Sunday, 23 September 2018

Book #70

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

When Lyra's friend Roger disappears, she and her dæmon, Pantalaimon, determine to find him. 
The ensuing quest leads them to the bleak splendour of the North, where armoured bears rule the ice and witch-queens fly through the frozen skies - and where a team of scientists is conducting experiments too horrible to be spoken about.
Lyra overcomes these strange terrors, only to find something yet more perilous waiting for her - something with consequences which may even reach beyond the Northern Lights.

The first and only time I read this series was as a fourteen year old girl. Seventeen years later, with the arrival of La Belle Sauvage, I am embarking on this journey again, no longer a fresh and lovely fourteen, but a bitter and miserable thirty-one. I’ve gone from resembling Lyra, to resembling Mrs Coulter minus the monkey. But some books can transcend your years - I loved this as a young woman, and utterly cherished it as an old one.

Pullman’s first notable skill here is his ability to widen the appeal of what is essentially a young adult novel. For the young, it’s a story of adventure, of overcoming adversity, of survival, of fuck the grown-ups and their macabre plans. For the old, it takes on a far more philosophical approach, a symbolic study of childhood, free will, and hierarchical horrors. And for all of us, every single one of us, Pullman delivers a beautiful and compelling story in a curious and enchanting world. This is the embodiment of fantasy for me – you can stick your Lord of the Rings where the Northern Lights don’t shine.

The universe Pullman introduces to us holds a number of interesting factors; one of the first we come across is the existence of dæmons. Each human has a creature attached to them, as though with an invisible cord. This creature is their companion for life, and also, in effect, their soul living outside their body. Children’s dæmons have the ability to change form at will until the child comes of age, when the dæmon will settle into a fixed form. I adored this concept; the idea that your dæmon doesn’t settle its form until you’re secure in your adulthood; the assumption that no child understands who they are, hence ever-changing dæmons, and adults absolutely do understand themselves, hence fixed dæmons; the way the children’s dæmons flicked from shape to shape dependent on the child’s mood; the ability to judge an adult by which form their dæmon has fixed upon – this list is endless. Dæmons are an amazing plot device, and god help me, I want one.

In terms of the story itself, Pullman completely nails everything. The pace is excellent, the world-building exquisite, and the characters deeply weaved and utterly gorgeous. It isn’t often I love a character so much that my heart wrenches in pain, or leaps in joy for them, but I felt everything here, and almost had a few embarrassing outbursts in public whilst reading.

I’m so pleased to find this novel delights my heart as much as it did many years ago. It’s amazing how an author can evoke the same feelings in you, regardless of whether you’re in your teens or your thirties.

Now it’s time to reacquaint myself with Will. 

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Book #69

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

1645. When Alice Hopkins' husband dies in a tragic accident, she returns to the small Essex town of Manningtree, where her brother Matthew still lives.
But home is no longer a place of safety. Matthew has changed, and there are rumours spreading through the town: whispers of witchcraft, and of a great book, in which he is gathering women's names.
To what lengths will Matthew's obsession drive him? And what choice will Alice make, when she finds herself at the very heart of his plan?

This novel is based on the true story of Matthew Hopkins, a man who tried women as witches in the seventeenth century, and sent over one hundred of them to their deaths. Realising this fact makes the novel all the more harrowing, despite Underdown having fictionalised his personal life somewhat.

Witches were identified by completely ridiculous measures; is your neighbour a wee bit eccentric, likes solitude a bit too much, maybe she has some mental health problems? Witch. Has she wronged you in some way, leaving you with a debt to settle? Call her out as a witch!

Hopkin’s reign of terror left Essex excited and terrified. It’s unsettling to think how this could be allowed to happen, yet Underdown highlights the power of hysteria, rumour, and religion very well. There’s a constant dark undertone throughout the novel which doesn’t allow the reader to relax for a moment. And in no way does Underdown shun the idea of the supernatural; there are some inexplicable moments which only create more doubt and dread, in both the characters and ourselves.

