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! 

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Book #21

Tyger, Tyger by William Blake

A selection of Blake's most haunting verse, including 'The Songs of Innocence and Experience'.

Another poetry collection from the Little Black Classics range, and another chance for me to feel completely lost, illiterate, and, quite frankly, thick.

My problem with poetry now seems to be that I’m only ever reading it within this collection. Since the collection has filled me with spite for a number of reasons, my patience has diminished considerably, and I’m simply not trying.

So my inability to enjoy this probably isn’t Blake’s fault, but a combination of mine and Penguin’s. May skip the poetry books going forward as this is getting ridiculous.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Book #20

Dreamcatcher by Stephen King

In Derry, Maine, four young boys once stood together and did a brave thing. Something that changed them in ways they hardly understand.
A quarter of a century later, the boys are men who have gone their separate ways. Though they still get together once a year, to go hunting in the north woods of Maine. But this time is different. This time a man comes stumbling into their camp, lost, disoriented and muttering about lights in the sky.
Before long, these old friends will be plunged into the most remarkable events of their lives as they struggle with a terrible creature from another world. Their only chance of survival is locked in their shared past - and in the Dreamcatcher.

I’d like to begin by stating I am immensely relieved to have come to the end of this novel. Not only was getting through the plot an arduous journey in itself, the physicality of the mammoth hardback edition I chose to read made life (and commuting) painfully difficult for a while. It could easily have been 300 pages shorter, and I’d have been saved a whole load of back pain, time, and frustration.

As someone who has only ever read the King greats (think The Shining, Misery, The Green Mile, that stuff), I have never been anything other than impressed with his work. Holy grey aliens from the skies, how the mighty can fall. This was awful.

For starters, although partial to the odd bit of sci-fi, I am yet to find a novel on aliens which really blows my knickers off. I knew I’d be slightly outside of my genre, but I was happy to take a risk. Turns out aliens aren’t actually the problem.

The plot was a mess. King dabbles in launching us backwards and forwards in time, showing the four guys as adults, then kids, then back again. I usually like this type of narrative, but it was completely chaotic, confusing, and mind-numbingly repetitive, with King showing us scenes numerous times, for which reason I am yet to determine.

A lot of the central storyline focuses around noxious farts and peoples’ arses with holes blown in them. There was too much of this, just too much. We understood; we got it. Stop describing the smell of farts, please.

His characters also left a lot to be desired. With barely any depth to them, they’re plunged into this nightmare, pontificating, skiing, reading minds, killing extraterrestrial beings, and the whole time I just thought, so fuck. I didn’t care what happened to them. I didn’t know them. I was completely and utterly bored.

I also want to mention the racist and ableist remarks which spilled from the characters mouths infrequently. Although racist characters are a given when telling certain stories, there was absolutely no need for any of this here in order to characterise. It added nothing, other than a slight feeling of your teeth being set on edge. The characters’ treatment of a disabled boy, although masqueraded as a heroic friendship, also wasn’t quite treated as it should be. Some remarks were simply disgraceful, and I checked out.

I’m left with this question: has King now reached such heights of stardom that they will literally publish anything? He’s an excellent storyteller, and he’s proven that. But this book is like the alien disease our characters fought so hard to keep contained - who the fuck let this one out into the wild? 

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Book #19

Wicked Children: Murderous Tales From History by Karen Maitland

Karen Maitland explores some of the real-life cases of dangerous and powerful children which have inspired her own young - but deadly - characters.
I feel immensely cheated by this, but unsure whether I have grounds for this feeling. I downloaded this book free from Amazon (hence the hesitation to feel justified in complaining), believing I was due to be regaled by horrendous and murderous acts committed by children in days gone by. I was not allowed this.

The incredibly short exploration of youthful murderers of yore was akin to an unengaging piece of research done by a sullen and resistant  high school teenager. There was no structure; no defining ideas. The various crimes were presented in a wall of text with no breaks, and no clear indication of sections, making it difficult to differentiate between the children, their deeds, and their ultimate fates. I wanted gore, I wanted shocking motive, I wanted crass depictions of utter horror. I’m actually amazed an account such as this could be so dull.

