Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Book #35

Anecdotes of the Cynics

What makes us happy? For over 800 years the Cynic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome argued that the answer lay in a simple, self-sufficient life.

The Cynics were a group of philosophers who believed in simplicity, in the vice associated with luxury, in nature, and in maintaining the natural order. 

I felt Penguin have done well in putting this one together. The opening exchange allows us to understand the doctrines of the Cynics using a debate between two men arguing for each side. The one seeped in luxury simply cannot understand why anyone would shun such comforts, whilst the Cynic disagrees, and puts forth his simple case well. We only need what we need.

Following on, Penguin showcases passages and anecdotes describing the way of life of a few of the Cynics. It’s enlightening, profound, and a little barbaric. 

I did enjoy this for its style and its message. In the time of Covid-19, where it seems as though it’s every man for themselves when it comes to bread, eggs, and toilet roll, it’s a worthwhile reminder to keep it simple and take only what you need.  

Friday, 24 April 2020

Book #34

Things We Say in the Dark by Kirsty Logan

Some things can’t be spoken about in the light of day. But we can visit our fears at night, in the dark. We can turn them over and weigh them in our hands and maybe that will protect us from them. But maybe not.

There was something not quite right with this from the beginning. The dark cover, the unusual font, the structure. Immediately, I was overcome by something, and slowly, as I read, that something reached out of the pages and smothered me in it's arms. A constant feeling of something lingering behind me, an unknown anxiety behind my eyeballs, a relatable nostalgia, a plague. I’m both glad and sorry I’ve now turned the final page.

Logan plucks at all of your fears here, even fears you weren’t sure you had, and holds them in front of your face, forcing you to look. For women especially, these fears span the horrors of childbirth, being completely alone, and being taken.

There’s hints of folklore and fairytales cast in an even darker light. Logan displaces form by introducing stories with grim and overwhelming footnotes, stories told in the form of questionnaires, stories which unfold through the completion of estate agent notes, stories which are all the more terrifying as they’re only a paragraph long. It’s ghastly, it’s horrific, and for me it also felt personal, which added to my fright.

When I was younger my parents would often take my brother and I to Camelot theme park in Lancashire. A few years ago, I discovered the park had been closed in 2012, and left to rot, rollercoasters still standing, the huge castle entrance still looming, albeit covered in graffiti and mildew. Some nights I’d pore over pictures of how it looks now, successfully frightening myself with shadowy childhood memories battling the images my eyes were taking in from my Google search. This habit would repeat itself once every few months. To discover here that Logan has written a story about Camelot, abandoned, shot something chilling straight into my heart. I read that story three times and I don’t think it will ever leave me. It felt as though she’d been there with me on those late night self-scare rituals, as though she already knew what frightened me.

And this is it; this is the whole point. This book will frighten you. There will be at least one wee story in here that will dig right under your skin and stay there. You’ll think you’ve forgotten until it sticks it’s needly fingers into you and makes you remember. Logan’s skill is overwhelming, and I find myself perpetually remembering her words, and feeling, again, how she made me feel.

This is a book to be locked away in case anything can somehow crawl out of it.

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Book #33

Pulp by Robin Talley

In 1955, eighteen-year-old Janet Jones keeps the love she shares with her best friend a secret. In the age of McCarthyism to be gay is a sin. But when Janet discovers a series of books about women falling in love with other women, it awakens her need to write. As she juggles a romance she must keep hidden and a newfound ambition to publish her own story, she risks exposing herself, and Marie, to a danger all too real.
Sixty-two years later, Abby Zimet can’t stop thinking about her senior project: classic 1950s lesbian pulp fiction. She feels especially connected to one author, Marian Love, and becomes determined to track her down and discover her true identity. But is Abby prepared for what she will find?

I haven’t read many YA novels yet this year, but Pulp is an example of why they’re so important for all ages.

Abby is seventeen years old, gay, and having problems concentrating on schoolwork. Her parents aren’t living their best marriage, and this is affecting her performance. Her creative writing class demands a project, and she decides to work on exploring lesbian pulp fiction novels. Janet is living in the 1950s, is eighteen years old, and gay. She doesn’t know what this means, only that she’s in love with her best friend, and it’s wrong. 

Talley is skilful here in converging Abby and Janet’s lives, and displaying the past to allow us to engage with it. The contrasting chapters ensure the differences between the present day and the 1950 are stark - Janet simply cannot be herself around anyone due to political and social oppression, whereas Abby’s friends and family accept her, and her sexuality is a given part of her humanity. For me, this contrast emerged in how I felt when I read the chapters; Abby’s I read with a calmness, Janet’s with a quickly beating heart. I was so in love with these girls.