Although the first and final thirds of the novel were perfect in setting up and boxing up the whole ordeal, there was something lacking in the middle third which I just can’t really put my finger on. Perhaps I would’ve liked (and I use the word very lightly) more information on the accused women and what they were going through; some more depth in the townspeople and their reactions to the situation. In historical novels focusing on this type of barbarism, I think it’s important to focus on the human element as much as possible - the further away we get, the more difficult it is to understand these unspeakable acts happened to real people, the same as any of us.

I enjoyed this, and it’s clear to see Underdown has done extensive research on Hopkins and his campaign. The final sentence of the novel dropped my heart to the floor so quickly, I thought I’d lost it. Very, very clever. 

Friday, 14 September 2018

Book #68

If You Liked School, You’ll Love Work by Irvine Welsh

In 'Rattlesnakes', three young Americans find themselves lost in the desert, held captive by armed Mexicans; in 'The DOGS of Lincoln Park', a mysterious Korean chef may or may not have something to do with the disappearance of a socialite's pooch; an English bar owner battles to keep all his balls in the air on the Costa Brava; a film biographer becomes a piece of movie memorabilia himself in 'Miss Arizona'; and in the 'Kingdom of Fife'; an ex-jockey and table-football star of Cowdenbeath takes on the charms of Jenni Cahill and her remarkable jodhpurs.

It’s mental to believe that your faithful Welsh Fangirl #1 hasn’t read this one before now, despite it being published ten years ago. I don’t even have a reason, other than I’m an arsehole with too many books.

There’s a lot of mixed reviews out there, but I got real feel here of Welsh trying out different styles. Folk just don’t like change. Although I prefer his stories set on home soil, and most of the stories in this collection were American-based, it was class to see the sickness he could drag out in the land of the free.

It’s just pure uncut depravity, and if you say you’re not looking for that from Welsh, you’re lying. I get this mad feeling of excitement when I’m sunk into his rank mind, a crazy adrenaline feeding my brain with thoughts on what the fuck he’s going to hit me with next. It leads to wild behaviour like lying next to a pool, reading with a pint, and shouting out “HE’S COOKED THE FUCKIN DUG!” 

Aye, some of them are better txhan others, but you get that with any short story collection, and as I've said, this really feels like an experimental work, and it’s total class. And everyone on Goodreads who has said The DOGS of Lincoln Park was shite is cordially invited to come and fight me.

Book #67

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale

When troubled artist Rachel Kelly dies painting obsessively in her attic studio in Penzance, her saintly husband and adult children have more than the usual mess to clear up. She leaves behind an extraordinary and acclaimed body of work - but she also leaves a legacy of smecrets and emotional damage that will take months to unravel.

I like to think of myse lf as someone who can judge a book’s entirety, if not by the cover and summary, then definitely by the first few pages. Once in a while, this ability is brought into question - and rather than feeling thwarted, I always relish the defeat.

Notes from an Exhibition is far more complicated, deep, and poignant than any summary can begin to justify. Telling the tale of Rachel Kelly, artist, wife, and mother, we are shown non-linear vignettes of her life told from differing perspectives. This style of narrative was essential in trickling information, foreshadowing, and subtly building tension to drive us onwards.

Rachel suffered from bipolar disorder for most of her life, and Gale shows us how this affected her decision-making, and her ability to build and maintain relatbionships with others. This is a very tricky subject to tackle, but Gale’s portrayal was gentle without omitting any of the more uncomfortable parts of living with the illness.

Each of the characters here are gloriously rounded, and I inhaled every new piece of information I was given on them. They are poetic yet relatable; pitied and envied. I loved them, flaws and all.

It’s difficult and also cruel to describe this novel in too much detail. It’s one to savour, to nibble away at, and to consider. It’s one to allow to open up in front of you and to discover for yourself. An absolute beauty of a novel; a little gem.

Monday, 27 August 2018

Book #66

Come Close by Sappho

Lyrical, powerful poems about love, sexuality, sun-soaked Greece and the gods. 

Although my aversion to poetry continues to plague my enjoyment of the Little Black Classics range, there was something a bit different about this one.

Sappho is widely known for depicting a love for women in her poetry, and this is what is so unique for her time. Despite masses of Greek poetry portraying homosexuality, verses lauding love between women aren’t so common. Almost as though the men doing it was acceptable, but not the women – imagine that, girls.

