Monday, 30 December 2019

Book #95

The Jump by Martina Cole

Donna Brunos worships her husband and is devastated when he is jailed for armed robbery. Georgio swears he's been set up and persuades Donna to help him escape.
Implementing 'the jump' takes Donna into a twilight world she never believed existed - a world of brutal sex and casual violence. Finally, she is confronted by a series of shattering revelations that threaten not only everything she believes in but also, ultimately, her own life.

I do love a bit of trashy crime fiction to break up my reading list. Usually fast-paced, and peppered with mysteries and whodunnits, I tend to speed through them on an unerring quest to the end. Having never read any of Cole’s work before, I picked this up expecting all of the above. It’s taken me ten days of apathy and groaning to get through; I almost gave up the ghost midway, and I wish I had.

Our heroine, Donna, is rich as fuck and married to a beautiful wealthy man. He has multiple businesses, and Donna has no idea what they consist of. When he’s arrested and jailed for armed robbery, she is convinced he’s innocent. When he asks her to organise his escape from prison, she nods like a good little girl and gets to work summoning bad boys and having damsel in distress fainting fits at her subsequent discoveries about her husband’s secret life.

This book is almost seven hundred pages long, and most of these are filled with Donna’s angst and mourning. She is so blind to her husband’s obvious villainy, and we’re reminded of this constantly. She’s a passive, simpering idiot, and can’t even bear hearing anyone swear, which, in a book set in London’s seedy underworld, gets very tiresome very quickly. We’re supposed to see her transformation from dutiful wife to bad ass bitch, but I could not abide her in either of these forms.

The plot drags on mercilessly. Cole seems to have no talent for hooking a chapter cliffhanger, nor adeptly setting up a mystery. Amidst action, she likes to have her characters pontificate over their lives in incredibly dull inner monologues which last so long that we’re jarred when the plot starts back up again. Dialogue is rife with cliche, and Cole is obviously desperate to paint her characters as hard as nails.

And the characters! Holy fuck, how many characters does one woman need? Each criminal involved in executing the jump was described in detail - their pasts, their families, their crimes, their motivations and desires. I don’t care to count them, but they were fucking immeasurable and entirely superfluous. I couldn’t remember them all as they bled into each other, all just big bad guys who’d done things and been through some shit. Give me strength.

Finally, blessedly, the plot is wrapped up in what seems like a incredibly rushed and predictable finale. Of course, I welcomed this swift finish, but couldn’t help feeling some of the previous shite could have been condensed to make way for a more fulfilling end.

My final book of the year, and I’m blisteringly thankful to be sending Martina packing. 

Thursday, 19 December 2019

Book #94

Daphnis and Chloe by Longus

In this beautiful Ancient Greek tale, Daphnis and Chloe are the inexperienced goatherd and shepherd who must face pirates, rivals and the confusion of their own feelings to find true love.

This was a little heartwarmer.

Daphnis and Chloe are two young things who grow up together, work together as goatherd and shepherd respectively, and ultimately fall in love whilst having absolutely no notion of what love actually is. As their feelings change and intensify, we see their confusion and their fear. It’s utterly wholesome and gorgeous to read. Only a vast catalogue of comedic and tragic events spur them into their ultimate happy ending.

I really enjoyed this, it was very engaging and comfortable. The pastoral setting went hand in hand with the love story, Pan and the Nymphs helped the two lovers along, there was a shocking and unexpected appearance of some violent pirates, and we were delivered a nice wholesome finale.

It’s nice to be reminded that the Little Black Classics range still holds some value.

Monday, 16 December 2019

Book #93

Foreign to You by Jeremy Martin

The harmony between humans and fianna, a species of shape-shifting deer, begins to wither as racial tensions and deeply rooted resentment turns violent.

Ruthless hunter Finn Hail and prophesied liberator Adelaide may be heroes to their own species, but they are enemies to each other. With war on the horizon, the reluctant pair must team up to find the most elusive of prey: the god of the Forest.
As enemies press in from all sides, true intentions begin to show. For Finn to save the boy he cares for most, he might need to aim his gun at the very god he seeks. And Adelaide, with her festering hatred for mankind, will have to determine if peace holds true salvation for her people.

I really enjoyed the world Jeremy Martin presented to me here. Luscious greenery surrounds a small town, masking its inhabitants from the creatures in the forest. These creatures, in the form of deer, annually transform into humans and come to join the town’s residents for a festival-type celebration. Seems wholesome, yeah? No.

There are severe racial tensions between the humans and the deer-human hybrids - who are named fianna - within Martin’s world. He articulates this racism well, showing us the discrimination, the hate, the utter injustice and lack of reason found in mob mentality. It maddened me, as commentary on racism always maddens me, and Martin had me from the beginning.

