Monday, 30 March 2020

Book #24

Lot No 249 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

From the master of the detective story and creator of Sherlock Holmes, the first ever tale to feature a supernatural Egyptian mummy.
This is an odd little tale of three Victorian students and an Egyptian mummy bought as Lot 249 at auction. As one of the three considers himself an aficionado of Eastern cultures, he becomes immersed in studying the mummy, often locking himself in his room at night. Soon, strange sounds are heard from his room, and he is found in an unconscious state. Afterwards, various attacks begin to happen on the streets. Could it be … the mummy?!?!?!

Although I enjoyed this, there was a severe lack of suspense considering the premise of the plot. Despite being a horror, there was nothing particularly ghastly, and I felt as though I were just coasting along with the story. No shock, no tremor, no intrigue. 

There is something to be said about Victorian fascination with Egypt (or, quite fantastically, ‘Egyptomania’). It’s something I hadn’t previously realised existed, but the idea of the Victorians learning of a new culture, becoming obsessed with it, and incorporating it into its own arts and literature, is very interesting. My commentary on that probably isn’t best placed here.

I expected more from the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and in fact I realised partway through that I’ve never read a Doyle story that hasn’t been part of the Holmes canon. A worthwhile read if you have a spare hour, but I’m glad this remained a short story. 

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Book #23

Killer Soul Mate by Ken Hicks and Anne Rothman-Hicks

Jane Larson is back, and trouble abounds on New York’s Upper East Side! 

A new client, Jasmine, hires Jane to undo the terms of a matrimonial agreement with her ex-husband, the owner of a prosperous hedge fund who does not like to lose. At the same time, Jane’s landlord is working to evict her from the storefront law office where her mother had practiced for many years, and Jane is forced to fight to save her mother’s legacy. However, it seems there is no way she can win. 
All too soon, the bodies begin to pile up and Jane has to figure out who is responsible before she becomes one of the victims. Meanwhile, a guy named Gary is trying to worm his way into her life, and, even though she thinks he is much too young for he, she starts to fall for him. The problem is that he has a habit of showing up where the murders occur. Can she trust him? 

I do love a Jane Larson mystery. Ken Hicks asked me to read Weave a Murderous Web back in 2018, and I really loved getting to know Jane and being propelled along in her hectic lawyer lifestyle, particularly when she becomes embroiled in some seemingly unsolvable crimes. 

Although, admittedly, I don’t have the best memory, I don’t remember being quite as absorbed in Weave a Murderous Web as I was in Killer Soul Mate - I can only assume the author power couple are getting better and better.

Killer Soul Mate absorbed every moment of my time, so it’s a damn good job the world’s in lockdown. The plot is so wonderfully engaging, with many plot threads happening at once, just to finally come together in the end. The characters are beautifully crafted, intriguing, and set up to make you entirely desperate to hear more.

The setting of gritty New York really appeals to the plot. The mazes of streets, the crazy traffic, a dodgy character on every corner; both author’s knowledge of the city rendered their words utterly and completely perfect.

There was no predictability here. I usually like to think of myself as a bit of an amateur detective when reading mystery novels, but there was nothing here I could guess at. The twists shocked me, and I was consumed by the tiny clues and hints peppered throughout the pages.

I hadn’t realised there were a few more Jane Larson stories I hadn’t discovered yet, so those will be my next port of call when I’m looking for a captivating mystery novel. 

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Book #22

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

When she was only twenty-three, Carson McCullers’s first novel created a literary sensation. She was very special, one of America’s superlative writers who conjures up a vision of existence as terrible as it is real, who takes us on shattering voyages into the depths of the spiritual isolation that underlies the human condition. This novel is the work of a supreme artist, Carson McCullers’s enduring masterpiece. The heroine is the strange young girl, Mick Kelly. The setting is a small Southern town, the cosmos universal and eternal. The characters are the damned, the voiceless, the rejected. Some fight their loneliness with violence and depravity, some with sex or drink, and some— like Mick— with a quiet, intensely personal search for beauty.

This is a novel of misunderstanding.

A certain kind of hopelessness seeps through the pages here. McCullers makes clear the poverty of the town, the lack of prospects for its inhabitants, and the effects racism and capitalism has on both of these things. As the novel is set in the South in the 1930s, there’s a lot of oppression to explore, and a lot of it heartbreaking and furious.

