Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Book #70

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

One hot spring the devil makes a personal appearance in Moscow accompanied by various demons, including a naked girl and a huge black cat. When he leaves, the asylums are full and the forces of law and order in disarray.
Only the Master, a man devoted to the truth, and Margarita, the woman he loves, can resist the devil's onslaught.
The devil arrives in Moscow at a time when black magic and supernatural power could wreak maximum havoc. Working with his underling demons, the influential wealthy men of the city see their greed exposed, and their comeuppance is hideous for them, yet exhilarating for the devil and us.

Spanning three storylines, we're initially transported to the realities of life as the devil arrives to play with the Russians. Quickly afterwards, we're immersed in the tale of Pontius Pilate, told incredibly as a interpretive historical view, rather than a Biblical repetition. These two tales flash in and out of one another, until we're with Margarita, and the true powers of the devil come to their delicious finale. 

Our expectations are entirely crushed in the devil's acts. Despite certainly embodying evil, he does his utmost to ensure the people of Moscow get what they ultimately deserve. Although that means, of course, the insatiable greed and corruption of the powerful are punished, he also seeks to reward loyalty and love in the form of Margarita. This gives us a sense of a justice, and shows the devil as pursuing a balance in the world. 

Bulgakov writes of freedom, writes in glorious colours, and takes us to the dizzying heights of imagination and magic. In a world of oppression and unrest, where people disappear during the night, he spent his time imagining the wonder and enchantment that could be.

Attempting to understand the novel as a deconstruction of Stalinist Russia, however, was taxing and debilitating to the plot for me. Despite some less than subtle nods, the book is enjoyed best as a fairytale of retribution and reward. 

I always find it difficult to review the great classics, and I'm sure I've missed the mark again with this one. Despite my poor use of words, it's a hilarious and witty commentary with gorgeous magical-realism, it's survived the death of its maker, and avoided censorship to arrive on our doorsteps.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Book #69

Well, they are gone and here must I remain by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

A selection of Coleridge's poems, including 'This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison' and 'Frost at Midnight' 

It is now clear to me I am doomed to live my life with a complete lack of appreciation for poetry. Thank you, Little Black Classics range, for helping me see and understand this. A few of the poetry editions have filled me with some sort of emotion, but I always dread them. Coleridge was no different.

Having read Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and also having enjoyed it (although I promise this isn't just because it's famous), although dreading this instalment, I was also expecting much more from it. Here we have a collection of poems focusing mostly on love, religion, and nature. The style of these weren't quite what my imbecile brain can follow or comprehend, never mind become excited about. The rhythm seemed very off, certainly not captivating, although I'm sure it's probably some sort of revered rhythm I've never heard of.

Is there such a thing as Poetry for Dummies?

Monday, 12 December 2016

Book #68

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Original Screenplay by JK Rowling

When Magizoologist Newt Scamander arrives in New York, he intends his stay to be just a brief stopover. However, when his magical case is misplaced and some of Newt's fantastic beasts escape, it spells trouble for everyone.
While I'm a true believer in always reading the book before seeing the film, I reversed this mantra for Fantastic Beasts. I've read a few screenplays in the past, and they're so entirely different to prose, I knew I would fare better with the visual effects first. The lack of description in a screenplay completely hinders any sort of imagination building, and the emboldened camera directions are a putter offer. Nevertheless..

As a true lover of the jazz twenties and New York, particularly New York in the jazz twenties, I was so excited about this. Throw in some magic - I am sold and non-returnable. Without turning this into a review of the film, rather than the screenplay, I wasn't disappointed in the scenes, the clothing, and the customs (seedy alleyway bars during Prohibition have always excited me, never mind ones filled with goblins and the worst magical criminals in the city). It was absolutely gorgeous.

Newt is such a beautiful character. His kind heart, and clear love for his animals, truly and irrevocably binds him to Hufflepuff house. There wasn't a great deal of his backstory given to us, only little hints and nods to an excellent relationship with Dumbledore, and more interestingly, an acquaintance with a Lestrange. It leaves an overwhelming desire to learn more of his past life, and most importantly, his school life.

It was wonderful for Rowling to cast a Muggle (or No-Maj, as our American friends call them) as a main character. She's peppered these through the Potter novels, but never in such a way that we can see the total amazement, disbelief, and ultimate acceptance of the magical world. Jacob's awe whilst in Newt's case was joyous, and his admission that he didn't have the brains to dream it almost brought tears to my eyes,

The subtle references to the Potter books were glorious, but not important to the plot. The most important thing about this is that, although set in the wizarding world, you need no prior knowledge of Potter to understand and enjoy the story.

