Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Book #77

O Cruel Alexis by Virgil

Virgil's lyrical, wistful and often witty pastoral poems. 

I was around halfway through my struggle with Virgil’s pastoral poetry when a brand new idea occurred to me. Perhaps my recent lack of enjoyment with the Little Black Classics range isn’t my own fault. Could, perhaps, this be the fault of Penguin?! The more I considered this, the more I realised it was most likely a joint fault, however, I would like to discuss Penguin’s shortfalls and lack of foresight with this range. Sorry, Virgil.

Firstly, my main motivator in purchasing these tiny vignettes of hell, was to learn more about different genres, authors, countries, and people. I wanted to broaden my literary experience, and potentially find new loves. Penguin has prohibited me in doing so by making these so utterly horrible to read.

Take Virgil here; the poetry flows beautifully, his words are lyrical, and the scene setting glorious. Did I enjoy the poems? Did I hell. In many of these instalments, Penguin seem to have just randomly selected a chunk of text from a larger work, and deposited it within their eye-catching black covers. No context is provided, no explanation, nothing that will help the reader absorb and learn. That’s all, folks.

Secondly, translation. I’m no expert on this, but for many of the instalments I’ve absolutely despised, other reviewers are slating translation. Why would Penguin allow poorly translated works to be included in, what is effectively, a collection of the greats? Why sully their name, and make fools like me believe their work to be disengaging?

So – not my fault. Or partly not my fault. I’m sick of journeying through this bloody collection believing myself to be thick as mince, when in actual fact I am not entirely to blame.

Monday, 29 October 2018

Book #76

Every Day is For the Thief by Teju Cole

A young Nigerian writer living in New York City returns to Lagos in search of a subject-and himself.
Visiting Lagos after many years away, Teju Cole's unnamed narrator rediscovers his hometown as both a foreigner and a local. A young writer uncertain of what he wants to say, the man moves through tableaus of life in one of the most dynamic cities in the world: he hears the muezzin's call to prayer in the early morning light, and listens to John Coltrane during the late afternoon heat. He witnesses teenagers diligently perpetrating e-mail frauds from internet cafes, longs after a woman reading Michael Ondaatje on a public bus, and visits the impoverished National Museum. Along the way, he reconnects with old school friends and his family, who force him to ask himself profound questions of personal and national history. Over long, wandering days, the narrator compares present-day Lagos to the Lagos of his memory, and in doing so reveals changes that have taken place in himself.

This is such a strange, yet gorgeous little novella. Widely labelled as fiction, it’s almost impossible to categorise; constructed of a series of vignettes detailing the narrator’s return to Nigeria, there is no plot, no character development, and no real fictional feeling to any of it. Cole’s words and structure lean more towards non-fiction, to a memoir or travelogue.

Strange also is the knowledge that although this is a fictionalised account, it’s really only the characters who don’t exist. The scenes in Nigeria, the corruption, brutality, and poverty, are all true to life, and Cole depicts this expertly as an Nigerian expatriate examining his home with fresh eyes - eyes which have seen the West.

Our unnamed narrator is jarred by what he sees, despite expecting it, remembering it, and accepting it. His words are detached, almost like words in a reference novel, yet smooth and compelling, still managing to convey emotion. The vignette-like structure didn’t allow for development or plot; they were mere snapshots which could have (excepting the first and last) have come in any order at all. A very surreal reading experience.

And yet, despite taking some time to become used to Cole’s style here, I enjoyed it. I was exposed to a new country, a new writing style, and brand new knowledge. Words from an innocuous observer – unique and poignant. 

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Book #75

Kansyan from the Beautiful Lands by Ivan Turgenev

Turgenev's accounts of hunting in rural Russia, and the extraordinary characters he meets there.

I was absolutely desperate to start this one as I’ve never encountered a work of Russian literature that didn’t blow me away. Turgenev holds the honour of being the first Russian author to disappoint me.

To be fair, and perfectly honest, it was one of the better choices within the Little Black Classics range, despite its lack of impact. The two stories are taken from a collection of Turgenev’s short stories which recount his time hunting in rural Russia, and the various characters he met on his travels.