The saltiness towards the fianna is not helped along by the fact that some of them experience problems when transforming, often finding themselves in a form halfway between deer and human. A terrifying sight, only made more frightening by them losing all rational thought whilst in this form, rampaging through the forest and town to terrorise and slash up anything they can find, human or otherwise. The town hunters work upon their strict shoot to kill orders when they come across a feral.

What I loved most here was a shift from the standard fantasy trope of boy meets girl. Boy certainly does meet girl, and although they maintain a complex relationship, there is never any notion of love, because boy loves another boy. Although this was written in very slight queer subtext, I welcomed it all the same, despite not particularly welcoming Martin’s desire to break my heart shortly after said queer subtext was established!

The plot is super fast-paced and there’s a load of action scenes, which I found confusing in places. Although written in multiple voice narrative, there wasn’t a great deal of differentiation between the voices, and often it became unclear who was narrating. Having said that, the prose itself was as flowery as the forest, and Martin truly wrote in a style which really reinforced his setting; descriptions of landscape, characters, and homes all prescribed to an other-worldly feel which felt gorgeous. 

Finally, I was really pleased with the finale. I don’t tend to enjoy novels which tie things up into a little bow; it’s unrealistic. Martin delivers his final punch in an odd, ethereal way, leaving us guessing at a multitude of questions unanswered. In some ways I can see a sequel happening; in other ways I can’t see where we’d go from here. He’s left so many questions in my mind.

Tell us more about the fianna, please, Jeremy. I’ll bring snacks.

Friday, 13 December 2019

Book #92

My life had stood a loaded gun by Emily Dickinson

This title features electrifying poems of isolation, beauty, death and eternity from a reclusive genius and one of America's greatest writers. 

I’ve previously made clear my feelings on poetry, and my ability to understand and appreciate it, but let me say again: I dislike it because I can rarely comprehend it.

In the interests of keeping this brief, and to prevent me from launching into another monologue on how I’m a complete doofus, and why oh why is there a vacuum in my brain where my love of poetry should be, here is my favourite poem from this collection:

I took my power in my hand
And went against the world;
‘Twas not so much as David had,
But I was twice as bold.

I aimed my pebble, but myself
Was all the one that fell.
Was it Goliath was too large,
Or only I too small?

Thursday, 12 December 2019

Book #91

The Moment Between by Gareth Frank

After four years of mourning, Doctor Hackett Metzger is determined to stop letting his wife's death control his life. He is finally beginning to live again, but his recovery leads to an unexpected fight for his own survival and startling revelations about what happens to all of us in The Moment Between.

Hackett, a brilliant neurologist, is a skeptic. He doesn't believe he will one day be reunited with Jean, or dwell with God in heaven. What he does believe is that he should have seen the warning signs of her heart attack; he should have saved her. He also cannot accept the possibility that his clinical study of near death experiences could prove the existence of a conscious afterlife. When Hackett falls for the mother of a patient, grief finally begins to fade. But he has no idea his new love is hiding her dangerous past. Will Hackett's damaged spirit endure another heartbreak? And, will he survive the treachery around him?
As life and research collide, the good doctor discovers that the secrets of love and death just may be part of the same fabric.

With The Moment Between, Frank has perfectly fused genres to create a tense, philosophical and psychological take on a typical thriller.

Exploring the story of Dr Hackett Metzger, who lost his wife four years ago, we see his grief and loneliness peppered through his love of medicine. Frank really knows his stuff here, and the protagonist is characterised as a wholesome gent who knows his craft. When a colleague becomes involved in a study focused on the moment between life and death, we’re given thought-provoking ponderings, and existential questions.

Although these deep and meaningful passages did hold my interest, my love here was far more attached to Frank’s characters, particularly our doctor’s new woman. She blazes into his life, creating chaos in the manner of a banshee, and although we know her secret, it’s utterly tantalising watching Hackett slowly begin to understand her motivations.

I really liked the contrast here between profundity and suspense. One moment Hackett is considering the complexities of life and death, and the next he’s embroiled in manipulative and dangerous fights with his new wife. I was struck with the knowledge that no matter how intelligent we are, no matter what discoveries we strike upon, real life will always find a way to drag us back .

This is an excellent debut novel; engaging, provocative, and original. 

Note: as a speaker (and lover) of Glaswegian slang, I’d like to direct you here so you can understand why the protagonist’s name is so very hilarious to me. 

Monday, 9 December 2019

Book #90

The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson

Dolphin adores her mother: she's got wonderful clothes, bright hair and vivid tattoos all over her body. She definitely lives a colourful life. Dolphin's older sister, Star, also loves her but is beginning to wonder if staying with a mum whose temper can be as flashy as her body-art is the best thing for the girls.

