Monday, 18 November 2019

Book #84

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Jude Fawley's hopes of a university education are lost when he is trapped into marrying the earthy Arabella, who later abandons him. Moving to the town of Christminster where he finds work as a stonemason, Jude meets and falls in love with his cousin Sue Bridehead, a sensitive, freethinking 'New Woman'.

I consider this novel a very old friend. One who is a bleak, depressed individual, intent on ruining my optimistic outlook on life, and regularly urging on another morbid existential crisis. Yet, with old friends, you love them for who they are, and Jude is this kind of friend.

Of course, it’s Hardy, so all of the above should be no surprise to anyone who’s delved into his work before; but hell, it seems as though this is the most desolate of all. Jude is initially presented as a child of hope - one with ambitions, dreams, and purpose. We’re banded together with him for almost 500 pages, and are witness to his slow destruction, his crumbling away, as the world takes swipes at him in a constant, insurmountable fashion. Some of the things which befall him are entirely incomprehensible and cruel; it’s a wonder he continued to dream. But such are the wonders of Jude Fawley.

From the beginning, despite Jude’s original faith in his future, Hardy hangs a desperately black cloud over each word he writes. It’s grimly fascinating how he achieves this, and although the gloom dissipates and intensifies throughout the pages, it remains a constant spectre hovering over us. It’s no wonder many have crowned Jude the most depressing book ever written. 
Aside: this leads me to wonder whether the character Jude in the other most depressing book ever written, A Little Life, was somewhat based on his Victorian counterpart in sorrow. I should look that up.

The characters are simply wonderful here, and the reader is bound to become mesmerised by them. Our main characters could inspire in depth studies into their motivation and psyche, Jude and Sue in particular who seem keen to overthrow society’s moralistic expectations and religious shackles. I won’t dive into these, but it was truly a wonder (albeit a heart rending wonder) to read of these two lovers who, despite everything, are consistently shunned away despite their deeper intentions.

Hardy has lots to say here, from the folly of ambition, to a woman’s role in society. Each satirical comment was a blow, every obstacle a curse. He critiques religion, the institution of marriage, wealth defining intellect, and a thousand other Victorian social norms. His comments rattled Victorian England so much, that Jude was his final offering to the world of fiction. I would mourn this fact, but if Hardy decided to crank up the tragedy in a subsequent novel, I’m unsure whether I, or indeed the world, would be able to handle it.

So, old friend, we have met again; you’ve given me joy and heartbreak, light and shade, as you always do. Maybe we’ll meet again in another ten years or so.

Somebody might have come along that way who would have asked him his trouble, and might have cheered him by saying that his notions were further advanced than those of his grammarian. But nobody did come, because nobody does; and under the crushing recognition of his gigantic error Jude continued to wish himself out of the world.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Book #83

A Nervous Breakdown by Anton Chekhov

From the supreme artist of the short story, three disturbing tales of supernatural hallucinations, hysterical obsession and moral decay.

I didn’t enjoy this nearly as much as I did Gooseberries. Although the prose was just as skillful, there was something lacking here which I wasn’t quite able to put my finger on.

Chekhov explores morality and mental decay in the first two stories. Men becoming overcome, having erratic and terrifying thoughts, worrying those around them, and worrying themselves. Chekhov depicts this well, although I feel the stories were too short for a proper dissection of the human psyche, and his characters’ wellbeing. The third story was short, woeful, and due to it being completely unrelated to mental health, felt distinctly out of place - a fault, I should say, which is down to Penguin and not Chekhov himself.

Perhaps I was missing the type of moral message I found in Gooseberries and The Two Volodyas, or even the dismally melancholic tone of The Kiss. I just wasn’t engaged; there was nothing here for me.

It ain’t his best work, comrades.  

