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.”