Thursday, 27 February 2020

Book #12

White Nights by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Two devastating Russian stories of solitude, unrequited love, and depravity from beyond the grave.

In White Nights, Dostoyevsky tells us of a dreamer, a loner, a man so used to his own imagination, that he becomes frightened and awkward when faced with true reality. We’re shown how such a man can become very miserable and alone, and how a chance encounter can give a man like this an entirely unbridled hope.

As always, Dostoyevsky really tears strips from the reader’s skin with his incorrigible insight into the human mind, and with his cruel plot direction. It’s almost as though he can see right through a human skull; the things he describes and undoubtedly understands about our psyche are impressive as well as frightening. He knows what he does to us with his plot decisions; he’s a ruthless genius of a man.

White Nights explores alienation, unrequited love, and the pain which arrives when a light of hope is extinguished. It’s beautiful and brutal all at once.

This edition also contained Botok, which I found both hilarious and unsettling. Attending a funeral, our protagonist suddenly discovers he can hear the voices of the dead from beneath the ground. They speak candidly and satirically about politics and aristocracy. It’s a quick jab at both of these things from Dostoyevsky, and although it’s a fun read, his commentary is clear. I would’ve liked this one to be longer, and for our protagonist to do what he aspires to, which is visit the graves of those from different classes - what would they have said?

A definite worthwhile inclusion in the Little Black Classics range - not many of them are. White Nights is 118th in the series and oh, faithful readers, I have almost completed this challenge.

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Book #11

Transfer from Alcatraz by Eddie Owens

The Private Eye: Caitlin “Red” Raeburn – ex-cop, mom, art lover and owner of the Raeburn Detective agency.
The Client: “I was involved in the deaths of eight men over fifty years ago.” Red is asked to find the evidence that will prove the historic events occurred.
The San Francisco 69ers: Red is assisted by her friends in the only LGBT motorcycle club in the world.
The Case: What seems like a routine case of background research soon turns into an action-packed search for the truth.
Faced with a warning to let the past stay buried, Red vows to follow her heart and find justice for the dead. 

I loved this new one from Owens.

Red is a private detective in San Francisco. Her most recent client is a kindly old gentleman who tells her he used to be the deputy warden in Alcatraz. He’s writing a book about his experiences, which contains some serious allegations of what went on there in the sixties. He understands his story is farfetched (to put it fucking mildly), and wants Red to help him find evidence to prove his claims. What follows is a plot full of madness, corruption, and shock after shock.

The world of private detection Owens gives us is thrilling. Add in an LGBT biker club full of some seriously serious people, a Homeland Security boyfriend who knows his shit, and a genius teenager on the autistic spectrum, and we honestly have one hell of a story.

With something constantly happening, the pace is absolutely spot on, and I quite honestly didn’t see any of the twists coming. I was carried along as though I were in the jaws of a beast, information persistently piercing my skull like teeth; all I could do was let it carry me away, and I loved it.

Owens’ characters, although not intensely explored, are all wonderful in their own way. He exposes their sores and shows us their motivations, making us understand and detest them all at once. I particularly loved all of the MC, and wanted to dig deeper into their backstories, as although what Owens did give us was gorgeous, I wanted much much more in my greed.

I’m so glad Owens considered me again for a review, and I can only hope (pray, beg) he writes another Red story so I can inhale it as deeply as I have this one. Thank you.

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Book #10

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Wise, funny, and heartbreaking, Persepolis is Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. In powerful black-and-white comic strip images, Satrapi tells the story of her life in Tehran from ages six to fourteen, years that saw the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, and the devastating effects of war with Iraq. The intelligent and outspoken only child of committed Marxists and the great-granddaughter of one of Iran’s last emperors, Marjane bears witness to a childhood uniquely entwined with the history of her country.

I jumped into this having only a shred of knowledge on Iran and the revolution. I thought my general political ignorance would leave me out of sorts here, confused and humiliated. It wasn’t so; Satrapi has painted an excellent depiction of the regime, giving us some political frames of reference, but focusing mainly on what was important - the people affected.

