Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Book #53

This Little Family by Inès Bayard

Life is going well for Marie. She and her husband, Laurent, live a comfortable life in a large apartment in the eleventh arrondissement in Paris. Laurent has a good job at a big law firm and Marie enjoys her work at a bank, where she feels appreciated by her clients and colleagues.
Comfortable and secure, and ready for family life, the couple begin to try for a baby. But not long afterwards Marie experiences a shocking encounter which threatens to derail their plans completely, and her world slowly starts to fall apart.
Less than two years later, the family’s apartment is cordoned off by police tape as forensic officers examine a horrific scene in the family apartment. Three bodies around a dining table. Marie, Laurent and their little toddler, Thomas, in his high chair. All three of them have been poisoned by Marie.

We open with a scene of devastation - Marie has killed her husband, her infant son, and herself; poisoned them all at the dinner table. Marie sits in her chair ramrod straight, the baby’s head on his plate, the husband on the floor. Why would a loving wife and mother do such a thing to her family?

Soon, we are pushed backwards through time to see the lead up to this tragic event, and how Marie came to take this decision. It’s harrowing, it’s traumatic, and it’s so so dark. Bayard makes some excellent commentary, and poses subtle questions to the reader on moral issues, social expectation, and how others accept us.

Bayard explores what makes women women; not the male ideal, but the female experience and independence of choice. She shows us Marie’s persona and power being stripped away from her, and makes some stunning comments on pregnancy, and how an unborn baby is often, if not always, placed in a higher position of priority than the mother, as though she were merely a walking womb.

It’s a difficult read, made so by Bayard’s raw and stark writing style. Despite the obvious emotion affecting each of the characters, we read a stark, factual account of events. It mirrors Marie’s mental state, that simplistic, monochromatic outlook on life and tragedy that can happen after trauma. This is how things are, and this is what I must do, this is what I will do. It only adds to the horror.

A truly awful yet important tale of consequence and chaos converging after trauma. It spoke to me as a woman, left me numb, and reminded me of the importance of speaking out, no matter what people may think.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

Book #52

The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky by Ken Dornstein

In this stunning, emotionally charged memoir, Dornstein pens a heartbreaking but profoundly hopeful book about finding beauty in the midst of tragedy. Dornstein weaves his own coming-of-age story with that of his brother David, who was killed in the 1988 crash of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

This a book filled with grief. In 1988, Ken Dornstein’s brother, David, died in the plane crash over Lockerbie. An awful bombing, with awful consequences, and this has, naturally, impacted Ken’s life forever.

I picked up this book because Lockerbie was one of those morbidly fascinating things that happen close to home. Something you need to wrap your head around, something horrific happening in a place you’ve been, a place so close, a place which could have been your own had the bomb gone off slightly later. I was desperate to know more.

Yet, instead of a deep dive into the happenings and consequences of the bombing, The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky is more of a memoir encompassing both brothers’ lives. It’s painful to read, full of memories and discoveries which felt like old and new wounds simultaneously. Ken considers his brother’s last moments, his hopes for the future, his ambition to write the Great American Novel. And yet, he fell to earth, landing in some poor woman’s garden, with his personal effects finally being posted over to his family in America.

This is a strange collection of thoughts, with disjointed chronology, odd behaviours, and a multitude of self-deprecating passages. Ken seemed almost to feel guilt at his remaining alive whilst his brother didn’t have this freedom. It’s clear to see the effect the death had on his mental health, then and still. I can only hope writing this novel has helped release some of the grief, and allow some healing to begin.

Despite all this, despite the overload of emotions, the difficult lives the brothers had already led before this catastrophe, the sheer horror of it all, I felt detached somehow. There was something about his writing which left me in the cold, despite my curiosity over Lockerbie, despite my need to learn more, and despite my compassion. I struggled to read through, found it more and more sluggish the more I read. I connected with the emotion, but only partially. I understood the grief, but not entirely. There was something clinically offsetting about the whole thing. I can’t put my finger on it.

Nevertheless, it’s clear The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky is a labour of love, and I respect that. I truly hope both brothers, wherever they are, are at peace. 