Friday, 8 November 2019

Book #82

Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo

Life as a film extra in Beijing might seem hard, but Fenfang won't be defeated. She has travelled 1800 miles to seek her fortune in the city, and has no desire to return to the never-ending sweet potato fields back home. Determined to live a modern life, Fenfang works as a cleaner in the Young Pioneer's movie theatre, falls in love with unsuitable men and keeps her kitchen cupboard stocked with UFO instant noodles. As Fenfang might say, Heavenly Bastard in the Sky, isn't it about time I got my lucky break?

Twenty fragments. What a perfectly apt title for a novel comprised of twenty non-linear, illogical pieces of life.

Our protagonist, Fenfang, leaves her country village for the big life in Beijing. With her eyes on becoming a film star, she is soon disillusioned with the city and its prospects, and we see her life pan out in a realistic, yet beige, manner.

I felt for Fenfang deeply, as she is a trudger. We trudgers take the blows life lands on us, and carry on. We’re not happy, we’re not sad, we’re just here, keeping going. It was so sad so hear Fenfang relate her symptoms of depression without her realising what she was describing.

The prose here is raw, simple, and excellent. Short sentences depict Fenfang’s emotions perfectly, the settings were eloquent, the dialogue clipped and effective. It’s a relatively quick read, but somehow manages to pin to you corkboard.

It was wonderful to read of China from a Chinese author, mainly Beijing; the cultures, the expectations, the sociology. I was rapt. The skill here is where she doesn’t provide lengthy explanations of culture, food, the whims of people; she presents everything as it is, and nothing could be more realistic.

I became a person who was very good at hiding her emotions. Maybe that was why people thought I was heartless. Apparently my face often had a blank expression. Huizi, my most intellectual friend, would say, “Fenfang, yours is the face of a post-modern woman.”

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Book #81

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Stephen King returns to the characters and territory of one of his most popular novels ever, The Shining, in this instantly riveting novel about the now middle-aged Dan Torrance and the very special 12-year-old girl he must save from a tribe of murderous paranormals.

On highways across America, a tribe of people called The True Knot travel in search of sustenance. They are quasi-immortal, living off the steam that children with the shining produce when they are slowly tortured to death.
Dan has been drifting for decades, desperate to shed his father's legacy of despair, alcoholism, and violence. Finally, he settles in a New Hampshire town, in a job at a nursing home where his remnant shining power provides the crucial final comfort to the dying. Aided by a prescient cat, he becomes Doctor Sleep.
Then Dan meets the evanescent Abra Stone, and it is her spectacular gift, the brightest shining ever seen, that reignites Dan's own demons and summons him to a battle for Abra's soul and survival.

I always felt King was mighty ambitious in trying to write a sequel for something so monolithic as The Shining. So much so, that Doctor Sleep has been on my shelf unread for a number of years, because really, how do you top The Shining?

The answer is, simply, that you don’t. You take the beloved innocent boy from your original novel, tear him to pieces, and carve an entirely new story from his mutilated parts. It was so utterly unlike The Shining, and yet something quite special in itself.

Dan Torrance grows up to exhibit many of his father’s flaws - alcoholism and violence, yes, but battling demons more so. As Dan grows older, his shine diminishes, and the more he drinks, the duller he shines. Through alcohol, he manages to almost entirely lose his power, until he meets a young girl who shines like a lighthouse, and they band together to combat a band of true supernatural bad guys intent on murder and torture.

King’s prose is gorgeous and descriptive, and yet I found his pace jarring. I was propelled along initially, dragged along in the middle third, and then roused back into life for the finale. I know King is capable of keeping this momentum for the entirely of the novel, so the middle section was a slight disappointment.

I think most of the draw here for me was seeing how Dan had grown. That he’d developed most of his father’s addictions and habits sparked a true nature vs nurture debate in my head. That he and his mother had kept in touch with Dick Hallorann warmed my black heart. King characterises Dan perfectly, and it truly was a joy to see the little boy on the tricycle as a man - albeit a broken one.

Having said that, I really felt some of the other characters could have done with some attention; they were interesting as hell, and yet their back stories and motivations were pretty lacking. King presents us with a whole new idea of the shining, a whole new cast of weirdos with this curious ability, and yet we aren’t allowed to explore their lives.

