Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Book #88

Speaking of Siva

Meditative, deeply personal poems to the god Siva, from four major Hindu saints. 

These are small devotional poems written by four saints, dedicated to the god Siva. I didn’t find this out from Penguin; I had to do some digging on my own to help me better understand the verses Penguin so rudely launched at me without explanation.

The poems themselves felt very emotive and lyrical, yet heavy in their religious piety. There was something quite disengaging and sour about them which I couldn’t quite comprehend.

Call it a lack of context, or a personal distaste for poetry, but these Little Black Classics are completely grating on me now. This was number 79; almost there.

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Book #87

HWFG by Chris McQueer

Here We F**king Go (HWFG) is the much-anticipated follow up to Chris McQueer’s hilarious, award-winning debut short story collection Hings. In HWFG...

Your fave Sammy gets a job and Angie goes to Craig Tara.
Plans are made to kick the f*ck out of Kim Jong-Un. 
You’ll find answers to the big questions in life: 

What happens when we die?
What does Brexit actually mean?
Why are moths terrifying?
What are ghosts like to live with?

It’s just a load more short stories ‘n that.

hwfg x

I jumped into this with severe anticipation, but also with an unsettling dread that HWFG could never match its predecessor, Hings. I know now it’s impossible to compare the two. Where Hings is a wee wideo looking to have a laugh and a slagging, HWFG is the psycho uncle who’s just oot the jail.

We still get our old favourites, those characters of gold who seem to be moulded out of a range of faces you’d see walking up the main gaff (Angie at Craig Tara is a total masterpiece), and relatable figures who’ve never shown their face before, like big Leaf the smug west-end hipster; yet, there are some stories here just a wee bit more twisted and a shitload darker than in Hings. There’s a tinge of dystopia, a smear of macabre, and a wee taste of what would happen if Charlie Brooker was born in Cranhill.

I got to explore bits of my mind I’d never accessed before. What is my biggest riddy? Would I save that cow from school if I found myself in a life or death situation with her, or would I just continue the rammy? Would I have my armpits stinking of petrol all day for a prize of fifty quid? See that wasp that flew into my da’s gub one time, was it trying to take over his body? Not questions you should ask out loud.

There were a couple of stories in here I’d read before, but it was glorious to read them again, and it felt fitting to give them a home in this grimoire of Glesga. 

I just love McQueer’s stuff, and I absolutely loved this. I did read the acknowledgements where he states the pressure and stress of writing this one nearly killed him, but mibbe batter some more out sharpish, eh?

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Book #86

 My Sister and I by Sean-Paul Thomas

A young teenage girl and her psychotic twin sister must grow up hard and fast in the unforgiving Scottish Highlands as their father - a sick and twisted, violent man, obsessed with the end of the world - teaches them how to survive out in the wild with no one to rely on but themselves.

Jeezo, I love a bit of dark depravity fiction, but this was absolutely merciless.

Imagine one of those mental guys you meet in the pub, the ones with the unsettling glint in their eye that tells you they would have absolutely no problem taking you outside and stabbing you for a laugh. Imagine that guy colder, lonelier, more sadistic, less human. Imagine that guy with two twin girls he’s training up to become just like him. You just wouldn’t want to, but Thomas will make you.

The narrative here is what gets me the most. Written in first person, from the perspective of the gentler twin, it’s all thoughts and descriptions, with a lack of dialogue. This made the unfolding of the plot all the more terrifying; being unable to tell how the more violent sister was going to react next was utterly disquieting.

There’s a particularly fast pace here, which was excellent. The girls are no sooner released from some form of ‘survival training’ nightmare before being plunged into their next woeful task. The appearances of the clearly mentally ill father are sporadic, frightful, and completely concerning. His beliefs, his upbringing, and his treatment of his daughters, all point towards something we hope we’ll never encounter in our own lifetimes.

It says a lot about our parents, and the people they bring us up to be - that age old nature vs. nurture debate which is destined never to be solved. Thomas hints subtly that we are all products of our parents’ design, but that outside factors can intervene, and in each of us is a true sense of right and wrong, regardless of what we’ve been taught.