Our protagonist, John Singer, is deaf-mute. He communicates by writing messages, and is able to lip read. His silence gives him a calm, understanding aura, which encourages people to gravitate towards him. We meet four characters in particular who take comfort in having Singer as a friend, and who proceed in making him into exactly who they want him to be. As he listens, yet rarely responds, the characters feel he understands and agrees with them. 

It’s a very important note on how we see people as we want to see them, and shape them in our minds into exactly what we need at that moment in time. Whether it’s someone to understand, someone to admire, even someone to hate, we create perceptions of people which don’t necessarily reflect the whole of the person we’re perceiving. It’s everyone misunderstanding everything, all at once.

McCullers shows us how this behaviour drastically impacts the relationships in the novel. Although there is very little plot, everything revolves around the four characters and their relationships with John Singer. It’s a brutal look at how we love and behave, and it’s done masterfully.

Not only do the characters misunderstand Singer, but they frequently misunderstand each other. This can be in the form of two men, one black and one white, who have read and respect Marxist theory, they cannot see the other’s agenda, nor their aspirations on mobilising change. It can be in the form of a young girl who believes an older restaurant proprietor hates her, but really he holds a deep unexplainable love for it. Or it’s in the form of a daughter who cannot see her father just really wanted her to open her eyes.

This novel has crumpled my heart, has taught me moral messages, has made me examine my own behaviour in life, and has, ultimately, left me awe-struck. Another great American novel. 

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Book #21

The Watch List by Joseph Mitcham

68 dead and nearly 300 injured in a hostile vehicle and bomb attack on a community festival in Birmingham, the country is in shock. 
Battling the mental turmoil of the aftermath, Alex, a former Army communications specialist, stumbles across the UK Terror Watch List - he cannot resist the challenge of stealing the list from under the nose of his contract supervisor, Lucy Butler, a razor sharp and headstrong Intelligence Corps corporal with big ambitions. 
Wrestling with his conscience and the ethics of tackling unconvicted suspects, Alex enlists the help of famed former UK Special Forces Warrant Officer, Craig Medhurst. Alex struggles to win the respect of Craig’s core team, but together they hatch a daring plan to act on their selected targets. 
Can Alex use his charm to persuade Corporal Butler to join them? 

This isn’t my usual genre, so I wasn’t too sure what to expect from Mitcham, but I found myself propelled along in an engaging tale of terrorism, community, and some serious ex-soldiers.

Alex spends his post-Army time in IT solutions, and one day finds himself working a one-off job for the Intelligence Corps. As he inadvertently comes across the UK terrorist watch list, he’s forced to make quick decisions on whether to make a copy, and then what to do with it.

It’s a real eye opener into a world many of us are utterly oblivious to. There’s a real sense of the behaviours and thought-processes never leaving those who have served; a lot of the narrative is knowledgeable and insightful, and has some really interesting commentary on how being in the forces can affect someone.

My favourite chapter in the novel was the first one. Mitcham begins his novel beautifully contrasting calm with chaos, innocent with evil. It was truly masterful and completely pulled me in. 

The story itself is packed full of pace and tension as Alex and his team take action on the list of dangerous individuals in their hands. There are some serious moralistic and ethical implications here and Mitcham explores them well.

An excellent novel for someone who’s interested in the forces, the people who serve, and what could happen if you stole a confidential document from the Security Service. 

Friday, 13 March 2020

Book #20

Flush by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf's delightful biography of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning's spaniel, which asks what it means to be human - and to be dog.

Elizabeth Barrett was a Victorian poet with a gorgeous little cocker spaniel called Flush. I was curious about Woolf’s decision to write his biography, and found this gorgeous quote from one of her letters to Lady Ottoline Morrell: ‘I was so tired after the Waves, that I lay in the garden and read the Browning love letters, and the figure of their dog made me laugh so I couldn’t resist making him a Life’.. I mean, that’s as good a reason as any.

Flush is a city dog, raised in the streets of London where all dogs must be kept on chains. He learns of aristocracy (even amongst dogs), and becomes very intuitive to human emotion. He adopts a beautiful synchronicity with his mistress, and absorbs her moods as his own. Woolf does well to characterise him as an almost-human, feeding us his human-like feelings, and then describing his very dog-like motivations, such as grass under his paws, or the smells he finds glorious.

Woolf makes a lot of comments here on class. Flush is well-bred, with all the components required to be a dog of high-standing. He is originally quite vain and pompous, but slowly comes to realise through the biography that there is nothing much defining him from other, dirtier, or crossbred dogs.