All things considered, I enjoyed this more than I was expecting. King creates an adult life for a true OG, mixing hopelessness with purpose, experience with youth, and in true King fashion, supernatural with mundane. 

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Book #80

The Queen of Spades by Alexander Pushkin

One of Pushkin's most popular and chilling stories, 'The Queen of Spades' tells of a young man who develops a dangerous obsession in pursuit of the wealth he craves.

What a story. I always find Russian literature to be absolutely delectable, and having never read Pushkin before, I’m pleased to have found this one.

He speaks to us of greed and gain, mixing the dangers of these with a hint of the supernatural and superstitious. If you could obtain a secret which led to unaccountable wealth, what would you do to learn this secret? And what would the knowledge cost you?

The characters were wonderful here. Aristocracy blending with the lower classes, young women dreaming of love, men asserting their power and dominance purely to attain advantage. Each of them shrewd, yet realistic, all of them flawed, every one doomed.

Pushkin portrays using wit, humour, and some truly excellent writing seeped in intrigue. Another little pearl nestled into the confines of the Little Black Classics range. 

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Book #79

Love Virtually by Daniel Glattauer

It's a virtual romance that begins by chance. When Leo mistakenly receives e-mails from a stranger named Emmi, he replies--and Emmi writes back. Soon, secrets are shared, sparks fly, and erotic tension simmers. Even though Emmi is married, it seems only a matter of time till they meet. But will their feelings survive a real-life encounter? And, if so-what then? 

I’m not really a romance kinda gal, but my mum bought this for me a few years ago, and it’s finally winged its way to the top of my reading list. I didn’t go in with high expectations, and yet now I’ve finished, I feel it’s one which may stay with me.

Leo and Emmi begin corresponding with each other due to an initially mistyped email address. As ridiculous as it sounds, they begin to build a relationship, and end up falling for one another.

I loathed both Leo and Emmi entirely. They are complete dicks. Each selfish, shallow, relying completely on the other for happiness, and unable to allow the other a life outside of their inboxes. The way they spoke to each other, and the pressures they put on each other, abhorred me. Oh, and Emmi is married.

There were also a number of far-fetched elements here, for which I found difficult to suspend disbelief. Super pixie dream girl meets brooding well-educated man online, completely by accident. Super pixie dream girl and brooding well-educated man live in the same city. Brooding well-educated man has conveniently just come out of a toxic relationship and is vulnerable

One email from Leo, however, really was quite realistic of brooding well-educated men:

Despite all this, there was something strangely addictive here. I think most of my enjoyment came from Glauttauer making me feel as though I were privy to something very secretive, and quite sacred. Reading the private emails of strangers, particularly strangers whose relationship is reaching a volatile crescendo, was quite delightful to me. I’m nosy.

And the finale was perfect. Fuck you both.

Monday, 21 October 2019

Book #78

Occultist: Saga Online by Oliver Mayes

Damien thought his exams would be bad enough. Then his mother collapsed with a failing heart.

In a desperate move Damien throws himself into the Streamer Contest of Saga Online, the latest fantasy VR-MMORPG. Winning will provide the funds for his mom’s surgery. Yet early betrayal and a close run in with a vampire almost ruin his attempt before he even begins.
Stuck at the bottom of a dungeon with no gear, no allies and little hope, Damien must embrace the undiscovered Occultist class, master control of his new demonic minions and take the contest by storm.
His plan is simple enough. Topple the most famous player in Saga Online.

As a gamer myself, I’m a huge fan of the LitRPG genre. Saga: Online was a real standout for me, blending real-life with online simulation effortlessly.

Our protagonist, Damien, is sixteen, and very fond of the game. His mother feels he should concentrate more on his studies, but when she is hospitalised, Damien needs to fund her recovery by becoming the most popular streamer on the platform. Madness ensues.