Using District Doctor to ease us in was an excellent move. The story tells of love, death, family, and lies, and does so in such a way to disorient the reader at a time where most of the characters are ablaze with confusion themselves. I relished this; the strange word choices, the behaviours, the utterly bizarre ending. And yet, upon the last word, I wondered what the point of it all was.

The titular short story left a lot to be desired. Although Turgenev skilfully displayed his writing skill with wonderful descriptions of nature, his plot wasn’t entirely compelling. I was baffled, frustrated, and, dare I say it, a bit bored.

I’m unsure whether this one’s failure is the fault of Turgenev for his poor plot outlines, or Penguin for their poor choice of stories. I do wonder whether these would make more sense within the collection they are taken from, yet Penguin haven’t compelled me to explore this any further.


Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Book #74

Symphony of the Wind by Steven McKinnon

A bounty hunter with a death wish. An orphan with her head in the clouds. A conspiracy with the power to bring down a kingdom.
Serena dreams of leaving her harsh desert home behind in her very own airship. But when an assassin’s knife meant for Serena kills her friend instead, the rebellious orphan ventures into the corrupt heart of Dalthea to discover who put a price on her head. With each new turn, she edges closer to uncovering the awful truth… And the mystical powers brewing deep within her.
After his fiancée’s death, soldier-turned-bounty hunter Tyson Gallows is eager to sacrifice his life in the line of duty. When a foreign enemy assassinates a high-ranking official, he vows to bring them to justice. On the hunt for a killer, Gallows exposes a sinister plot that proves his fiancée’s death was no accident.
Driven by revenge, Serena and Gallows must join forces to take down the conspiracy before the kingdom falls to ruin.

I read the prequel to this (The Fury Yet to Come) a couple of months ago, and I’ve been desperate to continue my journey with Tyson Gallows. We left him reeling from his encounter with a mind-infiltrating witch, and find him again in Dalthea, a member of the Hunter’s Guild, yet broken and grieving for his departed fiancée. But Gallows is one of those guys that trouble just seems to find, and soon we’re catapulted into tornado of crime, corruption, and a shitload of fighting. Sign me up for this series immediately.

People often ask me what I’m reading, and when I’ve tried to explain this one over the past week, I’ve found myself lost for words. I would open my mouth and attempt to describe the novel, but what I heard coming out just wasn’t selling it, or doing it justice. It’s impossible to put the premise of this book into words, never mind write a concise review. But here goes.

There is so much to digest here. There’s politics, conspiracies, magical powers, lore, genetically modified animals, genetically modified humans, not to mention the complex characters and their intricate relationships with each other. The delicate, and often confusing, aspects only made the novel more true to life – excepting mind-manipulation and the undead – and the story quickly becomes something you are completely embroiled in.

The pace is unbelievably fast, and yet you’re constantly learning. Although my favourite sections were where I was being given information on people and their motivations, I also relished the action scenes (of which there were many), which isn’t like me. You hold some of these characters close to your heart, only to be propelled into danger with them. Some of them are saved, some of them aren’t, but most of them experience some gut-wrenching, heart-stopping moments where you’ve no idea how they can possibly survive.

Best of all is the world McKinnon has created here. The faith, the government, the technology, the fallouts of war, all felt in the beginning as though they were flashed before our eyes and taken away just as quickly. There are no explanations, just subtle mentions of words and names of which we are clueless to their meaning. And yet McKinnon explains when it matters, and does so slowly without patronising us. I truly loved this method; the slow reveal is far more satisfying than droll histories and lengthy lectures.

A wonderful first novel in the series; I am so delighted to have been asked to review this, and very impatient for the second instalment. There are lots of people I’ll be recommending this one to with the caveat they read The Fury Yet to Come in order to set the scene. Nevertheless, after all that fast-paced bloodshed and mind-bending, I think I’ll read the entire series of Mr Men books to calm my heart down a bit.  