There was some really beautiful stuff here, but equally some poems which I found dull and disengaging. This isn’t anything new, as bumbling through poetry with me always meets this result and I’m lucky to find even a single poem which evokes any type of emotion in me. Sappho managed a good three or four, which may even be a high score.

Although I will not be rushing to consume any more of Sappho’s works, I’m glad I’ve experienced her story and her struggles.

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Book #65

The Montmartre Investigation by Claude Izner

Its November, 1891. The body of a young woman is discovered at a crossroads on Boulevard Montmartre. Barefoot and dressed in red, she has been strangled and her face disfigured. That same day a single red shoe is delivered to Victor Legris' Parisian bookshop. Suspecting more that just coincidence, the bookseller sleuth and his assistant Jojo are soon engaged in seeking out the identity of both victim and murderer. In this third investigation set in belle-epoque Paris, we are drawn with Victor into the city's nightlife and the legendary Moulin Rouge immortalised by Toulouse-Lautrec, who features in the story. 

I read the first instalment of the Victor Legris series, Murder on the Eiffel Tower last year, and found it très atroce. Unfortunately, I already had the third instalment rearing its ugly head on my TBR list, and here we are.

We followed the same format as we did in the original; bumbling around Paris in order to solve a somewhat beige murder, with the plot veering off to explore meagre aspects of Victor’s life which had absolutely no bearing on solving the crime. This was mainly centred around his irritatingly persistent jealousy around other men talking to his beautiful and talented girlfriend - yawn.

Again there was no tension, no suspense, no incentive to actually continue reading in order to crack the case. When the murderer was found, it felt very much like the part in Scooby Doo when the mask is pulled off and we all go back to our lives without giving much of a shit.

Also taking the lead from its big brother, the plot introduced so many characters, most of them dapper Frenchmen, that it was difficult to keep track. This was the main cause of the massive hole in my basket of fucks which led to them going missing all over the place.

The only appreciation I had here were Izner’s descriptions of Paris. I loved taking in the names of the streets, the sights of the Botanical Gardens, and Just generally wandering around on wild goose chases with Legris. This is due to my love for the place, and a love for the era, probably, and nothing much to do with Izner’s prose itself.

I’m very glad I have run out of Izner novels. Let this be a mortal lesson to never buy a sequel unless I have already read and enjoyed the debut. Bête comme ses pieds. 

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Book #64

The Fall of Icarus by Ovid

Enduring myths of vengeful gods and tragically flawed mortals from ancient Rome’s great poet. Ovid tells the tales of Theseus and the Minotaur, Daedalus and Icarus, the Calydonian Boar-Hunt, and many other famous myths.

I do wonder what Penguin are smoking sometimes when I read these. The Fall of Icarus is a collection of mythologies completely crammed together without logical breaks, and no clear indication of how they link.

To name this instalment in the way they have, and for then to allow the story of Icarus to span a mere two pages, is travesty. Surely to god there must be someone in Penguin with the creativity to think of a title which better fits the collection.

I didn’t enjoy this one. It was too illogical in its structure, stories were tacked on one after another and it all felt jumbled and rushed. It’s definitely a taster, but not tasty enough. You need to be wide awake here; the voice will change, a name will be dropped, or you may miss the entire paragraph about the minotaur in the labyrinth. 

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Book #63

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

Kell is one of the last Antari—magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel Londons; Red, Grey, White, and, once upon a time, Black. 
Kell was raised in Arnes—Red London—and officially serves the Maresh Empire as an ambassador, traveling between the frequent bloody regime changes in White London and the court of George III in the dullest of Londons, the one without any magic left to see.
Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they'll never see. It's a defiant hobby with dangerous consequences, which Kell is now seeing firsthand.
After an exchange goes awry, Kell escapes to Grey London and runs into Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She first robs him, then saves him from a deadly enemy, and finally forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.
Now perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, they'll first need to stay alive.

Schwab hasn’t built an incredible world here; she’s built four.

Four Londons – Grey, Red, White, and Black – have sealed their doors to each other due to Black London imploding magic and destroying itself. Only blood magicians can travel through doors to other Londons, and carry messages to and from the monarchs in each.