Growing up as the regime was taking hold, Satrapi witnessed and experienced a number of things you’d never wish on a young girl. We see how these events shape her and her relationships with others, her propensity for rebellion never wavering. She has truly created a masterpiece in black and white, showing fear and joy juxtaposed within her panels.

She begins as an easily influenced child, and we see her grow into a well-informed and knowledgable woman, self-aware and assured, completely secure in her aspirations and desires. The journey we take with her to get there is something I can’t put into words; really, I am too much of a simpleton to even attempt it.

Satrapi makes sure to reinforce that her family was far from poverty stricken, and were quite wealthy in comparison to others at the time. The horrors she experienced must be somewhat diluted in contrast to those of her poorer neighbours, and she’s beautiful enough to make this clear, a constant shadow looming behind her pictures and words.

I’ve taken something quite stark and humbling away from this, and that is that I am very privileged never to have seen war. I’ve seen it on television, from afar, from my comfortable Western home where no one wants to bomb us, and no one wants to arrest me for having a few wisps of hair showing. Satrapi has shown me the true face of war, and yet I can still only imagine. It’s not quite so much a feeling of being lucky, as a feeling of being in an incredibly revered position in the world.

A wonderfully raw memoir which I can’t quite put into words, only urge others to read.

Friday, 21 February 2020

Book #09

Nevada by Imogen Binnie

Nevada is the darkly comedic story of Maria Griffiths, a young trans woman living in New York City and trying to stay true to her punk values while working retail. When she finds out her girlfriend has lied to her, the world she thought she'd carefully built for herself begins to unravel, and Maria sets out on a journey that will most certainly change her forever.

Maria Griffiths is a fucking powerhouse. Punk rock and trans, she lets us view her life in New York City through her eyes. Maria is everything I look for in a person - a rebel, a bookseller, a purveyor of attitude, and a diehard supporter of Courtney Love. 

As we sink deeper into Maria’s inner torments, it quickly becomes apparent just how much of an impact her transition has had on her life, and how she has some unresolved issues she needs to work out. After she is dumped by her girlfriend and fired from her job in quick succession, Maria decides to escape. Gloriously, we’re able to go on this journey with her.

Maria tells us things about being trans which you can only hear directly from the lips of a trans person. Some of these things were heartbreaking, and perfectly understandable. Some of these things were completely triumphant, and had me bursting with joy. Some of these things I’d never thought of, and was embarrassed to admit that to myself. 

For example, I knew as a cis woman that society has certain criteria to which I should aspire. People have an idea of what a woman is, and how I should conform to that. Similarly, but somewhat worse, there are also definitions of how trans women should look and behave. These definitions are not the same as those cis women are forced into. The worst of these, in my opinion, is that if a trans woman is attracted to women, she can’t possibly be trans, just a seriously perverted man. These standards are simply ridiculous, and it’s incredibly enlightening to now be aware of them.

I also hadn’t considered the loss of male privilege. White men are born with this, don’t really realise they have it, and profit from it daily. Transitioning robs you of this. You are no longer within a class of people who are culturally protected by the world. You’re catapulted into a subculture and forced to find your way through it without your previously relied on privilege. On top of everything else involved in transitioning, I can’t imagine how difficult that must be.

Even if you aren’t reading this story to learn (although you should be), this is an utterly gorgeous book. Binnie’s writing style is almost as raw and punk rock as Maria herself, and I was so desperately engaged with the plot. Her characters are real as hell, and everything is just so beautifully put together.

A powerful, important masterpiece for Binnie, and one I’d recommend to anyone who wants (or needs) to learn about how our trans friends might feel. This knowledge can only allow us to be better allies. Read this.

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Book #08

Mastermind by Steven Kelliher

Karna was just like any other comic book fan. He dreamed of fighting alongside colorful heroes and taking down dastardly villains. In Titan Online, the most popular VR MMORPG going, he finally got the chance to live out his cape-donning fantasies.

