple-voice narrative, giving us a rounded view of each of the characters’ desires and motivations. It worked well here in providing descriptions of the current state of affairs within the kingdom, and to introduce us to the main players within the plot.

The world Hauge and Smoak have created is brilliantly executed, and seems to have a real depth to it, similar to Westeros. Although we didn’t travel far in Be Careful What You Joust For, far-off lands and different customs were referred to with an implication we would see more of them later in the series.

I did have a couple of problems with this novel, most of which didn’t have much of an impact on the novel (and which have been covered off already by a number of reviewers), but there’s one which I feel I have to mention – the way in which Princess Navya was described. Although not a pretty picture in comparison to the duke’s daughter, this would have been duly received without condescending remarks about her hairy arms, and the almost constant reports of her being “a monster”. The harsh repetitiveness of this type of slander didn’t sit well with me; why can’t a woman with hairy arms be beautiful? Why does natural hair growth immediately turn a woman into a monster? The implication that fair hair and a light complexion should be a prince’s ultimate desire was disappointing.

There is a lot going on here that we didn’t manage to visit within the first novel. I feel there’s whole world of intrigue out there in Pentavia that I want to dig my claws into. Although it felt like a mere toe in the water for the Pentavia series, with an infuriatingly frustrating cliffhanger finale, I would be delighted to read the second in the series. I felt the same appetite for knowledge I did with GoT, and I am desperate to learn more of the characters’ fates. 

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Book #23

The Average American Male by Chad Kultgen


An offensive, in-your-face, brutally honest and completely hilarious look at male inner life and sexual fantasy—sure to be one of the most controversial books of the year.

This book is a piece of shit.

It wasn’t difficult to perceive, before picking this up, that it was going to be filled with misogynistic crap, but I wasn’t quite prepared for just how pointless and pathetic the story was in itself. The narrator is a self-obsessed, sex-obsessed little man who can’t look at women without wondering what they’d look like sucking his dick. We also hear his enlightening thoughts on fat women, disabled women, and ugly women (all of which, by the way, he would still fuck), whilst following him along on his vapid quest through life.

The characters were craply defined, there was no sort of development to speak of, no journey. The love of his life turns up with a great body, a high appetite for sex, and oh my god she actually plays Halo. When describing her video game abilities the phrase for a girl was used. Come on.

I’m not sure what the author was trying to do here. If he’s trying to get us to hate the narrator, well done. If he’s trying to showcase the extremes of toxic masculinity, then he’s got it in one. But naming the book in the way he has, and by not being capable of writing a plot with any real direction, he has lost me completely. It was a piece of shit.

Book #22

Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime by Oscar Wilde


Wilde's supremely witty tale of dandies, anarchists and a murderous prophecy in London high society. 

This is a wonderful satiric gothic parody by Wilde, poking fun at the fashions and entertainment of the upper class, their inability to do anything other than what they’re told, and their complete lack of sense when faced with a predicament.

Lord Arthur has his palm read during a get-together at Lady Windemere’s. Having been told he will commit a murder, rather than passing this off as a load of hocus pocus, he instead goes off and plans the murder. He prefers this to happen as soon as possible as god forbid his wedding to Sybil Merton is affected by scandal. After all, the lines in his hand have predicted the crime - why not get it over with?

What follows is a hilarious trail of failures which contribute to Lord Arthur’s despondency and a number of postponements to the wedding. His murder attempts become more and more outlandish, and as each of them fail, the mental state of Lord Arthur is further exposed to us. His pure obedience to carry out his perceived destiny frustrates both himself, and the reader, yet the mishaps encountered make it all worthwhile, for us at least. Wilde’s finale is perfect in timing and delivery; both hilarious and bleak, it underlines the satiric commentary on high society fads.