After the whistlestop tour of evil kids (if there’s anything quicker than a whistlestop tour, please do let me know, as I should be using that metaphor in this case), we’re given a long list of ways in which poisons were concocted in the past. When you think you’ve finally escaped from the monotonous world of the apothecary, Maitland uses another chapter to drone on about the antidotes to such poisons. I almost skipped back a chapter to see if there was anything in my house with which I could use to harm myself.

And finally, the most frustrating aspect of this whole ordeal was the insertion of chapters from a couple of Maitland’s novels. I had no interest in these - I don’t enjoy reading bonus chapters shoehorned into the end of novels - and I’m astounded at the realisation that the entire purpose of this book was to shamelessly sell her other books. I understand promotion, and I’m comfortable with it, but to wade through a load of drivel, in complete confusion, only to be presented with what is effectively an advertisement, is incredibly frustrating.

Like watching the first half hour of a horror film before experiencing an eternal power cut. 

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Book #18

The Stolen White Elephant by Mark Twain

From the father of American literature, four sparkling comic tales of extraordinary animals and parables subverted.

I love Twain. The man’s mind is an utter marvel; so unique and subversive it’s almost difficult to believe such genius could be held within a single mind. And yet, here we are.

This addition to the Little Black Classics range is comprised of four of Twain’s short stories. The titular title, The Stolen White Elephant, was by far my favourite. It tells the story of a government worker who has been tasked with delivering a peacemaking gift to the queen, in the form of a live elephant from Asia. As is to be expected with Twain, madness ensues and the elephant goes missing. The situation flies into disarray as the police are dispatched all over the country to track down the gargantuan beast, and wild sums of money are offered for its capture. Twain’s wit and sarcasm here are beautifully pointed, and utterly hilarious. Such bumbling! Such confused and yet understandable rationalisations! Such deception! I loved it.

We are then treated to two polar opposite tales, one of The Bad Little Boy Who Didn’t Come to Grief and one of The Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper. One inherently bad boy who consistently escapes retribution for his misdeeds, and one deeply good boy who gets himself into such trouble simply for being good. Twain makes fun of stories where the opposites are true - where good comes to good, and vice versa. It’s simply not the case in our world, and Twain reminds us of this with each of these bleak little stories.

I felt the final story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calavera Country, was a poor choice by Penguin. It lacked the same mirth of impact as the previous three, and featured such an ambiguous and vague ending that its positioning as the final story in the collection felt a bit off. Although still an enjoyable and funny tale, it would have worked better being placed at the beginning here, or even added to a separate Twain collection of similar short stories.

Oh, if Little Black Classics had chosen to feature prose, and only prose, I’d be such a happy wee lassie.

Monday, 4 March 2019

Book #17

The Legacy by Katherine Webb

Following the death of their grandmother, Erica Calcott and her sister Beth return to Storton Manor, where they spent their summer holidays as children. When Erica begins to sort through the house, she relives memories of her childhood - & of her cousin, Henry, whose disappearance from the manor tore the family apart.

This is a story filled with secrets, and peppered with the consequences of keeping these to yourself. You will go mad entirely.

Webb tells two stories here. One set in the early 1900s which focuses on Caroline, the lady of an English manor house who, in the early stages of the novel, we witness leaving a young child in the woods. The other is set in the present day, in the same house, where two sisters have inherited the manor from their grandmother, and are there to prepare the manor to be sold.

The use of narrative in each of the stories differed hugely. Where Caroline’s tale begins at the end, it nevertheless follows a fairly linear path afterwards, portraying  the events which led up to her most heartbreaking mistake. The present day narrative is much stranger, relying heavily on flashbacks to reveal the secrets of the two sisters, as they recall events from the childhood summers spent in the manor.

I found the story quite difficult to engage with in the beginning. Webb loves to describe setting, and although she does so beautifully, I became impatient with what felt like every single tree branch being depicted in miniature. Once I’d become more acquainted with her style, however, I was able to appreciate the true value of her portrayals, and most importantly, the way in which she was lining up her mysteries.

Although the plot - both plots, actually - were wonderful, I’d be hard pushed to pick a character I actually liked. All of them felt deeply flawed and selfish to me, and few of them experienced any sort of development which made them any less irritating. I believe this was the point - we are inherently selfish, and we keep secrets to protect ourselves, without realising a secret kept inside can implode.

An excellent slow-burner with explorations of family relationships and mysteries, although absolutely one to approach with patience.