Friday, 26 June 2020

Book #51

The Great Godden by Meg Rosoff

This is the story of one family, one dreamy summer – the summer when everything changes. In a holiday house by the sea, our watchful narrator sees everything, including many things they shouldn’t, as their brother and sisters, parents and older cousins fill hot days with wine and games and planning a wedding. Enter two brothers – irresistible, charming, languidly sexy Kit and surly, silent Hugo. Suddenly there’s a serpent in this paradise – and the consequences will be devastating.

Imagine having a summer home on the beach, which you visit every summer, for weeks at a time, with your family. Imagine the serenity, the freedom to do whatever you like, no work, no responsibilities, the sun beating down, nature all around. This story is of a family in such a peaceful situation, who soon discover their summer is not going to be like any of the others.

One of the siblings acts as our narrator, and seems to be an omnipresent reporter of chaos and calm. They describe the long family summer which is usurped by two American brothers descending on their party. Describing everything, the family quirks, the rituals, the new strangers, the melancholy, the heartbreak, the narrator remains the one constant. We don’t ever learn their name, nor gender, and this lends delicious feelings of doubt and curiosity to each of their words.

The Godden brothers, the strangers, the deposers, present as two opposites - one, golden and gleaming, possessing charm and good looks, the other darker and brooding, a quiet thinker who prefers solitude and silence. As the elder begins to rip apart the serenity of the summer, the younger tries to overcome his familiar aloof persona to try and limit the damage.

Rosoff’s writing is beautifully light, and she masters her setting, making sure those dreamy summer days amongst nature and the coast seem idyllic to us. And they really did. A summer house on the beach, with nothing to do but swim, sail, ramble, eat, talk. Her prose had the perfect balance of bliss and nostalgia, making me long for a place I’d never been.

I also felt Rosoff did well here with her commentary on toxic masculinity, particularly for a young adult novel. It’s important to highlight the small ways someone can be abused, even gaslit, and despite Rosoff’s other subtleties, I think this message was delivered with skill.

My only criticism would be how short this felt. I wanted to explore more deeply into the characters, wanted a slower and more tantalising build-up to the finale. I felt as though I was just beginning to settle into the novel when it was all over. This didn’t take away from my enjoyment - I just wanted more.

It’s just a wonderful, summery and dreamy read; I was swept away. It felt as though a snake had been thrown into a basket of kittens as I watched, completely unable to anything but watch what unfolded.

Thursday, 25 June 2020

Book #50

Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King

Five interconnected, sequential narratives, set in the years from 1960 to 1999. Each story is deeply rooted in the sixties, and each is haunted by the Vietnam War.
Full of danger, full of suspense, most of all full of heart, Stephen King's new book will take some readers to a place they have never been...and others to a place they have never been able to completely leave. 

This novel doesn’t fall under King’s usual bracket, but it’s something quite wonderful. In the space of five short stories, we’re immediately immersed in childhood nostalgia, then swept through life in different stages, each of these manned by a different character, all of them connected in some way.

There really is something to be said about King’s writing here. In the initial story, his ability to convey the feelings of innocence and awe of an eleven year old boy just felt magical somehow. That feeling where the world is huge, with lots to discover; that feeling just before real life hits.Then he shows us college life, middle age, and ultimately death. The way he switched his style through all of these was impressive, immersive, and awfully engaging.

Of course, the VIetnam war was a constant throughout each of the stories. We see its beginnings, we see student revolts, we see the war itself and finally we see its grasp on the psyche of those who experienced it. Very harrowing, and very real.

The whole novel and its interlocking narratives seemed to me like a commentary on how life moulds us. One single event could dictate the rest of your life, and how you view things. Add war into the mix, and it’s possible you never truly escape that one single moment where everything changed.

A true triumph from King - one I wasn’t expecting - and, without a doubt, one of his best collections. 