As he discovers an entirely new class, we’re propelled into the game with Damien as he levels up and seeks vengeance against another player for an earlier cruelty. Mayes fills the pages with humour (this username is unavailable), gorgeous characters, and plenty of action. He has a real instinct for knowing when to shift the focus from online to real life, keeping engagement incredibly high, and reminding us of Damien’s real task.

The only thing I felt was missing was more. I wanted more on Damien’s family life, more on his father, more on the antagonist (why is he such a dick?), and more on simply everything. Call it greed, I just loved everything else so much that I was desperate for extras.

Mayes has done a wonderful job here, and I only hope there’s more to come from him. I felt truly immersed in both of the worlds he’s crafted, almost as though I had a VR headset on myself. Absolutely wonderful. 

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Book #77

Just After Sunset by Stephen King

Just after sunset—call it dusk; call it twilight; it’s a time when human life takes on an unnatural cast, when nothing is quite as it appears, when the imagination begins to reach for shadows as they dissipate to darkness and living daylight can be scared right out of you. 

As I come to expect now with King stories, these were entirely hit or miss.

In some, he wonderfully explored the human psyche when faced with unimaginable horrors. In others, he waffled through nonsensically, failing to maintain engagement, and confusing me utterly.

Harvey’s Dream gave such a chilling sense of foreboding, where N.’s density failed to garner any feeling other than irritating flashings of tedium. Mute twisted and turned its way into a ‘can’t fucking believe it’ redemption, with The Cat from Hell making my eyes roll, and not only because I truly hate cats.

I think this is a collection which you really have to try for yourself. I’ve read reviews where the stories I thought were crap are being raised high, where the ones I loved are being roasted alive. But I can guarantee you won’t like them all - pick through them and see which ones speak to you. Perhaps your choice says more about you as a person than it does King as a writer. 

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Book #76

Love that moves the sun and other stars by Dante

A collection of cantos from Paradiso, the most original and experimental part of the Divina Commedia.

I thought this would ease me gently into Dante, and instead it has me running in the opposite direction.

My feelings are very strong on the fact that this simply is not my thing. My brain can’t seem to work to the levels needed to comprehend this, even merely to follow along, and all I did throughout was marvel at the beautiful writing, without a clue in the world as to what was going on, or what was being conveyed.

Despite self-proclaimed stupidity being to blame here, I also feel Penguin should have done more to help their readers. A selection of cantos from the work does not make a clever introduction; it’s too sporadic and confusing to simpletons such as myself. It seems very much shoehorned into the collection after someone in a meeting room said, “need some Dante.” 

Monday, 7 October 2019

Book #75

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

Will Grayson meets Will Grayson. One cold night, in a most unlikely corner of Chicago, two strangers are about to cross paths. From that moment on, their world will collide and lives intertwine.
It's not that far from Evanston to Naperville, but Chicago suburbanites Will Grayson and Will Grayson might as well live on different planets. When fate delivers them both to the same surprising crossroads, the Will Graysons find their lives overlapping and hurtling in new and unexpected directions. With a push from friends new and old - including the massive, and massively fabulous, Tiny Cooper, offensive lineman and musical theater auteur extraordinaire - Will and Will begin building toward respective romantic turns-of-heart and the epic production of history's most awesome high school musical.

As someone who is fairly militant about despising John Green books, I was surprised to find this one strangely okay.

Of course, we have our usual cringeworthy incorrectness, here taking the form of fat-shaming, hints of homophobia, and ‘not like other girls’ rhetoric; the kind of stuff you wouldn’t want the target audience absorbing.

Despite his constant failings to prevent his inner bias seeping through, and his lacking capability of understanding how real teenagers think and behave, I found the plot quite heartwarming and adorable. Maybe it was just the kind of mindless drivel I needed at this point in time.

Dealing with catfishing (where are Nev and Max when you need them?), coming out, friendship struggles, and general teenage angst, Green gives us some likable, yet slightly unrelatable, characters. I liked seeing them fall apart and come together again, and there really was something there which made me just want everything to be okay.

Nothing high-brow, nothing poignant, nothing even remotely relatable, and yet a nice easy, heartwarming read. Maybe the next time a Green novel wings its way to the top of my pile, I won’t meet it with such disdain.

