Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Book #38

Typhoon by Joseph Conrad

The crew aboard a ramshackle steamer faces a treacherous storm in this gripping tale, inspired by Conrad's own time at sea.

Conrad’s words are always beautiful. The ship in tumult after its captain (refusing to listen to reason) sails her into a typhoon, is described gorgeously; the panic, the claustrophobia, the water.

What I liked most was Conrad’s depictions of the character’s relationships in life. Long months at sea, away from wives and children, will have pressing effect on relations and mental health, and this is told sporadically, and well. Their letters home were fascinating and heartbreaking in equal measures.

Although I could appreciate the mastery in Conrad’s language here, there was something I just couldn’t engage with, and I can’t say for certain I completely enjoyed this. After having reflected on this for a while, I’ve come to the conclusion the sea life is not for me. My hatred for Moby Dick has completely ruined any appetite I once had for adventures on the open sea, and has not only poisoned the works of Melville, but is now bleeding its disease into other stories. Thanks again, Melville. 

Monday, 13 May 2019

Book #37

Will O’ the Wisp by Patricia Wentworth

David Fordyce wasn’t looking forward to his birthday party, an annual event he shared with his grandmother. But this year Eleanor would be there—Eleanor, whom he had not seen in seven years, ever since she’d married Cosmo Rayne.
There are mysteries concerning the late Mr. Rayne, and his lovely widow—but then David has secrets of his own. When a black clad figure crosses the line between shadow and moonlight the game is afoot in one of Patricia Wentworth’s most eerie and thrilling stories.
I downloaded this some years ago during one of my rampages through lists of free Kindle books. I wasn’t paying much attention at the time, and assumed the novel was a supernatural dive into the phenomenon which is will o’ the wisp. It isn’t.

Wentworth’s Will O’ the Wisp instead features a mystery set in Golden Age London. Although David Fordyce lost his wife at sea some years ago, strange advertisements begin appearing in the paper, implying she’s still alive.  Chills.

Although the mystery itself wasn’t the most intricate, I was (as always) fascinated by the social customs and morals present in 1920s London. The Fordyce family is ruled by Grandmamma - a formidable matriarch who will bang the gavel down at anything, whether it be wearing pressed flowers, or marrying your cousin. There was so much commentary surrounding the concerns over what people will think - wearing red shoes, being alone in a house with a man unchaperoned, divorce; I just absolutely adore immersing myself in this era.

I was fairly surprised at the lack of enthusiasm (and actually, the lack of overall reviews) for this one over on Goodreads. Although I couldn’t say it astounded me, it piqued me, it interested me, and it entertained me.  I’d never heard of Wentworth before delving into Will O’ the Wisp, however I’ve discovered she’s written a number of mysteries - I plan to conduct my next download rampage immediately around these. 

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Book #36

Gone, Baby, Gone by Dennis Lehane

Kenzie and Gennaro have been hired to find four-year-old Amanda McCready, abducted from her home without leaving a trace. Despite extensive news coverage and dogged investigation, the police inquiry has so far uncovered nothing. The case is rife with oddities: Amanda's strangely indifferent mother and her dangerous, drug-addled friends; her loving aunt and uncle; and two cops who have found so many abused or dead children they may already be over the edge.
As the Indian summer fades, Amanda McCready stays gone - banished so completely that she seems never to have existed. And when a second child disappears, Kenzie and Gennaro face a local media more interested in sensationalizing the abductions than helping to solve them, a police force seething with lethal secrets, and a faceless power determined to obstruct their efforts. Caught in a deadly tangle of lies and betrayal, they must confront the horror of what the world can inflict on its children in order to unravel a riddle that's anything but child's play.

I see crime novels as easy reads; fast-paced mysteries propelling me towards the unveiling of the culprit, peppered with a few complex characters, red herrings, and gut-wrenching twists. For me, crime is a perfect escape, a quick sojourn into a bit of the bad stuff before returning to my often heavy reading list. Lehane didn’t deliver any of this for me.