Thursday, 18 June 2020

Book #49

$hitcoin by Haydn Wilks

Three Dutch university students watch rap videos and dream of big yachts & banquets of sushi served on the naked bodies of supermodels. Could making millions of dollars be as easy as writing a few lines of computer code? How easily could they launch their own cryptocurrency?Alicia came to China from Malaysia to make her fortune. Now she’s trapped between working at a clothes factory and a seedy karaoke bar. One of the bar’s clients got rich mining bitcoin. Can she escape after emptying his wallet?Graham doesn’t know what cryptocurrency is but he knows it’s making people rich. That’s why the London hipster magazine he writes for sends him to Berlin to cover the crypto scene. Could it be an escape from a job he’s rapidly becoming too old for?The lives of these and many others across the world intersect as Future Synergy Coin becomes a multi-billion dollar enterprise. Yacht parties, trashed hotel suites, drug binges with celebrities, torture, sex, mutilation, & death. This wild story takes in crypto-crazed Korean office workers, crypto-accepting Eritrean drug dealers, and crypto-thieving American teenagers.It’s Wolf of Wall Street for the Instagram generation.

Having enjoyed two of Wilks’s previous novels The Death of Danny Daggers and Cold Calling, I was excited to get into this, although with some slight trepidation. I’m not an investment type of person, hell, I’m not even a numbers type of person, and I had only the slightest idea of how to define cryptocurrency.

Wilks clearly knew there would be lots of us crypto-dunces peppered around the reading realm, and does well to explain the mechanics of the alternative currency. It helped, but there was a lot of it. Lots of numbers, percentages, ups and downs, really detailed stuff that made my words-not-numbers brain begin to fog. I’m tempted to believe even numbers fanatics might grow tired, but perhaps it’s just me.

The parts I enjoyed much more than the mechanics of the currency, were those in which I was shown the motivations behind those who become obsessed with its rise and fall, who invest everything, or almost everything, in order to augment their fortunes, who are too frightened to cash out on the chance the rate rises yet again. People in debt, people with dreams, people who have nothing, and even people who have everything, are all in this digital gamble with differing, yet mostly devastating, consequences.

But our main focus here is the university students who create a new coin; who, far beyond anything they could ever have dreamed, become billionaires from the living room of their frat house. Quickly succumbing to the types of vice only immense wealth can allow you to splurge on, the students’ lives change immeasurably, fantastically, and disgustingly.

It was a lot to absorb. The pace felt incredibly off at times, some chapters or sections feeling much too long, with what seemed like a lot of unnecessary filler adding nothing. Other sections seemed to fly past, engagement high. 

I also didn’t like that every female character here seemed to only have one of two functions; to be a mother, or to be a sex object. There’s a particularly interesting scene where three of the female students are having a deep discussion about the relationships they’re in with the guys, when one decides to leave as she has an essay due on the Bechdel test(?!)

It’s a definite slide away from Wilks’s usual work; with him, we’re more used to things being a lot more closer to home - humour, colloquialisms, call centres, grim council estates, and generally more relatable stuff than the dark recesses of cryptocurrency. With that said, you always get a wild, depraved journey with Wilks, and this was considerably more wild and depraved than his previous works, and anything else I’ve read recently. 

Thursday, 11 June 2020

Book #48

Sanditon by Jane Austen

Charlotte Heywood is privileged to accompany Mr and Mrs Parker to their home in Sanditon – not least because, they assure her, it is soon to become the fashionable epicentre of society summers. Finding the town all but deserted, she is party to the machinations of her socially mobile hosts in their attempts to gather a respectable crowd, and Austen assembles a classic cast of characters of varying degrees of absurdity of sense.

There’s something quite sad about reading Austen’s final work, unfinished due to her progressing illness and subsequent death at the young age of 41. At a mere 100-odd pages, there isn’t a lot to work with, but there certainly is promise. Austen shows us Sanditon as an emerging village community, governed by two business partners (the fanatical Mr Parker, and the money-pinching Lady Denham) trying to improve its success.

Austen’s protagonist here is Charlotte, a girl of logical mind and simple upbringing, who is a perfect contrast to the other residents of Sanditon. Almost all of the characters, excepting Charlotte, are focused entirely on themselves and their desires, with Charlotte acting as a foil to their waggish whims.

I was interested in Austen’s commentary on hypochondria here; she introduces characters who claim to have a host of ailments, yet still manage (or are observed to manage) normal daily tasks or enjoyments just as well as their healthy relatives. It seems, whilst Austen’s illness was taking hold, she was thinking about these types of people, and probably scorning them in her mind. It’s also said that Austen ignored her illness for quite some time as it progressed, so it’s clear she was quite the opposite of a hypochondriac - perhaps to her detriment.