Wilde shows us the nonsense in Lord Arthur accepting a fate foretold by a performer at a party. The pages are peppered with comical dialogue, dark humour, and Wildean wit. An absolute joy.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Book #21

Rather Be the Devil by Ian Rankin


Some cases never leave you.
For John Rebus, forty years may have passed, but the death of beautiful, promiscuous Maria Turquand still preys on his mind. Murdered in her hotel room on the night a famous rock star and his entourage were staying there, Maria's killer has never been found.
Meanwhile, the dark heart of Edinburgh remains up for grabs. A young pretender, Darryl Christie, may have staked his claim, but a vicious attack leaves him weakened and vulnerable, and an inquiry into a major money laundering scheme threatens his position. Has old-time crime boss Big Ger Cafferty really given up the ghost, or is he biding his time until Edinburgh is once more ripe for the picking?

This is John Rebus’s 21st entry into the fray, and yet my first alongside him. I’m not one to start something unless it’s from the absolute beginning, and I’m still baffled as to why I decided to kick off with what is effectively the final instalment where Rebus is actually retired. Yet here we are.

And what a novel. I couldn’t get enough, couldn’t inhale the words quickly enough. Rankin creates a tension throughout each page, no matter whether we’re in the midst of guns and hammers, or simply sitting in Rebus’s flat pondering the details of the case. There’s something addictive about his writing which makes ingesting as much of the story as possible the highest priority.

My first time meeting Rebus was wonderful. This is the type of character who speaks to me; someone who sees rules and restrictions simply as barriers to get around, someone who is at the far extreme of resilient, and someone who has a glorious tongue for insulting people. “Is your head made out of fucking mince” was a particular favourite.

Although this is similar to most crime novels in that to give an informative review would be to give away the plot (something I’m against entirely), there is more than one crime to be solved here, each of them interlinking. As soon as one was committed and we felt we were getting something, another was thrown into the ring for us to mull over - every single one a link in a chain of destruction, each one as delectable as the next.

I read Rankin’s first novel The Flood a couple of years back, and now have jumped to his most recent. Perhaps an idiotic move, perhaps not, but I’m now desperate to retrace my steps and go back to Rebus’s beginnings. We’ve got the makings of a fangirl here. 

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Book #20

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson


In this harrowing tale of good and evil, the mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll develops a potion that unleashes his secret, inner persona—the loathsome, twisted Mr. Hyde.

Imagine the reaction when this novel was released in the late 1800s – horror, repulsion, women fainting all over the place. I truly wish I had been alive to read it.

Nowadays, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is widely perceived as a horror. With so many adaptations and nods in popular culture (The Incredible Hulk, anyone?), it’s difficult to be completely ignorant of the story. Although there are undoubtedly horror elements contained within the pages, this reads more as a study of the human mind. The curious Dr. Jekyll was undertaking such a study when he developed the potion to separate his psyche into two – purely the good and the evil. It’s interesting to consider the implication that we are only a mix of good and bad, with no grey areas, and Stevenson separates Jekyll’s duality to the extreme.

Even more interesting is the exploration of this upstanding, well-respected doctor harbouring the same temptations to vice as would be usually associated with more poorly judged members of society. Stevenson implies no one is inherently good, and we all experience shaming thoughts. The crux of Jekyll’s downfall, however, is that once given a taste of sin, he succumbs mercilessly to its pleasures.

The story is told primarily through the eyes of Jekyll’s lawyer, who becomes suspicious of Jekyll’s decisions and behaviours from the first. This technique is a crucial element in the book, allowing the doctor’s mystery to seep into our bones and create a delicious tension given the lack of viewpoint into Jekyll’s thoughts. To then switch the narrative to Jekyll in the final chapter was an utter masterstroke, connecting us with Jekyll’s thought processes and emotions, solving the mystery, and ultimately, wiping the slate clean.

A true work of art from my favourite classic Scottish author; my only complaint is how famous the tale is. When I think how glorious it would be to read the novel without prior knowledge of Mr. Hyde’s origins, I wish I was born into the smoky London streets of 1886. 