He does present some interesting moral questions here with regards to child welfare and policies. Without giving too much away, he really sets some thoughts in motion around what’s best for a child, and how to set them up with the best beginnings in life. He also provides some seriously disturbing and violent scenes; almost too gut-wrenching and sickening to read with the knowledge this happens to kids the world over. The questions he poses, and the humbling effect the brutality has on a reader, are probably the only skilful elements of this novel.

The plot moves fairly quickly, but I felt there were many descriptive passages which didn’t lend anything to the novel whatsoever. The twists and turns were there, but easily predicted (as always, look for the unlikeliest candidate and he’s your man), and fairly underwhelming. I felt there were a lot of plot points shoe-horned in there for shock value, or to reinforce Lehane’s attempts at grit.

I had no interest in Lehane’s characters. All painted as grotesque caricatures - the hardened cop, the junkie mother, the downtrodden family - there was barely any depth to their characters, a serious lack of development, and I found it difficult to differentiate between some of them thanks to Lehane’s magnolia paint brush tarring them all. The dialogue was flat, forced, and cliched, with absolutely no one shining out as a realistic character. Even the protagonists, Kenzie and Gennaro, were utterly uninteresting. 

Gennaro, actually, gets a whole paragraph here to herself. A victim of the curse of male writers, she was presented as nothing more than a quick mind on a gorgeous, and overly described, body; that’s it. She’s a hologram; an ideal - great tits and a man’s mouth seem to be the fantasy for many a male author. Her characterisation, and the fact she was the only female character depicted with half a brain, made me cringe painfully. Oh boys, please do better.

Having now read a few Lehane creations, I’m tempted to write it all off and claim Shutter Island as his only success. Although I managed to finish Gone, Baby, Gone, it’s very doubtful I’ll return to Lehane again, and will most certainly never cast my eyes on a Kenzie and Gennaro story as long as I live.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Book #35

How To Be a Medieval Woman by Margery Kempe

Brave, outspoken and guaranteed to annoy people wherever she went - including exasperated fellow pilgrims in Jerusalem and her long-suffering husband - Margery Kempe was one of the most vivid and unforgettable voices of the Middle Ages. Whether travelling alone, getting herself arrested or having visions of marrying Jesus, Margery repeatedly defied feminine convention - and also managed to compose the first autobiography in English, despite being unable to read or write. 

Margery Kempe was an incredibly pious woman in medieval times, and believed she had a higher personal connection to God than other people. Despite being unable to read or write, she compiled an autobiography entirely through diction on her spiritual experiences. It is from this book that Penguin have taken excerpts to comprise How To Be a Medieval Woman.

Being entirely without religion, something of a cynic, and in desperate need of something to get my teeth into, I couldn’t connect whatsoever with Kempe and her spiritual ramblings. Her narrative is extremely heavy and tedious, her superiority irking, and her deep devotion (which I imagine is supposed to be inspiring) feels like a telling off.

The blurb and title very much portray this little book as being filled with social commentary on how medieval women spent their days. I’m convinced Kempe was one of few medieval women with a speed dial to heaven, so Penguin has yet again failed in this collection for me.

Another little black slog. 

Friday, 3 May 2019

Book #34

A Star-Reckoner’s Lot by Darrell Drake

Ashtadukht is a star-reckoner. The worst there's ever been.
She commands the might of the constellations... though her magic is as unpredictable as the die rolls that decide its fate. But star-reckoners are humanity's first defense against divs, so if Ashtadukht is to fulfill her duty, she must use every trick at her disposal—risks be damned.
An excuse. A lie she tells herself. All that remains of a life she should have had. She travels the empire to hunt down the div that brought her world to ruin. The longer her pursuit, the more her memories threaten to consume her. The darker her obsession becomes.
Every spell is a catastrophe waiting to happen, every div a tale of its own, every tale a thread in her tapestry of vengeance. This is the story of her path... a warning to those who would follow in her footsteps.
Ashtadukht is a star-reckoner. The worst there's ever been. Hers is no hero's journey.