It was a beautiful change to read of the life of a dog, and the life of humans through the eyes of a dog. Seeing his confusion and emotional changes when things happen which he couldn’t quite understand, made me think deeply about how we are seen by these gorgeous creatures. 

Thursday, 12 March 2020

Book #19

Limbo by Thiago d’Evecque

The fate of the world hinges on a forsaken spirit, a mad god in a sword, and 12 mythological beings.

A forsaken spirit is awakened and ordered to dispatch 12 souls back to Earth to prevent the apocalypse. Many don't take kindly to the return. Accompanied by an imprisoned mad god, the spirit must compel them.
Each of the 12 unlocks a piece of the forsaken spirit's true identity. Memories unfold and past wounds bleed again.
The journey will reveal buried truths about gods, angels, humanity, and the forsaken spirit itself.

Imagine a world, very much like our world is now. A world which is such a mess with hate and fear that the only solution is to invoke a spirit of the underworld to sort it all out. To collect twelve souls of Limbo’s finest and bravest inhabitants, and, armed with a sword holding a malevolent god, send them back upstairs to put things right. Imagine the journey that spirit would go on as they meet these legendary souls and convince them to return.

That story is the story d’Evecque has given us, and it is quite simply something else. The premise is so unique, so intriguing, and he carries it out with utter brilliance. He seemed to have a second sight into my brain as the story ticked along, everything kept me wanting more, everything compelled me to continue reading. A true work of marvel.

My favourite part of the story were the souls themselves. All twelve differed unimaginably, but d’Evecque was careful to reinforce the reasons why they were chosen - courage, reason, love - all twelve had something unique about them which would heal the human condition. Amazingly, wonderfully, gorgeously, all twelve were beings from the books of history; the stuff of legend. I learned so much, and d’Evecque’s research here has been impeccable.

What happens when the souls reach earth must be a story for another time, and it simply didn’t matter, because the thread of the story was focused on the spirit. With originally no idea of who they are, or why they are carrying out this mission, it proceeds in its gathering of souls. After each one returns to earth, memories flood back to the spirit, and slowly a picture of its identity begins to form. The ultimate reveal was done beautifully, and with pleasant surprise. I had no idea whatsoever.

A stunning work of legend, theology, rebellion, and the underworld. I’m very grateful to have been asked to review this.

Saturday, 7 March 2020

Book #18

Face It by Debbie Harry

‘I was saying things in songs that female singers didn’t really say back then. I wasn’t submissive or begging him to come back, I was kicking his ass, kicking him out, kicking my own ass too. My Blondie character was an inflatable doll but with a dark, provocative, aggressive side. I was playing it up, yet I was very serious.’

I’m very rarely interested in any type of autobiography. There’s something to be said about the phrase ‘never meet your heroes’, and to me an autobiography is a type of meeting; a bare all. And yet, ever since I was around twelve years old and heard Maria for the first time on the radio, Debbie Harry has been one of my heroes.

She’s a phenomenon, a powerhouse, a woman at the beginning of punk, shaping it into something new and visceral. She’s stunning, a badass, absolutely everything you could ever dream to be. I had to read her memoirs, and learn as much as I could.

I did enjoy it. I loved finding out small details, and reading of mad events that could probably only happen in Debbie’s era of emergence. It started off wonderfully, as Debbie describes her childhood, her small town escape, her awe and wonder as she first falls in love with New York.

Then, it dips. Debbie chooses to describe things factually rather than emotionally, and we’re presented with a bombardment of places, names (a lot of fucking names), and moments in time. There’s very little description of how she felt, how things impacted her, or her motivations and reactions. She flicks around in time, shadowing forwards and backwards, rather than sticking to more of a linear narrative which would’ve worked better as we tried to keep apace with these thousands of happenings and constant introductions to people.

Her saving grace, and the reason I’m still glad I have the book, are the photographs and fan art peppered throughout; they really are something to behold. She tells us of keeping all fan art she’s given, and some of it is spellbinding. To have someone love you so entirely that they sit down and recreate your face on paper must be a wonderful accolade.

Still a phenomenon, still a dream, maybe just not great at weaving her thoughts into an engaging piece. 

