Friday, 24 May 2019

Book #41

The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

What begins as the story of a lost boy turns into a story of a brave man yearning to understand what happened that night, in the years since, and to his very person.
While on vacation with their parents, Matthew Homes and his older brother snuck out in the middle of the night. Only Matthew came home safely. Ten years later, Matthew tells us, he has found a way to bring his brother back.

This is a devastating novel. I’ve come away with strange feelings of melancholy, grief, and hope. 

Matthew writes the story of his life to date. His brother, Simon, died some years before, when both of them are young boys. The cause of Simon’s death isn’t fully explored until later in the novel, but remains as a lingering shadow over Matthew, his family, and his words themselves.

The plot details Matthew’s struggles with schizophrenia (“a disease with the shape and sound of a snake”), and Filer shows us how this affects him. It reminded me very much of Haddon’s Curious Incident and Russell’s Wrong Boy, in that I was devoted to the storyteller and his attempts to battle through what he’s been given.

Written mostly in a stream of consciousness style, we’re able to relate and sympathise with Matthew’s feelings of hopelessness, blame, and misunderstanding. Matthew will tell his story sporadically, dashing off on tangents to explain something which happened in the past, adding in additional descriptive commentary when he feels there’s something we should know. It’s exactly like hearing a story from someone’s mouth. Filer uses different fonts and pictures throughout to really instil the various problems of mental illness in the reader’s mind.

Filer subtly hints at the flaws within mental health institutions, and depicts the horror within from Matthew’s point of view. Patients (or service users) experience a controlled, regimented lifestyle peppered with consequences should they choose to behave or react in a certain way. It’s really, really bleak and heartbreaking to see people treated as less than people purely due to an illness.

I’m finding it difficult to convey exactly why I loved this novel so much. I wanted to write an excellent review, but I can’t seem to find the words - I usually find it’s the best novels which don’t allow me to put my feelings into work. But, to the best of my ability, it’s Matthew’s words, it’s the way in which they’re presented, it’s his family, his pain, his guilt. Everything feels so real, so real, so honest. It truly is a beautiful work.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Book #40

The Nun of Murano by Giacomo Casanova

In this episode from his infamous memoirs, swashbuckling serial seducer Casanova falls for a beautiful nun on the Venetian island of Murano - despite already being involved with another one.

Good old Casanova; he didn’t disappoint, and I was certainly surprised by how engaging and well written his escapades were.

Although the passages describing the sexual acts themselves were sparse, and lacking description, there was something entirely erotic about Casanova’s restraint, and his waiting and longing. The long hours spent before his meetings with the nun sent his thoughts spiralling, his anticipation ripening.

I did expect to be scandalised, and for my inner feminist to be sent a-twitching at this philanderer’s treatment of women. On the contrary, in this particular tale at least, Casanova and his ‘love’ are presented as equals. Honesty, understanding, and trust are firmly established, current lovers are informed of the tryst, and Casanova is allowed to explore his desires unhindered by shame (if shame is such a thing Casanova can muster up) and with no advantages being taken.

The nun herself, referred to only as M.M., didn’t seem to be shirking her morals or faith in any way. She was an intelligent and reasoned woman, entirely confident in her actions and justifications, continuing her meeting with Casanova whilst keeping her other lover fully abreast (no pun intended) of all goings on.

I thought this was wonderful, and an excellent choice from Penguin; I would very much like to read more of Casanova’s sordid affairs, and fully intend to explore the adventures of his manhood. 

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Book #39

Never Die by Rob J. Hayes

Time is up for the Emperor of Ten Kings and it falls to a murdered eight year old boy to render the judgement of a God. Ein knows he can't do it alone, but the empire is rife with heroes. The only problem; in order to serve, they must first die.
Ein has four legendary heroes in mind, names from story books read to him by his father. Now he must find them and kill them, so he can bring them back to fight the Reaper's war.

When I first read the premise for Never Die, I had my suspicions I was letting myself into something unique. Although I was entirely correct in this presumption, I wasn’t prepared for just how uniquely insane this novel would turn out to be.

Ein, a notoriously creepy eight year old boy, is on a quest to kill the emperor. Due to his lack of strength, stature, and the fact that he is eight, he recruits some of the most famous warriors in Hosa to help him with the violent bits. Trouble is, his recruitment strategy involves killing and resurrecting the warriors, effectively binding them to him and his cause. That was jaw drop number one in a vast array of jaw drops.

Hayes’ skill here is unparalleled. He builds his characters wonderfully, through memory, dialogue, and lore, exposing their flaws and temptations, and yet inexplicably binding them to his readers just as they are bound to Ein. They were legendary and wonderfully real; pain, grief, woe, and even hints of joy were weaved into their characterisation, each warrior gorgeous in his or her own way. With each different personality came a different fighting technique, making me long for the ability to step through space, or even just have a cool warrior name.

The mythology was glorious - Hayes has done his research here, and I learned a lot about Japanese folklore. What was particularly special was Hayes’ refusal to patronise and explain. The work I put in between chapters googling words like yokai made the novel far more real, and much more special.

I found the plot to be very reminiscent of video games I’d played as a kid. Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter did spring to mind, but most of all I got real Mystical Ninja feels (ten points if you know that one). Time to dig out my N64.

The finale was an utter triumph. I’ve read so many fantasy novels recently where the ending is easy to predict - everything is perfectly tied up in a little bow and we all go away satisfied. I don’t want to give too much away, but Hayes chose to forsake the little bow and tie everything up with barbed wire. It was completely unexpected, and a master stroke. I loved it.

A true escape into fantasy, an entirely original premise, a journey through twists and monsters, and just a bloody excellent read. Thank you so much for allowing me to read this. 

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.