That is, right up until he was killed by the game’s number one ‘hero’. A man who serves only himself in a constant grind for money, fame and adoration. Forced to start from scratch due the harsh game mechanics, Karna finds a new mission; bringing balance back to Titan Online.
With a strange new power and some unlikely allies, Karna hatches a plan to save the game, and get a bit of revenge in the process.
When the heroes can’t be trusted, it’s up to the villains to save the (virtual) world. 

I really enjoy these LitRPG books. There’s a lot they offer that other genres just can’t cater for, such as contrasting online/offline lives (geek-like at home, god-like in game), digital relationships, the impact of online events to the offline self, even the morals involved in killing other players; the opportunities are endless, and it’s completely glorious.

Kelliher’s construction here is worthwhile of his genre. Rather than an every man for himself melee of characters, he opts for a heroes vs. villain style for Titan Online. This easily bolsters the superhero angle he’s portraying, and adds an immediate tension to the game by identifying two warring camps. That our protagonist himself is a villain (gasp!) seeking vengeance on a hero (swoon!), is quite honestly sublime. I know I’m sick of heroes, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

The beauty here for me was in the reasons for the revenge, and the questions this uprooted. Are all heroes inherently good? Should we worship and adore them as such? Or are heroes on a dangerously delicate precipice, balancing precariously between goodness and corruption? If we worship them, surely they can take advantage of this and use our adoration to get away with all sorts? A few real life ‘celebrities’ spring to mind just as I type this.

And god, aren’t villains just a repressed and misunderstood race? Do we want to see them rise up from the gloom and defeat the white-toothed perfect heroes who all the world has placed on a shiny pedestal? I can only speak for this girl, and this girl really, really does. There’s something special here about rising up against what you know to be wrong, about being small yet victorious, about people coming together to take down the man. I loved it.

My only (tiny) criticism is Kelliher’s intense focus on the in-game plot lines. I’d have loved to have found out more about Karna the human; childhood, friendships, loves and hates, anything. Why does he prefer the virtual world to the real one? What happened to you Karna?!

I really did like this. Kelliher is a great storyteller with excellent pace and style. I was delighted at the subtle hint at a sequel towards the end, please inject this in my veins once available. Such a good LitRPG that I’m off to pick up a controller. 

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Book #07

The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

Stephen is an ideal child of aristocratic parents—a fencer, a horse rider and a keen scholar. Stephen grows to be a war hero, a bestselling writer and a loyal, protective lover. But Stephen is a woman, and her lovers are women. As her ambitions drive her, and society confines her, Stephen is forced into desperate actions.
In the early twentieth century, an aristocratic couple is expecting a child. Father is convinced the baby will be male, so decides upon the name Stephen. Baby arrives; surprise! It’s a girl. Do we christen her with a female name? Hell no, we chose Stephen, so Stephen she shall be. Just how fitting that name would be was unknown to them at the time, but oh the implications of it keep us wondering. What a gorgeous little gem this book is.

The story spans Stephen’s life from birth into her thirties. Often regarded as a strange (queer) child, she mystifies and confuses her peers and neighbours. She has an innate hatred for feminine clothing and hobbies, preferring instead to wear trousers (mostly due to the handy pockets, ”Her legs felt so free and comfortable in breeches; she adored pockets, too, and these were forbidden—at least really adequate pockets.” - still a frustration), practice fencing, and go hunting with her father.

When Stephen, as a pre-teen, develops strong feelings for one of the maids, quite who Stephen is becomes a bit clearer to us as readers, but not necessarily to Stephen. She knows she’s not like other people, but can’t understand why. What follows is a gorgeous account of coming to terms to oneself, learning the trials involved in love, and overcoming a world which doesn’t seem to want to accept you.

This book was classed as obscene, and banned in 1928. It felt strange to be reading words written in the same classic style I’m used to, and yet having these words depict issues which feel a lot more modern. Very few classic novels deal with these types of themes, and it was a truly incredible experience reading of them. I think it’s easy to forget our LGBT brothers and sisters of times gone by, and it’s difficult to imagine the added stress and oppression that came with a stiff upper lipped society. Hall writes candidly of loving openly, and being persecuted for it, of wanting the same rights as others, but being denied them, of being the same, and yet treated so differently. It’s a heartbreaking account of LGBT lives in the 1920s, and an important one to learn. 

