Monday, 30 December 2019

Book #95

The Jump by Martina Cole

Donna Brunos worships her husband and is devastated when he is jailed for armed robbery. Georgio swears he's been set up and persuades Donna to help him escape.
Implementing 'the jump' takes Donna into a twilight world she never believed existed - a world of brutal sex and casual violence. Finally, she is confronted by a series of shattering revelations that threaten not only everything she believes in but also, ultimately, her own life.

I do love a bit of trashy crime fiction to break up my reading list. Usually fast-paced, and peppered with mysteries and whodunnits, I tend to speed through them on an unerring quest to the end. Having never read any of Cole’s work before, I picked this up expecting all of the above. It’s taken me ten days of apathy and groaning to get through; I almost gave up the ghost midway, and I wish I had.

Our heroine, Donna, is rich as fuck and married to a beautiful wealthy man. He has multiple businesses, and Donna has no idea what they consist of. When he’s arrested and jailed for armed robbery, she is convinced he’s innocent. When he asks her to organise his escape from prison, she nods like a good little girl and gets to work summoning bad boys and having damsel in distress fainting fits at her subsequent discoveries about her husband’s secret life.

This book is almost seven hundred pages long, and most of these are filled with Donna’s angst and mourning. She is so blind to her husband’s obvious villainy, and we’re reminded of this constantly. She’s a passive, simpering idiot, and can’t even bear hearing anyone swear, which, in a book set in London’s seedy underworld, gets very tiresome very quickly. We’re supposed to see her transformation from dutiful wife to bad ass bitch, but I could not abide her in either of these forms.

The plot drags on mercilessly. Cole seems to have no talent for hooking a chapter cliffhanger, nor adeptly setting up a mystery. Amidst action, she likes to have her characters pontificate over their lives in incredibly dull inner monologues which last so long that we’re jarred when the plot starts back up again. Dialogue is rife with cliche, and Cole is obviously desperate to paint her characters as hard as nails.

And the characters! Holy fuck, how many characters does one woman need? Each criminal involved in executing the jump was described in detail - their pasts, their families, their crimes, their motivations and desires. I don’t care to count them, but they were fucking immeasurable and entirely superfluous. I couldn’t remember them all as they bled into each other, all just big bad guys who’d done things and been through some shit. Give me strength.

Finally, blessedly, the plot is wrapped up in what seems like a incredibly rushed and predictable finale. Of course, I welcomed this swift finish, but couldn’t help feeling some of the previous shite could have been condensed to make way for a more fulfilling end.

My final book of the year, and I’m blisteringly thankful to be sending Martina packing. 

Thursday, 19 December 2019

Book #94

Daphnis and Chloe by Longus

In this beautiful Ancient Greek tale, Daphnis and Chloe are the inexperienced goatherd and shepherd who must face pirates, rivals and the confusion of their own feelings to find true love.

This was a little heartwarmer.

Daphnis and Chloe are two young things who grow up together, work together as goatherd and shepherd respectively, and ultimately fall in love whilst having absolutely no notion of what love actually is. As their feelings change and intensify, we see their confusion and their fear. It’s utterly wholesome and gorgeous to read. Only a vast catalogue of comedic and tragic events spur them into their ultimate happy ending.

I really enjoyed this, it was very engaging and comfortable. The pastoral setting went hand in hand with the love story, Pan and the Nymphs helped the two lovers along, there was a shocking and unexpected appearance of some violent pirates, and we were delivered a nice wholesome finale.

It’s nice to be reminded that the Little Black Classics range still holds some value.

Monday, 16 December 2019

Book #93

Foreign to You by Jeremy Martin

The harmony between humans and fianna, a species of shape-shifting deer, begins to wither as racial tensions and deeply rooted resentment turns violent.

Ruthless hunter Finn Hail and prophesied liberator Adelaide may be heroes to their own species, but they are enemies to each other. With war on the horizon, the reluctant pair must team up to find the most elusive of prey: the god of the Forest.
As enemies press in from all sides, true intentions begin to show. For Finn to save the boy he cares for most, he might need to aim his gun at the very god he seeks. And Adelaide, with her festering hatred for mankind, will have to determine if peace holds true salvation for her people.

I really enjoyed the world Jeremy Martin presented to me here. Luscious greenery surrounds a small town, masking its inhabitants from the creatures in the forest. These creatures, in the form of deer, annually transform into humans and come to join the town’s residents for a festival-type celebration. Seems wholesome, yeah? No.

