Friday, 13 December 2019

Book #92

My life had stood a loaded gun by Emily Dickinson

This title features electrifying poems of isolation, beauty, death and eternity from a reclusive genius and one of America's greatest writers. 

I’ve previously made clear my feelings on poetry, and my ability to understand and appreciate it, but let me say again: I dislike it because I can rarely comprehend it.

In the interests of keeping this brief, and to prevent me from launching into another monologue on how I’m a complete doofus, and why oh why is there a vacuum in my brain where my love of poetry should be, here is my favourite poem from this collection:

I took my power in my hand
And went against the world;
‘Twas not so much as David had,
But I was twice as bold.

I aimed my pebble, but myself
Was all the one that fell.
Was it Goliath was too large,
Or only I too small?

Thursday, 12 December 2019

Book #91

The Moment Between by Gareth Frank

After four years of mourning, Doctor Hackett Metzger is determined to stop letting his wife's death control his life. He is finally beginning to live again, but his recovery leads to an unexpected fight for his own survival and startling revelations about what happens to all of us in The Moment Between.

Hackett, a brilliant neurologist, is a skeptic. He doesn't believe he will one day be reunited with Jean, or dwell with God in heaven. What he does believe is that he should have seen the warning signs of her heart attack; he should have saved her. He also cannot accept the possibility that his clinical study of near death experiences could prove the existence of a conscious afterlife. When Hackett falls for the mother of a patient, grief finally begins to fade. But he has no idea his new love is hiding her dangerous past. Will Hackett's damaged spirit endure another heartbreak? And, will he survive the treachery around him?
As life and research collide, the good doctor discovers that the secrets of love and death just may be part of the same fabric.

With The Moment Between, Frank has perfectly fused genres to create a tense, philosophical and psychological take on a typical thriller.

Exploring the story of Dr Hackett Metzger, who lost his wife four years ago, we see his grief and loneliness peppered through his love of medicine. Frank really knows his stuff here, and the protagonist is characterised as a wholesome gent who knows his craft. When a colleague becomes involved in a study focused on the moment between life and death, we’re given thought-provoking ponderings, and existential questions.

Although these deep and meaningful passages did hold my interest, my love here was far more attached to Frank’s characters, particularly our doctor’s new woman. She blazes into his life, creating chaos in the manner of a banshee, and although we know her secret, it’s utterly tantalising watching Hackett slowly begin to understand her motivations.

I really liked the contrast here between profundity and suspense. One moment Hackett is considering the complexities of life and death, and the next he’s embroiled in manipulative and dangerous fights with his new wife. I was struck with the knowledge that no matter how intelligent we are, no matter what discoveries we strike upon, real life will always find a way to drag us back .

This is an excellent debut novel; engaging, provocative, and original. 

Note: as a speaker (and lover) of Glaswegian slang, I’d like to direct you here so you can understand why the protagonist’s name is so very hilarious to me. 

Monday, 9 December 2019

Book #90

The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson

Dolphin adores her mother: she's got wonderful clothes, bright hair and vivid tattoos all over her body. She definitely lives a colourful life. Dolphin's older sister, Star, also loves her but is beginning to wonder if staying with a mum whose temper can be as flashy as her body-art is the best thing for the girls.

In true Wilson style, this is a book which will seem exciting and exotic to children, yet harrowing and dark for adults.

Marigold has two girls, Star and Dolphin, who have two different (yet both absent) dads. She presents herself to her daughters as a friend rather than a mum, resulting in the girls having to look after themselves much of the time. Marigold has mental health issues and alcoholism, tends to disappear overnight, and spends the majority of their money on frivolities.

Wilson deals with these themes delicately and masterfully. Presenting from the point of view of Dolphin, she paints a horribly bleak picture of loneliness, as she tries to come to terms with her mum’s behaviour, and tries to hold the family together. Marigold’s delusions, flights of fancy, and erratic choices prove difficult for a small girl to cope with, and we ultimately see how this progresses for the family.