Thursday, 5 March 2020

Book #17

Poseidon’s Trident by A.P. Mobley

After stealing Hades’s Helm of Darkness and narrowly escaping the Underworld, Andy and Zoey are ready to embark on the second quest they must complete before they’re prepared to lead a war on the gods—that is, traveling to Poseidon’s undersea palace and stealing the Sea God’s legendary Trident. 

Having no idea how to get there, the teens and their friends travel to the lair of the all-knowing Fates and ask for a clue, soon discovering the only person who can help them is a Titan named Prometheus who’s been imprisoned by Zeus. The problem? He won’t help unless the group manages to free him of his seemingly unbreakable chains. 

Andy and Zoey will have to find a way to free Prometheus as they battle enemy demigods and nightmarish creatures of myth—all while they begin to discover the secrets of their past.

I am so invested in this series.

After discovering in book one that two mere mortals had been chosen to battle and defeat the Greek gods in order to save humanity, I was utterly hooked. Once they had successfully obtained the first item to aid them in the battle, the Helm of Darkness, I was shaken. Now that I’ve just witnessed their journey to steal their second item, Poseidon’s Trident, no less, I am completely and irrevocably devoted to this quest and everyone involved.

Mobley’s writing just gets better and better. Book one saw her building this world of gods and mortals; book two sees her elaborating, exploring, and defining absolutely everything. Her craft is glorious, seeing the gods brought into reality in a skilful and relatable way is divine, and her introduction of new characters and species is a complete masterstroke. Prometheus, anyone?

I really wanted to settle in and enjoy this, but I found myself racing through it, desperate to find out what happens next. There’s a lot of action, a lot of violence, but Mobley peppers this through important development and dialogue scenes. Her pace is engaging, and perfect; I just wanted to keep reading until my eyes had fallen out.

There are lots of wonderful messages here about good and evil, love and hate, doing what’s right against doing what’s safe, choosing our paths without being afraid of deviating from them, and most of all, a reinforcement of the power of friendship and determination. What I love most is Mobley’s ability to humanise everything - a Cyclops who gobbles people up as a snack just wants his freedom, a sea monster sent to kill just wants some respect, one of the hero mortals is just worried the other hero mortal might think she’s a slut, a Titan god wants to do his best for his family. It’s gorgeous. 

My only mild criticism here would be that I found the novel quite difficult to get into, purely because I was reaching to remember what had happened in the first book. There was some definite confusion on my part (very possibly due to my untrustworthy memory, and perhaps didn’t affect anyone else), but this didn’t take long to dissipate, and everything soon came flooding back. This is definitely a series which is best read back to back, but I don’t have that luxury as I impatiently wait for Mobley to write the final instalment. Maybe some more subtle reminders of where we came from would’ve helped.

Such a wonderful, wonderful series with impossible plot made possible, and some beautifully complex and intriguing characters. I am in Mobley’s hands for book three.

Sunday, 1 March 2020

Book #16

Only Dull People Are Brilliant at Breakfast by Oscar Wilde

Wilde's celebrated witticisms on the dangers of sincerity, duplicitous biographers, the stupidity of the English - and his own genius.

There can be no denying Wilde was a man of massive intellect who had a lot to say. As a persecuted individual with a discerning eye, his thoughts are important and interesting even today. Let me preface this by saying I am interested in what Wilde has to say.

However, this has to be among some of Penguin’s most idiotic ideas for the Little Black Classics range. Fifty pages of short quotes from the man himself; back to back quotes with no context, coming at you as though fired from an automatic rifle.

It’s impossible to engage. It’s impossible to take in. You read one quote and you’re on to the next one without any time to reflect. The format simply isn’t enjoyable in the slightest.

Google ‘Oscar Wilde quotes’ and save yourself a quid. 

Book #15

The Letter by Sean-Paul Thomas

When a quirky, anti-social, young woman with a phobia of other people, falls for her handsome new neighbor in the tenement block of flats where she lives, it is left to her new and only friend, an eleven-year-old girl, to play matchmaker, in this black-humored, adult tale. 

Sarah is an incredibly antisocial loner, who despises other people, actively avoids any and all interaction with them. When I read this quote - Christ, she hated whistlers. Disrespectful folk that always tried to spread their pretentious joyful mood onto others by invading their peace and quiet and ear space with their annoying tunes. - I really thought I had found a kindred spirit.

Thomas soon makes it clear, however, that Sarah’s routines and methods are far from healthy, and that something isn’t quite right. His explanation for her behaviour is understandable, yet so sad. We immediately feel drawn to this tragic heroine, and begin to hope for her.