Drake tells the story of Ashtadukht, a star-reckoner in Sasanian Iran. She is contracted on missions to hunt and defeat the curse of the people - the divs. In addition to this, she is hellbent on finding and destroying the div who once ruined her life.

At the beginning of the novel, Ashtadukht’s missions tend to span only one chapter, with her showing up and sealing the deal for her contractors pretty quickly. This gave a vignette style feeling to plot until it began to grow and spawn and larger tale centric to Ashtadukt’s history.

A star-reckoner is someone who can command the magic of the stars in order to create some sort of reaction. This is usually useful when defeating enemies - divs - in a fight, but I’ll be damned if I could work out the method of reckoning, the history of it, or how it worked. Later in the novel, planet-reckoning is also introduced, and I was truly, truly stumped. I feel the reason for this is the massive time leap from Ashtadukht being a young girl and identified with reckoning abilities, to her being a fully-fledged reckoner. A little bit of learning alongside the character would have gone a long way for my tiny brain.

I found it difficult to concentrate throughout. I struggled to follow along with the plot, and certain events would occur which would throw me completely as I’d no idea where I was, who I was amongst, or even why I was there. There’s a real disjointed feel to the way the plot progresses, and the confusion began to affect my motivation for reading on.

The characters were pretty interesting in their interactions with each other, but there was a noticeable lack of backstory for each of them, and where we were gifted with some commentary, it was sparse, and often raised more questions than it answered.

Despite the above, this is a rich tale. Sasanian Iran is not a common setting for any type of contemporary novel, never mind fantasy novels. Reading of the lore and myth from this time was enlightening, and it’s clear to see Drake has a strong passion here. His premise was excellent, his writing beautiful. 

My disconnection was in how it was all put together; the lack of backstory, the jarring flow. I honestly couldn’t say whether this would have an impact on anyone else reading this novel - I imagine it’s something that would only affect certain readers. I definitely wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading this; it just wasn’t for me. 

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Book #33

The Suffragettes

A potted history of the women who pioneered feminism and changed the world.

This is an inspiring collection of documents on women’s fight for the vote. Speeches, political papers, posters, articles, and propaganda were all included - showing both sides of the argument.

I was surprised by some of the documents - particularly those detailing the reasons behind the anti-suffrage movement. Their justifications seemed laughable to me, and yet, in that time, they would have seemed reasonable.

They call it ‘justice’ and ‘equality’. It is nothing of the kind. It is the subjection of man to woman, turning the order of nature upside down. It is contrary to common sense, to experience, and to history. Men in all ages have had to do the brunt of the world’s business, and ought to govern.

The order of nature, indeed.

That there were women who agreed with these notions, and vehemently denied they wished to vote, even forming a league to prevent it, was utterly astonishing to me; that they believed there were women’s roles and men’s roles, separate to each other, was difficult to fathom.

Emmeline Pankhurst’s Freedom or Death speech at Hartford is included, and it makes for some seriously stimulating reading. In defence of the suffragettes being labelled as militant, she presents an analogy of a quiet hungry baby, and a loud, screaming, hungry baby. She asks which one you feed first. 

Once they are aroused, once they are determined, nothing on earth and nothing in heaven will make women give way; it is impossible.

Some of the actions taken by the suffragettes were ones I’d never heard of, and of which were simply genius. The best was the defacement of the penny coin; branded with the term ‘VOTES FOR WOMEN’. These were circulated around the country for years, and banks chose not to recall them due to the low value of copper in the coin. What a way to spread a message. 

Although a very small, yet absorbing, amount of information on the movement, I’ve come away filled with a militant strength to read more about how my rights were achieved by these strong and palpable women. It’s important to remember the fight, and also that it’s not yet over; that although progress is being made (slowly) in my country and culture, women the world over are still experiencing horrific oppression. We should be motivated by the work of the suffragettes, and roused into action to prevent any and all injustices we encounter.

