Thursday, 31 January 2019

Book #11

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

Now, we all know the basics of punctuation. Or do we? A look at most neighborhood signage tells a different story. Through sloppy usage and low standards on the internet, in e-mail, and now text messages, we have made proper punctuation an endangered species.
In Eats, Shoots & Leaves, former editor Truss dares to say that it is time to look at our commas and semicolons and see them as the wonderful and necessary things they are. This is a book for people who love punctuation and get upset when it is mishandled. From the invention of the question mark in the time of Charlemagne to George Orwell shunning the semicolon, this lively history makes a powerful case for the preservation of a system of printing conventions that is much too subtle to be mucked about with.

I have very high standards when it comes to grammar and punctuation. I’m no pedant or stickler, and would never angrily accost someone for errant use of an apostrophe, but I do like things to be done properly. I recognise, however, I am no superwoman, so bought this book in the hopes of learning something.

There was some really interesting information on the origin of punctuation, on uses which have now fallen out of fashion, and on the poor members of the punctuation family who have now become extinct. I found this insightful, and (I have to be honest), quite exciting. Write me off immediately as a saddo; I don’t care.

My problem was the main thing I learned here, which is Lynne Truss is a horrible person. I worked this out quickly (reading a couple of pages of the introduction should do it), and it marred the book for me entirely. No one wants to listen to someone they dislike, and let me tell you I disliked Truss.

Her commentary reeked of her own self-importance, she slagged off anyone with the audacity to make a punctuation error, and even threatened people with death, guns, and violence should they incorrectly punctuate a sentence. There is no fucking need.

She seems to forget not all of us are from the same background. We’re even treated to an anecdote of a punctuation novel she was reading whilst all the other girls her age were out having abortions. I’m not kidding. This holier than thou attitude permeated through each page, completely disengaging me and, frankly, making me hate her. And she ticked every single dirty box in my book - classist, ableist, sexist, even racist. It was foul.

Although peppered with interesting tidbits, I would happily forego anything I learned from this to go back to a life where I had never read it.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Book #10

Hannibal by Livy

The remarkable account of Hannibal crossing the Alps with his elephants and winning the Battle of the Trebbia.

I struggled with this. Perhaps the disappointment began when I realised this wasn’t an account of the life of our favourite cannibal. Instead, it details the Carthaginian invasion of Rome.

My assumption is that there’s military insight here, alongside political commentary. I can’t really confirm, as my eyes were glazed over the entire time. I can barely remember a thing; I was thinking about what I was going to have for dinner. Not even the macabre notion of bringing elephants along to cross the Alps appealed to me here. I was out.

The plan is to continue the Little Black Classics range until I’ve read each one I’ve already bought. After that, no more. They are taking up precious reading time and provoking an irrevocable ire in me which I no longer wish to feel. 

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Book #09

Paper Towns by John Green

Quentin Jacobsen has spent a lifetime loving the magnificently adventurous Margo Roth Spiegelman from afar. So when she cracks open a window and climbs into his life—dressed like a ninja and summoning him for an ingenious campaign of revenge—he follows. After their all-nighter ends, and a new day breaks, Q arrives at school to discover that Margo, always an enigma, has now become a mystery. But Q soon learns that there are clues—and they're for him. Urged down a disconnected path, the closer he gets, the less Q sees the girl he thought he knew.

So I picked up a John Green novel with the expectation that I wouldn’t like it. I didn’t like it.

Paper Towns follows the journey of a high school boy, Quentin, who is love with the girl next door. When she goes missing, he becomes obsessed with finding her due to reasons of the heart, and also due to him being a romantically-intense sort of creep. 

The characters were incredibly stereotypical. Slightly geeky guy who is on a lower rung of the social ladder in school (which Green referred to as the ‘caste system’ which I found a touch distasteful), the incredible and mysterious girl next door who absolutely cannot be touched, her hot sexy arsehole  shagger of a boyfriend, her prissy girlfriends, and of course, the token black guy. I love this shit in 90s movies, but I need something more in my novels.