I found it strange that, despite wanting Sarah to recognise she needs some help, Thomas made me creep along hallways with her, heart in my mouth, desperation rife to ensure we met no one on those stealth missions. He really gets us inside Sarah’s head and let us understand it. It was masterful.

When Sarah notices a handsome new neighbour in her building, she turns into even more of a nervous wreck (and going by the description of this guy, I think we all would). She becomes obsessive, and with the help of strange little girl who hangs about the secret stairwell (which is Sarah’s route of choice for stealth missions), she writes handsome stranger a letter.

I thought this little story was excellent. The journey we go on with Sarah is fraught with obstacles, yet by the time we reach the end we can see a light of hope for her. Again, my only criticism comes from a place of greed - I loved this, and I needed more.

Saturday, 29 February 2020

Book #14

Much Ado About Mean Girls by Ian Doescher

Power struggles. Bitter rivalries. Jealousy. Betrayals. Star-crossed lovers. When you consider all these plot points, it's pretty surprising William Shakespeare didn't write Mean Girls. But now fans can treat themselves to the epic drama--and heroic hilarity--of the classic teen comedy rendered with the wit, flair, and iambic pentameter of the Bard. 

It’s amazing how gifts can show you how much you are seen. I love Shakespeare, and I love Mean Girls, but I didn’t know how much I was looking for a crossover of the two. My friend knew, and it’s these types of friends you need to hold on to.

Doescher does an excellent job of bringing the Plastics to life as though he were the Bard. It’s interesting to note how many Shakespearean norms are actually in the film, most notably the asides and extended metaphors.

I just had so much fun with this. Doescher makes the play easy to imagine on stage (can someone please arrange for this to happen?), and ensures Shakespeare is adapted to the modern reader whilst still being faithful to old Will. And all those famous lines transformed into words that definitely, absolutely, could’ve been spoken in one of his plays? So fetch.

Student 22: 
Would that we could be friends, as we have been
Back, once upon a time, in middle school.
Would that I could create a luscious cake,
Whose recipe doth call for smiles and rainbows,
Which we would feast upon, and happy me.
She doth not even go here!

Mean Girls in iambic pentameter. I honestly could not ask for anything more.

Friday, 28 February 2020

Book #13

The Comedian by Sean-Paul Thomas

Bill, an aging world-famous comedian, and his PA daughter arrive in Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival to receive his lifetime achievement award. Bill hasn’t been in the city for well over 40 years though and is soon haunted by memories of his wild and adventurous past there - including ghostly visions from a beautiful, but fiery and feisty, old Scottish girlfriend. 
But why are they are no longer together and what actually happened to his first real love all those years ago? 
This story has broken my heart in a number of ways.

Bill Jones, originally from Edinburgh, is an incredibly famous comedian with his own US talk show. Known the world over, he returns to Edinburgh to accept a lifetime achievement award. On his arrival, and during his subsequent wanderings through his old haunts, his past demons return to plague him, and we see why he left Edinburgh in the first place.

There really is something to be said about how a place, even an entire city, can evoke memories we think we’ve long forgotten. A place can also resurrect long beaten habits, and trigger a relapse into old and dangerous routines. Bill’s repressed memories of Edinburgh were painful, and his Scottish routines too tempting to neglect.

Thomas paints all of this beautifully; Bill’s squeaky clean life of fame contrasts well with Edinburgh’s depravity, and yet neither life can be pinpointed as the better one. It seemed to me that Bill wasn’t happy in either of these worlds, and that is the most heartbreaking part.

I would’ve loved for this to have been longer. Bill’s life both pre and post fame was worthy of a deeper exploration and Thomas has created a stellar character in him. Despite part of me feeling as though Thomas left the story vague to allow us to apply our own inferences, part of me also felt there was much much more to be told, and although the ending shocked me, I was more shocked that I had run out of book.

Thomas is insanely talented at his craft, and this is no exception. I really enjoyed My Sister and I a couple of years ago, and I’m glad I have some more of his work left to enjoy very soon.

Thursday, 27 February 2020

Book #12

White Nights by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Two devastating Russian stories of solitude, unrequited love, and depravity from beyond the grave.

In White Nights, Dostoyevsky tells us of a dreamer, a loner, a man so used to his own imagination, that he becomes frightened and awkward when faced with true reality. We’re shown how such a man can become very miserable and alone, and how a chance encounter can give a man like this an entirely unbridled hope.