Monday, 15 October 2018

Book #73

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

Malcolm Polstead is the kind of boy who notices everything but is not much noticed himself. And so perhaps it was inevitable that he would become a spy...
Malcolm's father runs an inn called the Trout, on the banks of the river Thames, and all of Oxford passes through its doors. Malcolm and his dæmon, Asta, routinely overhear news and gossip, and the occasional scandal, but during a winter of unceasing rain, Malcolm catches wind of something new: intrigue.
He finds a secret message inquiring about a dangerous substance called Dust--and the spy it was intended for finds him.
When she asks Malcolm to keep his eyes open, Malcolm sees suspicious characters everywhere; Lord Asriel, clearly on the run; enforcement agents from the Magisterium; a gyptian named Coram with warnings just for Malcolm; and a beautiful woman with an evil monkey for a dæmon. All are asking about the same thing: a girl--just a baby--named Lyra.
Lyra is the kind of person who draws people in like magnets. And Malcolm will brave any danger, and make chocking sacrifices, to bring her safely through the storm.

I feel I only enjoyed this as much as I did because I’ve only just finished reading His Dark Materials trilogy. La Belle Sauvage draws its charm by subtly referring to characters and plot points in the original books, and it’d be a bit of a push for this to stand on its own, even as the first instalment of a new trilogy.

In the main, Pullman’s characters were gorgeous. I fell in love with Malcolm who, despite being a pretty beige and unassuming pre-teen, has clear growth and increasing maturity as the novel progresses. His friend Alice, who is with him for the majority of the novel, is far more complex and easy to understand as a young woman. And Lyra as a giggling baby – although she couldn’t be characterised well at that age - seeing her and baby Pan was just lovely. Apart from these three, and their daemons (Ben was a love), there was nothing much in the way of characterisation to compel and engross us.

A young Dame Hannah (flashback to His Dark Materials) was introduced; curious, nervous, and at the beginning of her career, it was gorgeous to see her become involved with Malcolm, giving him guidance, support, and a good few different works of fiction to borrow. She becomes deeply involved in matters she’s unsure of, there’s a lot of foreshadowing on Malcolm’s fate, and then she completely disappears from the pages. I was desperate to find out what happened to her – did her books survive the flood?? – but the way she dissolved completely almost rendered her character utterly futile.

Pullman’s antagonist, a seemingly friendly man with a fierce three-legged hyena demon, started out as completely interesting, and yet his story fell flat for me too. Information on his life was slowly trickled through gossip channels, landing at my feet with glee. But no more. I didn’t find out what he was attempting, why he was the way he was, what exactly he had done in the past and how it was all connected. For both of the above characters, it’s possible the answers will come in the next instalment, however Pullman has stated this one will be more of a sequel to His Dark Materials. So many questions.

Although the story itself is beautifully and lyrically written, with the most stunning illustrations supporting Pullman’s words, the plot itself doesn’t have much going on. The first half feels pretty anticipatory; we see Malcolm go about his daily rituals whilst we’re safe in the knowledge shit is about to go down, but the second half of the novel is purely a mildly concerning boat ride. There’s no real terror (as, if you’ve read His Dark Materials, you know they will be okay), no direction, and an awful lot of changing nappies.

Pullman once again comments on theology and democracy, but definitely not in as hard-hitting a fashion as the previous trilogy. Dust was mentioned a few times, but I was pleased it wasn’t the main focus of the novel; I am sick of that glittery shit and its scientific causes. I was also pleased there were no roller-skating elephants in this one.

I’m unsure what else to say. Perhaps my complaints will be solved upon the release of the next novel, perhaps they won’t. I will always retain a love for Malcolm, however, and I really hope Ben settles into bulldog form. Goodnight, La Belle Sauvage. 

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Book #72

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

Will is the bearer of the knife. Now, accompanied by angels, his task is to deliver that powerful, dangerous weapon to Lord Asriel - by the command of his dying father.
But how can he go looking for Lord Asriel when Lyra is gone? Only with her help can he fathom the myriad plots and and intrigues that beset him. 
The two great powers of the many worlds are lining up for war, and Will must find Lyra, for together they are on their way to battle, an inevitable journey that will even take them to the world of the dead.