Sanditon struck me as a change to Austen’s usual format; instead of focusing on one family, she displays a number of families. It would have been wonderful to learn what happens to this seaside community; how they interact, the conflicts which may have arisen, the heartbreak. Unless you’re prepared to read works by other authors who have finished the novel on Austen’s behalf, the lives of those at Sanditon will forever remain incomplete. 

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Book #47

Daughters of Night by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

London, 1782. Desperate for her politician husband to return home from France, Caroline 'Caro' Corsham is already in a state of anxiety when she finds a well-dressed woman mortally wounded in the bowers of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. The Bow Street constables are swift to act, until they discover that the deceased woman was a highly-paid prostitute, at which point they cease to care entirely. But Caro has motives of her own for wanting to see justice done, and so sets out to solve the crime herself. Enlisting the help of thieftaker, Peregrine Child, their inquiry delves into the hidden corners of Georgian society, a world of artifice, deception and secret lives.
But with many gentlemen refusing to speak about their dealings with the dead woman, and Caro's own reputation under threat, finding the killer will be harder, and more treacherous than she can know.

This book is a triumph - I loved it.

Shepherd-Robinson paints a vivid picture of Georgian London and its clandestine indiscretions. Caroline Corsham, a woman of wealth and sophistication, befriends an Italian noblewoman, Lucia, after introductions made at one of the frequent aristocratic gatherings she attends. Some time later, she finds her friend viciously attacked, and hears her last words - "he knows".

It soon becomes clear that Lucia was far from a noblewoman, and more of a prostitute, leading the magistrate to lose interest in the case. Caro becomes hellbent on solving the murder, and embroils herself into an investigation which proves devastatingly complicated, and utterly transfixing.

The plot is crafted with precision, the pace perfect. We twist and turn our way through what, at its heart, is a murder mystery, but becomes so much more than that. The skill in engaging her readers here is masterful; one awful thing leads to another until the reader is consumed by the words, plunging through the pages as though falling through a bottomless pit of iniquity.

There’s some wonderful social commentary here on the relationships between women and men, sex as a commodity, poverty, and best of all (my favourite in historical fiction), social scandal. The way in which men of importance were protected, and even revered, is a sorry state of affairs, but one which in many ways is still present today. To be female and to be poor limited these Georgian women, but Shepherd-Robinson makes it clear that even gender alone can limit the most wealthy and important of women.

It can become quite comfortable to view people living in the past as caricatures of their time, but here they’re so tangible, completely fleshed out to refinement. Each of their secrets, each of their flaws, whether they are major characters or not, are laid out like breadcrumbs throughout the pages. None of them perfect, all of them untrustworthy; it was a relief to see we had no heroes or villains here, just real people battling with the constraints of social code.

The whole thing was just a wonder to read. Georgian society, the social commentary, the intricacy of the plot and characters, and the suspenseful feeling of distrust rippling through the pages, all contributed immeasurably to my enjoyment. A masterpiece of historical fiction; one which took me by surprise.

Thursday, 4 June 2020

Book #46

The Constitution of the United States

Enshrining the fundamental rights and freedoms of its citizens in law, and curbing the power of those who rule them, the US constitution is one of the most significant documents in the history of democracy. 

I read this with only the most recent events in the United States in mind. I didn’t enjoy it, but here are some passages which I will simply leave here:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Black Lives Matter. 

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Book #45

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Prisoner of war, optometrist, time-traveller - these are the life roles of Billy Pilgrim, hero of this miraculously moving, bitter and funny story of innocence faced with apocalypse. 

Holy structurefuck, this was quite a jaunt. As someone who has never explored Vonnegut’s work before, I wasn’t expecting such a renouncement of the ideas on what a novel should be. No beginning, middle, or end; no linear flow in the slightest; no suspense or climax. We see everything, all at once.

And shouldn’t that be how an anti-war novel is written? After all, there’s no real beginnings, middles, or ends to war. Not for the people trying to make sense of it all in whatever section of war they’re experiencing. The moments, although having passed, are carried within them forever.

