Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Book #32

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

After eighteen years as a political prisoner in the Bastille, the ageing Doctor Manette is finally released and reunited with his daughter in England. There the lives of two very different men, Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer, become enmeshed through their love for Lucie Manette. From the tranquil roads of London, they are drawn against their will to the vengeful, bloodstained streets of Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror, and they soon fall under the lethal shadow of La Guillotine.

I found this particular Dickens incredibly difficult to read in comparison to his other works. Writing of the French Revolution, namely the storming of the Bastille, took us out of Dickens’s usual setting, and also seemed to dictate a change in style. The difficulty, and the change, however, did not in any way lessen the joy I always feel when absorbing a Dickens novel.

The deep, almost inquisitive, characterisation Dickens is known to employ is lacking here. He chooses to characterise through plot, through reactions to events, and through choices. The characters were glorious; some simple caricatures, some complex and redemptive. The usual humour present in other works is entirely missing here - the subject matter being entirely too dark to find any light within.

Dickens portrays the gory revolution perfectly, and his social commentary is exquisite. Mob mentality was particularly prevalent; that, and the conditions which caused the revolt, were laid out in stark detail, and I was utterly fascinated. There’s one memorable scene where a mass of peasants are sharpening their weapons on a grindstone; it’s laid out in such a horrifying manner that it’s almost impossible to eradicate from your mind. Despite Dickens’s refusal to sugarcoat anything here, he presents a balanced view of both peasants and aristocrats, depicting the trials placed upon the upper classes with an unparalleled tension, and a notion of them having been unavoidable: 

Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious licence and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.

It’s a slog through misery in the first two thirds of the novel, without a single glimmer of hope. When I managed to pick the book up, I read enthralled, but it often took some time to convince myself to continue reading. Such terror, such madness, such blood. And yet, the final section of the book redeems all. The misery continues, but the masterstrokes Dickens employs here are absolutely gorgeous, shocking, and breathtaking. I was in complete awe at his skill.

A very dark, very different Dickens, and yet something to be treasured. God bless Sydney Carton. 

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Book #31

A Modern Detective by Edgar Allan Poe

In these two stories gentleman sleuth C. Auguste Dupin, the first fictional detective, investigates the death of a young girl and the grisly murders in the Rue Morgue.

I had read both of these short stories towards the end of last year, so I’ll keep this review short and simply regurgitate what I said in my review of The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

Poe’s mastery is best displayed in macabre tales of the supernatural, such as The Tell-Tale Heart. His detective tales are arduous, wordy, and entirely soul-destroying to me. Dupin, as a famous sleuth, has nothing of the same charm and draw as other fictional detectives I could mention. Both of these stories are solved for the reader through Dupin’s lengthy monologues, and it’s just incredibly tiring. 

Pick up a weird Poe, not a crime-solving Poe. 

Monday, 22 April 2019

Book #30

Mr Toppit by Charles Elton

When the author of The Hayseed Chronicles, Arthur Hayman, is mown down by a concrete truck in Soho, his legacy passes to his widow, Martha, and her children - the fragile Rachel, and Luke, reluctantly immortalised as Luke Hayseed, the central character of his father's books. But others want their share, particularly Laurie, who has a mysterious agenda of her own that changes all their lives. For buried deep in the books lie secrets which threaten to be revealed as the family begins to crumble under the heavy burden of their inheritance.

This is such a strange little book, which I cannot say with certainty I enjoyed completely. I’ve been left feeling very confused, and mildly frustrated.

Elton tells of an author of children’s novels who passes away after an accident. We’re presented with the fallout’s impact on his family, and his posthumous rise to fame. The family are dysfunctional to say the least, and we see how the death of the patriarch affects the tumbling of subsequent events.

The plot follows a multiple voice narrative, which I welcomed originally, and yet became wildly irritated by. The sequences are jarring, disconnected, and strange, with most of the characters seeming utterly superfluous and, quite frankly, pointless. 