There are severe racial tensions between the humans and the deer-human hybrids - who are named fianna - within Martin’s world. He articulates this racism well, showing us the discrimination, the hate, the utter injustice and lack of reason found in mob mentality. It maddened me, as commentary on racism always maddens me, and Martin had me from the beginning.

The saltiness towards the fianna is not helped along by the fact that some of them experience problems when transforming, often finding themselves in a form halfway between deer and human. A terrifying sight, only made more frightening by them losing all rational thought whilst in this form, rampaging through the forest and town to terrorise and slash up anything they can find, human or otherwise. The town hunters work upon their strict shoot to kill orders when they come across a feral.

What I loved most here was a shift from the standard fantasy trope of boy meets girl. Boy certainly does meet girl, and although they maintain a complex relationship, there is never any notion of love, because boy loves another boy. Although this was written in very slight queer subtext, I welcomed it all the same, despite not particularly welcoming Martin’s desire to break my heart shortly after said queer subtext was established!

The plot is super fast-paced and there’s a load of action scenes, which I found confusing in places. Although written in multiple voice narrative, there wasn’t a great deal of differentiation between the voices, and often it became unclear who was narrating. Having said that, the prose itself was as flowery as the forest, and Martin truly wrote in a style which really reinforced his setting; descriptions of landscape, characters, and homes all prescribed to an other-worldly feel which felt gorgeous. 

Finally, I was really pleased with the finale. I don’t tend to enjoy novels which tie things up into a little bow; it’s unrealistic. Martin delivers his final punch in an odd, ethereal way, leaving us guessing at a multitude of questions unanswered. In some ways I can see a sequel happening; in other ways I can’t see where we’d go from here. He’s left so many questions in my mind.

Tell us more about the fianna, please, Jeremy. I’ll bring snacks.

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. 

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Book #87

The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura

In this charming book from 1906, Okakura explores Zen, Taoism, Tea Masters and the significance of the Japanese tea ceremony.

Tea. I’m not into it.

I didn’t finish this one. From reading other reviews, I recognise I have probably missed out on some gorgeous Asian customs, architecture, and prose, all of which crop up later in the book. I mean, just read the excerpt printed on the inside cover:

'Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea. The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle.'


I just simply could not continue reading how tea is brewed. These explanations, I imagine, are to be gotten through before you hit the good stuff. Friends, I could not.

Which poses the question - why on earth are you reading The Book of Tea? And the answer, of course, is that I’m trying with every fibre of energy I possess, to finish the Little Black Classics range once and for all, and put them safely into my reading past where they belong.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Book #86

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

The beloved American classic about a young girl's coming-of-age at the turn of the century, Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a poignant and moving tale filled with compassion and cruelty, laughter and heartache, crowded with life and people and incident. The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness -- in a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as incredibly rich moments of universal experience.

Wholesomely bleak seems like a true oxymoron, but it’s a wonderful way to describe this novel. Poverty and joy, cruelty and kindness, struggles and celebrations; Smith gives all, and it truly is glorious.

The novel traverses the life of Francie, a Brooklyn girl in the early 1900s. At our first meeting, Francie is eleven years old, and we’re allowed to make our way through life with her until her late teens. Smith wonderfully details the things that excite and fascinate her at eleven, only to slowly advance her into almost-adulthood, where very little is big and wonderful any more. It’s a sad, yet relatable fact that we all become apathetic and less imaginative as the years progress. It’s an excruciating blow to an adult reader, which made me wish I’d read this earlier in life when hope was abundant.

Francie’s life, and the life of her family, is difficult. She’s given a poverty-stricken home, an alcoholic father, and the curse of being born a woman. Every obstacle seems to be against her, and yet Francie sets her eyes forward to the future she wants, sometimes erring in her determination, but always returning to her resilient personality.

Smith consistently hits the family with tragedy and woe, yet always juxtaposes this with the notion that the world has more good in it than evil. Every single black cloud comes with some sort of silver lining, whether that be the kindness of humanity, or simply a life lesson. Francie develops throughout the novel as a result of the struggles in her childhood, becoming the woman her family knew she could be, and it’s heartwarming to watch her grow.

It was glorious to see Brooklyn set in this age; I loved reading the social commentary from Smith here. One particularly interesting mainstay was the idea of ‘what will the neighbours think’, present in situations ranging from babies born out of wedlock, to the noise created by a husband aspiring to become a one-man band. What other people will think or say is far more prevalent in poor communities than in the wealthier, and Smith presents this as bring down to a stronger grasp on morals and religion.