The world-building is good. Each London has its own personality, people, and smell. Travelling through these with our blood magician protagonist, Kell, was glorious. Even the behaviour of the Londoners marked clearly where we were, and what we could expect to deal with. Despite this, I needed more history on each London, their royalty, what they had been through, how they were dealing with the magical disaster – everything. Other than Red London, the others were pretty underdeveloped, with only fleeting visits allowed. I would have greedily inhaled anything more I could get.

Things go sour pretty quickly in the magical Londons, and we’re plunged into a complicated mission. This involves a lot of bad guys, magical fighting, and blood. This is a personal taste, but the magical fights didn’t do much for me; they happened so frequently I was keen to get them over with in the hopes of the next chapter containing some lore.

Both of our protagonists were compelling, yet I feel their deeper histories have been held back for the sequel. There seems to be a lot about their pasts which will make interesting reveals, and although I relish the thought of finding out, a little bit more of a clue could have driven a better cliffhanger. I did appreciate the lack of romance involved here – there is nothing triter than a man and woman saving the world and then going to bed together.

The best way I could describe this would be Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell meets Game of Thrones, and although that’s a compliment, it’s still nothing like either of these novels. It truly stands alone as like nothing I’ve ever read before in this genre. It’s a really exciting and unique take on magic, and I’m excited to continue my journey in blood magic. 

Friday, 17 August 2018

Book #62

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

This novel is based on the true story behind one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust - the blue numbers tattooed on prisoners’ arms. When Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, was given the job of tattooist in Auschwitz, he used his infinitesimal freedom of movement to help keep fellow victims alive. If caught, he would’ve been killed; many owed him their survival.
Terrible though this story is, it is also one of hope, of courage - and of love. Waiting in line to be tattooed was a terrified and shaking young girl. For Lale it was love at first sight, and he was determined he and Gita would survive. Their story, fact-checked against all available documentary evidence, endorsed by the son they never thought they would have, and untold for over seventy years, will make you weep, but it will also uplift you.
For here, in the very worst of circumstances, is the very best of humanity.

Two things struck me most about this book, and they will be forever interlinked. Firstly, this is a true story. Every horror, every triumph, every tiny little slice of hope, actually happened. Not a word of it is fictionalised, and this is both heartbreaking and inspiring in equal measures as Morris tells us of Lale and Gita’s lives in Auschwitz. As time moves us further and further away from the Holocaust, we must continue to remember them all.

Secondly, the patience, love, and resilience of Morris to sit with Lale for years, listening to his stories piecemeal, and finally weaving them together to be presented chronologically, shouldn’t be brushed under the carpet. She has recognised the need for this tale to be told, and has painstakingly written it in a way which allows us to connect to the victims. This is a labour of love.

Prisoners in Auschwitz were given jobs to do; the broad idea was to work them until they died. Building, digging, cleaning, filing; everyone had a role. Lale’s was a tricky one; he was tasked with tattooing the arms of all new arrivals to the camp with the number which would define them for the rest of their lives. As soon as Gita presents her arm for a number, Lale knows she’s the love of his life. What follows is the heartrending story of how they both endured.

When reading of Lale and Gita’s strength, I wondered to myself how I would cope. Could I persist through what they did? For all of those years? Could I keep hope alight and see my life begin as I left those gates? I don’t think I could. I believe I would give up in that situation, and this makes both of their survivals all the more inspiring.

I will never stop believing in the importance of these types of novels. I will never stop believing in the importance of remembering. Morris has given us another story, another life, and another way to never forget what happened in that atrocious camp.

Yasher koach.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Book #61

Dracula by Bram Stoker

A popular bestseller in Victorian England, Stoker's hypnotic tale of the bloodthirsty Count Dracula, whose nocturnal atrocities are symbolic of an evil ages old yet forever new, endures as the quintessential story of suspense and horror. The unbridled lusts and desires, the diabolical cravings that Stoker dramatized with such mythical force, render Dracula resonant and unsettling a century later.

Holy goth horror vampire nightmare; I can’t believe I haven’t read this before now.