And the plot! Holy hell, it took an age to crawl through the pointless scenes and unnecessarily lyricised writing in order to actually get somewhere. There’s a road trip involved where each hour is given its own separate section, mostly involving people sleeping or needing to pee. STOP.

There was a lot of commentary and dialogue here which was screaming out to be interpreted as profound. I found it meandering, and difficult to grasp. I skipped a number of pages towards the end which were saturated in this type of pseudo-philosophical nonsense; it read like garbage.

Although I understand this is a YA novel for teenagers who are running around with a thousand emotions clashing with a million hormones within them, I also believe it’s patronising to make excuses for Green based on his target audience. YA readers are a lot more intelligent than many authors give them credit for, and no author should be writing down to them.

My humble opinion: a shit book’s a shit book no matter the audience. If you enjoyed this, then all power to ya. 

Friday, 25 January 2019

Book #08

The Sea Raiders by H.G. Wells

A disgusting account of a school of giant squid attacking a seaside resort, and two other examples of Wells' extraordinary imagination at work - 'The Magic Shop' and 'The Land Ironclads'

I was excited for this one after reading another collection of story stories by Wells - A Slip Under the Microscope. This one disappointed me for a number of reasons.

The first story, The Sea Raiders, was an uncomfortable tale of deep sea monsters attacking an English coastal town and gobbling up some of its inhabitants. This should have been terrifying for me, a desperate individual fearful of anything dwelling in water, even goldfish. Despite a few truly disgusting and unsettling passages, the deeply factual narrative seemed to eradicate all tension and suspense from the prose.

I read around half of the second story, The Land Ironclads, and gave up. I had no idea what was going on and was horribly disengaged. Something about big scary machines.

And miraculously, gloriously, The Magic Shop saved this entire book. A man and his son stumble upon a shop of magic tricks in London and wander inside. As you can imagine, wonderful, awe-inspiring things are shown to them. Beautiful displays of magic the likes of which would enthral any character. The deeper into the shop the two travel, the faster things become more frightening and macabre. This was tension; this was engagement. I adored The Magic Shop and its ambiguous ending, allowing our thoughts to continue to collide for hours after turning the last page.

There is still no denying I was in the presence of the father of science fiction here. Nevertheless, I would absolutely recommend A Slip Under the Microscope over this one, unless you’re prepared to seek out this book only to skip to the shortest and best story of them all. 

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Book #07

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

Plucky Taylor Greer grows up poor in rural Kentucky with two goals: to avoid pregnancy and to get away. She succeeds on both counts when she buys an old car and heads west. But midway across the country, motherhood catches up with her when she becomes guardian of an abandoned baby girl she calls Turtle. In Tucson they encounter an extraordinary array of people, and with their help, Taylor builds herself and her sweet, stunned child, a life.

Okay, full disclosure: I have no idea how this book came into my life. It’s been sitting on my shelf for years, slowly working its way up my reading list, and the beginning of this week was it’s moment. I wasn’t excited; the cover and the blurb combined allowed me to generalise this novel into something I knew I wouldn’t enjoy. 

Then I read the first line - I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine’s father over the top of the Standard Oil sign - and I knew I had something special in my hands.

And, truly, it’s that first line which epitomises our narrator. She’s something else. The entire narrative was peppered with odd thoughts, sarcastic comments, and naive (sometimes contrasting) ideas. I loved her. Although she was sassy, she was so pure of heart, so raw. The lessons she learns throughout the pages are important, but what’s more important is how she reacts to them. Her growth was stupendous, and yet she kept her perfect personality right up until the last line.

On the surface, this book is about motherhood, and females holding each other up. Digging deeper, however, there’s commentary on human rights, on immigration laws, and just plainly comments around how a person is a person, no matter their origin story. Taylor’s naivety in these particular areas was powerful; her confusion at America’s refusal to allow people to settle, and that the government actually hunted these people down, was pure as hell, and difficult to disagree with.