The different ethnicities shown in the book also make for fascinating analysis. Although Smith reinforces that they simply do not mix together, Francie often visits Jewish and Chinese neighbourhoods to buy provisions, witnesses Germans drown out their holiday singing, and even mistakenly offends someone by using a racist slur which she wasn’t aware was a slur. The commentary is very subtle, and yet the differences in comparison to how we behave now are clear, and Smith makes very apparent hints towards the status gained by those whose parents were born in America. Even Francie feels pride as she stands up in (a very white) class to announce both her, and her parents, had been born there. Many had parents who had made the journey looking for a better life, so this makes Francie feel like a true American. I doubt I need say more.

Although this could be considered a coming of age tale, particularly for young adults, I absolutely loved reading this as it’s so much more than those things. It’s heartbreak, it’s love, it’s family, and most importantly, it’s human. Thank you, Betty Smith.

“People always think that happiness is a faraway thing," thought Francie, "something complicated and hard to get. Yet, what little things can make it up; a place of shelter when it rains - a cup of strong hot coffee when you're blue; for a man, a cigarette for contentment; a book to read when you're alone - just to be with someone you love. Those things make happiness.”

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Book #85

Farewell Olympus by Jack Messenger

Howard has it all – love, Paris, prospects – until an unexpected guest plunges him into mystery and farce

When a patron of the arts named Serge loans him a luxurious penthouse apartment in central Paris, Howard can’t believe his luck. Then, disaster strikes, in the shape of Eugene, Howard’s half-brother and personal nemesis, who sows chaos and discord wherever he goes. 
People are suddenly not what they seemed, and danger lurks in every restaurant. Serge himself is implicated in wrongdoing, while Giles, an Englishman abroad and seldom sober, knows more than he’s prepared to tell.
Can Howard and Eugene overcome their mutual antagonism long enough to survive? Should Howard forgive Eugene for being better looking? Will Eugene ever help him with the housework? Above all, will they ever agree about anything, particularly women?

Howard is living his best life in Paris - huge apartment, gorgeous girlfriend, alongside various other prospects - until his half-brother Eugene arrives and brings with him multitudes of chaos. Thus, Messenger plunges us into a riotous plot filled with espionage, kidnapping, almost-torture, and a host of mysteries to be solved - one of which is the nature of Eugene’s calamities.

The relationship between the two brothers is one of the most fascinating things here. Howard almost flees when he notices Eugene has arrived in Paris, and we are then encouraged to explore the reasons behind this. Dangerously close in age, each of them seem to subtly compete to be the better of the two, most which takes place through dialogue. Howard is thrown into crisis as his brother takes over his apartment, invokes bad men to follow him, and begins to seduce his girlfriend (a sore punch right on the masculinity).

Messenger’s prose is profound and yet engaging as he makes observations and drops bombshells into his plotlines. He peppers a lot of humour in exactly the right places, and has a skill in his writing which I’m at a loss to describe, but will use the word endearing for lack of a better. Howard’s mainly self-deprecating innermost thoughts were a particular mix of pity and giggles.

I found the mystery plotline to be slightly confusing, and I wasn’t entirely sure how to process the wrapping up of this. Nevertheless, the mechanisms worked well, and it was pleasing to see an eventual point of closure for the brothers.

A definite recommendation for a character study of siblings, Farewell Olympus was a special little gem highlighting just how we can find ourselves in situations we wouldn’t have the imagination to consider. 

Monday, 18 November 2019

Book #84

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Jude Fawley's hopes of a university education are lost when he is trapped into marrying the earthy Arabella, who later abandons him. Moving to the town of Christminster where he finds work as a stonemason, Jude meets and falls in love with his cousin Sue Bridehead, a sensitive, freethinking 'New Woman'.

I consider this novel a very old friend. One who is a bleak, depressed individual, intent on ruining my optimistic outlook on life, and regularly urging on another morbid existential crisis. Yet, with old friends, you love them for who they are, and Jude is this kind of friend.

Of course, it’s Hardy, so all of the above should be no surprise to anyone who’s delved into his work before; but hell, it seems as though this is the most desolate of all. Jude is initially presented as a child of hope - one with ambitions, dreams, and purpose. We’re banded together with him for almost 500 pages, and are witness to his slow destruction, his crumbling away, as the world takes swipes at him in a constant, insurmountable fashion. Some of the things which befall him are entirely incomprehensible and cruel; it’s a wonder he continued to dream. But such are the wonders of Jude Fawley.