As always, Dostoyevsky really tears strips from the reader’s skin with his incorrigible insight into the human mind, and with his cruel plot direction. It’s almost as though he can see right through a human skull; the things he describes and undoubtedly understands about our psyche are impressive as well as frightening. He knows what he does to us with his plot decisions; he’s a ruthless genius of a man.

White Nights explores alienation, unrequited love, and the pain which arrives when a light of hope is extinguished. It’s beautiful and brutal all at once.

This edition also contained Botok, which I found both hilarious and unsettling. Attending a funeral, our protagonist suddenly discovers he can hear the voices of the dead from beneath the ground. They speak candidly and satirically about politics and aristocracy. It’s a quick jab at both of these things from Dostoyevsky, and although it’s a fun read, his commentary is clear. I would’ve liked this one to be longer, and for our protagonist to do what he aspires to, which is visit the graves of those from different classes - what would they have said?

A definite worthwhile inclusion in the Little Black Classics range - not many of them are. White Nights is 118th in the series and oh, faithful readers, I have almost completed this challenge.

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Book #11

Transfer from Alcatraz by Eddie Owens

The Private Eye: Caitlin “Red” Raeburn – ex-cop, mom, art lover and owner of the Raeburn Detective agency.
The Client: “I was involved in the deaths of eight men over fifty years ago.” Red is asked to find the evidence that will prove the historic events occurred.
The San Francisco 69ers: Red is assisted by her friends in the only LGBT motorcycle club in the world.
The Case: What seems like a routine case of background research soon turns into an action-packed search for the truth.
Faced with a warning to let the past stay buried, Red vows to follow her heart and find justice for the dead. 

I loved this new one from Owens.

Red is a private detective in San Francisco. Her most recent client is a kindly old gentleman who tells her he used to be the deputy warden in Alcatraz. He’s writing a book about his experiences, which contains some serious allegations of what went on there in the sixties. He understands his story is farfetched (to put it fucking mildly), and wants Red to help him find evidence to prove his claims. What follows is a plot full of madness, corruption, and shock after shock.

The world of private detection Owens gives us is thrilling. Add in an LGBT biker club full of some seriously serious people, a Homeland Security boyfriend who knows his shit, and a genius teenager on the autistic spectrum, and we honestly have one hell of a story.

With something constantly happening, the pace is absolutely spot on, and I quite honestly didn’t see any of the twists coming. I was carried along as though I were in the jaws of a beast, information persistently piercing my skull like teeth; all I could do was let it carry me away, and I loved it.

Owens’ characters, although not intensely explored, are all wonderful in their own way. He exposes their sores and shows us their motivations, making us understand and detest them all at once. I particularly loved all of the MC, and wanted to dig deeper into their backstories, as although what Owens did give us was gorgeous, I wanted much much more in my greed.

I’m so glad Owens considered me again for a review, and I can only hope (pray, beg) he writes another Red story so I can inhale it as deeply as I have this one. Thank you.

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Book #10

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Wise, funny, and heartbreaking, Persepolis is Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. In powerful black-and-white comic strip images, Satrapi tells the story of her life in Tehran from ages six to fourteen, years that saw the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, and the devastating effects of war with Iraq. The intelligent and outspoken only child of committed Marxists and the great-granddaughter of one of Iran’s last emperors, Marjane bears witness to a childhood uniquely entwined with the history of her country.

I jumped into this having only a shred of knowledge on Iran and the revolution. I thought my general political ignorance would leave me out of sorts here, confused and humiliated. It wasn’t so; Satrapi has painted an excellent depiction of the regime, giving us some political frames of reference, but focusing mainly on what was important - the people affected.

Growing up as the regime was taking hold, Satrapi witnessed and experienced a number of things you’d never wish on a young girl. We see how these events shape her and her relationships with others, her propensity for rebellion never wavering. She has truly created a masterpiece in black and white, showing fear and joy juxtaposed within her panels.

She begins as an easily influenced child, and we see her grow into a well-informed and knowledgable woman, self-aware and assured, completely secure in her aspirations and desires. The journey we take with her to get there is something I can’t put into words; really, I am too much of a simpleton to even attempt it.

Satrapi makes sure to reinforce that her family was far from poverty stricken, and were quite wealthy in comparison to others at the time. The horrors she experienced must be somewhat diluted in contrast to those of her poorer neighbours, and she’s beautiful enough to make this clear, a constant shadow looming behind her pictures and words.