Each of Kingsolver’s characters had their own purity, despite their flaws. I loved each of them deeply, and Kingsolver’s expert way of writing their dialogue was a huge factor in that. They were so realistic, so utterly human, that it was impossible for any other emotion to come out. I may even end up naming my first child Turtle.

A beautiful, gorgeous, masterpiece of a book. I could go on forever about how much I loved it without actually pinpointing what I loved in particular. I feel this review is a failure because I can’t seem to articulate what that was. It was everything, it was glorious; I’m devastated I’ve come to the end. 

It’s the kind of book you finish and mourn because you feel as though you’ve left your friends behind.  

Monday, 21 January 2019

Book #06

The Skald’s Black Verse by Jordan Loyal Short

When a sinister creature murders one of the conquerors’ soldiers, Brohr’s violent reputation makes him the prime suspect. Haunted by a rage-filled ghost, Brohr’s disturbing possessions quickly become the reason for all of his troubles…and the only way he can survive. With a grandfather bent on dragging him into a failed rebellion, and a deadly comet hurtling toward his embattled world, Brohr sets off on a quest to save his people and uncover the truth about a war stretching back into the ancient past. Can he discover the true power of a Skald’s voice before the world itself ends in ash and flame?

This is an incredibly dark fantasy novel, rippling with violent magic and political malevolence. 

Short is an excellent builder of worlds; the detail on Skolja’s past was intricate and encompassing. Their religion, their servitude, their closeted family secrets. All were very carefully placed and explained by Short, ensuring a well developed and intriguing world for us to find ourselves in. It’s clear he’s taken pains with it; his love shines through every single meticulous detail.

The plot itself is confusing to begin with, and it isn’t until around halfway through the story that we begin to find our path. This isn’t a bad thing as such; the initial chaos and confusion lend themselves to the characters’ own panics, and allow us time to understand motive and setting. I did feel, however, once the real journey had begun, the tension and twists began to ebb, and the momentum fell away for me slightly.

Short’s writing is clean and raw, and he particularly impressed me during the action sequences. I also enjoyed the quotes from (fictional) historic or religious texts at the beginning of each chapter. It helped again to build this world and understand the characters’ ways of thinking.

Character background and development felt a bit lacking (I would’ve liked more of Lyssa’s past to be communicated), but as the first book in a series, I imagine there is much more to come. I truly hope Short will rise above the mundane and avoid any romantic scenes in the sequel. 

I can predict great things for the rest of this series; if an author is willing to kill a dog (much to my disgust, I should add), he is willing to do anything. 

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Book #05

The World is Full of Foolish Men by Jean de la Fontaine

An illustrated collection of fables from one of France's most vital writers.

This was such a delightful little collection of moralistic fables. They were even written as poetry and I was able to get into them – a success.

The collection included many tales which have transformed into well-known stories, or even sayings. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush; the tortoise and the hare; the town mouse and the country mouse. I enjoyed knowing these tales in advance, and yet reading them for the first time in de la Fontaine’s words. The illustrations here were also a complete bonus for me; they were gorgeous. I particularly enjoyed the ant in the dress.

My favourite tale was that of a gardener becoming friends with a bear, which had a disastrous, yet hilarious, finale, and put across the moral of choosing your friends wisely.

I was given some rather scathing and old-fashioned opinions of women, which I will grudgingly forget due to, y’know, the seventeenth century.

A lovely collection of illustrated fables with some old-fashioned morals alongside some which will stand the test of time. A true worthwhile addition to the Little Black Classics range.

An enemy with common sense
Is far less dangerous than a friend who’s dense.