Billy Pilgrim is a time-traveller. He has no control over when and where he time-travels to, nor does he have a say in when it happens. It just does. One moment he’s at home with his wife in the sixties, the next he’s back in a POW camp in the forties. Billy’s skill relates to his being captured by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, a race who believes that time is not a linear structure, and that every moment in time which has happened, or ever will happen, exists somewhere. Those who die are still alive somewhere. That moment when you most felt alive is still happening. It’s a wonderful, if slightly jarring, concept.

Given the horrific scenes Billy has witnessed and experienced in his life, he takes comfort from the Tralfamadorian notion that each moment is structured just so, exactly as it’s meant to happen. This gives him a way to relinquish any fear of death, as it’s not a permanent fixture. At his own death (which happens, naturally, towards the middle of the book, he says “Farewell, hello, farewell, hello.” So it goes.

Of course, Vonnegut hints that Billy’s time-travelling skills and encounters with an alien race are fictional to everyone except Billy. If so, it leads us to wonder if Billy is inventing new theories on the nature of time simply to help process and store away his terrifying war ordeals, and attempt somewhat to cling on to his sanity. It’s immeasurably sad, and seeing him read or notice things in real time which seemed to have shaped his extraterrestrial tales was heartbreaking.

It’s all very war-damning, and thought-provoking. Vonnegut cleverly uses his words to make us think and understand war, rather than setting out exactly what we should think, or exactly what he thinks.

My favourite of Vonnegut’s mockeries here was the moment Billy sat down, post-war, to watch a war film. Due to his strange relationship with time and space, the film runs backwards, and we see planes returning to their native countries, weapons being sent back to where they were made, and taken apart, with the minerals within them being planted back into the ground “so they never hurt anybody ever.”

Another is Billy’s quiet post-war conversation with a bolshy historian, who simply does not want to hear any of Billy’s recollections. These people record history, and so have the power to record it incorrectly. We still learn about WWII in schools today - how much of this true? How much has been omitted or changed? Are the accounts we study trustworthy? Vonnegut makes clear omissions or amendments are a possibility, almost a given. It’s a frightening, yet completely acceptable judgment.

This is one of the most bizarre, disorientating, and difficult novels I’ve ever read. It’s so intrinsically memorable, so provocative, and that it was able to suggest new ideas to me, despite being published over fifty year ago, is masterful. A truly unique critique of war and its cruelty, one which will tick over in my mind for a long while to come.

“And Lot's wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned into a pillar of salt. So it goes.”

Saturday, 30 May 2020

Book #44

The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis

Through vignettes told in each of the characters's voices, readers have a kaleidoscopic view of clashing expectations and crushing frustrations, of adolescent dreams fueled by inchoate desires. The Rules of Attraction is a poignant--and sometimes hilarious--evocation of college life in the 1980s.

There’s something hypnotic about reading Ellis’s depiction of American college life in the eighties. Although it’s mostly what you would expect, he portrays each of his characters as selfish, child-like adults, endlessly pursuing what they what - mainly sex, drugs, or the possession of other people.

Written in multiple-voice narrative, it’s interesting to read the accounts of mostly manbabies and one woman. What’s particularly interesting is the differences in their descriptions of situations where they find themselves together. Some leave parts out which another narrator leaves in, some remember events happening differently, whether deliberately or otherwise. It left me unhinged; I didn’t know who was telling the truth, and the whole thing was immeasurably unreliable. But isn’t that just the way of substance-fuelled memories, of people regretting their decisions, and of anyone trying to recount college life.

Ellis deals with a lot of heavy topics here, including homosexuality, suicide, poor mental health, and abortion. None of these things were as readily discussed or accepted when the book was written, and it was something of a comfort to see them (with the exception of suicide) normalised and accepted.

And it’s true what he’s trying to say here - for all of us, whether you like it or not, going to college or university immediately from high school does not make us adults. There’s so much temptation, so much fuckery, so much other stuff to experience and deal with that has no relation to your studies, that it’s simply just a way of extending childhood and delaying the inevitable onslaught of adulthood.

I did feel there was a certain pointlessness to this book; a stew of chaotic experiences mixed in with fabrications and shagging. And despite this, I really enjoyed it and stormed my way through, becoming very sorry I did so when I reached the final page. I’d love to read this again and pick apart some of the more complex themes, but for now it’s time to graduate. 

