Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Book #16

Two Can Keep A Secret by Karen M. McManus

Echo Ridge is reeling.

This picturesque town, nestled near the Canadian border, experienced its first tragic loss in 1995 when high school senior Sarah Corcoran vanished while walking home from the library.

Then five years ago, homecoming queen Lacey Kilduff was found dead in the aptly named Murderland Halloween park.
Now, the killer claims to be back.
A small town that keeps losing its homecoming queens.
Two murders, still unsolved.

I read McManus’s debut One Of Us Is Lying last year, and was blown away. I let a friend borrow it recently, which prompted her to buy Two Can Keep a Secret. It’s very rare people lend me books, so I was delighted to borrow this one.

This little sister has a similar feel to its predecessor; high school, mystery, death, and (my champion of narrative devices), alternating perspectives. I was really into the plot and, since I was desperate to solve the mystery, devoured this in a few days. It’s sure to do well in the YA community with its active storyline and tense undercurrent. 

Despite the above, there was something a lot slower in this plot. It ticked along nicely, and engaged me, but there was a lack of the what the fuck twisty moments, red herrings, and total curveballs I so loved in One of Us Is Lying. Where the debut featured multiple perspectives, Two Can Keep a Secret gave only two, relatively similar, views on the murderous goings on. Here, you know who to trust.

Where One Of Us Is Lying had characters mostly fitting neat stereotypes, McManus has done well here to give us a far more diverse cast in terms of race and sexuality. Although race and sexuality varied across the characters, each of them came across as pretty underdeveloped; I think some more exploration into each of their personalities would have had an excellent benefit into what McManus was trying to achieve here. 

And then I got to the utterly chilling final sentence of the novel, and I was struck by this masterstroke. What a way to leave a reader, what a diabolically frightening way to end a novel. It was glorious, and I screamed on the train.

A good murder mystery which only really suffers from the syndrome of having to live up to an older sibling. I enjoyed the fast pace and the simple narrative here, and although it isn’t the most jaw-dropping thriller to grace YA fiction, I think it’s a worthwhile use of reading time.

Thursday, 21 February 2019

Book #15

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

A carefree Russian official has what seems to be a trivial accident.

Russian literature is both feared and underrated; I have been guilty of both in my time. It’s untrue; completely untrue - the truth is Russian literature is masterful. I am yet to find a Russian novel that didn’t throw me around with its satire, commentary, and genius.

Even so, I underestimated this one from the beginning. I didn’t expect The Death of Ivan Ilyich to be a satirical look at elite society, an immoral display of artificiality, and a pure message to just live your life

Ivan Ilyich is a respected professional, flying high in society. He lives as his peers would expect him to, furnishes his home in the way everyone else in high society does, and behaves exactly the same as everyone else. After an accident, and a long illness, he finds himself staring Death in the face, and is forced to examine his life and how he truly lived. His transformation was incredible.

My favourite of Tolstoy’s manoeuvres here was his clever use of structure to ring the death knell. Beginning the novel with the death itself, and transporting us back in time to witness the accident renders the death inevitable from the beginning. He describes the years of Ivan Ilyich’s life as a young man spanning several chapters, yet after the accident, speeds things along remarkably, even starting chapters with lines such as “A fortnight passed,” hurtling us towards the irrevocable outcome powerlessly. In addition, the twelve chapters each become shorter and shorter as we progress, creating a chronological claustrophobia, and working nicely with the way Tolstoy begins to sprint through Ivan Ilyich’s remaining days. Death is almost here, he says, and we feel each of Ivan Ilyich’s regrets and remonstrations keenly.

I found some factors here reminiscent of A Christmas Carol, and was delighted to learn afterwards that Tolstoy was a huge Dickens fan. It’s likely he’s taken some inspiration from the famous tale of Scrooge - I love the thought of this.

Another wonderful addition to the Little Black Classics range. I will continue my crusade of Russian literature promotion and dispelling of fears. Absolutely gorgeous.

Monday, 18 February 2019

Book #14

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Enid Lambert is terribly, terribly anxious. Although she would never admit it to her neighbors or her three grown children, her husband, Alfred, is losing his grip on reality. Maybe it's the medication that Alfred takes for his Parkinson's disease, or maybe it's his negative attitude, but he spends his days brooding in the basement and committing shadowy, unspeakable acts. More and more often, he doesn't seem to understand a word Enid says.
Trouble is also brewing in the lives of Enid's children. Her older son, Gary, a banker in Philadelphia, has turned cruel and materialistic and is trying to force his parents out of their old house and into a tiny apartment. The middle child, Chip, has suddenly and for no good reason quit his exciting job as a professor at D------ College and moved to New York City, where he seems to be pursuing a "transgressive" lifestyle and writing some sort of screenplay. Meanwhile the baby of the family, Denise, has escaped her disastrous marriage only to pour her youth and beauty down the drain of an affair with a married man--or so Gary hints.
Enid, who loves to have fun, can still look forward to a final family Christmas and to the ten-day Nordic Pleasurelines Luxury Fall Color Cruise that she and Alfred are about to embark on. But even these few remaining joys are threatened by her husband's growing confusion and unsteadiness. As Alfred enters his final decline, the Lamberts must face the failures, secrets, and long-buried hurts that haunt them as a family if they are to make the corrections that each desperately needs.

