Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Book #49

Nonsense by Edward Lear

Exuberant and ingenious, Lear's best-loved poems tell of jumblies, quangle wangles and luminous noses.

Finally, a Little Black Classics poetry collection I can say I love. No intellectual stimulation, no interpretation, no smoke and mirrors. Just some simple, joyful, smile inducing nonsense poems.

I spent a lovely half hour reading these, and couldn’t help the grin spreading across my face. Lear’s ridiculous words have a strange kind of magic attached to them - I truly believe he could warm a cold, dead heart.

“The Scroobius Pip looked vaguely round
And sang these words with a rumbling sound -
‘Chippetty Flip - Flippetty Chip -
My only name is the Scroobius Pip.”

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Book #48

The Ghost Files by Apryl Baker

Sixteen year old Mattie Hathaway has been able to see ghosts since she was five years old. No way does she want anyone to know she can talk to spooks. 
Normally, she just ignores the ghosts and they go away. That is until she see’s the ghost of her foster sister, Sally. 
Everyone thinks Sally’s just another runaway, but Mattie knows the truth—she’s dead. Murdered. Mattie feels like she has to help Sally, but she can’t do it alone. Against her better judgment, she teams up with a young policeman, Officer Dan, and together they set out to discover the real truth behind Sally’s disappearance. 
Only to find out she’s dealing with a much bigger problem, a serial killer, and she may be the next victim.
Will Mattie be able to find out the truth before the killer finds her?

This is probably the most young adult of young adult novels I’ve read in a long time.

Mattie is sixteen and sees dead people. Her main response to this is to simply ignore them until they go away, before circumstances dictate interaction and she’s propelled into new spooky calamities.

The plot ticks along well, but I felt, considering Mattie’s circumstances, that there seemed to be a lack of tension and intrigue. She knows there are people who need saved from imminent death, but instead spends a lot of time hanging out at the diner and pontificating over the variety of boys she has a crush on. Her motivations were strange, and wrong.

I understood I was being given a teenage female protagonist, but she felt like a caricature of herself for the most part. Both her inner and outer dialogue were peppered with insipid turns of phrase, ones which would probably come up if you surveyed a bunch of middle-aged white dudes and asked them how they thought teenage girls spoke. She also told me frequently about the walls she put up, how strong she was, and how foster kids were a different breed from others. She told me these things, but rarely showed me. It was poor characterisation, and it really affected my ability to engage and sympathise with Mattie. 

For a horror, there was a real lack of suspense, no notable twists, and things began to take some very convenient turns in order to tie the story up to its ending.

I sound like I hated this book; I didn’t. But I have noted down the main things which spring to mind on reflection, so I’ll leave them as they are. More nuanced characters, a plot with some more complexity, and less use of the word fudgepops would have been all that was needed to make this excellent.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Book #47

The Corset by Laura Purcell

Dorothea and Ruth. Prison visitor and prisoner. Powerful and powerless. Dorothea Truelove is young, wealthy and beautiful. Ruth Butterham is young, poor and awaiting trial for murder.

When Dorothea's charitable work leads her to Oakgate Prison, she is delighted with the chance to explore her fascination with phrenology and test her hypothesis that the shape of a person's skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes. But when she meets teenage seamstress Ruth, she is faced with another theory: that it is possible to kill with a needle and thread. For Ruth attributes her crimes to a supernatural power inherent in her stitches.
The story Ruth has to tell of her deadly creations – of bitterness and betrayal, of death and dresses – will shake Dorothea's belief in rationality and the power of redemption.
Can Ruth be trusted? Is she mad, or a murderer?

This story has overwhelmed and enthralled me so much that I’m struggle to rattle out words which will in any way do it justice. 

Purcell writes of two women from very separate social classes - Ruth, imprisoned for murder awaiting trial, and Dorothea, an heiress with a penchant for phrenology and criminology. Convinced she is being charitable, Dorothea visits Ruth in prison and learns her story. The contrast in them both is exquisite, but no more so than the stunning comparisons each of their lives hold. Purcell writes them distinctly and expertly using multiple voice, both equal parts victim and heroine. I loved both of them deeply.

The prose here is dark and utterly enchanting. The Victorian era is a grim one, and Purcell doesn’t shy away from showing us its poverty and flaws alongside its charms. Her settings were gloriously descriptive; one moment a blooming botanical garden with Dorothea, the next a squalid, lice-ridden doss house with Ruth. The juxtaposition and contrast was breathtaking.