There’s a lot of commentary on fame, and how the public and private lives of celebrity can collide. Elton’s presentation of Luke, who was immortalised in his father’s work, and his sister Rachel, who wasn’t, was worthy of deep contemplation after seeing both of their ultimate fates.

I’m still unsure how I feel, but I’d be loathe to recommend this to someone. Sold to me as a dark look into a fantasy novel having parallels with real life, what was actually portrayed was a deep dive into the life of a troubled family. A very strange book. 

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Book #29

Kidnapped by Olaudah Equiano

The searing autobiography of Olaudah Equiano - African slave, sailor, and finally a free man - which fuelled the eighteenth-century abolitionist movement.

A harrowing autobiographical insight into Equiano’s kidnap as a young man, and subsequent life as a slave.

The writing is raw and simplistic, lending feelings of astonishment in response to the situations and behaviours he relates to us. It’s always unsettling to me reading of historical mistreatment such as this. I try to be shocked at my ancestors, but, knowing my ancestors to be what they were (amongst other things - the worst kind of people), I can’t conjure shock, only disgust. I felt deeply for Equiano, finding sections difficult to swallow, but with no surprise in my stomach. 

Penguin have taken sections from the full length autobiography in order to compile Kidnapped, and (despite having never read The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, and therefore being unable to comment on its entirety) I feel they’ve once again botched this by throwing sections in at random, and not taking care over what’s included. I understand a lot of Equiano’s life was spent on the sea, so he will speak a lot of sea voyages, and it’s important these are documented. Despite that, I felt Penguin should have focused more on him as a person, the relationships he built, the struggles he faced, and his feelings, rather than choosing to throw a load of sea battle chapters at us. We weren’t even permitted to read of his ultimate liberation.

I’ll definitely be seeking out The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, as I feel this is an important work from what I’ve read so far, having had strong influences in the abolitionist movement. I also feel, from Penguin’s poor cut and paste job, that I’ve missed learning something of great significance. It’s only more ammunition for my argument that the Little Black Classics range has been a crippling disappointment.

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Book #28

The Blighted City by Scott Kaelen

To challenge the gods is to invite their wrath. 
So it is written of Lachyla, the Blighted City, in the Codex of the Ages. But who reads codices? And who really believes the tall stories of the Taleweavers?

Kaelen has weaved wonder with this one.

Three fleeblades accept a quest to enter an abandoned city and retrieve a burial stone. Despite the death’s head symbol imprinted on every known map of the place, the freeblades set out confident in their skills and experience, planning to bring the stone home for a hefty payment. Things go sour very quickly, and the freeblades soon realise the reasons for the city’s desertion as they become embroiled in its histories. This is all I can give you without spoiling the gorgeous experience of this novel.

Initially, I plodded along with this, failing to connect with the plot or the characters. But, in a true fantasy slow-burn fashion, Kaelen dribbled subtle taunts into his prose, eked out the personalities of the characters, and teased me with lore until I was utterly engrossed, and desperately in love with the characters.

Kaelen uses the perspective of three different groups to expand our perspective, and this worked incredibly well in building tension and foreshadowing. Their differing viewpoints were explored, allowing us to compare and contrast, and to sympathise or condemn as we see fit.

His scene setting was to die for. Entering the city of Lachyla with the trio, I immediately felt the gloom, I could smell the horror, and even taste the dead. His intricate descriptions of the desolation lent a perfect ability to visualise and step into his world.

My only criticism would be the drawn-out ending; I felt things could have been tied up more quickly, and there were a few extraneous moments which could have been removed completely. There was no negative impact to my overall enjoyment of the novel, but I did feel tightening up the ending could have created more of a final impact.

There are some really important questions asked here on enjoying and appreciating life. Would you want to live forever, or for a short, fulfilled, time? On closing the book, I felt mournful and thoughtful in equal measures, and it’s important to remember that when there’s a choice to be made, not everyone decides upon the same path.