Reading this as a screenplay gave me a huge need to see the film again, but not much more than that. I wish terribly Rowling had released the five films as books first, but in not doing this, she's making the films all the more special.

Roll on Paris.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Book #67

The Flood by Ian Rankin

Mary Miller has always been an outcast. As a child, she fell into the hot burn - a torrent of warm chemical run-off from the local coal mine - and her hair turned white. Initially she was treated with sympathy, but all that changed a few days later when the young man who pushed her died in an accident.
Now, many years later, Mary is a single mother caught up in a faltering affair. Her son, Sandy, has fallen in love with a strange homeless girl - and both mother and son are forced to come to terms with a dark secret from Mary's past.

This was Rankin's first ever published novel, with only a few hundred copies printed at the time. Ironically, it's also my first experience of his writing; I never was attracted by Rebus, but I picked this one up relatively cheaply, and thought I'd give it go.

A strange story, with strangely captivating characters, and a blind sense of not knowing where you're going. The characters here felt realistically raw, and I really enjoyed their accompanying back stories and development.

The utter Scottishness of the entire thing was nothing less than delightful. Small town behaviours and superstitions glared through every page, and the odd colloquialism here and there was excellent (although for a mining town, incredibly lacking). His commentary and research on witchcraft in Scotland was particularly engaging for me, and I only wish there had been more of it. The portrayal of the male descent into despondency after the closure of the pits felt like an important lesson in local social history, and I felt this was done incredibly well, truly enforcing the economic shifts and stresses of the time.

Despite all that, it's apparent in places that this was Rankin's debut novel. Although allowing us to guess at the promising mysteries during the entire journey, it was fairly easy to guess the real story behind Mary's past. Most disappointing of all, was the bland finale; I'm not one to need everything tied at up the end, and quite enjoy abstract and open endings which leave the reader to interpret things for themselves. Rankin didn't deliver on either of these scores, instead giving us a poor, rushed, and badly executed ending, with far too many unanswered questions. I only wanted a tiny bit more than Rankin was able to give me.

Nonetheless, the story had me engrossed, had enough potential to allow me to believe in Rankin's storytelling abilities, and most importantly, make me ready enough to melt myself into a Rebus novel. 

Friday, 2 December 2016

Book #68

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

A classic story of friendship between man and beast. Saved from the jaws of the evil tiger Shere Khan, young Mowgli is adopted by a wolf pack and taught the law of the jungle by lovable old Baloo the bear and Bhageera the panther. The adventures of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi the snake-fighting mongoose, little Toomai and the elephant's secret dance, and Kotick the white seal are all part of Mowgli's extraordinary journey with his animal friends.

I, alongside many others, have only until this point based my entire knowledge of The Jungle Book on the Disney adaptation. In the present day, I doubt that's anything to be ashamed of, but I'm ashamed nonetheless. Having now successfully traversed my way through Kipling's jungle, I am delighted (albeit initially disappointed) to report that it's a collection of jungle stories, rather than a novel. I wanted more Mowgli, but the trade-off was worth it.

Much darker than Disney, Kipling teaches us of friendship, courage, loyalty, and rules, in the form of short stories and poetry. I was surprised at the depth Kipling gave to his stories, and this only made it all the more enjoyable. Most of all, his jungle social commentary is on point, and still resonates today with certain personalities or groups.

Mowgli and all his well known friends star only in the first three chapters. It was wonderful to see Baloo, Bagheera, Kaa, and all of the others again, and to share in Mowgli's adventures in the jungle. Kaa was a good guy, the wolves are sometimes bad guys, and Shere Khan actually gets what's coming to him. Learning the laws of the jungle was brilliant, and Kipling did a good job ensuring his animals remained as animals; not behaving like humans, and having thought processes particular to their species; the monkey behaviours were my favourite of all in this respect.

My favourite story of them all was that of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. What a badass mongoose that guy is. Taken in by humans after their son falls in love with him, the bold RTT makes it his mission to kill off anything that threatens his new family; mainly the two arsehole snakes that live in the garden. Kipling gives us a mongoose vs snake battle royale; suspenseful, horrific, and somewhat delectable, I was absolutely engrossed with it.

A gorgeous collection of adventures written with style, profundity, and charm. And I will repeat (as it can only be a good thing), darker than Disney.