Stoker’s Dracula is the king of vampire fiction, setting the benchmark for any vampire to be dreamed into being since 1897. And it’s difficult to name a vampire which such a repertoire as our beloved Count. His story is timeless. And it’s so bloody gothic. A terrifying castle nestled at the top of a steep drop featuring pungent smells of death, impossibly locked doors, and bumps in the night? Hold my goblet.

The epistolary format Stoker adopts here is perfect in telling the tale. The different viewpoints create an unreal amount of suspense, and sometimes a feeling of unreliability. Yet most importantly are the characters emotions throughout their own accounts of the macabre situation they find themselves in. Surprisingly, the men are incredibly more emotional than the women; it was refreshing to see them break down in tears, and humbling to witness them comfort each other. Their characters were well wrought, motivations were clear, and seeing their sinking realisations most of all were excellent. What’s more is, that with so many different accounts, the story takes on a more factual than fiction feel, which is chilling in itself.

Despite Dracula’s main appearances happening at the beginning of the novel, with the rest of the plot focusing on his ensuing damage and the subsequent hunt, Stoker manages to allow his gloom to remain peppered throughout the pages. Whether he uses setting, weather, or a zoophaghous madman, we feel the Count’s presence whether he is there in person or not. His supernatural aura is everywhere; we trust nothing; it’s gorgeous.

What’s interesting to note here is Dracula’s existences threatens the stiff morals of Victorian London, and more importantly, its women. Early in the novel, we see how his power has changed three women from (presumably) delicate little flowers into seductive blood-sucking leeches. The word voluptuous is used many a time. An ongoing theme throughout the story is the band of men hunting Dracula, with their main goal being to save a woman whom Stoker paints as the Victorian ideal – dutiful and beautiful. A woman changed into a vampire is essentially a woman becoming sexualised; they are fighting to save what they believe is proper.

This is a vampire novel. This has taken everything vampire lore has been originally pulled from, and has shaped everything it has come to be. Stoker gives us the garlic, the bats, and the blood, and drives a stake through our hearts with the whole thing. Absolutely incredible.

“Do you not think that there are things which you cannot understand, and yet which are; that some people see things that others cannot? But there are things old and new which must not be contemplate by men´s eyes, because they know -or think they know- some things which other men have told them. Ah, it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all; and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain.”

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Book #60

Amphibian by Christina Neuwirth

Shortlisted for the 2016 Novella Award, Amphibian is set in an office that is slowly being flooded with water following a management directive. It features, among other things, a woman called Rose (who would really like to escape, and would also really like to be better at surfing), a dog (who doesn’t like water), an octopus (who does), and some emails.

I was so grateful to receive an advance review copy of this as I’m unable to attend the launch night. As someone who is embroiled daily in the beige life of a working environment, I knew a story of an office slowly becoming filled with water was something I absolutely could not miss.

Neuwirth immediately pinched me with her satire in two different ways. The first was in discovering the reason for the office’s submergence was staff punishment for low sales. I have extensive management experience in providing incentives for good performance and measures for poor, but forcing staff to work half underwater to boost profit is a cruel and perfect caricature of any measure either myself or a colleague has naively taken. Neuwirth ripping the soul out of all banal management tactics and everyday office etiquette was utterly perfect, and resonated like a shine of glee. Needless to say, the second pinch of satire, a member of management using the phrase “get the synergy going” highlighted how perfectly Neuwirth has nailed this environment, and made me lovingly recall some of the excellent boardroom bullshit phrases I’ve heard over the years.

The characters are incredible in their relatability and reality, with each of them smoothly representing exact copies of people I have in my life, from the successful friend who makes you question your own career choices, to the guy in work who saves your life every morning by remembering to buy the biscuits.

Another area of reality Neuwirth creates is that of being trapped. We’ve all been there – whether it’s trapped in the office when you want to go home, or trapped in your role in general, Neuwirth expands and reinforces this feeling throughout the pages. By turning the office into an aquarium, and giving the staff absolutely no power to change this, nor to escape, the feeling of helplessness is everywhere. That the situation doesn’t shock the characters as much as it should, and that the measures management take to ‘help’ – such as nailing the keyboards to the desk to stop them floating around – is completely akin to standard business norms, albeit on a slightly less aquatic scale.