Thursday, 3 October 2019

Book #74

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

In a London flat, two young boys face the unbearable sadness of their mother's sudden death. Their father, a Ted Hughes scholar and scruffy romantic, imagines a future of well-meaning visitors and emptiness.
In this moment of despair they are visited by Crow - antagonist, trickster, healer, babysitter. This self-described sentimental bird is attracted to the grieving family and threatens to stay until they no longer need him. As weeks turn to months and physical pain of loss gives way to memories, this little unit of three begin to heal.

A father and his two sons lose their wife and mother. A crow arrives to guide them through the initial stages of the grieving process. What follows is a beautiful yet heartbreaking view into their lives after the loss, the processing, the hope, the memory. I was captivated.

Although taking the form of a novella, this felt very much like a toe in the waters of poetry. There were some really gorgeous lyrical moments, alongside some very clever and impactful prose. Porter’s skill is glorious, and unmistakable on every page. The pain and confusion of grief is depicted all too well, and yet in such a rare way that it feels unfamiliar and raw.

The narrative is split into three voices - Dad, Boys, Crow. This allows us to see the different ways in which Dad and the boys are coping with their grief - the kids buoyant, Dad numb - and Crow’s cryptic interpretations on their progress and current states. It allows for empathy, allows us to grieve alongside them, and allows us to also struggle.

I imagine one could take more from this having read Ted Hughes’ Crow; I haven’t. Yet Crow seems perfect here to an amateur, as though no other bird could do. We couldn’t have a robin, a dove, a peacock. Crow’s darkness and vulgarity can cast him in only one feathered form.

I missed her so much that I wanted to build a hundred-foot memorial to her with my bare hands. I wanted to see her sitting in a vast stone chair in Hyde Park, enjoying her view. Everybody passing could comprehend how much I miss her. How physical my missing is. I miss her so much it is a vast golden prince, a concert hall, a thousand trees, a lake, nine thousand buses, a million cars, twenty million birds and more. The whole city is my missing her. 

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Book #73

The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry

Edinburgh, 1847. City of Medicine, Money, Murder.

Young women are being discovered dead across the Old Town, all having suffered similarly gruesome ends. In the New Town, medical student Will Raven is about to start his apprenticeship with the brilliant and renowned Dr Simpson.
It is here that Raven meets housemaid Sarah Fisher, who recognises trouble when she sees it and takes an immediate dislike to him. She has all of his intelligence but none of his privileges, in particular his medical education.
With each having their own motive to look deeper into these deaths, Raven and Sarah find themselves propelled headlong into the darkest shadows of Edinburgh's underworld, where they will have to overcome their differences if they are to make it out alive.

What a wonderful walk through the Victorian streets of Edinburgh. This is one of my favourite eras to read, but rarely do I find one set in streets I’ve walked myself.

Our protagonist, and many other characters here, are medical men. I found it fascinating to read of the methods employed in those days - amputation with an audience is a particularly shocking example - and relished in the knowledge of how far we’ve come. Enthralling as they were, I did feel as though the medical descriptions were at the forefront of the prose, forcing the criminal aspects to take a backseat.

Medicine and medical procedures are an integral part of the plot and subsequent mysteries here. It’s an original twist on the old murder mystery, and the prose supported the gloom of it with its atmospheric, and sometimes quite bleak and chilling, word choice and structure.

The commentary on social customs here was exquisite - a real view of social class, gender, and the measures people would take to elevate their social standing. Even the wealthy and successful had ferocious appetites to gain more wealth, and more success. The focus here is on women as victims, and women as the oppressed; our female protagonist was given to us as a real breaker of chains, and I loved her for it.

I really would have liked the crime to have taken more precedent over the medical explanations, but this series has real potential purely down to the skill of the writers. I plan to read the sequel, The Art of Dying (ominous), very soon.