I, for one, am roused.

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Book #32

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

After eighteen years as a political prisoner in the Bastille, the ageing Doctor Manette is finally released and reunited with his daughter in England. There the lives of two very different men, Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer, become enmeshed through their love for Lucie Manette. From the tranquil roads of London, they are drawn against their will to the vengeful, bloodstained streets of Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror, and they soon fall under the lethal shadow of La Guillotine.

I found this particular Dickens incredibly difficult to read in comparison to his other works. Writing of the French Revolution, namely the storming of the Bastille, took us out of Dickens’s usual setting, and also seemed to dictate a change in style. The difficulty, and the change, however, did not in any way lessen the joy I always feel when absorbing a Dickens novel.

The deep, almost inquisitive, characterisation Dickens is known to employ is lacking here. He chooses to characterise through plot, through reactions to events, and through choices. The characters were glorious; some simple caricatures, some complex and redemptive. The usual humour present in other works is entirely missing here - the subject matter being entirely too dark to find any light within.

Dickens portrays the gory revolution perfectly, and his social commentary is exquisite. Mob mentality was particularly prevalent; that, and the conditions which caused the revolt, were laid out in stark detail, and I was utterly fascinated. There’s one memorable scene where a mass of peasants are sharpening their weapons on a grindstone; it’s laid out in such a horrifying manner that it’s almost impossible to eradicate from your mind. Despite Dickens’s refusal to sugarcoat anything here, he presents a balanced view of both peasants and aristocrats, depicting the trials placed upon the upper classes with an unparalleled tension, and a notion of them having been unavoidable: 

Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious licence and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.

It’s a slog through misery in the first two thirds of the novel, without a single glimmer of hope. When I managed to pick the book up, I read enthralled, but it often took some time to convince myself to continue reading. Such terror, such madness, such blood. And yet, the final section of the book redeems all. The misery continues, but the masterstrokes Dickens employs here are absolutely gorgeous, shocking, and breathtaking. I was in complete awe at his skill.

A very dark, very different Dickens, and yet something to be treasured. God bless Sydney Carton. 

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Book #31

A Modern Detective by Edgar Allan Poe

In these two stories gentleman sleuth C. Auguste Dupin, the first fictional detective, investigates the death of a young girl and the grisly murders in the Rue Morgue.

I had read both of these short stories towards the end of last year, so I’ll keep this review short and simply regurgitate what I said in my review of The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

Poe’s mastery is best displayed in macabre tales of the supernatural, such as The Tell-Tale Heart. His detective tales are arduous, wordy, and entirely soul-destroying to me. Dupin, as a famous sleuth, has nothing of the same charm and draw as other fictional detectives I could mention. Both of these stories are solved for the reader through Dupin’s lengthy monologues, and it’s just incredibly tiring. 

Pick up a weird Poe, not a crime-solving Poe. 

Monday, 22 April 2019

Book #30

Mr Toppit by Charles Elton

When the author of The Hayseed Chronicles, Arthur Hayman, is mown down by a concrete truck in Soho, his legacy passes to his widow, Martha, and her children - the fragile Rachel, and Luke, reluctantly immortalised as Luke Hayseed, the central character of his father's books. But others want their share, particularly Laurie, who has a mysterious agenda of her own that changes all their lives. For buried deep in the books lie secrets which threaten to be revealed as the family begins to crumble under the heavy burden of their inheritance.

This is such a strange little book, which I cannot say with certainty I enjoyed completely. I’ve been left feeling very confused, and mildly frustrated.

Elton tells of an author of children’s novels who passes away after an accident. We’re presented with the fallout’s impact on his family, and his posthumous rise to fame. The family are dysfunctional to say the least, and we see how the death of the patriarch affects the tumbling of subsequent events.

The plot follows a multiple voice narrative, which I welcomed originally, and yet became wildly irritated by. The sequences are jarring, disconnected, and strange, with most of the characters seeming utterly superfluous and, quite frankly, pointless. 