Monday, 14 January 2019

Book #04

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize, The Age of Innocence is Edith Wharton’s masterful portrait of desire and betrayal during the sumptuous Golden Age of Old New York, a time when society people “dreaded scandal more than disease.”
This is Newland Archer’s world as he prepares to marry the beautiful but conventional May Welland. But when the mysterious Countess Ellen Olenska returns to New York after a disastrous marriage, Archer falls deeply in love with her. Torn between duty and passion, Archer struggles to make a decision that will either courageously define his life—or mercilessly destroy it.

I love nothing more in a classic novel than learning of the societal customs of the time. Attending parties at the home of someone who isn’t on one of the higher rungs of the social ladder? Frosty. Divorcing your husband no matter how badly he treated you? Shunned. Travelling to Paris to buy a dress and then wearing it straight away? Oh, bitch.

Wharton addresses all of these blunders in The Age of Innocence, and I was living for it all. Her irony in her descriptions, the hypocrisy of her characters, and the utterly glorious dead-pan ways in which they chastise each other, are all completely delicious.

Newland Archer, our protagonist, is a man of high standing who abides by form. He is not a man to shirk his moral code, nor the rules of New York. After meeting Madame Olenska, and witnessing her solid refusal to conform, we see him make drastic transformations. It was a delight to follow along with his contrasting and ever-changing opinions of the metaphorical cage he had been born into.

There are wonderful commentaries on the institution of marriage, on female emancipation, and on the social boundaries prevalent at the time. Wharton mixes her wit and irony with beautiful writing and dialogue; everything positioned perfectly to best make a mockery of the strict unwritten guidelines adhered to (mostly) by her characters.

A masterpiece, gorgeous, filled with brilliance. Wharton is a genius in my eyes, and I can see this as a novel I will return to time and time again, noticing even more analysis of scandal each time. 

Monday, 7 January 2019

Book #03

Before You Sleep: Three Horrors by Adam L.G. Nevill

A trilogy of horror stories from the award-winning writer’s first collection of short stories - Some Will Not Sleep - and an introduction to the nightmarish visions and ghastly spectres that have been disturbing the sleep of readers for years.

I picked this up during a recent mass-download of free Kindle books. I’m not sure what possessed me, as it would be appropriate to say I’m scared of my own shadow. My partner works away, and I’m alone in the house a lot, screaming at ‘figures’ which are usually just clothes piled on a chair, or ‘spooky noises’ which are usually just neighbours moving around upstairs. What I’m trying to say is, Before You Sleep did not help with my nocturnal fright. In fact, forget nocturnal, I could barely read this during the day, not even in public.

Each of the stories had vague and unsettling conclusions, where the reader is unable to quite understand what happened. This felt frustrating to begin with, but on reflection it was a masterstroke of Nevill’s, adding feelings of displacement and confusion.

Of the three, the first story, Where Angels Come In, was the most fear-inducing for me. With a true gothic feel, Nevill gives us an abandoned house on a hill with macabre stories attached to it. The fun truly began when two schoolboys decided to break in for a laugh. Laugh, I did not. Without giving too much away, Nevill’s skill here is the tension-building, the descriptions of setting and the otherworldly beings belonging to the house. His knack of describing these things and, most horrifyingly, the way they moved, had me reading in a corner to avoid anything coming up behind me. Utterly nightmarish.

Story two, Ancestors, featured two factors which are on my list of horror kryptonite – a spooky ghost child, and toys which come to life. When Nevill described the sound of these toys click-clacking across a wooden floor in the middle of the night, all of my body parts melted down into pulp. Despite my complete terror, this was one I was desperate to find out more about – a definite contender for a longer exploration.

Finally, Flossie leads us to wonder whether a house, with everything the walls have seen and absorbed, can become a being of its own. I don’t want to give too much away on this one, as the premise hit me out of nowhere. Absolutely not a standard ghost story, and all the more grotesque for that reason. My house is a converted home for guide dogs, so I’m very concerned about what’s going to happen to me.