From the beginning, despite Jude’s original faith in his future, Hardy hangs a desperately black cloud over each word he writes. It’s grimly fascinating how he achieves this, and although the gloom dissipates and intensifies throughout the pages, it remains a constant spectre hovering over us. It’s no wonder many have crowned Jude the most depressing book ever written. 
Aside: this leads me to wonder whether the character Jude in the other most depressing book ever written, A Little Life, was somewhat based on his Victorian counterpart in sorrow. I should look that up.

The characters are simply wonderful here, and the reader is bound to become mesmerised by them. Our main characters could inspire in depth studies into their motivation and psyche, Jude and Sue in particular who seem keen to overthrow society’s moralistic expectations and religious shackles. I won’t dive into these, but it was truly a wonder (albeit a heart rending wonder) to read of these two lovers who, despite everything, are consistently shunned away despite their deeper intentions.

Hardy has lots to say here, from the folly of ambition, to a woman’s role in society. Each satirical comment was a blow, every obstacle a curse. He critiques religion, the institution of marriage, wealth defining intellect, and a thousand other Victorian social norms. His comments rattled Victorian England so much, that Jude was his final offering to the world of fiction. I would mourn this fact, but if Hardy decided to crank up the tragedy in a subsequent novel, I’m unsure whether I, or indeed the world, would be able to handle it.

So, old friend, we have met again; you’ve given me joy and heartbreak, light and shade, as you always do. Maybe we’ll meet again in another ten years or so.

Somebody might have come along that way who would have asked him his trouble, and might have cheered him by saying that his notions were further advanced than those of his grammarian. But nobody did come, because nobody does; and under the crushing recognition of his gigantic error Jude continued to wish himself out of the world.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Book #83

A Nervous Breakdown by Anton Chekhov

From the supreme artist of the short story, three disturbing tales of supernatural hallucinations, hysterical obsession and moral decay.

I didn’t enjoy this nearly as much as I did Gooseberries. Although the prose was just as skillful, there was something lacking here which I wasn’t quite able to put my finger on.

Chekhov explores morality and mental decay in the first two stories. Men becoming overcome, having erratic and terrifying thoughts, worrying those around them, and worrying themselves. Chekhov depicts this well, although I feel the stories were too short for a proper dissection of the human psyche, and his characters’ wellbeing. The third story was short, woeful, and due to it being completely unrelated to mental health, felt distinctly out of place - a fault, I should say, which is down to Penguin and not Chekhov himself.

Perhaps I was missing the type of moral message I found in Gooseberries and The Two Volodyas, or even the dismally melancholic tone of The Kiss. I just wasn’t engaged; there was nothing here for me.

It ain’t his best work, comrades.  

Friday, 8 November 2019

Book #82

Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo

Life as a film extra in Beijing might seem hard, but Fenfang won't be defeated. She has travelled 1800 miles to seek her fortune in the city, and has no desire to return to the never-ending sweet potato fields back home. Determined to live a modern life, Fenfang works as a cleaner in the Young Pioneer's movie theatre, falls in love with unsuitable men and keeps her kitchen cupboard stocked with UFO instant noodles. As Fenfang might say, Heavenly Bastard in the Sky, isn't it about time I got my lucky break?

Twenty fragments. What a perfectly apt title for a novel comprised of twenty non-linear, illogical pieces of life.

Our protagonist, Fenfang, leaves her country village for the big life in Beijing. With her eyes on becoming a film star, she is soon disillusioned with the city and its prospects, and we see her life pan out in a realistic, yet beige, manner.

I felt for Fenfang deeply, as she is a trudger. We trudgers take the blows life lands on us, and carry on. We’re not happy, we’re not sad, we’re just here, keeping going. It was so sad so hear Fenfang relate her symptoms of depression without her realising what she was describing.

The prose here is raw, simple, and excellent. Short sentences depict Fenfang’s emotions perfectly, the settings were eloquent, the dialogue clipped and effective. It’s a relatively quick read, but somehow manages to pin to you corkboard.

It was wonderful to read of China from a Chinese author, mainly Beijing; the cultures, the expectations, the sociology. I was rapt. The skill here is where she doesn’t provide lengthy explanations of culture, food, the whims of people; she presents everything as it is, and nothing could be more realistic.

I became a person who was very good at hiding her emotions. Maybe that was why people thought I was heartless. Apparently my face often had a blank expression. Huizi, my most intellectual friend, would say, “Fenfang, yours is the face of a post-modern woman.”