Ashamedly, I’m not too clued up on what life was like for the LGBT community in the fifties, and it was enlightening  to read more on McCarthyism, the ways subversive people were sought out, and most importantly, what they did to ensure they remained the people they were born to be. I would’ve liked a bit more of this here, as it seemed very much as though Talley was only scraping the surface of the conflicts and terror that would have abounded then. Abby’s school project would have needed further knowledge on this. 

Nonetheless, this is a gorgeous and compelling exploration of the lives of the oppressed in the fifties, and how this compares with life now. Despite there being plenty of work left to do to promote the acceptance and normalisation of the LGBT community, Pulp is a reminder of how far we’ve come, and what can be achieved over time. 

Saturday, 18 April 2020

Book #32

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”

So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos. 

Lydia dies at the beginning. Lydia the lonely; Lydia the henpecked; Lydia the prodigy. She dies, and we don’t know why. She dies, and we see her family attempt to return to normalcy, to pick up the pieces and repair them, to begin to understand what’s happened.

Ng smacks us with this tragedy, and then masterfully guides us through the family’s past - how mum and dad met, the childhood of the three siblings. Each life-shaping moment, small and large, is displayed for our voyeuristic eyes to absorb, everything pointing to the monumental event of Lydia’s death.

The words are beautiful, poignant, and unfathomably engaging. I wanted to spend lots of time with this book, slowly exploring everyone’s motivations and deepest emotions. Instead, I barrelled through the pages, desperate for more, until I came to the end far too quickly.

Ng’s intricate commentary on the inner workings of the Lee family is heartbreaking yet relatable. All dependent on each other without realising, all holding secret dreams, all their own horribly tragic person. She makes important observations on living as a Chinese-American family, on expectation, on homosexuality, on oppression. That the novel was set in the sixties and seventies meant that all of the above were more difficult to live with than they are today.

All of us have secret feelings we’ve never told anyone. They can guess, but no one can truly know us until we open up; until we make our humanity clear, and let our love out. With Everything I Never Told You, Ng shows us one scenario of what could happen if we don’t.

I adored this book. I’ve just read over everything I’ve written and my words haven’t conveyed just how much this made my heart burst. I doubt there are words I could write that ever would. 

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Book #31

Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving

Touching and comic short stories from the 19th century American master of the genre.

I have had previous encounters with the name Rip Van Winkle, so I knew the rough premise of this story already. As a stereotypical teenager, I’d often sleep till mid-afternoon, and, as my mother saw me emerge, she would exclaim, “Oh, here she is! Rip Van Winkle!”

It was what I expected factually, essentially a guy who sleeps for an inordinate amount of time, similar to my teenage self, but I didn’t expect such a beautiful writing style. There’s something so utterly vivid about his words, from his setting of the Catskill mountains, to the descriptions of the spectral disembodied voice calling Rip’s name through the wind. It was completely gorgeous.

There are different ways of interpreting Rip Van Winkle, but I preferred to read it as a sort of fairy tale, a supernatural quirk of a story. To attach symbolism of such things as American politics would simply reduce the wonder of the story for me.

Also included in my Little Black Classics copy were three other stories - The Wife, London Antiques, and The Broken Heart. Each of them were shorter than their predecessor, and didn’t hold the same magic or engagement as Rip. Despite that, they were profound, well-written, and ultimately thought-provoking, probing the human condition and commenting on our behaviours.

A worthy inclusion in the LBC, again restoring my faith (ever so slightly) in its merits.

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Book #30

I, Exile by David Samuels

Exiled into a wasteland because of a heist gone wrong, Emelith vows to hunt down the one responsible. Except not all is what it seems in the haunted realm of the Cauldron.

Emelith is exiled to a wasteland as punishment for a crime. Exiled. To a wasteland. What a premise. Giving us lots of Mad Max vibes, Samuels propels us along through this godforsaken, horrific place, to help Emelith exact revenge on the one who put her there.

There’s a lot going on. Samuels almost doesn’t allow us to breathe, as he hits us with a new enemy or catastrophe every few pages. Violence, gore, and sorrow, all lead to Emelith gleaning more information about her prey, and slowly changing her goals.

The characters are good here, particularly Emelith who begins as a fierce, irritable loner, and becomes someone else quite entirely. The others are peppered with backstories and connections which allow us to understand them.

