Monday, 3 June 2019

Book #43

A terrible beauty is born by W.B. Yeats

By turns joyful and despairing, some of the twentieth century's greatest verse on fleeting youth, fervent hopes and futile sacrifice.

This felt somehow nice and gentle.

Yeats’ words move along patiently, despite deeper rooted political meaning and undertones. Nothing too strenuous or exacting, just the quiet tick tock of his beautiful words.

A review from someone who just can’t with the poetry. 

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Book #42

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

Imagine a black and white world where colour is a commodity.

Hundreds of years in the future, after the Something that Happened, the world is an alarmingly different place.
Life is lived according to The Rulebook and social hierarchy is determined by your perception of colour. Eddie Russett is an above average Red who dreams of moving up the ladder by marriage to Constance Oxblood. Until he is sent to the Outer Fringes where he meets Jane - a lowly Grey with an uncontrollable temper and a desire to see him killed. 
For Eddie, it's love at first sight. But his infatuation will lead him to discover that all is not as it seems in a world where everything that looks black and white is really shades of grey.

I do adore a good dystopian novel. The future is something none of us can predict with any degree of accuracy, so I enjoy the quite overwhelming ideas which come with dystopia, despite the fact that quite often these are post-apocalyptic and bleak.

Fforde’s take is notably different to many novels which could be described in this way. Although set far in the future, after the Something That Happened, people seem to live in a fairly ordered society which allows them to thrive. It’s only deeper into the novel we realise this way of life is utterly controlled and maintained by Head Office; people are rated on their behaviours, points are awarded and removed for the most ridiculous of acts, and those in power have immeasurable dominance over those who are not. Did I mention no one can see in full colour?

In Fforde’s world, people see their surrounding mainly in shades of grey. Some see only in grey, whilst some see greys peppered with only one other colour. Your perception of this colour, whether dull or vibrant, sets your rank in life. Those who have more than 70% perception of colour are immediately raised into positions of power, with anyone lower fitting into more menial slots. Those who can see only grey are given the least desirable life of all.

This strange caste system was the most interesting aspect of the novel for me. Fforde really plays on societal customs, treatment of others, and democracy, using only an individual’s ability to perceive.

Eddie Russet is a strong Red. When he meets a Grey with a beautiful nose, he is ripped from the comfort of trusting the status quo, and plunged into an exploration of his world, and why things are done in the way they are. Fforde injects a positive message of hope that change can be brought to the system, and leads us on a sweeping mission to subvert the powers responsible.

Although Fforde takes some time to dip us into the paint pot, perseverance is essential. Once the world makes sense, once the sociology can be understood, the journey through his mostly colourless universe is one not to be missed.

Not to be confused with the other Shades of Grey, which we do not speak of.  

Friday, 24 May 2019

Book #41

The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer


What begins as the story of a lost boy turns into a story of a brave man yearning to understand what happened that night, in the years since, and to his very person.
While on vacation with their parents, Matthew Homes and his older brother snuck out in the middle of the night. Only Matthew came home safely. Ten years later, Matthew tells us, he has found a way to bring his brother back.


This is a devastating novel. I’ve come away with strange feelings of melancholy, grief, and hope. 

Matthew writes the story of his life to date. His brother, Simon, died some years before, when both of them are young boys. The cause of Simon’s death isn’t fully explored until later in the novel, but remains as a lingering shadow over Matthew, his family, and his words themselves.

The plot details Matthew’s struggles with schizophrenia (“a disease with the shape and sound of a snake”), and Filer shows us how this affects him. It reminded me very much of Haddon’s Curious Incident and Russell’s Wrong Boy, in that I was devoted to the storyteller and his attempts to battle through what he’s been given.

Written mostly in a stream of consciousness style, we’re able to relate and sympathise with Matthew’s feelings of hopelessness, blame, and misunderstanding. Matthew will tell his story sporadically, dashing off on tangents to explain something which happened in the past, adding in additional descriptive commentary when he feels there’s something we should know. It’s exactly like hearing a story from someone’s mouth. Filer uses different fonts and pictures throughout to really instil the various problems of mental illness in the reader’s mind.