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Book #43

Lucia’s War by Susan Lanigan

London, 1949. Soprano Lucia Percival has overcome racism and many obstacles to become a renowned opera singer. She is now due to perform her last concert. But she has no intention of going onstage. A terrible secret from her service during the First World War has finally caught up with her.

London, 1917. Lucia, a young Jamaican exile, hopes to make it as a musician. But she is haunted by a tragic separation that is still fresh in her memory - and when she meets Lilian, an old woman damaged by a similar wartime loss, she agrees to a pact that could destroy everything she has fought so hard to achieve.
From the Western Front and the mean streets of Glasgow, to black society in London, Lucia’s story tells a tale of music, motherhood, loss and redemption.

This is a stunning work of historical fiction, and I’m very grateful to have been given an advance review copy.

The title - Lucia’s War - sums up everything about this novel. It’s her experience of war, and it’s everything that happened to her during, or as a consequence of, that war. Lanigan excellently portrays how the First World War affected women left at home, how they helped, how they grieved, and how they managed the consequences.

As a young woman, Lucia travels from her homeland of Jamaica to help with the war effort, finding herself in France and, ultimately, London. Her consequences are dark and heartbreaking, and seeing how she manages these feels impossible. I was desperate for her happy ending to arrive, with Lucia battling through like a true tragic heroine, balancing personal struggles with her quest to become a famous singer.

Lucia tells her story to a music critic, and as it comes in a stream of consciousness format, we flick around through time an awful lot. I felt this was a perfect way to tell the story, with Lucia wandering off on tangents as something evoked a memory. It felt as though she were telling her story to me personally, and I was rapt.

The plot seems to have been very carefully considered, with things falling into place at perfect moments, and characters being related to each other in ways we wouldn’t have fathomed. Lanigan has a wonderful way of subtly characterising even the smallest of parts, and it leads to a deep understanding of the personalities, but most importantly for the plot, motives. Some of them carry out some disgusting deeds, and yet Lanigan’s characterisation allows us to understand their reasons, and almost, if not quite entirely, justify them.

Lanigan’s social commentary on the early 1900s is truly something to behold. She speaks a lot on racial tension, on how people of colour were perceived, the looks, the statements, the othering. It hurt to read, and yet 100 years on, it still happens. As Lucia was not only black, but a woman too, she faces double the oppression, and Lanigan takes great pains to show us the struggles of all female characters within the novel.

This was such a gorgeous account of wartime and its aftermath, of racist Britain, of a woman’s unfeasible fight to get what she wants. I’d wholeheartedly recommend it, with a warning that it will break your heart. 

Friday, 22 May 2020

Book #42

Tell No One by Harlan Coben

For Dr. David Beck, the loss was shattering. And every day for the past eight years, he has relived the horror of what happened. The gleaming lake. The pale moonlight. The piercing screams. The night his wife was taken. The last night he saw her alive.

Everyone tells him it's time to move on, to forget the past once and for all. But for David Beck, there can be no closure. A message has appeared on his computer, a phrase only he and his dead wife know. Suddenly Beck is taunted with the impossible- that somewhere, somehow, Elizabeth is alive.
Beck has been warned to tell no one. And he doesn't. Instead, he runs from the people he trusts the most, plunging headlong into a search for the shadowy figure whose messages hold out a desperate hope.
But already Beck is being hunted down. He's headed straight into the heart of a dark and deadly secret- and someone intends to stop him before he gets there.

I like nice wee thrillers that help disengage my brain from real life for a while. I particularly like outlandish, impossible plots which seem unfathomable to a everyman’s brain. Tell No One was such a novel.

Coben feeds us information piecemeal until we’re drowning in characters, information, and possibilities. This doesn’t make anything confusing, it merely adds to the intrigue and the list of plausible explanations. There are huge twists and turns, some of which I guessed, and none of which particularly shocked me. What made Tell No One a jewel was the pace, the engagement, and the captivation. I was desperate for more.