Thomas also forces us to consider the lengths we would go to to survive. He gives the girls impossible situations to escape from, and it’s with shame I admit I simply wouldn’t make it. Thank god my da is the type who will wash my car every weekend and tap me money, instead of sending me out into the wilderness to fend for myself.

My only criticism would be that I felt the finale was rounded up far too quickly, with some loose ends in there I wanted tied up (I won’t go into detail as that will mean spoilers). Or maybe I just wanted it to last longer.

You don’t get many horror novels set in the Scottish Highlands, and this one from Thomas was perfect. Thank you so much for allowing me to read this. 

Friday, 23 November 2018

Book #85

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut

A young man takes three journeys, through Greece, India and Africa. He travels lightly, simply. To those who travel with him and those whom he meets on the way - including a handsome, enigmatic stranger, a group of careless backpackers and a woman on the edge - he is the Follower, the Lover and the Guardian. Yet, despite the man's best intentions, each journey ends in disaster. Together, these three journeys will change his whole life. A novel of longing and thwarted desire, rage and compassion, "In a Strange Room" is the hauntingly beautiful evocation of one man's search for love, and a place to call home.

I got around a third of the way through this and gave up. As I’m unable to give a review of the book overall, I will detail some of the reasons I felt I couldn’t continue. Leaving a book unfinished is a very rare occurrence for me.

The book is structured into three sections, each of which focuses on a different area our narrator travels to, the people he meets, and the things he encounters. It felt a bit like a melancholy and overly-lyrical travelogue to begin with, and yet there is a complete lack of attention to the narrator’s surroundings. The first section (for me, the only section), looked at Greece and Africa; both felt flat and boring, which I am sure they are absolutely not. No real descriptions of setting, custom, or the locals, just an entire inward focus on the narrator’s emotional angst.

Everything felt incredibly disconnected and disengaging. Even the narrator’s feelings for the man he meets on his travels – a whole lot ranging from love to rage – were just off kilter enough to evoke apathy in me. The narrative switched from first to third person sporadically, without any real impact or mastery.

To me, I was reading something that was written to be poignant, abstract, and deliciously difficult to interpret. And sadly, it wasn’t. There was nothing here for me. 

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Book #84

The Madness of Cambyses by Herodotus

The story of the great and mad Cambyses, King of Persia, told by part-historian, part-mythmaker Herodotus of Halicarnassus. 

In comparison to some of the other Little Black Classics disasters I’ve encountered, I fairly enjoyed this one.

The mad king of Persia and his manic actions make for an interesting read, particularly the steps he takes in response to dreams, or the comments of oracles. What’s meaningful here is the moment Cambyses discovers he’s dying, and goes on to realise he was completely misguided in one of his deranged acts. There was something really poignant in this for me.

Accounts of historic custom were also incredibly enlightening, as were the ponderings of Herodotus. My only irritation was the huge number of names and places mentioned, which made things slightly difficult to keep track of.

God, I love a mad king. 

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Book #83

As If by Blake Morrison

Blake Morrison attended the 1993 trial of two 10-year-old boys in Liverpool, England, who were accused of killing a 2-year-old; he wrote about the case for the New Yorker. Three years later, the case was still haunting him, so he returned to the subject to examine its impact on a more personal level.

An utterly uncomfortable read, and not in the way I was expecting.

In 1993, Morrison was tasked with attending, and reporting on, the trial of Thompson and Venables. As any human would, he was desperate to find out the reason why. That, in fact, was the main reason I picked this up, as I imagine would be the incentive for anyone reading this - what could possibly have driven two ten year olds to commit such a deplorable crime?

As I had already subconsciously assumed, no why is provided in Morrison’s commentary; no why ever seems to have been found. Instead, he documented facts of the crime, the trial, and the criminals, and chose to pepper alongside these some anecdotal whims from his own life. I found these largely unnecessary. 

