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 DaaĆ©. 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.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Book #52

The Crow Road by Iain Banks

Prentice McHoan has returned to the bosom of his complex but enduring Scottish family. Full of questions about the McHoan past, present and future, he is also deeply preoccupied: mainly with death, sex, drink, God and illegal substances.

On the first page of The Crow Road, Banks delivers one of the best opening lines I’ve ever experienced: 'It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach's Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.'

And Banks just doesn’t seem to stop with his somber yet somehow hilarious prose, drawing us deeply into the McHoan family, and allowing us to explore their histories, their personalities, and their reprehensible yet utterly relatable behaviours.

This is story of family, love, and loss; Banks gives us Prentice - a narrator akin to an educated loose cannon - and tells Lochgair’s stories with time and space-slipping ease, weaving a rounded yet disorienting picture of family secrets and unrest. There’s nothing linear about the plot, and this is where the magic lies, allowing Banks to hint, tease, and foreshadow his way through the McHoan family values. He swaps from Prentice’s first-person narrative, to that of an all-seeing third-person, and back again; a foreshadowing device in itself, I was living.

Although filled with philosophical ponderings, and commentary on life and death, Banks also inserts little vignettes of memory, which are often hilarious in their delivery. That life can be filled with sorrow, yet with little moments of complete joy, is perfectly true, and Banks highlights this perfectly.

Banks’s characters are so well depicted that they feel like living, breathing people. He nails the family relationships, love hand in hand with bitter jealousy and frustration, and gives us these people as ours to love.

The depictions of Gallanach and other areas of beautiful Scotland were written lyrically and beautifully. The juxtaposition of these settings against those in Glasgow were of a considerable contrast, and, as someone who sticks mainly to confines of Strathclyde, made me ashamed not to have seen far more of my beautiful country than I have.

And the man is away the crow road himself. One of my favourite Scottish authors, all we can do is feel blessed he has left behind such a wealth of stories and talent for us to remember to him with.

“These were the days of fond promise, when the world was very small and there was still magic in it. He told them stories of the Secret Mountain and the Sound that could be Seen, of the Forest drowned by Sand and the trees that were time-stilled waters.
Then, every day was a week, each month a year. A season was a decade, and every year a life.”

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Book #51

Cuttin’ Heads by D.A. Watson

Aldo Evans is a desperate man. Fired from his job and deeply in debt, he struggles to balance a broken family life with his passion for music. 

Luce Figura is a troubled woman. A rhythmic perfectionist, she is haunted by childhood trauma and scorned by her religiously devout mother. 
Ross McArthur is a wiseass. Orphaned as an infant and raised by the state, his interests include game shows, home-grown weed, occasional violence and the bass guitar. 
They are Public Alibi. A rock n’ roll band going nowhere fast. 
When the sharp-suited, smooth talking producer Gappa Bale offers them a once in a lifetime chance to make their dreams come true, they are caught up in a maelstrom of fame, obsession, music and murder. 
Soon, Aldo, Luce and Ross must ask themselves: is it really better to burn out than to fade away?

Fuck sake.

Watson asked me to review this some time ago. I was having pre-drinks on the train when I got the email, quickly read the synopsis and decided it was my thing. Having finally gotten around to trying it, I had completely forgotten what the book was about, other than it was Glaswegian. Blame the lapse in time, or blame the gin, I don’t care

It all started innocently enough, with the familiar relatability of three Scottish twenty-somethings working in call centres, as hospital porters, and music tutors, just trying to make ends meet whilst jamming in a band in their spare time. I loved seeing bars, clubs, and venues I know well described as the trio did the rounds to expose their band. A nice, calm novel on trying to make it big. I was pleased.

NO. It quickly became apparent that something wasn’t quite right, and I was quickly overcome by the terror of being clasped in the claws of a horror novel. I need big warnings for this; I’m a shitebag and will see things lunging out of the dark at me if I’m reading any type of horror novel.

Once I’d rationalised that I’d need to read this with the big light on instead of my wee reading lamp, I was able to properly immerse myself in this utter mindbend of a tale. It’ll be difficult to put my thoughts down without taking away the moments of crippling shock and incredulity I felt throughout the pages.

Unless you (unlike my idiot self) carefully read the synopsis before opening the first page, it’s impossible to detect any type of horror in the beginnings of the story. This is an utter masterstroke by Watson – pulling us into these normal as fuck lives of normal as fuck people, kidding you on that you’re reading a normal as fuck book, then revealing one of the most chilling, unthinkable, and unique types of horror you will ever have the fortune to read. Watson’s terror lies in the pure feeling of normalcy permeating the starting pages, and the fact the characters’ descent into an impossible situation began on innocent and acceptable terms.

Watson’s trio themselves are carved out of grit. Each has a troublesome past, demons (HAHAHAHAHA!) and memories they’d like to fade entirely from their consciousness. We’re bound to each of them by their pasts, their personalities, and their families. They’re perfectly flawed protagonists who command respect and understanding.

The skill of writing during the horror sections was unreal. My skin was crawling, I couldn’t look away, I had to peer into the toilet to check for demons any time I went into the bathroom. An absolutely unparalleled use of tension, coupled with that horrible feeling that something is out there.

Finally, there’s a huge sense here of the author’s love of music. As a musical dunce, even I felt swept away by the power of Watson’s characters playing their instruments, and the strategic use of an E minor.

For music fans, this is an absolutely essential novel to add to your collection. For horror fans, it’s a definite. For shitebags, I’d suggest giving it a miss as I’m still checking the toilet.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Book #50

I Hate and I Love by Catullus

Dazzling modern lyrical poems from Catullus - by turns smutty, abusive, romantic and deeply moving. 