A great one for those with a penchant for monsters, adventure, violence, and women who are hellbent on redemption. 

Monday, 13 April 2020

Book #29

The Boy Who Kicked Pigs by Tom Baker

Robert Caligari is a thoroughly evil thirteen-year-old who gets his kicks from kicking pigs. Afer a humiliating episode with a bacon butty, Robert realizes just how much he loathes the human race - and his revenge is truly terrible. 

This is a delightful little foray into the macabre, as we meet a horrible little boy who meets his comeuppance. It’s certainly the darkest parable I’ve ever read - think Aesop meets Edward Gorey.

The narrative is wonderful, with Baker injecting his satirical wit into most of the plot. It was eccentric, horrifying, utterly and bombastically disgusting, and, most importantly, terribly poignant.

Although only 100 pages or so, there was a section in the middle which seemed to dull for me, making me wonder where we were going with this abhorrent little boy. Perhaps Baker had a beginning and end in mind without the important middle padding, or perhaps he was just gearing up for his morbid finale.

I feel without the illustrations of David Roberts, this book would not have been as effective as it was. His imagery is unsettling, and helps to create gothic and unnatural tones. 

Although definitely not for kids, this is a good descent into madness which can be read in an afternoon. I know we all just love seeing horrible wee boys get what’s coming to them. 

Sunday, 12 April 2020

Book #28

Salvation Station by Kathryn Schleich

When committed police captain Linda Turner, haunted by the murders of two small children and their pastor father, becomes obsessed with solving the harrowing case, she finds herself wrapped up in a mission to expose a fraudulent religious organization and an unrepentant killer.

In St. Louis, the televangelist Ray Williams is about to lose his show—until one of his regular attendees approaches him with an idea that will help him save it. Despite his initial misgivings, Ray agrees to give it a try. He can’t deny his attraction to this woman, and besides, she’d assured him the plan is just—God gave her the instructions in a dream.
While Reverend Williams is swept up in his newfound success and plans for his wedding, Captain Turner can only hope that she and her team will catch the Hansens’ cunning killer—before more bodies surface.

During a time of a rampant virus, and quarantine madness, it’s important to have our distractions. Salvation Station was perfect for this; I was so engaged, rapidly inhaling each word, and I’m only sorry I burst through the chapters so quickly. There’s something about Schleich’s writing style that urges you to keep reading; it’s not something I can put my finger on.

I’m a huge fan of multiple voice, and Schleich uses this well here to allow us an excellent rounded view of the plot. These views contrast between a high-powered police investigation, a pastor’s seemingly humble life, and a lonely elderly woman dealing with family disputes. All are connected, all are notably different in style and pace, and all add something different to the plot.

We have some great character building to ensure we understand motivations. I particularly loved our protagonist, Captain Linda Turner, who seems to have been hardened by life’s tragic moments. It’s gorgeous to see her bloom throughout the pages, and I sincerely hope Schleich has more Turner left to give; I’d love a sequel.

Although I agreed with the decision to cast suspicion on our culprit from the beginning, I would have liked to see a few more tricks from Schleich to throw us off, and I would have loved a final twist. The story coursed along well without these, but some smokescreen and shock would have added to my delight.

There’s some interesting commentary here about religion, and those who follow it. Although having faith can be a comfort, the idea of being easily manipulated when one needs to hold on to, or bolster, this comfort, is something I’ve been considering often in the current climate. Schleich deals with this perfectly, nothing overbearing, yet plants the seeds of consideration in the reader’s brain.

A wonderful crime novel, I’d definitely recommend. I’m very grateful to have been asked to read this - thank you. 

Friday, 10 April 2020

Book #27

The Rule of Benedict by Benedict of Nursia

How do you create a community? How can we work together? How do we stay true to our ideals? For almost fifteen centuries this extraordinary book has provided guidance.

Oh, to be a monk living in the eighth century by the pure and simple rules of Saint Benedict. It would be bloody awful.

How to behave. How to sleep, cook, and laugh. How to express disgruntlement or disagreement - everything was held to a high account by Benedict, and strict is not the word. Monks must live to serve God, and must follow every rule to ensure their purity and humility. Sounds ravenously tiresome; I have doubts on my worth as a monk.

Although interesting to read of the standards set out so long ago, and that these standards were in place for centuries, I couldn’t help but find this to be irretrievably dull.

Sorry, Benny. 