There’s a lot of commentary on fame, and how the public and private lives of celebrity can collide. Elton’s presentation of Luke, who was immortalised in his father’s work, and his sister Rachel, who wasn’t, was worthy of deep contemplation after seeing both of their ultimate fates.

I’m still unsure how I feel, but I’d be loathe to recommend this to someone. Sold to me as a dark look into a fantasy novel having parallels with real life, what was actually portrayed was a deep dive into the life of a troubled family. A very strange book. 

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Book #29

Kidnapped by Olaudah Equiano

The searing autobiography of Olaudah Equiano - African slave, sailor, and finally a free man - which fuelled the eighteenth-century abolitionist movement.

A harrowing autobiographical insight into Equiano’s kidnap as a young man, and subsequent life as a slave.

The writing is raw and simplistic, lending feelings of astonishment in response to the situations and behaviours he relates to us. It’s always unsettling to me reading of historical mistreatment such as this. I try to be shocked at my ancestors, but, knowing my ancestors to be what they were (amongst other things - the worst kind of people), I can’t conjure shock, only disgust. I felt deeply for Equiano, finding sections difficult to swallow, but with no surprise in my stomach. 

Penguin have taken sections from the full length autobiography in order to compile Kidnapped, and (despite having never read The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, and therefore being unable to comment on its entirety) I feel they’ve once again botched this by throwing sections in at random, and not taking care over what’s included. I understand a lot of Equiano’s life was spent on the sea, so he will speak a lot of sea voyages, and it’s important these are documented. Despite that, I felt Penguin should have focused more on him as a person, the relationships he built, the struggles he faced, and his feelings, rather than choosing to throw a load of sea battle chapters at us. We weren’t even permitted to read of his ultimate liberation.

I’ll definitely be seeking out The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, as I feel this is an important work from what I’ve read so far, having had strong influences in the abolitionist movement. I also feel, from Penguin’s poor cut and paste job, that I’ve missed learning something of great significance. It’s only more ammunition for my argument that the Little Black Classics range has been a crippling disappointment.

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Book #28

The Blighted City by Scott Kaelen

To challenge the gods is to invite their wrath. 
So it is written of Lachyla, the Blighted City, in the Codex of the Ages. But who reads codices? And who really believes the tall stories of the Taleweavers?

Kaelen has weaved wonder with this one.

Three fleeblades accept a quest to enter an abandoned city and retrieve a burial stone. Despite the death’s head symbol imprinted on every known map of the place, the freeblades set out confident in their skills and experience, planning to bring the stone home for a hefty payment. Things go sour very quickly, and the freeblades soon realise the reasons for the city’s desertion as they become embroiled in its histories. This is all I can give you without spoiling the gorgeous experience of this novel.

Initially, I plodded along with this, failing to connect with the plot or the characters. But, in a true fantasy slow-burn fashion, Kaelen dribbled subtle taunts into his prose, eked out the personalities of the characters, and teased me with lore until I was utterly engrossed, and desperately in love with the characters.

Kaelen uses the perspective of three different groups to expand our perspective, and this worked incredibly well in building tension and foreshadowing. Their differing viewpoints were explored, allowing us to compare and contrast, and to sympathise or condemn as we see fit.

His scene setting was to die for. Entering the city of Lachyla with the trio, I immediately felt the gloom, I could smell the horror, and even taste the dead. His intricate descriptions of the desolation lent a perfect ability to visualise and step into his world.

My only criticism would be the drawn-out ending; I felt things could have been tied up more quickly, and there were a few extraneous moments which could have been removed completely. There was no negative impact to my overall enjoyment of the novel, but I did feel tightening up the ending could have created more of a final impact.

There are some really important questions asked here on enjoying and appreciating life. Would you want to live forever, or for a short, fulfilled, time? On closing the book, I felt mournful and thoughtful in equal measures, and it’s important to remember that when there’s a choice to be made, not everyone decides upon the same path.