Monday, 30 September 2019

Book #72

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

"Dear Readers: Everything you've ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we've been living in." --Margaret Atwood 

I’m going to have some troubles putting into words how this book made me feel. I always have my doubts about sequels, and how can one possibly write a sequel to something as monolithic as The Handmaid’s Tale? It’s too huge a feat; unless, of course, you’re Margaret Atwood.

She writes from three different perspectives here (making me want to kiss my fingers and throw them in the air like a cartoon chef). We hear from a young girl growing up as a Commander’s daughter in Gilead, another young girl who is lucky enough to live somewhere that doesn’t aspire to the regime, and, finally and most importantly, Aunt Lydia. 

The first two voices contrast their upbringings and current lives, with Aunt Lydia’s words cementing her as matriarch and keeper of wisdom. All three, however, bring hope for the future of Gilead, and unknockable desires to bring it to the ground.

As we’ve only ever heard of Gilead from a Handmaid’s perspective, it was wonderful to see how children in Gilead are indoctrinated into believing in the regime, and also to understand how things were run from Aunt Lydia’s high (for a woman) position within the system.

Where The Handmaid’s Tale is a bleak picture of what can happen ever so slowly when we sit back and allow the men in charge to make decisions, The Testaments is more of an inspirational prod to make change, to shout from the rooftops, to never accept.

Once again for the men in the back: nolite te bastardes carborundorum

Sunday, 29 September 2019

Book #71

The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian

In a dusty corner of a basement in a rambling Victorian house in northern New Hampshire, a door has long been sealed shut with 39 six-inch-long carriage bolts. 

The home's new owners are Chip and Emily Linton and their twin ten-year-old daughters. Together they hope to rebuild their lives there after Chip, an airline pilot, has to ditch his 70-seat regional jet in Lake Champlain after double engine failure. The body count? Thirty-nine – a coincidence not lost on Chip when he discovers the number of bolts in that basement door. Meanwhile, Emily finds herself wondering about the women in this sparsely populated White Mountain village – self-proclaimed herbalists – and their interest in her fifth-grade daughters. Are the women mad? Or is it her husband, in the wake of the tragedy, whose grip on sanity has become desperately tenuous?   

This story was sold me as something old and well-loved - the standard horror trope of a family moving into a haunted house, only to experience some seriously weird goings on and to accumulatively lose their minds in the supernatural onslaught. Not so.

It begins with some seriously tiresome and dull commentary on airplanes, their bits and bobs, how they work, and, ultimately, how they fail. It’s an incredibly tedious way to begin a story, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for giving up at the first hurdle. Having read the whole book, I’d actively encourage it.

So, Dad crashes a plane, kills a bunch of people, and begins to display the effects of PTSD. Bohjalian chooses to depict these in the form of an ineffective second person narrative, which felt jarring and utterly pointless. This narrative swims between the lanes of haunted and crazy, with some pepperings of more fucking airplane descriptions. He’s an infuriating character.

Mum and the twins aren’t much better, with Mum being entirely incapable of seeing deception in people, and although becoming suspicious of peoples’ intentions, does literally nothing about it. The twins are written like sixty year olds in childrens’ bodies, with overly advanced vocabularies and a succinct understanding of Dad’s mental health. Seriously, if you’re ten and Dad enters the kitchen holding a knife and bleeding from his stomach, you don’t immediately put it down to the traumas he’s experienced.

I’m not sure how I lasted until the end, but I was bitter when I got there. The finale was rushed and utterly unbelievable (which is somewhat of a chore, since the rest of the novel was ridiculous in its logic). I won’t spoil, but I don’t see why I shouldn’t as I’d recommend avoiding this book entirely. 

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Book #70

The Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffman

The disturbing tale of a young man's obsession with the Sandman, stealer of eyes, which has inspired writers from Sigmund Freud to Neil Gaiman.

I felt sick to my stomach throughout most of this. There’s nothing overly supernatural, creepy, or terrifying - just a horribly unsettling undercurrent of tension and dread running underneath each word. It’s a marvel.

