Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Book #27

How a Ghastly Story Was Brought to Light by a Common or Garden Butcher's Dog 
by Johann Peter Hebel

Written for a local German journal and published in 1811, these fabulous, funny, jewel-like miniature tales describe con men, tricksters, disasters, murders, rascals and lovers, and include Franz Kafka's favourite story. 

In this little collection of German folk tales, Hebel presents us with a number of shorter than short stories, and aims moralistic and karmic arrows at us in order to penetrate his point. Most of his tiny scenarios depict some sort of wrongdoing followed by some sort of comeuppance. The others are just simply peculiar and difficult to fathom.

My favourite story was The Lightest Death Sentence in which a man is sentenced to death. Pitying him, and wishing to maintain his respect, the prince allows the man to choose his method of dying, whether by the wheel, hanging, guillotine, anything he'd like. The man chooses to die of old age.

The stories all follow a similar pattern, and you know what's coming before it does. There was nothing outstanding for me here; these read as witty little stories a drunk old man would tell you in the pub - those which are enjoyable, and make their point at the time, but which are soon forgettable after the point's been made.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Book #26

The Wrong Boy by Willy Russell

Raymond Marks is a normal boy, from a normal family, in a normal northern town. His dad left home after falling in love with a five-string banjo; his fun-hating grandma believes she should have married Jean-Paul Sartre. 
Raymond Marks is a normal boy, from a normal family, in a normal northern town. Until, on the banks of the Rochdale Canal, the Flytrapping craze begins and, for Raymond and his mam, nothing is ever quite so normal again.

I first read The Wrong Boy when I was in my early teens, and I remember loving it. I remember thinking I'd never read a book so grown-up, yet so funny, in all my time. Picking this up again has brought rushes of nostalgia, and a realisation that maybe, just maybe, your ability to appreciate a really good book is something that can't be learned.

The novel is comprised of letters written by Raymond to his hero, Morrissey. The letters detail his life so far, in a completely disjointed yet perfectly flowing narrative. Raymond's utter honesty, and his feelings surrounding the unfortunate circumstances of his life, are so heart-rending that the reader is drawn to him immediately. I'm sure in my younger days I could see myself being his friend; now, I just wanted to be his protector.

Recounting the quandaries he's found himself in since the mere age of eleven, Raymond weaves a witty, open, and hilarious tale whilst still impressing the seriousness of themes such as mental health, family disputes, and remaining true to yourself. His words encapsulate his manic life incredibly well, as he describes everything with an entirely unique view, making us laugh hysterically along the way.

Russell's intricate descriptions of Raymond create a difficulty in understanding that our protagonist isn't a real person, and he didn't write this book. I think that's one of the most heartbreaking things about coming to the end of the novel; turning to the back cover page, seeing Russell's author picture, and realising Raymond is only a figment of the imagination. This is a mirror of some of things Raymond experienced throughout the pages, so Russell really has done a wonderful thing here.

Although Raymond's characterisation was complex in its own right, each and every other character were given exactly the right amount of depth. Raymond wasn't shy in plastering his opinions of others across the pages of his notebook, and this worked wonders to help us understand their personalities, motives, and prejudices. Special mentions go to Gran, who was so amazingly unlike a standard old person, and a true beam of light amongst a cast of awful players, and Twinky and Norman who were the type of real best friends everyone needs - ones who support and encourage you, but who aren't perfect, and depend on the same treatment from you.

It's difficult to describe exactly how and why this story is so wonderful, but it truly is something remarkable, and I don't feel this review does the story justice. I'm glad I decided to pick this up again after something like twelve years, and I know already it's a novel I'll come to back to many more times in life.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Book #25

The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

As a dense yellow fog swirls through the streets of London, a deep melancholy has descended on Sherlock Holmes, who sits in a cocaine-induced haze at 221B Baker Street. His mood is only lifted by a visit from a beautiful but distressed young woman - Mary Morstan, whose father vanished ten years before. Four years later she began to receive an exquisite gift every year: a large, lustrous pearl. Now she has had an intriguing invitation to meet her unknown benefactor and urges Holmes and Watson to accompany her. And in the ensuing investigation - which involves a wronged woman, a stolen hoard of Indian treasure, a wooden-legged ruffian, a helpful dog and a love affair - even the jaded Holmes is moved to exclaim, 'Isn't it gorgeous!'

I'm a huge fan of the Holmes mysteries, and have read many of them over the years in a piecemeal approach. Having acquired a complete works, I plan to work my way in stages from beginning to end, to ensure chronology, and that I haven't missed anything. I'm not obsessed, though.

My main love for the novels stems from my enjoyment of unlikeable protagonists. Holmes is an absolute dickhead; selfish, conceited, cold, and emotionless, he's everything a reader should hate. Doyle does something undetectable in his works which allows us to absolutely adore this prick of a detective for everything he is. Whether that be his intelligence, his capacity for deduction, the fact his arrogance is totally justifiable, or for his subtle admiration of Watson, is anyone's guess.

The Sign of Four isn't my favourite of those I've read, but it was definitely an enjoyable read with many obvious Sherlock tropes attached. We're given a classic mystery that seems impossible to unravel, but with Holmes showing us the simplest of solutions, and that "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." Mysterious deaths, anonymous letters, strange recurring symbols, hidden treasure, a dog who can smell anything from one end of London to the other, and a man with a wooden leg, all prove to be factors in an exciting quest for the truth.