The book began well and engaged me, until Morrison’s sympathy for Thompson and Venables shone through more clearly. He makes no secret of this, and puts forth arguments on how both children were hard done by - tried in an adult court, raised in violent or emotionally abusive households, exposed to films targeted to much older people, etc. He argues a lesser verdict, or lesser sentence, would be more appropriate. He suggests we would live in a brighter world should society move from current lynch mob attitudes, to a far more liberal and therapeutic retribution for criminals. When it comes to a beaten two year old, who has been subjected to terrors we cannot even begin to imagine, I beg to bloody differ.

It’s a serious look at both the Thompson and Venables families, casting light on past abuse, sympathising with both sets of parents, and painstakingly making a case for their veneration. Although I can also sympathise with the parents to a degree (how do you come to terms with having a killer as a son?), the sympathy for the Bulger parents was clearly lacking. Coming from the same types of backgrounds as the Thompson and Venables parents, the Bulgers weren’t given the same care. Morrison grotesquely criticised Denise in particular, and at one point made uncomfortable comments on her outfit choices, which almost felt like a fervour of fetish.

For James himself, no remorse was overly apparent. Yes, Morrison had a few dreams about him (how sick I became of reading of his insipid dreams), and mentioned him a few times in an attempt to reestablish some humanity to the essay. But nothing rang true. Morrison’s sympathies lay with the killers, and only the killers, not the little boy who lost his life, not the complete trust he put in two strangers only to have his trust mercilessly broken, and not the guilt and heartbreak of a woman who was only permitted two years with her beautiful son.

Morrison also makes disturbing comparisons between the crime, and children's games, in an attempt to suggest Thompson and Venables were too young to realise what they were doing. In a macabre and unsettling description of himself as a child playing doctors and nurses with friends, he argues children are merely exploring bodies without the prior knowledge of sexuality. Exploring bodies and ending the life of a body are completely different things. This was such a distasteful and harrowing point to even attempt to make.

And, towards the end, we soon discover where Morrison’s sympathies come from. As he admitted to a sordid act he took part in during his own adolescence (similar to doctors and nurses, only far more unacceptable), the bile raised in my throat and it took all of my willpower to reach the last page. Morrison is sympathising with James Bulger’s murderers in a horrific attempt to absolve himself of his own sins.

Call me No-Heart (many have), but if you harm a child, you pay the price. Any attempts to justify will only do greater injustice to those already hurt by the crime. A disgusting attempt to make excuses for two boys who committed one of the most vile atrocities in our lifetime. 

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Book #82

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Dept. of Speculation is a portrait of a marriage. It is also a beguiling rumination on the mysteries of intimacy, trust, faith, knowledge, and the condition of universal shipwreck that unites us all. 

A heartbreakingly raw account of a woman’s life and thought processes.

The prose is gorgeous; structured in tiny vignettes, we almost sail through the wife’s tragedies and joys, fleeting or otherwise. It’s emotional, it’s abstract, and yet it’s completely real. Offill’s choice of structure here has had far more of an impact on me than, say, a standard linear first-person approach. The small snippets documenting marriage, children, and adultery, form a scrapbook of pain and anger, but also highlight some of life’s little moments of bliss.

I would have a liked a more satisfactory conclusion, however, with the novel being so true to life, perhaps a nice tied up ending wouldn’t have fit. We continue.

Other than that, I’m finding it difficult to describe exactly what I enjoyed so much about this little novel. Perhaps it’s just come along at the right time in my life, allowing me to connect with it as much as possible. Perhaps it’s just one of those novels where you can’t put your feelings into words. And strangely, it’s not one I will be shouting from the rooftops and urging everyone to read. I do feel strange about this.

Beautiful, evoking, and charged. I’ll remember this one for a while. 

Friday, 16 November 2018

Book #81

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

Here is a story told inside out and back to front
Five Dunbar brothers are living – fighting, loving, grieving – in the perfect chaos of a house without grown-ups. Today, the father who left them has just walked right back in. 
He has a surprising request: Who will build a bridge with him?
It is Clay, a boy tormented by a long-buried secret, who accepts. But why is Clay so broken? And why must he fulfil this extraordinary challenge?
Bridge of Clay is about a boy caught in a current, a boy intent on destroying everything he has in order to become everything he needs to be. Ahead of him lies the bridge, the vision that will save both his family and himself.
It will be a miracle and nothing less.