I’ve taken something quite stark and humbling away from this, and that is that I am very privileged never to have seen war. I’ve seen it on television, from afar, from my comfortable Western home where no one wants to bomb us, and no one wants to arrest me for having a few wisps of hair showing. Satrapi has shown me the true face of war, and yet I can still only imagine. It’s not quite so much a feeling of being lucky, as a feeling of being in an incredibly revered position in the world.

A wonderfully raw memoir which I can’t quite put into words, only urge others to read.

Friday, 21 February 2020

Book #09

Nevada by Imogen Binnie

Nevada is the darkly comedic story of Maria Griffiths, a young trans woman living in New York City and trying to stay true to her punk values while working retail. When she finds out her girlfriend has lied to her, the world she thought she'd carefully built for herself begins to unravel, and Maria sets out on a journey that will most certainly change her forever.

Maria Griffiths is a fucking powerhouse. Punk rock and trans, she lets us view her life in New York City through her eyes. Maria is everything I look for in a person - a rebel, a bookseller, a purveyor of attitude, and a diehard supporter of Courtney Love. 

As we sink deeper into Maria’s inner torments, it quickly becomes apparent just how much of an impact her transition has had on her life, and how she has some unresolved issues she needs to work out. After she is dumped by her girlfriend and fired from her job in quick succession, Maria decides to escape. Gloriously, we’re able to go on this journey with her.

Maria tells us things about being trans which you can only hear directly from the lips of a trans person. Some of these things were heartbreaking, and perfectly understandable. Some of these things were completely triumphant, and had me bursting with joy. Some of these things I’d never thought of, and was embarrassed to admit that to myself. 

For example, I knew as a cis woman that society has certain criteria to which I should aspire. People have an idea of what a woman is, and how I should conform to that. Similarly, but somewhat worse, there are also definitions of how trans women should look and behave. These definitions are not the same as those cis women are forced into. The worst of these, in my opinion, is that if a trans woman is attracted to women, she can’t possibly be trans, just a seriously perverted man. These standards are simply ridiculous, and it’s incredibly enlightening to now be aware of them.

I also hadn’t considered the loss of male privilege. White men are born with this, don’t really realise they have it, and profit from it daily. Transitioning robs you of this. You are no longer within a class of people who are culturally protected by the world. You’re catapulted into a subculture and forced to find your way through it without your previously relied on privilege. On top of everything else involved in transitioning, I can’t imagine how difficult that must be.

Even if you aren’t reading this story to learn (although you should be), this is an utterly gorgeous book. Binnie’s writing style is almost as raw and punk rock as Maria herself, and I was so desperately engaged with the plot. Her characters are real as hell, and everything is just so beautifully put together.

A powerful, important masterpiece for Binnie, and one I’d recommend to anyone who wants (or needs) to learn about how our trans friends might feel. This knowledge can only allow us to be better allies. Read this.

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Book #08

Mastermind by Steven Kelliher

Karna was just like any other comic book fan. He dreamed of fighting alongside colorful heroes and taking down dastardly villains. In Titan Online, the most popular VR MMORPG going, he finally got the chance to live out his cape-donning fantasies.

That is, right up until he was killed by the game’s number one ‘hero’. A man who serves only himself in a constant grind for money, fame and adoration. Forced to start from scratch due the harsh game mechanics, Karna finds a new mission; bringing balance back to Titan Online.
With a strange new power and some unlikely allies, Karna hatches a plan to save the game, and get a bit of revenge in the process.
When the heroes can’t be trusted, it’s up to the villains to save the (virtual) world. 

I really enjoy these LitRPG books. There’s a lot they offer that other genres just can’t cater for, such as contrasting online/offline lives (geek-like at home, god-like in game), digital relationships, the impact of online events to the offline self, even the morals involved in killing other players; the opportunities are endless, and it’s completely glorious.

Kelliher’s construction here is worthwhile of his genre. Rather than an every man for himself melee of characters, he opts for a heroes vs. villain style for Titan Online. This easily bolsters the superhero angle he’s portraying, and adds an immediate tension to the game by identifying two warring camps. That our protagonist himself is a villain (gasp!) seeking vengeance on a hero (swoon!), is quite honestly sublime. I know I’m sick of heroes, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

The beauty here for me was in the reasons for the revenge, and the questions this uprooted. Are all heroes inherently good? Should we worship and adore them as such? Or are heroes on a dangerously delicate precipice, balancing precariously between goodness and corruption? If we worship them, surely they can take advantage of this and use our adoration to get away with all sorts? A few real life ‘celebrities’ spring to mind just as I type this.