I really enjoyed this introduction to Kaelen’s work, and I’m very grateful to have been asked to review this. He hints of other places within the vicinity of Lachyla, and I can only hope we get to see some of these places in the next instalment.

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Book #27

The Yellow Book

Offering an entertaining introduction to the fin-de-si├Ęcle, this selection from the notorious magazine The Yellow Book includes stories and poems by famous writers such as Arnold Bennett and John Buchan, brilliant pieces by lesser-known writers such as Ada Leverson and Ella D'Arcy, and illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley.

I hadn’t heard of The Yellow Book before picking this up, and its story is absolutely fascinating.

Launched in 1894, The Yellow Book was a literary magazine filled with prose, poetry, and illustrations from some seriously distinguished contributors such as Henry James and H.G. Wells. Its yellow cover was controversially chosen as a not so subtle nod to the yellow covers of French erotic fiction. Notably, Oscar Wilde was reported to have been arrested whilst carrying a copy of The Yellow Book, but unsurprisingly this turned out to be a copy of a yellow-covered illicit novel.

The notoriety attached to the quarterly doesn’t seem to be derived from its content (excepting the alluring and provoking illustrations from Beardsley), but rather its cover, its female writers, and its introduction of new ideas and movements.

Penguin have included some prose, poetry, and illustrations in this little glimpse into what The Yellow Book had to offer its readers. The prose detailed tragedy, machinations, and even the supernatural. Beardsley’s illustrations were gorgeous in their simplicity, and it was clear to see why they would have caused a few blushes in the 1890s. Even the poetry enthralled me - particularly Stella Maris by Arthur Symons - poetry evoking anything is me is an unheard of phenomenon.

Including some of The Yellow Book’s offerings in the Little Black Classics range has been a masterstroke by Penguin; it’s piqued my interest, taught me something, and has made me determined to read more from this infamous periodical. I can’t say every one of these little black books has intrigued me in such a way, but this was my main purpose of making my way through the range, so my faith has been somewhat restored. Perhaps I should move from black books to yellow ones.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Book #26

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph? 

I have recently found myself in a strange fascination with Henry’s reign, due for the most part to my stunning discovery of Six: the Musical. I knew I had a few fictional novels chronicling those times, so I decided to dig out Wolf Hall and get going - wow.

This book is enchanting and taxing in equal measures. Cromwell has been logged in the history books as one utterly bad dude, and yet Mantel manages to render him human; a man doing his job. He’s low-born, and practically emotionless, yet this ability to feel nothing is an invaluable asset in this cutthroat world. He shoots rapidly up the Tudor ladder until he’s almost sitting in the king’s lap. I felt like a spy in the camp, following his political and social decision making, and it was bloody glorious.

However, it’s quite a challenge to become acquainted with Mantel’s writing style here. Although it’s beautifully structured and incredibly engaging, she opts to refer to Cromwell for the most part as ‘he’. Despite occasionally clarifying with a rare ‘he, Cromwell’, this lends a very confusing aspect to situations where there are a number of males in the room - which is, regrettably, a frequent occurrence.

Patience is essential in reading Wolf Hall. You need to reread; you need to understand completely what’s happening, and that sometimes doesn’t happen immediately. There’s long heavy prose on politics (to quote Anne from Six: “Politics? Not my thing.”), and a huge number of characters to remember - most of whom are referred to at times by title, and at times by name. It doesn’t help that about 80% of them are called Thomas. Once all of the above is grasped, you’ll experience a gorgeous immersion in history.

I must admit, Wolf Hall has made me realise my main interest in Henry’s reign doesn’t have anything to do with Henry at all - it’s the wives. Although here we see Katherine’s downfall and Anne’s succession, a few strains are showing in marital life, and Jane is already beginning to show her face more. I understand the sequel’s focus is to be on Anne’s undoing, and let me tell you, I am here for it.

Don’t lose your head.