Where Coben’s skill lies in making us want to read on, this is in no way a literary sensation. I was annoyed at his characters. Some were caricatures, which I could take or leave, but some were excellent and demanded more attention and backstory which they were denied. Most importantly, the characters our main focus was on, the married couple, were cast as having such an unbelievable perfect relationship. Together since they were kids, carving their initials on trees, returning to the same tree every year to kiss and add another tally mark. There were no black marks within their relationship, and although I understand this was needed to move the plot along,  I wasn’t able to suspend my disbelief quite enough to buy it.

As I’ve said, it’s a nice wee thriller. I needed something to help me escape, to help me pass a few hours, and to place my brain somewhere different, and it worked. I was addicted, I was in. I just wasn’t thrown off my feet.

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Book #41

His Last Bow by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes's fearless chronicler Dr Watson once again opens his notebooks to bring to light eight further tales of some of the strangest and most fascinating cases to come before the enquiring mind of London's most famous detective.
These mysteries involve the disappearance of secret plans as well as of a lady of noble standing; the curious circumstances of Wisteria Lodge and of the Devil's Foot; as well as the story His Last Bow, the last outing of Holmes and Watson on the eve of the First World War.

I’ve been working my way through the entire Holmes collection for a number of years now, and I didn’t feel the stories contained in His Last Bow were as impressive as their previous contemporaries. I usually feel engaged with the detective’s powers of deduction, and overuse of the word singular, but here there was nothing which particularly struck me.

Perhaps the formula is just getting very old. A client approaches Holmes, Watson has his misgivings, the whole thing seems impossible to solve, and all of a sudden Holmes finds the tiniest of clues which has been overlooked, and the game is afoot. The only story here which didn’t follow this formula was the titular story, and yet it still didn’t quite hit the mark.

Still, they are consistently enjoyable, and there’s some good commentary here which forces the reader to question their own morals. More importantly, the normally stoic Holmes is seen to show some compassion, both towards his beloved Watson, to victims, and even occasionally to the odd perpetrator.

Although it seems the earlier tales are the golden eggs (as I felt a similar disappointment with The Valley of Fear the prior story in the collection), I only have The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes left as my final foray into the escapades of my favourite detective, so we’ll see whether or not that theory evolves.

Saturday, 16 May 2020

Book #40

Stancliffe’s Hotel by Charlotte Bronte

These witty, racy vignettes set in Charlotte Brontë's imaginary kingdom of Angria feature rakish dandies, high-society courtesans and the dashing hero Zamorna.

It’s very heartwarming and wholesome to think of the Brontë siblings sitting down to write these in the nineteenth century. I imagine a rainy day, a wooden table covered in papers, and lots of whispering. So charming.

Sadly, I wasn’t as taken with these vignettes as I had believed I would be. Set in a fictional place, the focus seemed to be on the political goings on of the country. It felt plotless, with no real direction other than the narrator wandering around aimlessly and giving us his commentary. I was completely lost.

The fault will, no doubt, lie in part with Penguin, who have again chosen to snip passages from a larger work, with no context, grounding, or explanation.

This is the penultimate book in the Little Black Classics range, and let me tell you dear ones, I am delighted to be almost at the end of this collection. 

Friday, 15 May 2020

Book #39

Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Hardy tells the story of Tess Durbeyfield, a beautiful young woman living with her impoverished family in Wessex, the southwestern English county immortalized by Hardy. After the family learns of their connection to the wealthy d'Urbervilles, they send Tess to claim a portion of their fortune.

It’s been eleven years since I last read Tess, and from this reading it seems the tragedy and heartbreak running through the pages affects the reader much more as they mature. Hardy shows us utter devastation, injustice, and fate, all working in strange ways simply to flatten this innocent woman. I’m still suffering.

And fate is a huge element here. From her rustic upbringing, to the act which shaped her adult life, Tess is a victim of events unfolding which control her life’s path. Whether these are acts done by her, against her, around her, or without her knowledge, everything seems to converge unkindly to lead to her ruin.

The real heartbreak is that Tess does barely anything to help herself. Meek, guilty, and chained by moral code, she unconditionally continues without any true positive action, feeling sorry for herself all the while. To let herself be trampled continuously, and to be chained by social code in such a way, was maddening to this woman of 2020. It’s pitiful and frustrating.