And god, aren’t villains just a repressed and misunderstood race? Do we want to see them rise up from the gloom and defeat the white-toothed perfect heroes who all the world has placed on a shiny pedestal? I can only speak for this girl, and this girl really, really does. There’s something special here about rising up against what you know to be wrong, about being small yet victorious, about people coming together to take down the man. I loved it.

My only (tiny) criticism is Kelliher’s intense focus on the in-game plot lines. I’d have loved to have found out more about Karna the human; childhood, friendships, loves and hates, anything. Why does he prefer the virtual world to the real one? What happened to you Karna?!

I really did like this. Kelliher is a great storyteller with excellent pace and style. I was delighted at the subtle hint at a sequel towards the end, please inject this in my veins once available. Such a good LitRPG that I’m off to pick up a controller. 

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Book #07

The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

Stephen is an ideal child of aristocratic parents—a fencer, a horse rider and a keen scholar. Stephen grows to be a war hero, a bestselling writer and a loyal, protective lover. But Stephen is a woman, and her lovers are women. As her ambitions drive her, and society confines her, Stephen is forced into desperate actions.
In the early twentieth century, an aristocratic couple is expecting a child. Father is convinced the baby will be male, so decides upon the name Stephen. Baby arrives; surprise! It’s a girl. Do we christen her with a female name? Hell no, we chose Stephen, so Stephen she shall be. Just how fitting that name would be was unknown to them at the time, but oh the implications of it keep us wondering. What a gorgeous little gem this book is.

The story spans Stephen’s life from birth into her thirties. Often regarded as a strange (queer) child, she mystifies and confuses her peers and neighbours. She has an innate hatred for feminine clothing and hobbies, preferring instead to wear trousers (mostly due to the handy pockets, ”Her legs felt so free and comfortable in breeches; she adored pockets, too, and these were forbidden—at least really adequate pockets.” - still a frustration), practice fencing, and go hunting with her father.

When Stephen, as a pre-teen, develops strong feelings for one of the maids, quite who Stephen is becomes a bit clearer to us as readers, but not necessarily to Stephen. She knows she’s not like other people, but can’t understand why. What follows is a gorgeous account of coming to terms to oneself, learning the trials involved in love, and overcoming a world which doesn’t seem to want to accept you.

This book was classed as obscene, and banned in 1928. It felt strange to be reading words written in the same classic style I’m used to, and yet having these words depict issues which feel a lot more modern. Very few classic novels deal with these types of themes, and it was a truly incredible experience reading of them. I think it’s easy to forget our LGBT brothers and sisters of times gone by, and it’s difficult to imagine the added stress and oppression that came with a stiff upper lipped society. Hall writes candidly of loving openly, and being persecuted for it, of wanting the same rights as others, but being denied them, of being the same, and yet treated so differently. It’s a heartbreaking account of LGBT lives in the 1920s, and an important one to learn. 

Despite Stephen’s masculine name, mannerisms, and clothing, she was and remained, female. Had she been born a man, she could have had everything she wanted with little to no obstacle. Simply due to her birth gender, and attraction to women, she was denied almost everything her heart truly needed, and this is the biggest heartbreak.

I’m so glad I picked this up. Hall’s commentary is so raw, it’s utterly glorious, and she should be respected for what she was - an LGBT trailblazer in an age of scandal, shock, and narrow-mindedness.

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Book #06

The Lifted Veil by George Eliot

In this chilling novella of Victorian horror, George Eliot explores clairvoyance, fate, and the possibility of life after death.

I’ve never been a lover of Eliot’s writing style, and this offering from Penguin was a lovely reminder of why this is. 

The Lifted Veil read like a druggy nightmare. Her eloquent meandering sentences, her insufferable characters, and the banal haziness of it all was far too much for me to endure and remain smiling.

The second inclusion, Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, made some astute points, but woefully emitted beams of petulance and self-assertion to such an extent that I felt even less endeared to Eliot, and I continue to maintain that Victorian chick-lit is good.

I’ve tried and failed to tackle Middlemarch on many occasions, and after The Lifted Veil, I feel I’ll never attempt it again.