My only real complaint here was that, despite my attempts to savour the novella, I ploughed through like a woman possessed in a mere few hours. I could have read about snorkel-wearing employees working alongside an errant octopus for far longer.

Amphibian is only a small cup of Neuwirth’s talent, but having read this and also her piece in Nasty Women, I am very excited to read anything else her cutting and hilarious mind comes up with next – thank you for allowing me to read this before release date, it’s been a big wet pleasure.

Monday, 6 August 2018

Book #59

Miss Brill by Katherine Mansfield

Three sharp and powerful short stories from Katherine Mansfield, one of the genre's all-time masters.

I’ve been growing incredibly disenchanted with the Little Black Classics range recently. Having bought them all in the anticipation of reading new styles, finding writers I love previously unknown to me, and just generally expanding my tiny mind, the last few in the collection have disappointed me to some degree. Then Miss Brill comes rearing up to the top of my to be read pile like the shiniest new coin I had ever seen in my life.

All three of these short stories are glorious. Miss Brill itself is a wonderful little story on our detachment from our own feelings, and the spaces we create to convince ourselves the world isn’t quite so awful as we perceive. Miss Brill constructs a world she loves and participates in, before being woefully reminded of her own loneliness and neglect. It begins beautifully before the despair seeps in; Mansfield expertly renders Miss Brill’s coping mechanisms as objects of pity. I found it tragic and heart-rending.

The other two stories focused on love; one on bonds becoming dissolved, and the other on obsession, property, and jealousy. All stories had a real vein of melancholy running through them, all characters’ plights could be resolved with some communication (which they all sadly lacked), and Mansfield has written each of them with such an utter perfection. I was rapt, and desperately didn’t want to reach the end of the meagre fifty pages. Her characters are so unapologetically human, yet there is still an air of mystery to them all.

Miss Brill is a success for Penguin here, and could even be my favourite of the seventy-two I’ve read so far. I am very keen now to seek out more Mansfield, and my faith in the choices Penguin have made for the collection has been somewhat restored. Let’s hope I have more little gems in store with this range of wee books. 

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Book #58

The Fury Yet to Come by Steven McKinnon

A loyal soldier. A sadistic witch. A battle to the brink of madness.
Corporal Tyson Gallows would confront any danger to keep his fiancée out of harm’s way. After his elite squadron falls to an enemy ambush, he wakes to find his hands chained and his mind held captive by a demented witch.
Tortured to the verge of insanity, he wages war in the battlefield of his subconscious and scouts for his opportunity to strike back. With his fellow soldiers’ tormented cries ringing in his ears, Gallows misfires his attack and exposes the source of his strength—his deep devotion to the woman he loves. If he can’t break free of the witch’s stranglehold soon, he’ll lose something far more precious than military secrets—he’ll lose his soulmate.

This is a prequel to McKinnon’s new series, The Raincatcher’s Ballad. I was lucky enough to nab a free copy of this to review. Releasing this short novella ahead of the first title in the series was a clever move to build hype, and whet our appetites for more to come; and whet he did.

Gallows is a soldier who becomes captured by the enemy in the midst of an attack. Finding himself hanging from chains in a cell, and confronted by a crazy mind-controlling witch, he is forced to give away his military knowledge, and, much more sadistically, his memories of home and his love for his fiancée.

Using this method, McKinnon allows us to understand the military operation and where it went wrong, whilst also padding Gallows out as a well-rounded character. He is not just an everyman soldier, which is prevalent in novels such as these; he is a man with origin, desires, and love. In this way, we are allowed to relate, permitted to understand him, and wish for the moment this witch will get her comeuppance.

Other methods are used to develop and portray the other characters, and I appreciated these also, despite McKinnon feeling the need to take a George Martin type approach to the best ones. I imagine there is much more of this to come.

The novella ends in a vague and mysterious manner, which sets up well for the next instalment Symphony of the Wind. The entire short prequel seems to guide towards this moment, and the knowledge that only a small amount will be resolved here helps in rushing us along to buy the next one.