Purcell had me dangling from her hook completely. The plot is rapid in its movement, and throws a thousand situations at us like arrows. The multiple voice works well in creating tension, and every single character has their own flaws and nuances. It was truly wonderful.

There, I knew it. My words above don’t quite manage to convey the true pleasure I felt in reading this novel. Although bleak and heartbreaking, it’s utterly engaging, captivating, and original. This will be one I earnestly press into the hands of friends, urging them to read it, whilst I go off in search of more of Purcell’s work.

A true masterpiece.

“But then I have noted that murderous thoughts seldom trouble the pretty and the fashionable.”

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Book #46

The Narrows by Travis M. Riddle

Oliver and his friends have returned to their hometown of Shumard, Texas for the funeral of their close friend Noah. They each grapple with the loss in their own ways, trying to understand the strange circumstances of their friend’s unexpected death.

While visiting the site where the body was found, Oliver stumbles across a chilling discovery that he knows must be related to what happened to Noah. Wanting to protect his friends from these newfound horrors, Oliver takes it upon himself to venture into the grotesque otherworld known as the Narrows to learn what happened to his friend and find a way to bring him back.

Entering the Narrows is one thing, but will whatever he finds there allow him to leave?

I couldn’t tell whether the stronger vibe here was that of Stranger Things, or IT. A group of friends, a death, an entirely creepy parallel universe of decay - all combined to make The Narrows an eerie and yet somehow relatable plunge into darkness.

Riddle’s real strength here is his characterisation. Each deeply affected by the death of their friend, each dealing with their own stuff, and each as expertly cast as the other, Riddle spends an important amount of time on them, and it pays off. As the characters return to their hometown for their friend’s funeral, we see them visit the places they grew up in, reminiscing and remembering their childhood. It worked really well to reinforce their personalities and motivations, and the mention of Mario Kart 64 definitely tweaked a heartstring or two for me.

I enjoyed the exploration of childhood, and the study of the characters’ relationship changes more than I did the supernatural aspect of the book. It’s a relatively short novel, and the actual level of horror scenes is a small offering in comparison to the heavier feeling of doom and foreshadowing which pervades the majority of the novel. Nevertheless, Riddle’s execution was excellent, his creation and release of tension employed well, and the ambiguous ending was a masterstroke.

My life has recently been overtaken by Stardew Valley, and I imagined the knave as a distorted version of this guy:

Please let me know if that’s somehow a sacrilege; it seemed fitting and amusing at the time.

A definite contender for someone who’d like something quick and creepy - a real must for those who like to analyse relationships, emotion, and nostalgia for things we no longer possess. 

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Book #45

The Withered Arm by Thomas Hardy

A jealous lover's curse and an ingenious party trick feature in these two suspenseful stories set in Hardy's imaginary Wessex.

The Withered Arm came highly recommended to me, and I was pleased Penguin included it in their Little Black Classics range. Although the range does contain some of his poetry (and we all know how I feel about poetry), the collection would not be complete without some Hardy prose.

He’s a firm favourite of mine, and I was delighted to see his regular style applied here. Although the supernatural isn’t something he would normally delve into, we’re presented with some typically Hardyish awkward relationships, social satire, a lyrical rustic landscape setting, and a running thread of bleak unease. The ending, of course, is tragic and terrible, as is his wont to inflict.

Detailing a spurned lover’s accidental curse on her beloved’s new wife, Hardy skilfully portrays the development and sudden downfall of the relationships. His depiction of the wife’s vicious determination to rid herself of the curse creates an unholy level of tension, with her eventual discovery of the origin then rendering the situation unbearably palpable. Her eventual choice of remedy, and consequences thereof, only Hardy could employ with this level of mastery.

It raised questions about morality, friendship, and reaping what you sow. Hardy seemed to punish every single character here, and, flawed as they were, it felt as though the higher hand of judgement had reached a reasonable verdict.

This is one which will stay with me for a very long time.

Monday, 17 June 2019

Book #44

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

When Nicholas Nickleby is left penniless after his father's death, he appeals to his wealthy uncle to help him find work and to protect his mother and sister. But Ralph Nickleby proves both hard-hearted and unscrupulous, and Nicholas finds himself forced to make his own way in the world. 