Despite Stephen’s masculine name, mannerisms, and clothing, she was and remained, female. Had she been born a man, she could have had everything she wanted with little to no obstacle. Simply due to her birth gender, and attraction to women, she was denied almost everything her heart truly needed, and this is the biggest heartbreak.

I’m so glad I picked this up. Hall’s commentary is so raw, it’s utterly glorious, and she should be respected for what she was - an LGBT trailblazer in an age of scandal, shock, and narrow-mindedness.

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Book #06

The Lifted Veil by George Eliot

In this chilling novella of Victorian horror, George Eliot explores clairvoyance, fate, and the possibility of life after death.

I’ve never been a lover of Eliot’s writing style, and this offering from Penguin was a lovely reminder of why this is. 

The Lifted Veil read like a druggy nightmare. Her eloquent meandering sentences, her insufferable characters, and the banal haziness of it all was far too much for me to endure and remain smiling.

The second inclusion, Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, made some astute points, but woefully emitted beams of petulance and self-assertion to such an extent that I felt even less endeared to Eliot, and I continue to maintain that Victorian chick-lit is good.

I’ve tried and failed to tackle Middlemarch on many occasions, and after The Lifted Veil, I feel I’ll never attempt it again. 

Monday, 3 February 2020

Book #05

Wrath of Storms by Steven McKinnon

Serena’s fearsome power is growing stronger. After conning her way aboard a luxury airship in search of clues about her past, she walks straight into a sky pirate’s trap. But after her powers are unleashed and apocalyptic visions invade her mind, Serena realises the greatest threat may be herself…

As Damien Fieri struggles against his bloodlust, connections in high places conspire to keep his killer instincts sharp. He’d love to confront the clandestine forces that turned him into a living weapon—but can he find a way to do it that doesn’t shed more blood?
Can Serena and Damien bend their powers for good, or will they become dangerous pawns in a much deadlier game?

I love this series. McKinnon’s world of airships, gods, stone men, corrupt politicians and a siren, has always gripped me by the throat. I’m lucky enough to have been asked to review his books from the beginning, and have never been disappointed. His style and engagement are exquisite, and I wonder if (PSA: tooting one’s own horn) my fangirl attitude and reviews are what led to me being thanked in the acknowledgements of Wrath of Storms. Thank you.

There’s much of the same stuff good stuff here as in Symphony of the Wind. McKinnon brings back the characters we became so invested in, and continues to display their complex yet heart-rending relationships. He’s the type of author who will take a scythe to his characters, and although I hated him for this, it really propels the plot and lodges your heart somewhere alongside your intestines. His world-building is still glorious, and we learn more about the wars between communities, the histories, and the grudges. And I love a good grudge. It’s all becoming very intriguing and completely maddening all at once.

What’s different? This one is absolutely fucking relentless. There is constant action, eternal violence, and persistent disturbance. When you think you’re finally being given a break, McKinnon smacks you with bullets, knives, shortswords, all over again. I thought Symphony was fast-paced, and I now realise I was a fool. The pace is utterly unreal, and did well to convey the utter horror and chaos his world has become. Books that make you theatrically gasp in public are always good ones (albeit upon reflection and not at the time).

There’s a huge cast of characters, which is something I generally feel is unneccessary and confusing, however McKinnon’s skill allows him to render each of them individual and memorable. Back stories and motivations of even the smallest of characters were explored, and I loved it. There’s some particularly good commentary on collective hysteria giving comfort to the morbid and horrid, making me consider our current political climate (before eating a wee bit of cheese and pretending it’s all okay). 

Nothing is predictable here. You honestly cannot fathom in your head what’s about to happen next. It’s so intricate, so expertly planned, that all you can do is allow yourself to be dragged into the fray and hope like hell you’re prepared.

Once again, I’m so intrigued to find out the fates of my beloved characters in McKinnon’s next instalment. Although I’ve abandoned all hope for the safety of my favourites.  