Very excited for Symphony of the Wind.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Book #57

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

The time is our own, when rustlers have given way to drug-runners and small towns have become free-fire zones. 
One day, Llewellyn Moss finds a pickup truck surrounded by a bodyguard of dead men. A load of heroin and two million dollars in cash are still in the back. When Moss takes the money, he sets off a chain reaction of catastrophic violence that not even the law–in the person of aging, disillusioned Sheriff Bell–can contain.
As Moss tries to evade his pursuers–in particular a mysterious mastermind who flips coins for human lives–McCarthy simultaneously strips down the American crime novel and broadens its concerns to encompass themes as ancient as the Bible and as bloodily contemporary as this morning’s headlines.

Anyone familiar with this story, whether by reading the book or seeing the film, will be aware that it is total chaos. Stumbling upon a few dead men and over two million dollars in a case, Llewellyn Moss chooses to cut and run with the cash and incites a tornado of flames behind him.

Although it seems clear the novel is a brooding crime drama, McCarthy quickly dispels this myth and provides us with philosophies on good and evil, nature and nurture, choice an destiny. I particularly enjoyed Sheriff Bell’s italicised ponderings on the nature of man and his country, amongst other deep and meaningful reflections on life.

McCarthy’s style is simple in portraying the Southern setting; his use of colloquialisms packed together with a lack of punctuation gives the story a raw edge, something belonging to the time and place its set in. There is challenge here in understanding what’s going on; McCarthy refuses to spell it out for you, and uses a tell don’t show tactic in a way in which I’ve never experienced before.

I found this a difficult read, as I have other McCarthy works, and similarly I am finding it difficult to review. I imagine anyone who has already tackled this will understand my feelings. Despite it all, this is a great one to experience; McCarthy takes a standard crime tale and twists it into something which could almost be called beautiful. 

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Book #56

Il Duro by D.H. Lawrence

Four personal, sun-drenched sketches of Lawrence's experiences in Italy. 

As is usually the case with Lawrence’s writing, I was completely disengaged. Although some of his eloquent descriptions of nature, or scenery, were gorgeous and enjoyable, there just didn’t seem to be a point to any of it. None of his ramblings clicked together to provide any epiphanies; everything just plodded along in a masquerade depicting Italy.

The four stories don’t seem to have any connection with one another, and felt as though they had been selected and thrown into the collection haphazardly. Of these, John struck me as the one with most potential, but after coming to its apex, John’s story was abandoned for a few paragraphs heavily describing some fields. I was thrilled.

I absolutely did read some really nice snippets of prose here, but the overall lack of purpose permeated the pages to the extent I couldn’t bring myself to read the last story. This is the 71st book I’ve read in the Little Black Classics range, and I have to admit my patience is dwindling with some of the instalments Penguin have chosen to include.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Book #55

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Hailsham seems like a pleasant English boarding school, far from the influences of the city. Its students are well tended and supported, trained in art and literature, and become just the sort of people the world wants them to be. But, curiously, they are taught nothing of the outside world and are allowed little contact with it.
Within the grounds of Hailsham, Kathy grows from schoolgirl to young woman, but it’s only when she and her friends Ruth and Tommy leave the safe grounds of the school (as they always knew they would) that they realize the full truth of what Hailsham is.

Ishiguro gives us a tale of friendship, loss, nostalgia and memory. His style and prose reflect these themes wonderfully, which really piqued my own memories of places which no longer exist. His use of landmarks, whether physical or artistic, in creating a rush of information was somehow familiar, yet there was a real sense of jumble, with the memories given to us not seeming to follow any kind of linear structure, and although this becomes tiresome after a while, it resonates well with how the human mind treats memories, and how each of tell stories by wandering off the path into another story and having to revert back.

During the novel, I felt the characters were being explored deeply, and that I knew them very well. Only now do I understand there was nothing entirely unique nor likeable about any of them, and that their personalities and quirks weren’t really explored at all, particularly for our protagonist, Kathy. Due to my lack of love for any of them, the relationship between the main trio felt trite and absurd to me; a caricature of a high-school love triangle. Except I didn’t feel any of the supposed love they felt for each other; each of them seemed to be on their own, despite part of a group, and nothing given portrayed any overt feelings of love, whether romantic or otherwise. They were bland, vague, and mysterious; entirely akin to the plot itself.