For a freebie, this was excellent. Although I was at my wits end, reading in corners with all the lights on, I was engaged, intrigued, and compelled to finish the stories. To my delight (for now), I discovered Nevill has another collection, Before You Wake, which is also available for free at the moment. I plan to delve into that once I’ve steeled myself again. 

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Book #02

The Body Politic by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

In this selection from The Social Contract, Rousseau asserts that a state's only legitimate political authority comes from its people.

I wouldn’t exactly call myself a political person, but the work which inspired the French Revolution isn’t really something I could pass over.

My first observation, very early into Rousseau’s work, was how difficult it was to read. Although eloquent, the writing is long and winding, repetitive in places, and he seemed to take a long time to make his point. Upon reaching the point, I was enthralled, but getting there required a good few sentence re-reads to ensure I was following along properly. Whether the work itself is at fault, or my own intelligence, I have no idea and would prefer to keep it that way.

The second observation I had was how relevant this commentary still is today. Written in the late 1700s, Rosseau speaks of people thinking they are free, when in fact, they are enslaved by their government. He describes the lack of true democracy, and speaks of power and greed. This work details factually how his vision of a government could survive and flourish, yet there is high optimism here that we could eradicate the bad seeds.

A fascinating essay if you can stick at it – perhaps I’d have fared better had I been more politically minded. 

Friday, 4 January 2019

Book #01

Glue by Irvine Welsh

Glue is the story of four boys growing up in the Edinburgh schemes, and about the loyalties, the experiences - and the secrets - that hold them together into their thirties. Four boys becoming men: Juice Terry, the work-shy fanny-merchant, with corkscrew curls and sticky fingers; Billy the boxer: driven, controlled, playing to his strengths; Carl, the Milky Bar Kid, drifting along to his own soundtrack; and the doomed Gally - who has one less skin than everyone else and seems to find catastrophe at every corner. As we follow their lives from the seventies into the new century - from punk to techno, from speed to Es - we can see each of them trying to struggle out from under the weight of the conditioning of class and culture, peer pressure and their parents' hopes that maybe their sons will do better than they did.

I’ve always found Glue to be markedly different from Welsh’s other works. Its slow burning plot and in-depth character development contrast with the usual swedgein and paggerin.

We’re given four boys as kids in the seventies and watch them grow up into the early 00s. The depth is unreal; their families, their needs, their longings, their enemies, all seem to interlink as the four of them traverse the cracked pavements of life together. As they disperse and come back together at various points over the years, the same rules apply, and the same things seem just as important as they did years ago.

Where other Welsh novels are heavily plot driven, Glue is solely about the characters, with the plot occurring in the same way real life does - sporadically. It reads as an intense study of their lives, where everything went right, and where everything fell apart. There’s an intimate feel to each character’s narrative; you know him so well you’re pals with him.

A special mention has to be made for mad shagger, Juice Terry Lawson, who, of the four boys, is probably the most famous in the Welsh universe (see:
A Decent Ride). That is one origin story I was keen to explore; Terry’s desires and exploits barely shift throughout the years, and although he’s an unlikeable character, he is utter class. Seeing his roots and his growth was brilliant, and his redemption in the Glue finale was (if a word like this can be used for Lawson) heart-rending.

Welsh hits us with profound commentary on growing older, which hits hard. The passing of time is a dick to us all, but we’re reminded of factors which could have made things much worse had we encountered them growing up, or had we encountered them without the glue of our pals. That these factors played their part in setting the direction of the boys’ lives seems unfair, yet completely realistic.

Although some Trainspotting characters make cameo appearances, alongside a very small one from top favourite, Filth’s Bob Toal, Glue isn’t prescribed the same anarchy or disgust, nor does it depend whatsoever on characters and references from other novels. This one is about growing up in the scheme, defending your pals, and making life or death mistakes.

Back up yir mates, never cross a picket line, never hit a lassie, never shop anyone to the polis - friend or foe.