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.” 

Monday, 7 October 2019

Book #75

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

Will Grayson meets Will Grayson. One cold night, in a most unlikely corner of Chicago, two strangers are about to cross paths. From that moment on, their world will collide and lives intertwine.
It's not that far from Evanston to Naperville, but Chicago suburbanites Will Grayson and Will Grayson might as well live on different planets. When fate delivers them both to the same surprising crossroads, the Will Graysons find their lives overlapping and hurtling in new and unexpected directions. With a push from friends new and old - including the massive, and massively fabulous, Tiny Cooper, offensive lineman and musical theater auteur extraordinaire - Will and Will begin building toward respective romantic turns-of-heart and the epic production of history's most awesome high school musical.

As someone who is fairly militant about despising John Green books, I was surprised to find this one strangely okay.

Of course, we have our usual cringeworthy incorrectness, here taking the form of fat-shaming, hints of homophobia, and ‘not like other girls’ rhetoric; the kind of stuff you wouldn’t want the target audience absorbing.

Despite his constant failings to prevent his inner bias seeping through, and his lacking capability of understanding how real teenagers think and behave, I found the plot quite heartwarming and adorable. Maybe it was just the kind of mindless drivel I needed at this point in time.

Dealing with catfishing (where are Nev and Max when you need them?), coming out, friendship struggles, and general teenage angst, Green gives us some likable, yet slightly unrelatable, characters. I liked seeing them fall apart and come together again, and there really was something there which made me just want everything to be okay.

Nothing high-brow, nothing poignant, nothing even remotely relatable, and yet a nice easy, heartwarming read. Maybe the next time a Green novel wings its way to the top of my pile, I won’t meet it with such disdain.

Thursday, 3 October 2019

Book #74

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

In a London flat, two young boys face the unbearable sadness of their mother's sudden death. Their father, a Ted Hughes scholar and scruffy romantic, imagines a future of well-meaning visitors and emptiness.
In this moment of despair they are visited by Crow - antagonist, trickster, healer, babysitter. This self-described sentimental bird is attracted to the grieving family and threatens to stay until they no longer need him. As weeks turn to months and physical pain of loss gives way to memories, this little unit of three begin to heal.

A father and his two sons lose their wife and mother. A crow arrives to guide them through the initial stages of the grieving process. What follows is a beautiful yet heartbreaking view into their lives after the loss, the processing, the hope, the memory. I was captivated.

Although taking the form of a novella, this felt very much like a toe in the waters of poetry. There were some really gorgeous lyrical moments, alongside some very clever and impactful prose. Porter’s skill is glorious, and unmistakable on every page. The pain and confusion of grief is depicted all too well, and yet in such a rare way that it feels unfamiliar and raw.

The narrative is split into three voices - Dad, Boys, Crow. This allows us to see the different ways in which Dad and the boys are coping with their grief - the kids buoyant, Dad numb - and Crow’s cryptic interpretations on their progress and current states. It allows for empathy, allows us to grieve alongside them, and allows us to also struggle.

I imagine one could take more from this having read Ted Hughes’ Crow; I haven’t. Yet Crow seems perfect here to an amateur, as though no other bird could do. We couldn’t have a robin, a dove, a peacock. Crow’s darkness and vulgarity can cast him in only one feathered form.

I missed her so much that I wanted to build a hundred-foot memorial to her with my bare hands. I wanted to see her sitting in a vast stone chair in Hyde Park, enjoying her view. Everybody passing could comprehend how much I miss her. How physical my missing is. I miss her so much it is a vast golden prince, a concert hall, a thousand trees, a lake, nine thousand buses, a million cars, twenty million birds and more. The whole city is my missing her. 

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Book #73

The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry

Edinburgh, 1847. City of Medicine, Money, Murder.

Young women are being discovered dead across the Old Town, all having suffered similarly gruesome ends. In the New Town, medical student Will Raven is about to start his apprenticeship with the brilliant and renowned Dr Simpson.
It is here that Raven meets housemaid Sarah Fisher, who recognises trouble when she sees it and takes an immediate dislike to him. She has all of his intelligence but none of his privileges, in particular his medical education.
With each having their own motive to look deeper into these deaths, Raven and Sarah find themselves propelled headlong into the darkest shadows of Edinburgh's underworld, where they will have to overcome their differences if they are to make it out alive.

What a wonderful walk through the Victorian streets of Edinburgh. This is one of my favourite eras to read, but rarely do I find one set in streets I’ve walked myself.

Our protagonist, and many other characters here, are medical men. I found it fascinating to read of the methods employed in those days - amputation with an audience is a particularly shocking example - and relished in the knowledge of how far we’ve come. Enthralling as they were, I did feel as though the medical descriptions were at the forefront of the prose, forcing the criminal aspects to take a backseat.

Medicine and medical procedures are an integral part of the plot and subsequent mysteries here. It’s an original twist on the old murder mystery, and the prose supported the gloom of it with its atmospheric, and sometimes quite bleak and chilling, word choice and structure.

The commentary on social customs here was exquisite - a real view of social class, gender, and the measures people would take to elevate their social standing. Even the wealthy and successful had ferocious appetites to gain more wealth, and more success. The focus here is on women as victims, and women as the oppressed; our female protagonist was given to us as a real breaker of chains, and I loved her for it.

I really would have liked the crime to have taken more precedent over the medical explanations, but this series has real potential purely down to the skill of the writers. I plan to read the sequel, The Art of Dying (ominous), very soon.