I still can’t do poetry, although it was difficult not to understand what was going on here.

Catullus has the hots for this woman big time, the whole ‘can’t eat, can’t sleep’ shebang. Each of these poems professes his undying love for her, and the fact he hates how much the love he has for her affects him.

So I got it, but I didn’t enjoy it. It’s very rare for a poem to evoke anything in me. Sitting down to absorb a collection like this, particularly one which is so repetitive in its subject matter, is a complete chore. Having said that, I very much doubt I would love anyone so much as so sit down and write as many poems as Catullus evidently has. Maybe the problem isn’t in poetry, and more in the fact I’m an emotionless sociopath.

I wonder whether I should skip over the poetry compilations in the Little Black Classics range, or whether that would be giving up of the worst kind. Something to ponder.

~*Catullus 4 Lesbia*~ 

Book #50

The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe

In The Murders in the Rue Morgue, all of Paris is in shock following the ghastly murder of two women—but with all witnesses claiming to have heard the suspect speak a different language, the police are stumped. When Dupin finds a suspicious hair at the crime scene, and places an advert in the newspaper asking if anyone has lost an "Ourang-Outang," things take an unexpected turn.

Having already dabbled in the arts of Poe’s more macabre and supernatural works, I was excited to meet Auguste Dupin. I jumped in full of adrenaline, utterly unprepared for the apathy which was waiting for me.

My edition contained The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Roget, and The Purloined Letter. I finished the first, almost managed to finish the second, and completely abandoned the third.

As a detective who inspired the creation of Sherlock Holmes, Dupin is the dullest sleuth I have ever come across. Totally beige, completely clinical, and a man who uses twenty words when one will do, he effortlessly turns interesting and complex crimes into affairs the reader wishes they’d never got themselves into in the first place. I didn’t care about the culprit; I only cared about reaching the final page, which, in the end, I couldn’t even bring myself to do.

The cases are explained and solved mainly using Dupin’s long and bothersome monologues. There are no sudden clues, no red herrings, no character developments, nothing whatsoever which makes a good detective novel engaging. I understand Poe was one of the trailblazers in this genre, but it seems the idea has been picked up and improved since.

I don’t know if I’ve spoiled myself by finishing The Moonstone and moving immediately on to another detective story, but Poe’s mysteries pale in comparison to those of Collins and Doyle.

And, finally - a fucking monkey? Come on, man.

Friday, 6 July 2018

Book #49

The Robber Bridegroom by Brothers Grimm

Drawn from German folklore, dark, fantastical fairy tales of wicked deeds, gruesome punishment, and just rewards.

I’m very confused at Penguin’s decision to name this Grimm compilation after what is, by far, one of the weakest stories within the book. The Robber Bridegroom fell flat for me; although not disengaging, and by no means dull, in comparison with its brothers and sisters within the pages, it couldn’t quite meet the bar.

Having never read any Grimm (despite owning the complete works which I will get around to on some rainy day in the future), I was surprised and delighted at how gruesome the stories are. Obviously modern day adaptations have watered down the majority of the gore and death, but to read fairy tales which include cannibalism, aggressive animals, and (my favourite) dancing in hot iron shoes until you fall down dead, was nothing but delectable to me.

The style is incredibly simplistic, but this lends a real tone of fable to the little tales. They truly feel perfect for reading aloud, without being patronising or glaringly aimed at children. With each of them containing some sort of murder, or act of violence, it’s difficult to imagine these being used to entertain children today; if I had any wee brats, I would surely try.

A gorgeous little introduction to Grimm, this has made me look forward to tackling the giant tome that is the complete works when I feel I have the staying power for it. 

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Book #48

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

Hinging on the theft of an enormous diamond originally stolen from an Indian shrine, this riveting novel features the innovative Sergeant Cuff, the hilarious house steward Gabriel Betteridge, a lovesick housemaid, and a mysterious band of Indian jugglers.

Similar to the Moonstone itself, this novel is a wonder to behold. I’d love to attempt a summary of the plot here, but having attempted this already and having failed to capture the beauty of it, I’ll suggest just going ahead and reading the story for yourself.

As a detective novel (arguably the first ever written), this is a long one. It’s structured by a number of accounts from various narrators on the crime itself, the investigation, and, most beautifully, on the relationships, motives, and behaviours of the characters. Despite falling in love with the first narrator, house-steward Gabriel Betteredge, this fluctuating style of narration was utterly perfect in explaining and solving the riddle. There are twists, turns, red herrings, every single staple plot device found in a modern-day detective mystery is here, but somehow a thousand times more glorious.

Unlike most modern takes on sleuthing, Collins provides the minimum of clues throughout the pages to allow us to guess the culprit. When the explanation finally came, it was a complete slap in the face, and deliciously mind-blowing.

I was particularly impressed that despite this novel being published in 1868, Collins dealt sensitively with his character types. Our female protagonist was strong-willed and intelligent – no fainting or smelling salts required. He depicted a rounded view of the lower class, particularly the house servants, with one in particular being shown as a wholly developed person, instead of a mindless candle polisher in a servant’s gown. Finally, there were a few brown-skinned villains involved, and at no point were there any disparaging comments on their race; instead, the other characters treated them kindly as foreigners far from home. This astounded me; many reviews of classic novels now pass things off as “products of their time”, but there was absolutely no reason or need to here. It begs the question whether passing things off really is the right thing to do when authors like Collins can manage to write in this way.

To say any more would be saying too much, but if you ever need a good mystery, or reminded that the classics are best, this is one for you.