In true Wilson style, this is a book which will seem exciting and exotic to children, yet harrowing and dark for adults.

Marigold has two girls, Star and Dolphin, who have two different (yet both absent) dads. She presents herself to her daughters as a friend rather than a mum, resulting in the girls having to look after themselves much of the time. Marigold has mental health issues and alcoholism, tends to disappear overnight, and spends the majority of their money on frivolities.

Wilson deals with these themes delicately and masterfully. Presenting from the point of view of Dolphin, she paints a horribly bleak picture of loneliness, as she tries to come to terms with her mum’s behaviour, and tries to hold the family together. Marigold’s delusions, flights of fancy, and erratic choices prove difficult for a small girl to cope with, and we ultimately see how this progresses for the family.

I didn’t read this one when I was younger, but I know that I’d have been completely taken with Marigold - her dress sense, her tattoos, her dinners consisting only of cake and chocolate, her penchant for allowing the girls to do whatever they liked. I hope I’d have understood some of the underlying issues here, but I know Marigold would have captivated me.

As an adult, I was horrified to see two little girls exposed to the worst aspects of a mental health decline. For them to have no other adult to turn to, given the biased opinion of their teachers and neighbours, was utterly heartbreaking. I think Wilson handled this perfectly, with the girls feeling they needed no one outside of their family unit, only to be shown by the end of the novel that help is available and can work wonders.

This was released in 2000, and though we’ve come a long way in understanding mental illness since then, some of Wilson’s commentary here is still very relevant and important. The social bias in particular is still rife, and the reluctance to seek help very much still a thing. Although Marigold is worried about electric therapy and straitjackets, while our hesitation is mainly due to stigma, NHS waiting times, and a British abhorrence to showing weakness, the reluctance is still a huge factor for us almost twenty years after this novel was published.

A truly wonderful handling of a difficult topic - engaging, heartwarming, and bloody important. 

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Book #89

Is this a dagger which I see before me? by William Shakespeare

This collection of Shakespeare's soliloquies, including both old favourites and lesser-known pieces, shows him at his dazzling best.

This was a nice little collection of Shakespeare’s soliloquies. Although in a collection such as Little Black Classics, why has it taken until book 113 for a Shakey inclusion?

Although it’s a treat to read the most famous and evocative all at once, there was something quite jarring and disengaging about reading them in this way. Penguin provide short explanations before each, in order to give context, but of course they are far better consumed as part of the whole.

Despite that, I’ve now been incentivised to read some of Shakey’s plays which I had no interest in before, mainly the Henrys. Some of the passages were truly excellent, particularly those dealing with the characters’ mental states as a result of war, or the fight for the crown; I’m excited to delve further into these.

A decent addition to the range. Penguin haven’t totally missed the mark with this, but could have benefitted from a little more thought towards the context and inclusion. 

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Book #88

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

This swashbuckling epic of chivalry, honor, and derring-do, set in France during the 1620s, is richly populated with romantic heroes, unattainable heroines, kings, queens, cavaliers, and criminals in a whirl of adventure, espionage, conspiracy, murder, vengeance, love, scandal, and suspense. Dumas transforms minor historical figures into larger- than-life characters: the Comte d’Artagnan, an impetuous young man in pursuit of glory; the beguilingly evil seductress “Milady”; the powerful and devious Cardinal Richelieu; the weak King Louis XIII and his unhappy queen—and, of course, the three musketeers themselves, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, whose motto “all for one, one for all” has come to epitomize devoted friendship. With a plot that delivers stolen diamonds, masked balls, purloined letters, and, of course, great bouts of swordplay, The Three Musketeers is eternally entertaining.

I do love a good swashbuckle, and Dumas has really swashbuckled me into oblivion here. Combining action and romance, he paints a beautifully fictionalised picture of the king’s musketeers and the cardinal’s guards in the early 1600s.

That he takes such poetic license with historical events is wonderful. In true Romantic style, he shows us how wars were begun as a result of love, how duels were sought in a woman’s honour, and how chivalry and friendship were the unerring catalysts of danger.

His prose is gorgeous and engaging, his mysteries engrossing, his characters glorious. He builds his story and his people slowly, gradually revealing both the main plotline and the players who will carry this out. The relationship between the four musketeers was executed perfectly, really displaying what can be gained by humanity and kindness. The villain is given to us exquisitely; she is frightening in a contrastingly non-violent manner, far more scheming and intelligent than anyone else on the board.

I truly didn’t expect to love this as much as I did, and as my first Dumas, I’m delighted to have finally read it.