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.