Saturday, 25 January 2020

Book #04

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other follows the lives and struggles of twelve very different characters. Mostly women, black and British, they tell the stories of their families, friends and lovers, across the country and through the years.

2020 marks the tenth year of me reviewing every single book I read. It’s become something familiar and routine - read book, sit down, type up thoughts, post, select next book, repeat. I don’t find it difficult to report my thoughts my feelings, and I’m pretty capable of putting these together succinctly and efficiently. Until, of course, a book like Girl, Woman, Other arrests me with its power and renders me utterly incapable of describing how it made me feel. It’s a frustrating feeling, but also one which reinforces my confidence in majesty of the book.

As 2019’s winner of the Booker prize, it would be completely superfluous for me to say this book is a triumph, but it is. A masterpiece. A sensation. And fuck it, yeah, a tour de force.

a tour de force, he says, although I would never use such a cliche, you understand

Evaristo writes of twelve women, each of them black (although some unaware), each of them British, and each of them incredibly engrossing, inspiring, and educating. We dig deeply into their lives, their strengths, and their failures, alongside the ways in which the colour of their skin manifests itself as an obstacle to be overcome. There’s a lot to learn and retain, particularly if you’re a white woman, like me, sitting reading in your white privilege bubble.

Evaristo has a unique style; irrevocably captivating in its simplicity, yet clutching your heart in its fingers. It’s profound, and it’s stark, elegant yet raw. The unstoppable force of her text brings joy, sorrow, hope, grief, hatred, love, and most of all, the strength of friendship and coming together.

The greatest of devices here is that each of these women are interlinked, directly or otherwise, throughout the pages. They all brush shoulders with, unknowingly influence, or flicker in and out of each other in a really realistic and gorgeous way. I can’t begin to describe the feeling when you suddenly realise someone being described has been mentioned before, and piecing this together is one of the most satisfying parts of this book.

I wish I had more (or better) words to describe the warmth I feel for this book and the women within it. All I can do now is urge you to read it (and to those of you who read my reviews and know me personally - I will be urging you to read it when I see you), and hope you’ll be blown off your feet as I’ve been.

Bernardine, thank you. I have never read anything from a Booker prize winner quite like this, and it was so so deserved.

Friday, 17 January 2020

Book #03

Solving Cadence Moore by Gregory Sterner

Ten years ago, famous young singer Cadence Moore disappeared without a trace on a remote highway in western Pennsylvania. To this day her fate remains unknown. Was she kidnapped or murdered? Or did she simply run away in search of a new life, leaving behind the abuse and heartbreak that haunted her?

Charlie Marx, host of the popular conspiracy radio show Underground Broadcast, is obsessed with Cadence. Desperate to find her after deceiving his boss to save his job, he launches an investigation of his own, digging deep into the missing woman's past and uncovering her darkest secrets. Working feverishly for weeks, he claims to have solved the mystery and promises to reveal Cadence's fate at the end of a groundbreaking podcast series and live radio special.
But is it all a lie? As years of twisted details slowly unravel, Charlie races to solve the biggest mystery of the decade. If he succeeds, it will mean closure for Cadence. If he fails, his entire world will come crashing down live on air--and the truth may be lost forever.

I bloody love a podcast, and I particularly love a true crime podcast. This story fascinated me, particularly as I noticed some similarities to real cases I’ve heard of.

Charlie Marx is a radio host who is releasing a series of podcasts culminating in a live radio special. These offerings will explore the mystery of Cadence Moore, a young woman who went missing more than a decade ago. Marx claims he has solved this crime and listeners can tune in to the radio special finale to find out exactly what happened to this woman many years ago.

I’d just like to begin by saying if someone actually did this, I’d gobble it up. As mentioned above, I’m a true crime fanatic, and have a few unsolved mysteries under my podcast listening belt. If someone claimed to have solved one of these and released something similar to Charlie Marx, I would be living.