We see each relationship Tess has with any other person as flawed and deeply unhealthy. Her own mother didn’t take the time to teach her about men, so both of the subsequent men in her life treat her poorly, despite one of them being initially characterised as a saviour. She struggles to make friends because of her looks, she impossibly shys away from others because of her innate knowledge of her own damage, her guilt. Tess is a deeply lonely person, and it’s so miserable.

Hardy’s commentary on aristocracy and social norms here is wonderful and modern. He plainly shows us how Victorian morals affected women (particularly very good looking women such as Tess), and how the expectations of society could lead to woman’s downfall, but never a man’s. 

As it’s Hardy, there’s lots of symbolism here, which is gorgeous to interpret, and would take a long time to dig into. He speaks in depth about nature, sometimes to highlight the provincial, and sometimes to create symbols of the romantic, and purity.

His writing is wonderful, and engages with me in whichever of his books I read. I love Hardy, I love Tess, and I only hope I live long enough to reread this another couple of times.

“Justice” was done, and the President of the Immortals (in Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess.

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Book #38

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the best chronicle of drug-soaked, addle-brained, rollicking good times ever committed to the printed page. It is also the tale of a long weekend road trip that has gone down in the annals of American pop culture as one of the strangest journeys ever undertaken.
I’ve swallowed and drank so much shit with Thompson over the past couple of days that I feel a mixture of wired and hungover just by reading the end of this chaotic, almost slapstick story. I wasn’t expecting this burnout, this utter exhaustion just from reading the exploits of Duke; I am shattered.

In fact, there was a lot here I wasn’t expecting, namely the idea of a fictional autobiography. That Thompson actually took this trip to Vegas, and wrote about it, is bonkers to me. That some of the things here may have happened, whether with embellishments or not, is equally mind-bending. His clever referrals to himself within the novel seem, at face value, to hint at Duke and Thompson being separate entities, but if you truly consider these, it’s entirely abstract. They could be two different guys. They could be the alter ego of each other. One, or both, could be a hallucination, a delusion had by the other. It’s definitely not something that can be easily processed. 

This is only strengthened by the utter unreliability of Duke as narrator. He is so completely off his tits for the majority of the novel that it’s impossible to trust any of his senses, memories, or opinions. Thompson’s style only reinforces this by having Duke mention things he’d done or experienced during his trip, which we’d never been given sight of at any point in the text. Some of these events were corroborated by minor characters, but others were totally subjective and again left open to the possibility of being drug-infused visions, or creations of the mind.

I loved these insane shit-fits, but what I loved most of all was Thompsons commentary of America in the sixties. Imagining how Vegas looked and felt at this time was a treat to the thalamus, but to have Thompson describe the general feeling was wonderful. Duke rails against authority, using drugs to numb his prevalent disillusionment with America, the direction of the counterculture, and the widespread fear the Vietnam war was creating throughout the country at the time. He suggests many are attempting to escape the slow existential dread which is seeping into the psyche of Americans.

And, ultimately, the idea that Duke believes he’s in Vegas searching for the American Dream, and finds it in the form of the Circus Circus casino, underlines everything Thompson is telling us here. 

There really is so much to discover and analyse with Fear and Loathing, and I think that’s something more suited to a second reading. For now, my delight was in the unreliability, the mayhem, and the strange amalgamation of fiction and non-fiction.

“Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run, but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.”

Monday, 4 May 2020

Book #37

Waterloo by Victor Hugo

A tense, dramatic account of the Battle of Waterloo - and how a rain shower changed history - from Victor Hugo's epic novel Les Misérables.

This is an excerpt from Les Misérables, which is slowly winding its way up my reading list - I imagine I’ll get to it at some point this year. It was a good introduction to Hugo’s gorgeous writing skills, however I am not, nor will I ever be, interested in the descriptions of battle tactics. Luckily there was a bit more here than crash bang wallop.

Hugo’s descriptions are very fluid and vivid, and Hugo paints an excellent picture of the state of the political and social elements of the time, also hinting at the emotional. It was interesting to read of how Napoleon was raised high on a pedestal by his people, despite his horrific behaviour and decision-making skills.

A wonderful little taster of what lies in store for me when I tackle the entire tome; I’m looking forward to it.