Hoffman’s skill here isn’t in depicting ghouls or demons, but in showing us the effects an encounter with such (whether perceived or otherwise) can have on the human psyche. Our protagonist is plagued by a situation from his childhood, and subconsciously seems to seek this out in his later years, leading to his descent into madness.

I enjoyed that Hoffman left everything open to interpretation - were these ghastly villains really what our protagonist thought they were, or did he merely conjure it all in his imagination, having nested there for years as a repressed fear? Either way, it’s a heart-stopping thought. 

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Book #69

The Crowfield Curse by Pat Walsh

An angel is buried behind the abbey! It's 1347, and Will, an orphan boy, lives and works as an apprentice of the Crowfield monks. Sent into the forest to gather firewood, he stumbles across a trapped, wounded creature no bigger than a cat.The little goblin shares a terrible secret: Buried deep in the snow behind the monastery is an angel. But, Will wonders, how can an angel die? And what does this angel have to do with the history of Crowfield? When two cloaked strangers show up and start asking questions, Will is drawn into a dangerous world of Old Magic. 

Medieval monks, angels, magic, hobgoblins, faerie folks, and a frightened little boy trying to make sense of it all - sign me up.

Walsh weaves a gorgeous tale here, introducing a young adult audience to the hardships of medieval times, whilst also peppering the story with something magical. She speaks subtly about the power of conquering our fears, the stupidity of making assumptions based on appearances, and most wonderfully of all, the utter importance of being a good person.

Although I felt the plot took some time to kick off, once the mysteries began to emerge, I was gripped. Walsh has an engaging way of pacing her plot, and creating the most spine-chilling tension. Things begin to warp and twist in ways you wouldn’t expect; it’s enthralling.

Despite my love for the characters and plot, Walsh’s skill in describing setting was my favourite thing here. The cold abbey, the snow-covered whistling woods, the warm and woody hut - everything was depicted so vividly, and so beautifully that I felt my senses completely overwhelmed.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this. Walsh is incredibly skilled in her craft, and I look forward to reading The Crowfield Demon. 

Saturday, 7 September 2019

Book #68

The Pre-Programming by Anonymous

Vulcan’s ancient Automata find their purpose rebooted in the second installment of the CIRCO DEL HERRERO/THE BLACKSMITH’S CIRCUS series. Their immortal human Masters will drop like flies—superfluous in the next round as the gods shuffle in a new deck of fateful cards. The Masters can choose how and when, but they will all die to free the Automata of their earthly chains. Odys and his Automaton, Maud, struggle to protect his twin sister from the plotting of his dual-bodied adversaries. But his sister, Odissa, finds herself a willing participant in The Blacksmith’s latest exhibition—could she be the missing cog to the god’s tightly wound machine all along?

This sequel to The Automaton presents us with the same quirky narrative style, the same subhuman and/or godlike characters, and the same nothing really happens but it all happens through dialogue plot.

Our narrator is relentless here. It seems nothing is off the table as he creates and dissolves toxic relationships, characters, and plot twists as though his life depends on it. Everyone and everything we trusted or relied on (or even liked) in The Automaton is warped and ultimately discarded in this total massacre of the comfort zone.

I was, in a similar fashion to The Automaton, confused and disoriented throughout the whole novel. This was in part due to the strange style and constantly shifting aspects of the plot, but I also felt at times as though I’d missed something; I wasn’t understanding the reasons behind certain situations and circumstances, and I’m unsure whether I was supposed to.

There are interesting explorations of freedom, and what this means - do we have choice at all, or are we all pre-programmed robots destined to live out what the gods decide for us?

I continue to feel quite baffled at all this, but still eager to find out what’s next. That’s the power of the uniqueness this series has - you need to find out what the fuck is going on.

Friday, 30 August 2019

Book #67

Trivia: or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London by John Gay

O! may thy Virtue guard thee through the Roads
Of Drury's mazy Courts, and dark Abodes,
The Harlots guileful Paths, who nightly stand,
Where Katherine-street descends into the Strand.

