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! 

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.