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Book #19

Leonardo da Vinci by Giorgio Vasari


Often called "the first art historian", Vasari writes with delight on the lives of Leonardo and other celebrated Renaissance artists.

Vasari describes the lives and works of three Florentine painters, all alive at roughly the same time in the 15th century, spanning into the 16th century for two of the three. I am no art aficionado, and tiptoed into this addition to the range with strong assumptions of tedium.

The tedium was there slightly. Countless works are noted and described, and surely there are only so many saints which can be painted on walls between three men. I appreciate, however, this work is more for the art-lover, and will respectfully hold criticism to myself, aware of the gaps in my intelligence.

I much preferred reading of the painters’ lives than their works. Each of them surprised me with their quirks and behaviours; da Vinci dissecting a bull’s intestines and filling them up with air to force people into the corner of a room, Lippi becoming abducted by pirates and set free after surprising them with a charcoal drawing of the master, and Botticelli tormenting his friends and neighbours with pranks, malicious or otherwise, and escaping from his room to chase women.

One interesting point I noted was the difference between Vasari’s words on da Vinci in comparison to those on the other two – he was a total da Vinci fanboy. His style, tone, and word choice throughout the da Vinci segment was utterly glorious. He compares him to god, he fawns over his work, he tells us the man is gorgeous, but also has a completely charming personality, and he delights in telling us of this complete Florentine genius. Crush, much? Moving on to Lippi and Botticelli, the style changes markedly to one far more factual and objective. It’s fascinating to feel that comparison.

Although not something I’d actively choose to pick up, I’m glad to have read this. To learn of the lifestyles of these three painters, of their personalities, and the making of the Mona Lisa, has been valuable to me. This is also well worth picking up for the section where da Vinci inflates the bull’s intestines; I still can’t stop rolling that one through my mind. 

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Book #18

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane


When they were children, Sean Devine, Jimmy Marcus, and Dave Boyle were friends. But then a strange car pulled up to their street. One boy got into the car, two did not, and something terrible happened -- something that ended their friendship and changed all three boys forever. 
Twenty-five years later, Sean is a homicide detective. Jimmy is an ex-con who owns a corner store. And Dave is trying to hold his marriage together and keep his demons at bay -- demons that urge him to do terrible things. When Jimmy's daughter is found murdered, Sean is assigned to the case. His investigation brings him into conflict with Jimmy, who finds his old criminal impulses tempt him to solve the crime with brutal justice. And then there is Dave, who came home the night Jimmy's daughter died covered in someone else's blood. 

This is a mystery slow in unravelling as Lehane chooses instead to spend time exploring childhood friendships, the effects of trauma, and the complexities of the adult mind. Although most crime novels benefit from a fast pace, Lehane did well here to describe the darkness of the deed, the effect it had on the families, and to delve into deep descriptions of the surroundings.

These three men are bound together by a childhood tragedy, then once again by an adult one. It’s interesting to consider how things bind us together, whether it be family, neighbourhoods, deeds, or words. Lehane looks into each of these with incredibly deep character exploration as the pieces of the murder jigsaw fall into place.

I don’t think there was a single character I liked, and I mean that as testament to Lehane. All horribly flawed with their own scars, all selfish to their own justifications, they were typical, real, and raw for us to feast upon. Although the three friends are main staples, I found their female companions to be infinitely more interesting. They don’t behave in ways we expect them to, yet we can somehow accept justification for their actions as their love for their husbands and children.

The book prepares us throughout for the killer to be exactly who we think is, yet does nothing to prepare us for the reveal. It’s cleverly done, with the killer’s simple reason for committing the crime to be as unfathomable to our minds as any of our imagined motives would be to theirs. It’s a stark contrast to everything we’ve been setting ourselves up for, an almost anti-climax, and yet a thought-provoking one.