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Book #81

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Stephen King returns to the characters and territory of one of his most popular novels ever, The Shining, in this instantly riveting novel about the now middle-aged Dan Torrance and the very special 12-year-old girl he must save from a tribe of murderous paranormals.

On highways across America, a tribe of people called The True Knot travel in search of sustenance. They are quasi-immortal, living off the steam that children with the shining produce when they are slowly tortured to death.
Dan has been drifting for decades, desperate to shed his father's legacy of despair, alcoholism, and violence. Finally, he settles in a New Hampshire town, in a job at a nursing home where his remnant shining power provides the crucial final comfort to the dying. Aided by a prescient cat, he becomes Doctor Sleep.
Then Dan meets the evanescent Abra Stone, and it is her spectacular gift, the brightest shining ever seen, that reignites Dan's own demons and summons him to a battle for Abra's soul and survival.

I always felt King was mighty ambitious in trying to write a sequel for something so monolithic as The Shining. So much so, that Doctor Sleep has been on my shelf unread for a number of years, because really, how do you top The Shining?

The answer is, simply, that you don’t. You take the beloved innocent boy from your original novel, tear him to pieces, and carve an entirely new story from his mutilated parts. It was so utterly unlike The Shining, and yet something quite special in itself.

Dan Torrance grows up to exhibit many of his father’s flaws - alcoholism and violence, yes, but battling demons more so. As Dan grows older, his shine diminishes, and the more he drinks, the duller he shines. Through alcohol, he manages to almost entirely lose his power, until he meets a young girl who shines like a lighthouse, and they band together to combat a band of true supernatural bad guys intent on murder and torture.

King’s prose is gorgeous and descriptive, and yet I found his pace jarring. I was propelled along initially, dragged along in the middle third, and then roused back into life for the finale. I know King is capable of keeping this momentum for the entirely of the novel, so the middle section was a slight disappointment.

I think most of the draw here for me was seeing how Dan had grown. That he’d developed most of his father’s addictions and habits sparked a true nature vs nurture debate in my head. That he and his mother had kept in touch with Dick Hallorann warmed my black heart. King characterises Dan perfectly, and it truly was a joy to see the little boy on the tricycle as a man - albeit a broken one.

Having said that, I really felt some of the other characters could have done with some attention; they were interesting as hell, and yet their back stories and motivations were pretty lacking. King presents us with a whole new idea of the shining, a whole new cast of weirdos with this curious ability, and yet we aren’t allowed to explore their lives.

All things considered, I enjoyed this more than I was expecting. King creates an adult life for a true OG, mixing hopelessness with purpose, experience with youth, and in true King fashion, supernatural with mundane. 

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Book #80

The Queen of Spades by Alexander Pushkin

One of Pushkin's most popular and chilling stories, 'The Queen of Spades' tells of a young man who develops a dangerous obsession in pursuit of the wealth he craves.

What a story. I always find Russian literature to be absolutely delectable, and having never read Pushkin before, I’m pleased to have found this one.

He speaks to us of greed and gain, mixing the dangers of these with a hint of the supernatural and superstitious. If you could obtain a secret which led to unaccountable wealth, what would you do to learn this secret? And what would the knowledge cost you?

The characters were wonderful here. Aristocracy blending with the lower classes, young women dreaming of love, men asserting their power and dominance purely to attain advantage. Each of them shrewd, yet realistic, all of them flawed, every one doomed.

Pushkin portrays using wit, humour, and some truly excellent writing seeped in intrigue. Another little pearl nestled into the confines of the Little Black Classics range. 

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Book #79

Love Virtually by Daniel Glattauer

It's a virtual romance that begins by chance. When Leo mistakenly receives e-mails from a stranger named Emmi, he replies--and Emmi writes back. Soon, secrets are shared, sparks fly, and erotic tension simmers. Even though Emmi is married, it seems only a matter of time till they meet. But will their feelings survive a real-life encounter? And, if so-what then? 

I’m not really a romance kinda gal, but my mum bought this for me a few years ago, and it’s finally winged its way to the top of my reading list. I didn’t go in with high expectations, and yet now I’ve finished, I feel it’s one which may stay with me.

Leo and Emmi begin corresponding with each other due to an initially mistyped email address. As ridiculous as it sounds, they begin to build a relationship, and end up falling for one another.