I am being very strict with myself in the writing of this review, adamant not to make Bridge of Clay vs. The Book Thief comparisons. One quick one though - Bridge of Clay pales in comparison. God, I’m devastated; it was painful.

We are shown the lives of five brothers and their parents through lenses smeared with metaphors. Zusak’s flowery language, and use of time travel, made the plot utterly confusing, disengaging, and difficult to get through. I almost didn’t finish.

It was like a dream, in the worst way possible. No sense of time or space, no idea what’s happening, no connection to the confusing, misty characters around you, and everyone consistently speaks in riddles.

There are many reviews stating that it takes a while to get going, but I found the opposite to be true. Filled with excitement and adrenaline, I plunged in, only for my hope to dissolve slowly with each page turn. I felt it started with promise (it’s Zusak), and just descended more and more into the abysmal. Most notably, my tolerance for the style, my suspension of disbelief, and my wavering patience, gave out immediately after a majorly tragic event which should have affected me, but didn’t - couldn’t. I wanted it over with.

One more comparison (sorry) – I feel Zusak has misunderstood the success of The Book Thief. Yes, he also used many metaphors and symbols in that story, alongside flowery language. But, it’s almost as though he’s written a metaphor or something of ‘poignance’ into every sentence of Bridge of Clay, believing that’s what makes a bestseller. But, at least for me, it’s not about the quotable parts. The Book Thief was entirely about the characters and how he built them. The Dunbar brothers will disappear from my literary memory very soon.

My advice here would be to give it a try, but if you’re considering giving up after 100 pages, it’s not going to get any better for you. If this review disappoints you, please know it’s not the review I was expecting to write. 

Friday, 9 November 2018

Book #80

A Slip under the Microscope by H.G. Wells

Three disturbing, mysterious and moving stories from Wells, science-fiction pioneer.

Oh, the Little Black Classics formula strikes again! Smack ‘em with a few collections which make them want to put pins in their eyes, then present something so wonderful that they will continue with the series. As this range goes, it’s probably the only admirable ploy they have used.

These are two beautiful stories from the master of science fiction, and yet there is no science fiction to behold. Some may be disappointed in this, but I found both stories incredible in their own ways.

The Door in the Wall was powerful. Wells speaks of regret, of wonder, and of a potential utopia only accessible when you least expect it. I loved that there could be many interpretations of Wallace’s encounter with the green door – psychosis, raw wanting, the afterlife – any of these can be applied here, and the beauty of it all is that Wells allows us to spin our wheel of thoughts to land on whichever interpretation we see fit. Very infrequently do I finish a story only to turn it over in my head for hours afterwards, and I have an unbridled respect for authors who can provoke my thoughts and feelings in this way.

A Slip Under the Microscope wasn’t quite as thought-inducing as The Door in the Wall, and yet there was something simplistically resonant here for me. Wells allows us to consider the importance of honesty in contrast to the importance of self-protection, and how the consequences of being an upright and honest person sometimes don’t manifest themselves positively. As someone who truly believes in openness and honesty, this was actually a bit of a blow, but also an important possibility to consider.

So yes, no time machines, invisible men, or extraterrestrials, but some really gorgeous prose on humanity. This is definitely up there with some of the most enjoyable titles in the Little Black Classics range.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Book #79

Going to the Sun by Eddie Owens

Danny and Beth are high school sweethearts in small town Montana, looking forward to graduation before they join the army.
Then a tragic accident tears their lives apart.
We follow both of their stories: one to prison and one to war.
They are finally reunited in a desperate race to save the people they love.

I reviewed Owens’ Fat Jimmy and the Blind Ballerina last September. I absolutely loved this novel, and was pleased when Owens got in touch to ask me to review Going to the Sun.

This was a really interesting concept, and an entirely different approach than that taken with Fat Jimmy. Owens tells the story of two American high school sweethearts, whose lives diverge on separate paths, only to be brought together again after a tragic, devastating crime.