The ‘system’ our characters find themselves in is compelling, and yet Ishiguro is irritatingly averse to giving out details on this. We learn the students’ fate as they do, piecemeal and without context. Nothing is clarified, every inch of information feels like a wisp of a rumour floating around in the air and never touching another. I would have devoured more information on this alternative world, but it was kept secret from me. Towards the end, where the characters were more immersed in the system, I felt more information on this was not only possible, but absolutely required. It didn’t come.

There is absolutely no attempt, as is often the case in these types of novels, to rebel against the system. Not a single one of the characters even came close to creating resistance. Although this seems like the natural thing to do (or are we all disillusioned by dystopian fiction?), I think the lack of rebellion is important. We all accept and conform to our lives in some way; we work to earn, we consume, we find a companion and perhaps marry them, we reproduce – it’s expected. Ishiguro’s characters do exactly what they were born to do, and although horrific, they do so without complaint. Do I think the novel could have been better with some regime-crushing? Yes. Do I understand why he’s chosen not to go with this? Also yes.

The focus here is hugely on nostalgia, memory, and relationships, to the point where Ishiguro has neglected to properly explain his plot. I have a real mixed collection of feelings on this novel, but the main overarching one is that of being robbed of something you never truly owned in the first place.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Book #54

Circe and the Cyclops by Homer

The tales of Odysseus's struggle with a man-eating Cyclops and Circe, the beautiful enchantress who turns men into swine. 

I’ve sorely wanted to read The Odyssey for some time, but always feel quite overwhelmed by its reputation, language, and format.

Since this addition to the Little Black Classics range is a mere taster of Homer, I felt it would be a good place to start. It wasn’t, and if anything, has furthered me from giving the complete work an eager attempt.

I feel better now I’ve read reviews which blast this edition’s translation. I intend to blame that, however the truth in my dislike is probably more down to apprehension and a complete inability to work hard at Homer. Sorry dudes. 

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Book #53

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

First published in French as a serial in 1909, The Phantom of the Opera is a riveting story that revolves around the young, Swedish Christine Daaé. Her father, a famous musician, dies, and she is raised in the Paris Opera House with his dying promise of a protective angel of music to guide her. After a time at the opera house, she begins hearing a voice, who eventually teaches her how to sing beautifully. All goes well until Christine's childhood friend Raoul comes to visit his parents, who are patrons of the opera, and he sees Christine when she begins successfully singing on the stage. The voice, who is the deformed, murderous 'ghost' of the opera house named Erik, however, grows violent in his terrible jealousy, until Christine suddenly disappears. The phantom is in love, but it can only spell disaster.

Obsession, desire, cruelty, secret underground passages, torture chambers, and deformities. What more could you possibly ask for here?!

We are presented with the mystery of the Parisian opera – a ghost haunts the halls. We’re initially dipped headfirst into the myth and hysteria which serves to give the opera ghost his reputation. We don’t meet him in the first section of the novel – we hear about him. He’s a constant throughout the pages without gracing them in person; he is in every corner and in each white space, a shadow. The tension Leroux creates with this method is genius; we only have knowledge from legend, and are no wiser than any character we have met so far.

Soon after the ghost himself appears on the pages, we discover the he’s made entirely of flesh and blood, hiding in the enclosed spaces of the opera house as a result of his facial disfigurement and his past experiences of the reactions this evokes. And how these have shaped him! Erik is an utter psychopath to begin with, but once he falls in love with singer Christine Daae, he takes his desire and obsession to new levels. I found his behaviour difficult to pity, however it’s clear to see he is a product of the way he’s been treated. In a similar vein to Frankenstein, Erik has suffered a lack of nurturing influence in his life. Desiring only to be loved for who he is, he employs drastic and terrifying means to attain this, leading us to a suspenseful and utterly horrific lead-up to the finale.

This is such a complex, engrossing, and tragic story. To be shunned unfairly by the world and then to become the monster they thought you were, is completely heartbreaking. An absolute masterpiece.

And yet I am not really wicked. Love me and you shall see! All I wanted was to be loved for myself. If you loved me, I should be as gentle as a lamb; and you could do anything with me that you pleased.