I loathed both Leo and Emmi entirely. They are complete dicks. Each selfish, shallow, relying completely on the other for happiness, and unable to allow the other a life outside of their inboxes. The way they spoke to each other, and the pressures they put on each other, abhorred me. Oh, and Emmi is married.

There were also a number of far-fetched elements here, for which I found difficult to suspend disbelief. Super pixie dream girl meets brooding well-educated man online, completely by accident. Super pixie dream girl and brooding well-educated man live in the same city. Brooding well-educated man has conveniently just come out of a toxic relationship and is vulnerable

One email from Leo, however, really was quite realistic of brooding well-educated men:

Despite all this, there was something strangely addictive here. I think most of my enjoyment came from Glauttauer making me feel as though I were privy to something very secretive, and quite sacred. Reading the private emails of strangers, particularly strangers whose relationship is reaching a volatile crescendo, was quite delightful to me. I’m nosy.

And the finale was perfect. Fuck you both.

Monday, 21 October 2019

Book #78

Occultist: Saga Online by Oliver Mayes

Damien thought his exams would be bad enough. Then his mother collapsed with a failing heart.

In a desperate move Damien throws himself into the Streamer Contest of Saga Online, the latest fantasy VR-MMORPG. Winning will provide the funds for his mom’s surgery. Yet early betrayal and a close run in with a vampire almost ruin his attempt before he even begins.
Stuck at the bottom of a dungeon with no gear, no allies and little hope, Damien must embrace the undiscovered Occultist class, master control of his new demonic minions and take the contest by storm.
His plan is simple enough. Topple the most famous player in Saga Online.

As a gamer myself, I’m a huge fan of the LitRPG genre. Saga: Online was a real standout for me, blending real-life with online simulation effortlessly.

Our protagonist, Damien, is sixteen, and very fond of the game. His mother feels he should concentrate more on his studies, but when she is hospitalised, Damien needs to fund her recovery by becoming the most popular streamer on the platform. Madness ensues.

As he discovers an entirely new class, we’re propelled into the game with Damien as he levels up and seeks vengeance against another player for an earlier cruelty. Mayes fills the pages with humour (this username is unavailable), gorgeous characters, and plenty of action. He has a real instinct for knowing when to shift the focus from online to real life, keeping engagement incredibly high, and reminding us of Damien’s real task.

The only thing I felt was missing was more. I wanted more on Damien’s family life, more on his father, more on the antagonist (why is he such a dick?), and more on simply everything. Call it greed, I just loved everything else so much that I was desperate for extras.

Mayes has done a wonderful job here, and I only hope there’s more to come from him. I felt truly immersed in both of the worlds he’s crafted, almost as though I had a VR headset on myself. Absolutely wonderful. 

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Book #77

Just After Sunset by Stephen King

Just after sunset—call it dusk; call it twilight; it’s a time when human life takes on an unnatural cast, when nothing is quite as it appears, when the imagination begins to reach for shadows as they dissipate to darkness and living daylight can be scared right out of you. 

As I come to expect now with King stories, these were entirely hit or miss.

In some, he wonderfully explored the human psyche when faced with unimaginable horrors. In others, he waffled through nonsensically, failing to maintain engagement, and confusing me utterly.

Harvey’s Dream gave such a chilling sense of foreboding, where N.’s density failed to garner any feeling other than irritating flashings of tedium. Mute twisted and turned its way into a ‘can’t fucking believe it’ redemption, with The Cat from Hell making my eyes roll, and not only because I truly hate cats.

I think this is a collection which you really have to try for yourself. I’ve read reviews where the stories I thought were crap are being raised high, where the ones I loved are being roasted alive. But I can guarantee you won’t like them all - pick through them and see which ones speak to you. Perhaps your choice says more about you as a person than it does King as a writer. 

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Book #76

Love that moves the sun and other stars by Dante

A collection of cantos from Paradiso, the most original and experimental part of the Divina Commedia.

I thought this would ease me gently into Dante, and instead it has me running in the opposite direction.

My feelings are very strong on the fact that this simply is not my thing. My brain can’t seem to work to the levels needed to comprehend this, even merely to follow along, and all I did throughout was marvel at the beautiful writing, without a clue in the world as to what was going on, or what was being conveyed.

Despite self-proclaimed stupidity being to blame here, I also feel Penguin should have done more to help their readers. A selection of cantos from the work does not make a clever introduction; it’s too sporadic and confusing to simpletons such as myself. It seems very much shoehorned into the collection after someone in a meeting room said, “need some Dante.”