I didn’t read this one when I was younger, but I know that I’d have been completely taken with Marigold - her dress sense, her tattoos, her dinners consisting only of cake and chocolate, her penchant for allowing the girls to do whatever they liked. I hope I’d have understood some of the underlying issues here, but I know Marigold would have captivated me.

As an adult, I was horrified to see two little girls exposed to the worst aspects of a mental health decline. For them to have no other adult to turn to, given the biased opinion of their teachers and neighbours, was utterly heartbreaking. I think Wilson handled this perfectly, with the girls feeling they needed no one outside of their family unit, only to be shown by the end of the novel that help is available and can work wonders.

This was released in 2000, and though we’ve come a long way in understanding mental illness since then, some of Wilson’s commentary here is still very relevant and important. The social bias in particular is still rife, and the reluctance to seek help very much still a thing. Although Marigold is worried about electric therapy and straitjackets, while our hesitation is mainly due to stigma, NHS waiting times, and a British abhorrence to showing weakness, the reluctance is still a huge factor for us almost twenty years after this novel was published.

A truly wonderful handling of a difficult topic - engaging, heartwarming, and bloody important. 

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Book #89

Is this a dagger which I see before me? by William Shakespeare

This collection of Shakespeare's soliloquies, including both old favourites and lesser-known pieces, shows him at his dazzling best.

This was a nice little collection of Shakespeare’s soliloquies. Although in a collection such as Little Black Classics, why has it taken until book 113 for a Shakey inclusion?

Although it’s a treat to read the most famous and evocative all at once, there was something quite jarring and disengaging about reading them in this way. Penguin provide short explanations before each, in order to give context, but of course they are far better consumed as part of the whole.

Despite that, I’ve now been incentivised to read some of Shakey’s plays which I had no interest in before, mainly the Henrys. Some of the passages were truly excellent, particularly those dealing with the characters’ mental states as a result of war, or the fight for the crown; I’m excited to delve further into these.

A decent addition to the range. Penguin haven’t totally missed the mark with this, but could have benefitted from a little more thought towards the context and inclusion. 

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Book #88

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

This swashbuckling epic of chivalry, honor, and derring-do, set in France during the 1620s, is richly populated with romantic heroes, unattainable heroines, kings, queens, cavaliers, and criminals in a whirl of adventure, espionage, conspiracy, murder, vengeance, love, scandal, and suspense. Dumas transforms minor historical figures into larger- than-life characters: the Comte d’Artagnan, an impetuous young man in pursuit of glory; the beguilingly evil seductress “Milady”; the powerful and devious Cardinal Richelieu; the weak King Louis XIII and his unhappy queen—and, of course, the three musketeers themselves, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, whose motto “all for one, one for all” has come to epitomize devoted friendship. With a plot that delivers stolen diamonds, masked balls, purloined letters, and, of course, great bouts of swordplay, The Three Musketeers is eternally entertaining.

I do love a good swashbuckle, and Dumas has really swashbuckled me into oblivion here. Combining action and romance, he paints a beautifully fictionalised picture of the king’s musketeers and the cardinal’s guards in the early 1600s.

That he takes such poetic license with historical events is wonderful. In true Romantic style, he shows us how wars were begun as a result of love, how duels were sought in a woman’s honour, and how chivalry and friendship were the unerring catalysts of danger.

His prose is gorgeous and engaging, his mysteries engrossing, his characters glorious. He builds his story and his people slowly, gradually revealing both the main plotline and the players who will carry this out. The relationship between the four musketeers was executed perfectly, really displaying what can be gained by humanity and kindness. The villain is given to us exquisitely; she is frightening in a contrastingly non-violent manner, far more scheming and intelligent than anyone else on the board.

I truly didn’t expect to love this as much as I did, and as my first Dumas, I’m delighted to have finally read it.