I really enjoyed this introduction to Kaelen’s work, and I’m very grateful to have been asked to review this. He hints of other places within the vicinity of Lachyla, and I can only hope we get to see some of these places in the next instalment.

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Book #27

The Yellow Book

Offering an entertaining introduction to the fin-de-si├Ęcle, this selection from the notorious magazine The Yellow Book includes stories and poems by famous writers such as Arnold Bennett and John Buchan, brilliant pieces by lesser-known writers such as Ada Leverson and Ella D'Arcy, and illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley.

I hadn’t heard of The Yellow Book before picking this up, and its story is absolutely fascinating.

Launched in 1894, The Yellow Book was a literary magazine filled with prose, poetry, and illustrations from some seriously distinguished contributors such as Henry James and H.G. Wells. Its yellow cover was controversially chosen as a not so subtle nod to the yellow covers of French erotic fiction. Notably, Oscar Wilde was reported to have been arrested whilst carrying a copy of The Yellow Book, but unsurprisingly this turned out to be a copy of a yellow-covered illicit novel.

The notoriety attached to the quarterly doesn’t seem to be derived from its content (excepting the alluring and provoking illustrations from Beardsley), but rather its cover, its female writers, and its introduction of new ideas and movements.

Penguin have included some prose, poetry, and illustrations in this little glimpse into what The Yellow Book had to offer its readers. The prose detailed tragedy, machinations, and even the supernatural. Beardsley’s illustrations were gorgeous in their simplicity, and it was clear to see why they would have caused a few blushes in the 1890s. Even the poetry enthralled me - particularly Stella Maris by Arthur Symons - poetry evoking anything is me is an unheard of phenomenon.

Including some of The Yellow Book’s offerings in the Little Black Classics range has been a masterstroke by Penguin; it’s piqued my interest, taught me something, and has made me determined to read more from this infamous periodical. I can’t say every one of these little black books has intrigued me in such a way, but this was my main purpose of making my way through the range, so my faith has been somewhat restored. Perhaps I should move from black books to yellow ones.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Book #26

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph? 

I have recently found myself in a strange fascination with Henry’s reign, due for the most part to my stunning discovery of Six: the Musical. I knew I had a few fictional novels chronicling those times, so I decided to dig out Wolf Hall and get going - wow.

This book is enchanting and taxing in equal measures. Cromwell has been logged in the history books as one utterly bad dude, and yet Mantel manages to render him human; a man doing his job. He’s low-born, and practically emotionless, yet this ability to feel nothing is an invaluable asset in this cutthroat world. He shoots rapidly up the Tudor ladder until he’s almost sitting in the king’s lap. I felt like a spy in the camp, following his political and social decision making, and it was bloody glorious.

However, it’s quite a challenge to become acquainted with Mantel’s writing style here. Although it’s beautifully structured and incredibly engaging, she opts to refer to Cromwell for the most part as ‘he’. Despite occasionally clarifying with a rare ‘he, Cromwell’, this lends a very confusing aspect to situations where there are a number of males in the room - which is, regrettably, a frequent occurrence.

Patience is essential in reading Wolf Hall. You need to reread; you need to understand completely what’s happening, and that sometimes doesn’t happen immediately. There’s long heavy prose on politics (to quote Anne from Six: “Politics? Not my thing.”), and a huge number of characters to remember - most of whom are referred to at times by title, and at times by name. It doesn’t help that about 80% of them are called Thomas. Once all of the above is grasped, you’ll experience a gorgeous immersion in history.

I must admit, Wolf Hall has made me realise my main interest in Henry’s reign doesn’t have anything to do with Henry at all - it’s the wives. Although here we see Katherine’s downfall and Anne’s succession, a few strains are showing in marital life, and Jane is already beginning to show her face more. I understand the sequel’s focus is to be on Anne’s undoing, and let me tell you, I am here for it.

Don’t lose your head.