Both Sterner’s writing style and choice of format are excellent - we are narrated to mostly via Marx’s podcasts, as he explains the story of Cadence, and his journey in discovering the truth. I did find the pace to be quite inconsistent; when Sterner drives the plot, he really can drive it, an example of which is the story of Cadence, and the last night she was seen. This was all-consuming, a podcast on paper, and I inhaled every word. In contrast, Sterner then chooses to include superfluous details of conversations and situations Charlie Marx becomes embroiled in, which I felt either had little relevance, or could have been shortened considerably.

This truly was enthralling, just with a bit of drag to it in certain areas. Sterner’s talent is clear, and I enjoyed his plot and characters; I’d just have liked it to be snappier, with a bit more drive. 

Saturday, 11 January 2020

Book #02

Matilda by Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley's dark story of a bereaved man's disturbing passion for his daughter was suppressed by her own father, and not published for over a century.

Matilda’s mother dies shortly after giving birth to her, and her father flees in grief, leaving her to be raised by a cold aunt. Upon his return sixteen years later, and after an initially joyful reunion, Matilda’s father confesses he is in love with her. Holy Gothic Drama.

This sounds insane for nineteenth century literature, and was in fact so insane that Shelley’s father prohibited the book from being published at the time. That said, the plot is less shocking in action as it is in emotion. Much of the prose is devoted to the father’s strange behaviour as he comes to terms with his sinful feelings, and subsequently focuses on Matilda’s mental state having heard his confession. Very little happens; Shelley is examining the idea of sin being committed through only feelings rather than action.

Her narrative is beautiful and wonderfully written, as we would expect from Shelley, but despite the gorgeous way it’s weaved together, the story itself is pretty dull. Confessions, dark thoughts, death, and a hell of a lot of angst. 

I felt disappointed when I finished the story, but on reflection, there’s a lot to process and consider. For example, how her father’s feelings obliterated both of them, not only him, and how Matilda’s prolonged grief suggested concerning undertones of his unnatural love being reciprocated.

This is a strange one which will probably stick with me for some time. 

Friday, 10 January 2020

Book #01

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

Zachary Ezra Rawlins discovers a mysterious book hidden in the stacks. As he turns the pages, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, key collectors, and nameless acolytes, he reads something strange: a story from his own childhood. Bewildered by this inexplicable book and desperate to make sense of how his own life came to be recorded, Zachary uncovers a series of clues -- a bee, a key, and a sword -- that lead him to a masquerade party in New York, to a secret club, and through a doorway to an ancient library, hidden far below the surface of the earth.

After becoming desperately in love with The Night Circus in 2013, I was fizzing with excitement to read this. I can’t honestly say what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t this.

Morgenstern plunges us into her subterranean world using the much-loved style and language debuted in her first novel. Everything is dreamy, beautiful, and worded to perfection. Setting, dialogue, clothes, character; everything just has this dazzling, other-worldly feel to it, her prose peppered with symbols and metaphors, her characters fogged in mystery and intrigue. Cats, keys, bees, crowns, wine, honey, swords, books. I was very much on board.

This is no easy fantasy, and what follows feels like a drug-induced dream of parallel universes, magic, and fate. Time is subjective, space is an illusion, and it’s incredibly difficult to become lost in The Starless Sea

There is no real plot to speak of. You initially think there is, but there isn’t, and I can’t decide whether Morgenstern meant for this to happen. Should stories have a beginning, a change, adaptation, and an end? I don’t think they necessarily do. Did this have a particular thread for me to follow, something for me to aspire to? No. Did I enjoy it, did I engage? Yes, very much so. Do I still remain utterly confused? Yes.

I needed much much more from Morgenstern’s characters here; I felt she sacrificed their stories and motivations in favour of her lyricism and profound dialogue. Who are these people? What do they love, loathe, dream of? How can two guys fall in love without ever really finding out who the other really is? What happened to the university librarian as I really think she was quite hot? And Zachary’s fortune telling mama was woefully underused.

Sometimes I will read a book and become incapable of putting my thoughts down about it. I loved it, but I couldn’t follow it; I was engaged, but puzzled. I wanted to be swept away in a starless sea of excitement, but instead I feel as though I’ve been swept unceremoniously from bed whilst having the strangest dream of my life. I wanted to write an excellent review, but I’m honestly just baffled, so I will stop here.