This was a leap of faith for me. Almost seven hundred pages from an author I’d tried once before (The Discomfort Zone) and hated. I was going on the basis of the praise emblazoned on the cover, and the excellent reviews I’d read; both of which, I know from experience, are seriously untrustworthy.

Gloriously, wonderfully, magnificently, The Corrections turned out to be a labour of love. Franzen explores the Lambert family’s depths and disasters. He throws out entirely the idea of a plot, of anything remotely linear, in fact of anything resembling a structure whatsoever. It’s an analysis of relationships, health, and how we relate to one another.

Each of the Lamberts are deplorable in their own way. The parents exude a selfishness, a blatant refusal to accept change, a maddening yearning for how things used to be, and a firm belief in their own moral standpoints. The (grown up) kids are merely guilty of inheriting selfishness from these two, projecting it into adult life, and finding the consequences of such behaviours didn’t actually suit them. It was gorgeous.

As I learned more about the characters, and as I traversed with them each idiotic mistake they made, I was able to connect these with their childhood, and with the rest of the family. Each reaction, each predicament, could almost be predicted due to the vast level of knowledge I had on each of them - except one.

Albert, the Lambert patriarch, was an enigma. Battling with Parkinson’s and the onset of dementia, Franzen paints a devastating picture of the impact they had on Albert. The subtleties increasing until the family could no longer refuse to accept the situation was executed perfectly, and evoked a lot of emotion in me. It was very well done.

This isn’t a book for everyone. It needs investment, patience, and an expectation to encounter a study rather than a story. I found it so worthwhile, and I feel more energised to take more poorly informed leaps of faith in future.

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Book #13

To Be Read at Dusk by Charles Dickens

Three ghostly tales from a master of the form, 'The Signalman', 'The Trial for Murder' and the title story, 'To Be Read at Dusk'.

This was a joy. Although, what else can one really expect from Dickens?

Anyone who’s had the pleasure to read A Christmas Carol can appreciate the mastery Dickens applies to a ghost story. Penguin have included three of his haunting short stories in this addition to the Little Black Classics range. And, since I’ve been growing increasingly disinterested in the range itself, I was very glad they did.

Although none of the three can be described as terrifying, there are underlying tones of tension and unease throughout all of the stories. Dickens knows how to unsettle, how to perfectly add feelings of the unnatural, and how to expertly garner engagement. I’d never thought to seek out any shorter works of Dickens, but after writing this, seeking out more (ghostly or otherwise) is the first thing I’ll do.

I couldn’t pick a favourite of these three; his skill permeated each of them in equal measures. His stiff upper lipped protagonists being faced with the inexplicable was just completely gorgeous, and his writing, as ever, was completely flawless.

An utter master of fiction, and my one true love. Happy birthday, baby.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Book #12

The Silver Mask by Christian Ellingsen

The gods and goddesses are dead, killed two hundred years ago. 
With their destruction the moon split apart, the sun dwindled and the land was devastated. Civilisation has re-emerged from the carnage, but twisted creatures still prowl the savage Wildlands between the city-states. 
In the skies above the city of Vasini, a falling star, a fragment of the dead moon goddess Serindra, heads to earth. In the Palace district, Dame Vittoria Emerson, darling of the city, has been found dead, lying amongst her own vomit. 
As Captain Marcus Fox of the Inspectorate hunts the killer, Dr. Elizabeth Reid searches for the remnants of Serindra determined to make sure the poisonous quicksilver it contains is not used. With Vittoria’s death threatening to draw the city’s political elite into a war of assassins, Fox and Reid must rush to expose the secrets that lie within Vasini before they tear the city-state apart. 

What an utter marvel this is; I’m still in awe. 

I’ve read a lot of fantasy recently, a lot of it being through authors requesting reviews as Ellingsen has done here. The Silver Mask is utterly unique in its charm; not many fantasy novels feature murder mysteries alongside falling stars and terrifying hybrid creatures, yet here we are. There is something in this fantasy which doesn’t feel fantasy at all - it feels real, and this was Ellingsen’s triumph.

His crafting of Vasini is stellar. Their political factions, their rebels, their elite, their peasants - all were given to us in a beautifully believable box, and I loved learning about this society. Ellingsen peppers the pages with letters, newspaper articles, and other documents to help us learn of Vasini’s history, and to help us understand the motivations of his characters. This felt very much like a ‘show don’t tell’ approach, which I’m always irrevocably on board with.

My only complaint here is in relation to these documents. I was sent a digital copy, and most of the letters and articles are maddeningly difficult to read in this format, purely due to size. It would be helpful if they were enlarged slightly; this would have stopped the stares in public as I sat with my nose inches from my Kindle, reading the words aloud. Although there are worse sights on Glaswegian public transport; I have seen them personally.

The plot is fast moving, engaging, and completely addictive. Ellingsen favours short, snappy, sectioned off chapters, flitting through locations and perspectives to give us a rounded view of what we’re dealing with. He organically brings characters together, raising tension, and making the story one which is absolutely impossible to tear yourself away from.

The characters were gorgeous, raw, and magnificently flawed, yet slightly lacking in backstory. I’m torn with this thought as I’m unsure whether in-depth explorations of their pasts would have added to the plot, or have slowed it down and affected the deep engagement I had in the storyline. It’s also worthwhile remembering this is the first of a series, so perhaps deep dives into the characters’ past lives are still to come.

Again, a marvel. I am so pleased to have been asked to read this, and I am very much looking forward to reading more about Vasini.