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.