A dark and winding road to something even darker; a slow-paced murder mystery with some gorgeous probing of the human condition.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Book #17

How Much Land Does a Man Need? By Leo Tolstoy


A pair of short stories about greed, charity, life and death from one of Russia's most influential writers and thinkers. 

This was completely gorgeous, and a stellar addition to the Little Black Classics range. I haven’t read a great deal of Tolstoy in my time, but experiencing the style of both short stories has really encouraged me to seek out more of his work.

How Much Land Does a Man Need? explores greed in relation to ambition, implying that man is never happy with his own lot, and is constantly aspiring to achieve more. It seems a noble pursuit, but Tolstoy likens it to greed, and states that man can only push so far when bettering his station, and must at some point become content. The style was beautifully simplistic, yet had an overarching tone of wisdom, allowing us to clearly understand the peasant’s mistakes in trying to overreach. Tolstoy ends the story in an apt yet brutal blow, showing us exactly how much land this man needed in the end.

The second story in this collection, What Men Live By, was hugely different from its companion. Focusing more on the power of compassion and love, it’s a tale of helping others in their time of need. Although I found it strange to begin with, it was utterly compelling and beautiful once I’d found my feet.

I particularly enjoyed the contrast between the two stories, and feel this was a clever move by Penguin when deciding which story to include alongside the titular item. Both engaging, both exploring the behaviours of man, yet so markedly different in approach. This is one of the best inclusions in the Little Black Classics range, without a doubt. 

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Book #16

The Divinity Bureau by Tessa Clare

A stunning debut about a forbidden romance between a young activist and a government employee working for a corrupt bureau that controls the population by deciding who lives and who dies.
Roman Irvine is a disgruntled IT Technician for the Divinity Bureau, a government agency that uses random selection to decide who lives and who dies. In a world where overpopulation has led to pollution, a crippled economy, and a world in crisis, he has accepted the bureau’s activities as a necessity. That is until he meets April McIntyre.
April has every reason to be suspicious of Roman. He works for the Divinity Bureau, which sent her father to an early grave. However, he is also sweet and loyal, and unbeknownst to her, he saved her life. As Roman and April fall deeper in love, the deeper they are thrust into the politics of deciding who lives and who dies. Someone wants April dead. And the bureau’s process of random selection may not be so random after all. 

I live for dystopian novels tinged with corruption, and was delighted when Clare asked me to read and review this. The world has discovered how to achieve immortality, and this has a crippling effect on the government’s ability to provide for its citizens. To combat the problem, the government runs a deadly ballot each quarter to determine which of its people should present themselves for lethal injection. If you think this sounds absolutely mental, you’re right.

Clare uses a dual narrative technique to allow us a fully rounded view of goings on. Roman is an IT technician for the bureau, with unlimited access to the names on the list, and the ability to remove these, despite this being a criminal act. April is a nineteen year old girl whose name appears on the list unexpectedly, as she’s outwith the criteria for selection. Roman notices her name on the list, which sets in motion a whirlwind of intrigue, corruption, and activism, resulting in an utterly breathtaking finale. I am desperately hoping for a sequel.

The skill Clare has here is more than apparent. She masterfully explains the world she has built, how it has come to be, and the reasons for the widespread acceptance of what is, quite frankly, mass murder. She scrapes and scores her way into each of the characters backstories and motivations, carving out an engaging plot peppered with tension, passion, and futuristic machines. I would probably consider putting myself into a death ballot if I could only own a robot which would make me scrambled eggs and bacon.

My only criticism here would be that although the first and final thirds of the novel were completely devoted to either explaining the dystopian world, plunging us into an unknown arena, or exploring the corruption evident within the government, the middle third focused on Roman and April’s blossoming relationship. It’s a personal taste thing, but I much prefer to read of anti-utopia than the paradise of romance.

A wonderful concept, and executed brilliantly. It’s clear Clare has a colourful mind, and I thank myself lucky not only that she’s able to articulate her brilliance, but also that I had the opportunity to experience it - thank you.