The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath (Book Review)

The first book for Book Club this year was The Bell Jar; a book I’ve been meaning to read for a little while now:

We follow Esther Greenwood’s personal life from her summer job in New York with Ladies’ Day magazine, back through her days at New England’s largest school for women, and forward through her attempted suicide, her bad treatment at one asylum and her good treatment at another, to her final re-entry into the world like a used tyre: “patched, retreaded, and approved for the road” … Esther Greenwood’s account of her year in the bell jar is as clear and readable as it is witty and disturbing.

I was first introduced to Sylvia Plath through her poem Lady Lazarus; the bleak acceptance of a reality she knew in it drew me to explore her writings further, and it only made sense to want to read the novel she wrote too.

The book is written much like her poetry – clever metaphors, well flowing language, and brute honesty. Plath is often too bleak for many to read and enjoy, but to take a step into her shoes and see the world as she does, we find ourselves being completely honest with ourselves, and falling to melancholy.

Perhaps I enjoyed this book because of this – that the author identifies so much that many would read publicly and laugh about, but individually sympathise with and weep.

This book is often described as “a young woman’s descent into madness”, but I can’t help but think that’s a little bit dated considering what it is: an account of a person with severe depression – a feeling that many can sympathise with today; recognising their own thoughts in that of the Narrators.

To those who have never experience such a thing, it may be a good read to catch a glimpse, and to those who have, a reminder of there being no solitude in the struggle.

Red Seas Under Red Skies – Scott Lynch (Book Review)

After enjoying The Lies of Locke Lamora a lot, I immediately bought the second book in the Gentleman Bastards sequence:

Thief and con-man extraordinaire, Locke Lamora, and the ever lethal Jean Tannen have fled their home city and the wreckage of their lives. But they can’t run forever and when they stop they decide to head for the richest, and most difficult, target on the horizon. The city state of Tal Verarr. And the Sinspire.

The Sinspire is the ultimate gambling house. No-one has stolen so much as a single coin from it and lived. It’s the sort of challenge Locke simply can’t resist…

…but Locke’s perfect crime is going to have to wait.

Someone else in Tal Verarr wants the Gentleman Bastards’ expertise and is quite prepared to kill them to get it. Before long, Locke and Jean find themselves engaged in piracy. Fine work for thieves who don’t know one end of a galley from another.

This book begins 2 years after the events in The Lies of Locke Lamora – with Locke and Jean in a whole new setting, no longer able to live in Camorr safely.

The storyline, much like the first book, is very engaging, and with twists and turns along the way, keeps you guessing as to how Locke and Jean are going to get out of it. With the head of the gambling house, the political nobility, the leader of the navy, and the bonds-magi, Locke and Jean find themselves to be the most wanted men in Tal Verarr, for various purposes.

A lot of this book (as you might have guessed by the cover) takes place on the sea, aboard a ship called the Poison Orchid. Lock and Jean become embroiled in lives of piracy, and the setting of the wide ocean lends to this book a very unique and desired aspect – so few books seem to go for this setting.

With the humour and camaraderie of Jean and Locke, this book has a lot of genuinely funny and heartfelt lines, and the writing, as with the first book, is fantastic. I will be purchasing the third in the series shortly, and then will be up to date!

I enjoyed this book perhaps a little less than the first, but only a little: the first had such a unique debut into fantasy that everything was new and developing. The characters, though developed further in this book, are not to the same degree. The focus narrowing to just two of the Gentlemen Bastards, however, lends to a deeper look into their life and friendship.

Overall, a great second installment, and one I couldn’t put down.

Confessions – Kanae Minato (Book Review)

I saw the movie Confessions a little while back, and so was pleasantly surprised to be reminded of it recently in the form of a book recommendation:

Now it’s the last day of term, and Yuko’s last day at work. She tells her students she’s resigned because of what happened – but not for the reasons they think.

Her daughter didn’t die in an accident. Her daughter was killed by two pupils in the class. And before she leaves, she has a lesson to teach…

But revenge has a way of spinning out of control, and Yuko’s last lecture is only the start of the story.

Yuko is a teacher in a middle-school, and a single mother to 4 year old Manami. The opening book is her final lecture to her class before she resigns, in which she reveals, though whilst keeping the pupil’s identities secret, that she knows who murdered her daughter, and explains her revenge – in the form of infecting them with HIV

The rest of the book is written in different forms as we follow the consequences of the two pupils and their lives after the teacher has resigned.

The book is written in several parts, varying the point-of-view: one chapter a diary, the next a will, the next a phone-call, and so on.

The story is gripping, and I would encourage anyway to not be put off by the terible cover-art, and the cheesy tagline – the story is a lot more in-depth and lot darker than it would appear.

Reflections on the responsibilities of parents, society, and teachers towards children is often analysed throughout the book, with due consideration to how much responsibility a child should bear for the actions – especially one such as murder.

Some of the characters are even intentionally frustrating – such as one of the pupils over-protective mother who insists her child is just as much a victim as the murdered girl.

The end is fantastic too, circling off the whole story whilst frustrating the culprits.

Worth a read and very short – recommended for Japanese lit fans, or those in search of a good thriller.

Death and The Penguin – Andrey Kurkov (Book Review)

This months Book Club book is Death and The Penguin. I have seen this around before, and considered buying it, but didn’t do so until now:

Viktor is an aspiring writer with only Misha, his pet penguin, for company. Although he would prefer to write short stories, he earns a living composing obituaries for a newspaper. He longs to see his work published, yet the subjects of his obituaries continue to cling to life. But when he opens the newspaper to see his work in print for the first time, his pride swiftly turns to terror. He and Misha have been drawn into a trap from which there appears to be no escape.