This was a very long poem.
Years of experience 
With very long poems 
Have taught me 
That very long poems are, 
In fact, 
My arch nemesis.

Thursday, 29 August 2019

Book #66

Mirror Mirror by Anthony M. Strong

Jaime thought he'd hit the jackpot when he found the antique mirror out by the curb, just waiting for a new home. Hours later the old mirror with the ornate gold frame was taking up pride of place in his apartment. 
But there's something wrong.
The mirror harbors a dark secret, and before long Jaime and his girlfriend Cassie find themselves up against a terrifying supernatural force that has its sights set on them.

Mirrors are terrifying. Are they entry points into another world? Is our reflection trying to keep us out of that world? Why are they infinitely more frightening in the dark? Or are they merely just reflective pieces of glass, condemned to be something to fear simply by our imagination? I was a bit nervous to begin reading this one, as stories about things in mirrors are deeply unsettling to me for unknown reasons. There’s just something so very disturbing about them. 

There’s nothing very unsettling about Strong’s novella, however. The premise is excellent, and frightened me before I’d even begun to read, but there is a real lack of suspense. I did read some fairly weird and creepy sections, but these weren’t reinforced by an overly scary and tense plotline.

Strong’s characters also leave a lot to be desired. They are simply used as plot devices, objects to sustain and propel the supernatural happenings along to their conclusion. I’d have liked far more character development here, at least some backstory, and just a little bit of a hint that these two were actually human, rather than paper dolls.

I like finding truly grotesque novels to read, even though they scare me silly - if you can’t evoke fear in me, you’re gonna have a bad time. 

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Book #65

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Jess Aarons' greatest ambition is to be the fastest runner in his grade. He's been practicing all summer and can't wait to see his classmates' faces when he beats them all. But on the first day of school, a new girl boldly crosses over to the boys' side and outruns everyone.
That's not a very promising beginning for a friendship, but Jess and Leslie Burke become inseparable. Together they create Terabithia, a magical kingdom in the woods where the two of them reign as king and queen, and their imaginations set the only limits.

This wasn’t a book I ever read in childhood, which is why I feel I’m missing some of the magic. I actually had a few problems with it, on which I will try to keep my commentary spoiler free.

Although the first two thirds of the novel seems to try and focus on character and relationship building, both were lacking here. We see Jess and Leslie become friends, see a little of what makes them tick, and yet they still seemed to be caricatures of ten year olds to me. Leslie was not like other girls, a trope I truly detest, and Jess was keeping his hobbies secret in case anyone decided to slag him off for them. Nothing tangible seemed to encourage their bond, nothing tied them together, they just banded together and that was that.

I appreciate this was published in the seventies, but there were a lot of sections here which made me wince. Excessive use of fat jokes, or fat shaming, weird behaviour from a teacher, the idea we should keep our parents secrets no matter what they do to us, and various other little oddities.

Most of all, I disliked the way Jess dealt with his grief and how Paterson was seeming to say this was okay. The timing of the death was also ominous to me, and I didn’t understand what Paterson was trying to convey, whether she was trying to place blame, or to suggest that bad things happen when we have some luxury. The whole thing felt incredibly rushed; this is a kid’s book, no wonder so many were traumatised as kids.

So flat, confusing, and with questionable messages. I couldn’t explain to you why this book has won awards. 

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Book #64

O frabjous day! By Lewis Carroll

Conjuring wily walruses, dancing lobsters, a Jabberwock and a Bandersnatch, Carroll's fantastical verse gave new words to the English language.

What an utterly delightful little collection of nonsense.

Carroll’s rhymes are glorious, witty, and absolutely made to be read out loud. The rhythm and flow is always perfect, and I spent a gorgeous hour in my reading corner speaking them aloud.

The subject matter is ridiculous, his invented words sublime, and I must stop describing my mood as either frabjous, frumious (a particular favourite), or uffish.

I just couldn’t get enough. I’ll leave you with the greatest poetry finale ever written:

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?”
But answer came there none - 
And this was scarcely odd because
They’d been eaten every one.