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Book #25

Green Tea by Sheridan Le Fanu

From the pioneer of horror fiction, this tale of a clergyman tormented by a demonic creature is one of the greatest Victorian ghost stories.

Green Tea is, admittedly, a very odd name for a Victorian horror novel. Green tea is not something which sparks fear in the hearts of men, nor does it lend any implications of the supernatural. Le Fanu presents a macabre and unsettling tale, the events of which transpire solely due to the drinking of green tea.

Using a balance of the inexplicable and the scientific, Le Fanu tells the tale of a clergyman who is experiencing a constant demonic presence by his side. Although this premise, and the form the apparition takes, seem unlikely, we’re given various scientific explanations from our learned protagonist to support and analyse the poor religious man’s affliction.

The writing is typically Victorian, and you do need your wits about you in places, but it’s steady. The story is laid out in the form of letters from our protagonist to a fellow doctor. He explains the clergyman’s symptoms, and the story he has been given. I liked that we were never allowed to witness the supernatural happenings first-hand; they were spoken of to our protagonist, and then committed to letter, allowing Le Fanu to weave feelings of uncertainty and evoking considerations.

Although terribly short, I loved this little gothic exploration of green tea and demons. Le Fanu leaves the finale entirely open to interpretation, further supporting the Chinese whispers style of storytelling, and creating a final sense of uneasiness as you close the book. I’d definitely recommend this one for fans of Victorian horror. 

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Book #24

Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe

Including Poe's most terrifying, grotesque and haunting short stories, Tales of Mystery and Imagination is the ultimate collection of the infamous author's macabre works.

For me, Poe’s short stories are incredibly hit or miss; I’m unsure whether or not that’s a particularly unusual opinion.

I read The Tell-Tale Heart a few years ago and was enthralled.  I read The Murders in the Rue Morgue last year and was utterly unimpressed with Poe’s detective stories. My experience of both his detective and horror offerings led me to believe I preferred his horror. Picking up Tales of Mystery and Imagination has confirmed Poe is simply hit or miss with all stories - there’s no criteria for this.

There were six tales in this collection, and as two of these were included in The Murders in the Rue Morgue, mentioned above, I read only four - The Gold-Bug, The Oblong Box, The Fall of the House of Usher, and The Pit and the Pendulum.

With the exception of The Pit and the Pendulum (the less commentary I provide on this one, the better, I just can’t), I was very taken with these stories. Poe lends an unbridled tension to his narrative, ensuring a quickening of the heartbeat and an ability to tear your eyes away from the page. The Fall of the House of Usher was particularly impressive in this regard; there is just something about a gothic tone such as this which completely chills my blood. It was delicious.

Although The Gold-Bug and The Oblong Box weren’t necessarily spooky or gothic, they contained delectable mysteries to solve, each of which had their own hints of the macabre. Poe clearly displays his genius here with impressive deductions and thrilling twists.

This collection has made me excited about Poe again, which is an utter blessing as I have more of him creeping up my reading list. His ability to create such intense and spectacular feelings of unease in a reader is a rare skill, and his mastery of strangeness completely iconic.

Unearthly maven. 

Monday, 25 March 2019

Book #23

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

Pinkie, a boy gangster in pre-war Brighton, is a Catholic dedicated to evil and damnation. In a dark setting of double crossing and razor slashes, his ambition and hatreds are horribly fulfilled, until Ida determines to convict him for murder.

This is one of my all-time favourites, so I allowed myself a brief deviation from my reading list to enjoy it again.

Beginning the novel with a man in fear of his life, Greene submerges us into the criminal underworld of Brighton in the 1930s with a spine-breaking thump. The irrevocable murder of Hale sets off a chain of events which the young leader of our gang naively attempts to salve, continuing to do further damage to his masquerade of innocence.