I have no idea how I feel about the finale of His Dark Materials. This trilogy has been a hell of a ride through multiple universes, where I’ve met baffling and interesting characters (Thumbelina riding a dragonfly – yes; elephants on roller-skates – no), and fallen deeply in love with my protagonists and their dæmons. It’s difficult for me to bash the series as a whole, but there were parts of the final novel that I simply couldn’t make myself enjoy.

Firstly, in my review of The Subtle Knife, I stated I was hoping for a reduction in the theological turn the plot was beginning to take. This dream did not come true, and I was embroiled in battles and plans to kill God and build a new heaven. I could not get on board with this, not for religious reasons, but for the way in which this factor seemed to steal away from Pullman’s fantasy. Any chapter which involved the Church, the angels, or Lord Asriel’s plans, dulled my curiosity completely. It has taken me a while to finish the novel for this reason.

And secondly, I felt even less spellbound than I did during The Subtle Knife. There was nothing to fill me with wonder and disbelief, nothing to completely tickle my brain with incomprehensible new ideas or situations. A large section of the book was devoted to battle, to zeppelins and gyrocopters, and trying to escape the bad guys. It dragged on. I much preferred the deceit, the sneaking around, the plotting, the discovering, and the things falling into place.

I think Pullman’s downfall has been writing such a stunning first instalment that its shine simply couldn’t be matched. Everything he introduced in Northern Lights was utterly magical, engrossing, and compelling. Everything since has been akin to buying a fake handbag – it’s all right, but poor in comparison to the original.

Still, there were parts I absolutely adored – the progression of Lyra and Will’s relationship, the world of the dead, Lee Scoresby! And that ending – just stamp all over my heart, why don’t you?

I have definite mixed feelings about this series, but I’ll always hold a love for Lyra and Pan. Let’s see if Pullman can bring out more of his imaginative skill (and hopefully fewer angels) in La Belle Sauvage. 

Monday, 1 October 2018

Book #71

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

Will is twelve years old and he's just killed a man. Now he's on his own, on the run, determined to discover the truth about his father disappearance.
Then Will steps through a window in the air into another world, and finds himself with a companion - a strange, savage little girl called Lyra. Like Will, she has a mission which she intends to carry out at all costs.
But the world of Cittàgazze is a strange and unsettling place. Deadly, soul-eating Spectres stalk in its streets, while high above, the wingbeats of distant angels sound against the sky. And in the mysterious Torre degli Angeli lurks Cittàgazze's most important secret - an object which people from many worlds would kill to possess.

Although The Subtle Knife is the second instalment in the trilogy, Pullman tugs the direction of our journey strongly on to another path. Everything we’ve learned and become accustomed to in Northern Lights feels like an old dream, as new and baffling components are introduced, and we’re transported across a multitude of different worlds. Most of all, Lyra appears very little, as our new protagonist takes the helm.

It’s like a completely new story, which is a genius move in maintaining our wonder and awe in the worlds Pullman has built. Each chapter differs in its narrative, giving us a rounded view of Pullman’s cast of characters and their experiences. Multiple voice always gets a big tick from me, and I was particularly pleased to see the majority of chapters were fixed upon side characters, rather than our two protagonists.

Yet, The Subtle Knife felt slightly lacking in the creation of an utterly spellbound feeling in me, in comparison to what Northern Lights evoked. Pullman delves heavily into physics and religion; in explaining the first in depth, and in implying the problems with the second, he refuses to patronise his readers, but also turns a deep fantasy series into a philosophical religious commentary. I can accept armoured bears and elephant type things on wheels, but as soon as angels are mentioned, I am completely disengaged.

I loved the introduction of Will, of the knife, and even of the biblical elements three of the characters symbolised. I’m just unsure of the religious path the plot is taking, to the detriment of the genre. Nevertheless, this is the middle book in a trilogy, always difficult to review, and sometimes even difficult to understand. I shall focus my attention on The Amber Spyglass with fingers crossed for a reduction in theological debate.