The only characters who were truly developed and well-rounded here were Beth and Danny themselves. Any smaller characters weren’t given the same depth or structure, yet watching Beth and Danny grow was great. Both emerged from their teenage years in ways I hadn’t expected, and the events which shaped them were clearly documented by Owens – except one.

Beth grew from a virginal schoolgirl into a woman who found fun and release in no strings attached sexual relationships. Although I don’t see a problem with this in any person, her many trysts peppered throughout the pages felt like pointless filler. Other than the interpretation of Beth becoming her sister (who is called slut an uncomfortable number of times in the first few chapters), I felt there was no reason for us to be shown this side of Beth; it had no bearing on the plot, on Beth’s character, or on any sort of overall development, and felt tacky to me.

The plot itself is complicated and gritty, as we follow Beth through life in the military, and Danny through life in prison. They both learn valuable, and similar lessons, and Owens is bold enough to make these lessons clear to us. It’s a long story, mainly focussing on the growth of our protagonists. Owens slowly filters information to us in the first three quarters of the novel, only to ramp up the pace in the end. There wasn’t enough time spent on a slow path to the ultimate climax, and it felt very much as though the finale was jammed in at the end to ensure some shock value.

Despite the above, I did enjoy working my way through this and learning alongside Beth and Danny. Their complicated relationship with each other, their growth, and both of ending up in dangerous environments, appealed to me, and kept the plot going nicely. A good novel for someone looking for a good military or prison read – or both. 

Friday, 2 November 2018

Book #78

26a by Diana Evans

In the attic room at 26 Waifer Avenue, identical twins Georgia and Bessi Hunter share nectarines and forge their identities, while escaping from the sadness and danger that inhabit the floors below. But innocence lasts for only so long--and dreams, no matter how vivid and powerful, cannot slow the relentless incursion of the real world.

This was absolutely gorgeous and heartbreaking in equal measures. Evans skilfully explores the twin bond using a perfect blend of magical realism. Her prose is beautiful, her characters perfect, and her story utterly gut-wrenching.

Georgia and Bessi were born 45 minutes apart to an English father and a Nigerian mother. Although born in England, we see them grow in both the suburbs of London and in Lagos. Evans contrasts the cities, and the emotional effects they have on the twins, starkly, and this impact is one of the main drivers to the overall tragedy of the novel.

I adored each and every one of these characters purely for their rawness, their struggles, and how each of them rub against each other, creating sparks. The father is an alcoholic, forcing the mother and the girls to tiptoe around him, unsure of how he will react to a messy house, a cold dinner, or any other aspect of life which seems out of place. The mother is homesick for Lagos, poisoned by depression, and filled with regret. The oldest sister rebels, the youngest can’t work out her role in the family. And the twins, oh my heart, the twins.

The most important message from the story is that of how childhood can mould us irrevocably; how one single event, however minor, can have debilitating effects on us in later life. It’s bleak, and it’s horrible, but it’s so true to life. I felt Evans dealt with it perfectly; the red days, the yellow days, the unable to leave the house days. How others can’t understand why it can be so bloody difficult to drag yourself down to the shop for a bottle of milk.

Towards the end of the novel, things became incredibly mystic, and strange. I didn’t dislike this, although I’m now reading many did. I interpreted this in two ways, and I am yet to decide which one I prefer. I like the folk story the twins’ Nigerian grandfather told them, and I liked the way they reacted to it. For this to come true for them in the end was, I felt, poignant and fitting. Alternatively, this could be viewed purely as an eventual coping mechanism, which is also a perfect conclusion. Both meanings running parallel, for me, really underline Evans’ skill for weaving her magical realism throughout the pages and the lives of the family.

Finally, after finishing the novel, I did some frantic Googling to find more information on Evans; for the main part, trying to find some of her other work. What I found was so akin to the plot of 26a, it was painful. I am so sorry, and I can understand why this book is so well crafted.

A complete masterpiece of words, I would (and will) urge anyone to read this. Beautiful, real, and utterly agonising.