Pinkie is an incredibly complex and flawed character. His youth plays a huge part in his ill-informed decision making and regrets, alongside his troubled upbringing, of which we are only allowed to understand small parts. His sudden promotion to leader of his gang sparks a type of impostor syndrome, and it’s painful to see him attempt to channel his predecessor. He rarely shows emotion other than anger or fear, and his lack of soul is paramount in his macabre uprising. For me, Pinkie is one of the most terrifying characters in fiction, purely due to his mental state.

Rose is probably my favourite character here for the purposes of importance and examination. Dragged into the spectacle which is Pinkie’s gang attempting to get away with murder, she becomes an important witness in the case against them. Pinkie’s solution to this is to seduce, and ultimately marry her in order to prevent her testifying against him. Rose is portrayed as a weak character, willing to do or say anything she’s told to, and lives in unwavering belief that Pinkie loves her, and that all will be well in the end. Her naivety, in comparison to Pinkie’s, is a different kind, yet bears the same level of risk. Her intense hope in the future is so heart-breakingly pure that I can’t help but love her.

Greene does wonderful things here with Brighton; the setting, the sights and smells, the custom - it’s all so perfectly portrayed and utterly, utterly wonderful. The pace of the plot rises and falls so accurately, with the characters’ pontificating and lamenting sections contrasting well with Greene’s use of tension in others. He also makes an excellent job of personifying the gangsters; in many crime novels these types of characters are merely painted as the bad guys, but Greene gives us men with feelings, dreams, flaws, and family. Glorious.

This really is a true classic, and nothing much can top it for me. I could wax on until I run out of oxygen, so the final thing to say is that if I could put this book on a sandwich and eat it, I would have it for every meal.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Book #22

The Shield of Nike by A.P. Mobley

Valeria is in love with her best friend, Greg, and has been for years. But they can’t be together, because after they graduate high school they’ll be on opposite sides of the country. This seems to be Valeria’s greatest dilemma—until a freak storm ambushes the two on a hike a few miles outside their town. 
During the storm, Greg is injured, and a strange shield falls from the sky and knocks Valeria unconscious. When she wakes up, her whole world is turned upside down. Greg is missing, her town has been annihilated, deadly creatures roam, and the disembodied voice of a woman she knows nothing of talks to her from inside her own head. 
The woman says Greg has been taken, but that Valeria can save him and survive the perils awaiting her if she harnesses the “gifts” she was given at birth, and if she uses the shield that fell from the sky. But how can Valeria trust a woman she’s never met? 
She'll have to rely on herself and face horrors she could never have imagined to save her best friend. And, in the process, discover her true identity. 

Last year I read the first instalment of the War on the Gods series, The Helm of Darkness, and loved it. I was delighted when Mobley got in touch again to ask me to review the companion novel, The Shield of Nike.

It’s a gorgeous little insight into the storm we experienced in Helm, and I enjoyed the idea that more people were affected by it than we initially realised. It’s a difficult task to talk about this one without spoiling anything; it’s so short and fast-paced that it’s pretty much impossible to do so.

As with Helm, I loved that our world and that of the Greek gods collided together with confusion, malice, and love. Mobley honourably personifies these mythical beings, and it’s utterly glorious. Our protagonist’s ultimate acceptance of her powers, and her birthright, was wonderfully written. I think demigod is my new favourite word.

The action scenes were a perfect blend of intensity and speed. Nothing riles me more than a convoluted fight, so for our protagonist to polish off these mythical monsters efficiently was a big tick for me. I was far more interested into Mobley’s narrative on the monsters’ appearances and origin. I’ve also always wanted to be the owner of a terrifying two-headed dog; reading about them seems to be my only alternative.

It was wonderful, but really lacking in length. A lot more could have been done with characterisation here, and I do think it could be padded out a bit more. There is, of course, the possibility that this is all part of Mobley’s grand plan, and that this story is a mere cog in the War on the Gods machine - which I imagine is the case. With that said, I found the way the story ended to be horribly intriguing - I’m completely and desperately anxious to find out more.

Many thanks to Mobley again for asking me to read this - please never stop asking me!