Thursday, 9 April 2020

Book #26

Motherwell: a Girlhood by Deborah Orr

Just shy of 18, Deborah Orr left Motherwell - the town she both loved and hated - to go to university. It was a decision her mother railed against from the moment the idea was raised. Win had very little agency in the world, every choice was determined by the men in her life. And strangely, she wanted the same for her daughter. Attending university wasn't for the likes of the Orr family. Worse still, it would mean leaving Win behind - and Win wanted Deborah with her at all times, rather like she wanted her arm with her at all times. But while she managed to escape, Deborah's severing from her family was only superficial. She continued to travel back to Motherwell, fantasizing about the day that Win might come to accept her as good enough. Though of course it was never meant to be.

This is, quite possibly, the most wonderful memoir I’ve ever read.

Growing up in Motherwell in the sixties and seventies, Orr experienced a range of situations and emotions prevalent in working class towns in Lanarkshire. She speaks of class, of industrialisation, of politics, and, most importantly, of family life. Most of all, she speaks of her fractious relationship with her mother, at a time when expectations for women were simple, limited, and soon to be outdated.

Although I grew up in Lanarkshire myself, and was delighted to identify places I knew within the pages, my coming of age was some thirty years after Orr. I was enthralled by the history of Motherwell, and deeply interested in some of the things which have not, and probably will not, ever change. Orr was close to my own mother’s age, so it was wonderful to read and imagine her growing up in a similar environment.

As she recalls emptying her mother’s home after her death, she describes objects she finds and the memories they evoke. This is spine-tingling; an almost-eulogy to a life lived long ago, the only remnants of which remain in a house which once held Orr’s whole world. It feels so deeply personal that it’s almost voyeuristic to experience these remembrances, these tokens held on to for decades.

Somehow the words are painful and uplifting all at once. Orr’s childhood, the experiences which shaped her, the people who created flaws in her, and those who did the opposite, haunt the pages like ghostly emblems of change.

Whilst painting a picture of her youth, Orr makes sure to tell us that she now understands most of the psychology behind her own behaviours, and those of her family. She speaks of narcissism quite heavily, of how trauma can affect us, what causes us to treat people in the ways we do. She doesn’t blame, she simply comments on her observations. It seems this enlightenment brought her understanding, if not peace.

There is no retribution here, no defining moment of success. Orr’s eventual desertion of Motherwell never did heal any wounds, nor mend any relationships. Despite her glowing career, she never did achieve what she wanted most of all, and that’s what set my eyes to water. 

That Motherwell was published posthumously is the saddest part of it all. I do hope, wherever she is, she’s found her utopia. 

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Book #25

Anna and the Moonlight Road by Thomas Welsh

Broken, beaten, and exiled to the Sump, Anna has battled her way back to reality, but she returns to find her friends scattered and her enemies have grown in strength and number. Though she’s learned that in the world of Dreamers, sometimes the darkness is just a different type of light, she still hasn’t found her way out. And just like in nightmares, every time she runs away, the monsters lie in wait ahead.

Anna’s only hope for survival lies with new friends and a desperate plan to walk the Moonlight Road—a ghostly passage of frozen moonlight through worlds she can never touch—straight into the arms of the most dangerous Dreamer alive.

But no one, neither friend nor enemy, is prepared for the power Anna now wields. Her flame has kindled, and when they threaten those she loves, she’ll burn them to the ground.

I read Anna Undreaming back in 2018, and loved it. The world Welsh built, alongside his characters, was something so unique and engaging. I couldn’t wait for the sequel, and now I’ve finally found Anna and the Moonlight Road in my hands.

There’s something to be said about authors falling under the curse of the sequel, but the opposite is true for Welsh here. Moonlight Road is, quite inexplicably, even more compelling, and even more heart-stopping, than Undreaming. His plot is tighter, his characters deepened, even the insane worlds and impending terror felt a lot more real.

Although there’s a definite complexity to the idea of Hazes, Undreaming, Periapts, Praxis, and a host of other new concepts, Welsh’s writing skill imbeds these into our vocabulary easily, with explanations coming through prose and dialogue naturally. He pulls us in, spits us out, then reels us in again. It was impossible to stop.

And the characters! They’ve grown immensely from the first novel, and we can see more of their histories and motivations, yet still with a degree of mystery. Welsh feeds us information as though we were small fragile birds, and the pace is perfect to inject suspense and ignite imagination.

I’m so in love with this series. It’s something quite unlike anything I’ve read before, something difficult to categorise. My only real problem is that, now I’m finished, I find myself in exactly the same place I was in when finishing Undreaming - bereft and waiting. I need more Anna.