Filer subtly hints at the flaws within mental health institutions, and depicts the horror within from Matthew’s point of view. Patients (or service users) experience a controlled, regimented lifestyle peppered with consequences should they choose to behave or react in a certain way. It’s really, really bleak and heartbreaking to see people treated as less than people purely due to an illness.

I’m finding it difficult to convey exactly why I loved this novel so much. I wanted to write an excellent review, but I can’t seem to find the words - I usually find it’s the best novels which don’t allow me to put my feelings into work. But, to the best of my ability, it’s Matthew’s words, it’s the way in which they’re presented, it’s his family, his pain, his guilt. Everything feels so real, so real, so honest. It truly is a beautiful work.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Book #40

The Nun of Murano by Giacomo Casanova

In this episode from his infamous memoirs, swashbuckling serial seducer Casanova falls for a beautiful nun on the Venetian island of Murano - despite already being involved with another one.

Good old Casanova; he didn’t disappoint, and I was certainly surprised by how engaging and well written his escapades were.

Although the passages describing the sexual acts themselves were sparse, and lacking description, there was something entirely erotic about Casanova’s restraint, and his waiting and longing. The long hours spent before his meetings with the nun sent his thoughts spiralling, his anticipation ripening.

I did expect to be scandalised, and for my inner feminist to be sent a-twitching at this philanderer’s treatment of women. On the contrary, in this particular tale at least, Casanova and his ‘love’ are presented as equals. Honesty, understanding, and trust are firmly established, current lovers are informed of the tryst, and Casanova is allowed to explore his desires unhindered by shame (if shame is such a thing Casanova can muster up) and with no advantages being taken.

The nun herself, referred to only as M.M., didn’t seem to be shirking her morals or faith in any way. She was an intelligent and reasoned woman, entirely confident in her actions and justifications, continuing her meeting with Casanova whilst keeping her other lover fully abreast (no pun intended) of all goings on.

I thought this was wonderful, and an excellent choice from Penguin; I would very much like to read more of Casanova’s sordid affairs, and fully intend to explore the adventures of his manhood. 

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Book #39

Never Die by Rob J. Hayes


Time is up for the Emperor of Ten Kings and it falls to a murdered eight year old boy to render the judgement of a God. Ein knows he can't do it alone, but the empire is rife with heroes. The only problem; in order to serve, they must first die.
Ein has four legendary heroes in mind, names from story books read to him by his father. Now he must find them and kill them, so he can bring them back to fight the Reaper's war.


When I first read the premise for Never Die, I had my suspicions I was letting myself into something unique. Although I was entirely correct in this presumption, I wasn’t prepared for just how uniquely insane this novel would turn out to be.

Ein, a notoriously creepy eight year old boy, is on a quest to kill the emperor. Due to his lack of strength, stature, and the fact that he is eight, he recruits some of the most famous warriors in Hosa to help him with the violent bits. Trouble is, his recruitment strategy involves killing and resurrecting the warriors, effectively binding them to him and his cause. That was jaw drop number one in a vast array of jaw drops.

Hayes’ skill here is unparalleled. He builds his characters wonderfully, through memory, dialogue, and lore, exposing their flaws and temptations, and yet inexplicably binding them to his readers just as they are bound to Ein. They were legendary and wonderfully real; pain, grief, woe, and even hints of joy were weaved into their characterisation, each warrior gorgeous in his or her own way. With each different personality came a different fighting technique, making me long for the ability to step through space, or even just have a cool warrior name.

The mythology was glorious - Hayes has done his research here, and I learned a lot about Japanese folklore. What was particularly special was Hayes’ refusal to patronise and explain. The work I put in between chapters googling words like yokai made the novel far more real, and much more special.

I found the plot to be very reminiscent of video games I’d played as a kid. Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter did spring to mind, but most of all I got real Mystical Ninja feels (ten points if you know that one). Time to dig out my N64.

The finale was an utter triumph. I’ve read so many fantasy novels recently where the ending is easy to predict - everything is perfectly tied up in a little bow and we all go away satisfied. I don’t want to give too much away, but Hayes chose to forsake the little bow and tie everything up with barbed wire. It was completely unexpected, and a master stroke. I loved it.

A true escape into fantasy, an entirely original premise, a journey through twists and monsters, and just a bloody excellent read. Thank you so much for allowing me to read this.