My only sticking point was the explanation from the accused upon the arrest. It dragged on entirely, and wasn't in keeping with the fast pace of the rest of the novel. This character was one who uses twenty words where one will suffice; whether that was due to him knowing he was being carted off to the police station once his story had ended, or whether Doyle was just trying to pad the story out to novel-length, I can't decide.

I particularly enjoyed reading of the melancholy Holmes experiences when he has nothing to engage his brain; he turns to smoking, of all things, cocaine, to allow his brain to dance. Doyle has bravely swept the board with this scene, showing a well-respected gentleman of that era to partake in such a stimulant.

Doyle is a true favourite of mine, and I'm sorry to move on to other novels. As the collected works are about as thick as my back door step, Adventures of Sherlock Holmes will be the next in line after I turn my attention to some other books.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Book #24

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

On an autumn day in 1686, eighteen year old Nella Oortman arrives at a grand house in Amsterdam to begin her new life as the wife of wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt. Though curiously distant, he presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet sized replica of their home. It is to be furnished by an elusive miniaturist, whose tiny creations ring eerily true.As Nella uncovers the secrets of her new household, she realises the escalating dangers they face. The miniaturist seems to hold their fate in her hands - but does she plan to save or destroy them?

My feelings on The Miniaturist are incredibly mixed, and I'll go on to explain why this is. My opening question is this - why is that, when others rave madly about a book and tell me I'll love it, I never do?

The plot is a slow mover, and after 100 pages, I felt ready to give up. I'm thankful I persevered, as things began to take quite a dramatic turn as the family's secrets are revealed. I was ready for a real journey here, and felt destined for answers. They were not to come. The finale was the most disappointing I've read in a while, with nothing cleared up, and all of the characters (as well as myself) left in a mire of melancholy.

Burton's seventeenth century Amsterdam writhes and bustles with the social expectations of the era. She's definitely done her research here; I found it glorious to read of their customs, their food, their dress, and mostly, their words. The narrative is peppered with native Dutch, which is explained by its context, and this is delicious to roll around in your mouth.

Although Burton weaves her plot line and her Amsterdam into a beautiful, intricate web, her characters histories were barely sewn together at all. Much like their doppelgängers in the cabinet, they were wooden and still. I understand she was attempting to slowly release their secrets, however this only served to set them up for a fall; once their secrets were out, there was no further explanation, no tender touch of reasoning. They simply were. This was particularly disappointing in the miniaturist herself, as we weren't given nearly as much of her as I'd have hoped. 

This story has so much potential, but Burton hasn't really delivered. The final page doesn't feel like a final page; she explains nothing. The book is a worthwhile read for the middle third only, but enjoyment declines rapidly after the initial twist. A real shame.

Book #23

Trimalchio's Feast by Petronius

A satirical portrait of a drunken, orgiastic Roman banquet, hosted by the grossly ostentatious Trimalchio. 

Petronius writes the story of Trimalchio, an ex-slave whose life's ambition is to prove his wealth and exuberance. We're shown him hosting a feast of such luxury that his guests struggle to comprehend the food they're eating, the sights they're seeing, and the decadent scenes unfolding around them.

As feasts were common in Ancient Rome for displaying the host's power and wealth, Trimalchio goes to great lengths to display both. Petronius satirises this heavily, showing him to have shallowness of knowledge, taste, and morals. His vanity impacts his ability to quote mythology, and Petronius does well (perhaps blindingly so) to make us aware of his smoke and mirrors approach.

Strangely entertaining, but with no real plotline, Trimalchio's Feast is worthwhile for a glimpse into Ancient Rome and it societal nuances.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Book #22

The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells

This masterpiece of science fiction is the fascinating story of Griffin, a scientist who creates a serum to render himself invisible, and his descent into madness that follows.

The Invisible Man was such a dickhead that I actually loved him. To be genius enough to invent a serum that renders a human invisible, and to then submit to the horrors of insanity so much, that all you want to do with your invisibility is batter and murder folk, is great in a character. He was loathsome, he was selfish, he was everything I didn't expect him to be other than utterly brilliant.

When asked, "What would your superpower be?", lots of people choose invisibility. I judge these people, as I feel there are more noble and moral superpowers to have; a desire for invisibility strikes me as a craving for being hidden, for sneaking behind peoples' backs, and for perversity. Wells shows us the ultimate downfalls of being invisible - clothes will remain visible, so you must remain naked at all times (good luck with the snow); anything you eat will remain visible until it's digested (let's see that dirty Burger King floating around at mid-level); smoking? Yeah, we'll see that in your lungs; dogs won't like you; you'll have to be ever-conscious of the noise you're making if you're creepily sneaking around someone's house. Add that to Wells' assertion that either the serum, or the transparency itself, will turn you into a raving murderous lunatic, and I think you'll be choosing a different superpower the next time that conversation comes up over the lunch table.

There are lots of flaws in Wells' scientific explanation of how Griffin came to be invisible, but those aren't something I needed to be exact, or even needed explained to me in great detail. The novel's focus was the descent into madness, and the abject violence which ensued. I was reminded of Frankenstein here; Griffin's treatment as an invisible man, and previous to his transformation, as an albino, would have had an impact on his mental health, his reasoning, and his ultimate reaction to society.

If you're looking for a short science fiction classic, I'd thoroughly recommend this. Wells shows us science, humanity, and madness, all at once in an entirely entertaining 160 pages.