The book starts very quickly, with little to no build up in terms of the characters introduction: Viktor lives alone with his pet penguin, and gains a job out of nowhere, writing obituaries for a newspaper for stable income.

Sooner or later, Viktor makes friends with various people who all seem to know more about Viktor’s new role than he does.

The book is very well written with amazing prose breaking up the dialogue. Viktor is very reflective throughout, seemingly dragged from his quiet life into a dangerous one, with a child to look after who is indifferent to him, and woman who is forcing herself as an almost ‘wife’ that he didn’t want.

His situation is sad, and yet a lot of the story is humorous. The penguin seems to get more respect than himself, and he soon finds that he is invited to certain events only is the penguin is there too, later the facade being dropped, and only the penguin being invited at all.

It is a short read, and the ending quite abrupt and ambiguous. Perhaps I will need to read the sequel. This was one of those books where, though not a lot seems to happen, you become engrossed regardless.

The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch (Book Review)

I bought this as, this year, I am trying to explore genres which I have previously avoided. This was suggested as a good fantasy series, and I was interested enough in the premise to give it a go:

The Thorn of Camorr is said to be an unbeatable swordsman, a master thief, a friend to the poor, a ghost that walks through walls.

Slightly built and barely competent with a sword, Locke Lamora is, much to his annoyance, the fabled Thorn. And while Locke does indeed steal from the rich (who else would be worth stealing from?), the oor never see a penny. All of Locke’s gains are strictly for himself and his tight-knit band of thieves: The Gentleman Bastards.

The capricious and colourful underworld of the ancient city of Camorr is the only home they’ve ever known. But now a clandestine war is threatening to tear it apart. Caught up in a mudererous game, Locke and his friends are suddenly struggling to stay alive…

As an introduction into the fantasy genre, I certainly chose a good one! The Lies of Locke Lamora is likely the best book I have read so far in 2017, and I look forward to continuing the series.

The setting is unique too many fantasy books, being set in a single city, where the noblemen live in comfort, whilst the majority either have to steal to survive, or become slaves.

The magic system isn’t too convoluted either – some characters are capable of magic, either for destruction or (more commonly) healing for a price – none of the main protagonists have magic abilities, and so it is very much a scenic fact for the setting.

The writing style is very captivating too, with each chapter ending with an ‘interlude’, flashing-back to The Gentlemen Bastards childhood, as they are apprenticed into becoming master thieves. My hesitancy with fantasy books is that, with their being so many, they are often badly written, and the use of language is either underwhelming, or intentionally overwhelming. Lynch strikes the perfect balance, and the intermingled humour was spot on for the tone of the novel.

The characters are well developed and very unique – not veering down the cliche fantasy-thief types that (I admit) I was half expecting. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses, and feels well thought out during the reading. The story-line kept the motivations and plans of the characters well hidden though, leading to some great reveals as the plot unraveled.

I have already bought the second in the series, and look forward to starting it later in the month!

A Whole Life – Robert Seethaler (Book Review)

I picked this up in Waterstones when looking for shorter books to read. It had a review beside it by a member of staff, and other reviews reinforced my choice to buy it:

Andreas Egger knows every path and peak in his mountain valley, the source of his sustenance, his livelihood – his home.

Set in the mid-twentieth century and told with beauty and tenderness, his story is one of man’s relationship with an ancient landscape, of the value of solitude, the arrival of the modern world, and above all, of the moments, great and small, that make us who we are.

Firstly, this book is very well written – the occasional humour throughout was genuinely very clever, but the sadder times of Egger’s life felt disturbingly real to the point of sympathy for a fictional character. The book essentially follows the whole of Egger’s life in about 150 pages, and it is full of the ups-and-downs as in all lives.

From childhood, to work-life, to marriage, to war – the book is diverse in it’s content. If you are a fan of Stoner by John Williams, you will like this too. The atmosphere of this book was very real, and though not necessarily always the type of book I’d lean towards, I was engrossed throughout.

The book is a translation of Robert Seethaler’s original which took Germany by storm – reaching the top 10 shortly after being published.

The change in the quiet mountain valley as modern life enters in is quite melancholy, and leads to a lot of reflection on the change tourism has had on places whose beauty was once exclusive to those who lived there, and who also often never left.

If you can get a copy, I recommend giving it a go. It’s not long, after all, and is really very good.

The Light Fantastic – Terry Pratchett (Book Review)

I bought the second in the Discworld series after enjoying the first one. The ease in reading this, and the light-heartedness of the stories, have become something I look forward to between reading more challenging books:

In the sky appears a red star, which gets bigger day-by-day as Great A’Tuin approaches it. The wizards of Discworld begin the search for the 8th Great Spell, which must be said along with the other 7 – only in times of crisis.

The 8th spell, safely within Rincewinds, seems somewhat reluctant to be caught, however.

Joining up with the now old, Cohen the Barbarian, Rincewind and Twoflower traverse Discworld, seeking the answer to save the world from colliding with the great red star.

The story sets place in a variety of environments, from forests, to cities, to inside an ancient spell-book. The characters continued to be developed, and the conclusion of their story-lines something which I’m eager to pursue in the following books in the series.

I did feel, however, that there were one or two lines which should have been cut somewhere in editing. Though perhaps humorous, they just didn’t sit well in the holistic atmosphere of the book.

Though perhaps not quite as enjoyable as the first Discworld novel, the conclusion to evade me until the closing pages – the threat of the approaching star seemingly unavoidable, yet the mixed reactions of the inhabitants of Discworld making it hard to guess who knew what was actually happening – which is not a bad thing.

Reading the Discworld series so far has encouraged me to branch out more in fantasy novels, and that can’t be a bad thing. I looked forward to exploring the genre more this year!