Well, fan my brow. I’ve been wandering around this world for years, telling anyone who will listen that my favourite Dickens novel is David Copperfield, with conviction which cannot be rivalled. I’m all a-flutter now Nickleby has come along and knocked Copperfield from the top spot.

What an absolute triumph this novel is. All of my favourite Dickens staples are firmly present - Victorian social customs, comedy, villains, tragedy, debtors, and drunks. There’s plenty of heartbreak and injustice, peppered with Dickens' own brand of humour to lighten the mood to the perfect degree.

There is a lot of plot; I repeat - there is a lot of plot. Dickens goes into tiny detail on setting, atmosphere, and behaviour, creating a beautifully vivid and engaging picture of Victorian London. It feels very deep, and heavy at times; this only added to my enjoyment, but I spent much longer on this book than I have on any other for a while, savouring, relishing, loving.

His technique in presenting the reader with social injustices is gorgeous. Laced with satire, we see our misers and villains gaining the upper hand at every turn; we are scandalised, devastated, incensed. But we remember it’s Dickens, and each and every dastardly character will have his day in the end. Real life doesn’t serve justice quite so perfectly, but anything else here would be an injury.

Despite this, Dickens characters here were nothing but simple. Such a throng of a cast, each of them described to completeness, every flaw and scar exposed. Dickens often characterises his characters as entirely good or bad, placing them into their relevant camps as appropriate. Here, he recognises the range of emotion and temper in his characters, and we even see the squeaky-clean ones make poor decisions, and display emotion not usually attributed to the characters in the more angelic of the two camps.

It gave my joy, it broke my heart. The characters are masterpieces within themselves, the plot divine, everything else just gorgeous gorgeous. Nicholas Nickleby is an absolute wonder. 

Monday, 3 June 2019

Book #43

A terrible beauty is born by W.B. Yeats

By turns joyful and despairing, some of the twentieth century's greatest verse on fleeting youth, fervent hopes and futile sacrifice.

This felt somehow nice and gentle.

Yeats’ words move along patiently, despite deeper rooted political meaning and undertones. Nothing too strenuous or exacting, just the quiet tick tock of his beautiful words.

A review from someone who just can’t with the poetry. 

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Book #42

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

Imagine a black and white world where colour is a commodity.

Hundreds of years in the future, after the Something that Happened, the world is an alarmingly different place.
Life is lived according to The Rulebook and social hierarchy is determined by your perception of colour. Eddie Russett is an above average Red who dreams of moving up the ladder by marriage to Constance Oxblood. Until he is sent to the Outer Fringes where he meets Jane - a lowly Grey with an uncontrollable temper and a desire to see him killed. 
For Eddie, it's love at first sight. But his infatuation will lead him to discover that all is not as it seems in a world where everything that looks black and white is really shades of grey.

I do adore a good dystopian novel. The future is something none of us can predict with any degree of accuracy, so I enjoy the quite overwhelming ideas which come with dystopia, despite the fact that quite often these are post-apocalyptic and bleak.

Fforde’s take is notably different to many novels which could be described in this way. Although set far in the future, after the Something That Happened, people seem to live in a fairly ordered society which allows them to thrive. It’s only deeper into the novel we realise this way of life is utterly controlled and maintained by Head Office; people are rated on their behaviours, points are awarded and removed for the most ridiculous of acts, and those in power have immeasurable dominance over those who are not. Did I mention no one can see in full colour?

In Fforde’s world, people see their surrounding mainly in shades of grey. Some see only in grey, whilst some see greys peppered with only one other colour. Your perception of this colour, whether dull or vibrant, sets your rank in life. Those who have more than 70% perception of colour are immediately raised into positions of power, with anyone lower fitting into more menial slots. Those who can see only grey are given the least desirable life of all.

This strange caste system was the most interesting aspect of the novel for me. Fforde really plays on societal customs, treatment of others, and democracy, using only an individual’s ability to perceive.

Eddie Russet is a strong Red. When he meets a Grey with a beautiful nose, he is ripped from the comfort of trusting the status quo, and plunged into an exploration of his world, and why things are done in the way they are. Fforde injects a positive message of hope that change can be brought to the system, and leads us on a sweeping mission to subvert the powers responsible.

Although Fforde takes some time to dip us into the paint pot, perseverance is essential. Once the world makes sense, once the sociology can be understood, the journey through his mostly colourless universe is one not to be missed.

Not to be confused with the other Shades of Grey, which we do not speak of.