Crudo – Olivia Laing (Book Review)

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I saw this book everywhere I went, online and off, and so seeing a copy in Waterstones the other day, I picked it up – avoiding my aversion to usual contemporary writing:

Kathy is a writer. Kathy is getting married. It’s the summer of 2017 and the whole world is falling apart.

Olivia Laing radically rewires the novel in a brilliant, funny and emphatically raw account of love in the apocalypse. A Goodbye to Berlin for the twenty-first century, Crudo charts in real time what it was like to live and love in the horrifying summer of 2017, from the perspective of a commitment-phobic peripatetic artist who may or may not be Kathy Acker.

From a Tuscan hotel for the super-rich to a Brexit-paralysed UK, Kathy spends the first summer of her forties trying to adjust to making a lifelong commitment as Trump is tweeting the world into nuclear war. But it’s not only Kathy who’s changing. Political, social and natural landscapes are all in peril. Fascism is on the rise, truth is dead and the planet is hotting up. Is it really worth learning to love when the end of the world is nigh? And how do you make art, let alone a life, when one rogue tweet could end it all?

I knew little of Kathy Acker going into this, and at first was put off by her character. She seemed at first pretentiously rebellious in a childish sort of way. As the book progressed however, I felt that intentionally or otherwise she developed into view as a more helpless character than first came across. She was lost in a world which she seemed aware to have little direction. A world where, as the above says, a rogue tweet could end it. How could she take life seriously if the situation rested on two men acting like children showing off their toys?

The book felt very much like a modern Beat writer. It was reminiscent of the generation of raw honesty and graphic writing, only in this context I could relate so much more – the rediculousness of the world being talked about being one not so long ago – last year in face. The absurdity or Brexit, Trump, and nuclear showmanship being not something alien to any of us.

Throughout actual quotes for Kathy Acker are used, and these are, as the title suggests, raw. Brutal in a manner which some people won’t be able to deal with.

The book is written in a manner which was at time difficult to read – disjointed and switching between first and third person. Perhaps this created a chaotic atmosphere which the writer intended however, chaotic and disjointed being the time in which it was set.

I think this book as necessary if nothing else. A needed revival of honesty in the face of what the world is becoming – an apocalyptic cartoon – a cultural cul-de-sac.

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Wyrd Sisters – Terry Pratchett (Book Review)

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The next in the Discworld series I have been sporadically working through, and one which actually carries some recommendation!

Witches are not by nature gregarious, and they certainly don’t have leaders.

Granny Weatherwax was the most highly regarded of the leaders they didn’t have.

But even she found that meddling in royal politics was a lot more difficult than certain playwrights would have you believe…

Whenever I mention to people that I’m reading a Terry Pratchett book, it is either met with “Oh, I read them when I was younger”, or a response which indicated indifference towards his writing. So far in the series, I have found the books to be hit-and-miss, but this one was certainly one of the better ones!

The story is essentially a spoof of Shakespeares Macbeth. The kingdom (literally) is at unease due to the new king, after killing the old king, has no interest in caring for it. The Witches are put in the uncomfortable position of having to deal with this by finding and putting on the throne the son of the old king, who is now a travelling actor.

The story itself is quite engaging and has some of the more memorable characters of the series in it. I particularly found funny the references to the guild of Fools which trains unwilling people in their inescapable fate of telling the approved jokes to kings across the disc.

The series is overall just a bit average though, but I will continue. These books are acting as a break between heavier reading, and perhaps that is purpose enough to read them – they aren’t too taxing.

I’m sure many will remember the Discworld series well and if nothing else it has certainly paved the way for more comedic takes on fantasy universes.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old – Hendrik Groen (Book Review)

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This was a read for book club – something I haven’t done in a while (guilt has set in – lack of contribution noticeable!)

‘Another year and I still don’t like old people. Me? I am 83 years old.’

Hendrik Groen may be old, but he is far from dead and isn’t planning to be buried any time soon. Granted, his daily strolls are getting shorter because his legs are no longer willing and he had to visit his doctor more than he’d like. Technically speaking he is … elderly. But surely there is more to life at his age than weak tea and potted geraniums?

Hendrik sets out to write an exposé: a year in the life of his care home in Amsterdam, revealing all its ups and downs – not least his new endeavour the anarchic Old-But-Not Dead Club. And when Eefje moves in – the woman Hendrik has always longed for – he polishes his shoes (and his teeth), grooms what’s left of his hair and attempts to make something of the life he has left, with hilarious, tender and devastating consequences.

The indomitable Hendrik Groen – Holland’s unlikeliest hero – has become a cultural phenomenon in his native Netherlands and now he and his famously anonymous creator are conquering the globe. A major Dutch bestseller, The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen will not only delight older readers with its wit and relevance, but will charm and inspire those who have years to go before their own expiry date.

The book is the diary of the author during a year in his assisted living care-home in the Netherlands. It follows his establishment and activities in a club with fellow “inmates” who want to enjoy their final days and not spend it sat around wallowing – subject to the rules and regulations of the director of the care home.

This involves each member planning trips in secret for the rest of the exclusive group – the group becoming eventually the topic of discussion among the rest of the home because of their exclusivity.  They face challenges together along the way – members facing illnesses, dementia, fatigue – companionship and support is given in a way which the care-home seems unable to provide.

One thing which did bug me about the book was, despite his hatred to listening to other old people complain all day long, Hendrik himself did an awful lot of complaining. I don’t know whether this is intentional or a lack of self-awareness.

Hendrik himself comes across as reasonable in some senses (commenting on the tendency to always look down on the choices of youth, vainly thinking back to the ‘good old days’ etc) – but at other times just comes across as frankly arrogant in his comments towards other people. I guess it could be down to frustration however due to limited capability in movement, and constantly being surrounded by people with whom you have little in common but age.

The book had some very moving moments, and some funny moments too – but all in all not enough to keep me interested. For those who work in care this book may take on a very different response however. I know my wife is enjoying it as the characters become recognisable to residents in real life. For me however, this wasn’t all that great. I expected the adventures the group undertook to be more adventurous, but instead the trips out are rather mundane and not that rebellious at all.

Animal Farm – George Orwell (Book Review)

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George Orwell’s classic novella has been sat on my shelf for some time now, but I can finally say I have read it:

Animal Farm is the most famous by far of all twentieth-century political allegories. Its account of a group of barnyard animals who revolt against their vicious human master, only to submit to a tyranny erected by their own kind, can fairly be said to have become a universal drama. Orwell is one of the very few modern satirists comparable to Jonathan Swift in power, artistry, and moral authority; in animal farm his spare prose and the logic of his dark comedy brilliantly highlight his stark message.

The story follows an uprising on a farm where the animals, convinced that they would be better off without the rule of humans, decide to overthrow and run the farm under their own commandments. The list include the necessity for all animals to not aspire to be like the humans, and that all animals are equal, summarised as “4 legs good, 2 legs bad”.

As the story develops, the pigs, who are the most intelligent animal, begin to make decisions in regards to the farm, and by propaganda, convince the animals to patriotically accept the long work hours and reduced rations as a better alternative to human rule – all the while the pigs don’t work and get increased food.

The book is an allegory for a political state known at the time of Orwell, namely the Soviet Revolution. The inability for true equality and the consequences of the new order making a good comparison, and is strikingly important even today. The methods employed politically being perhaps similar no matter the political system adopted by any given country.

Overall the story is quite bleak, with the feeling of deception and hopelessness throughout. An important read for everyone, and one some are fortunate to read during their education.

I have discussed before the ideas held by Orwell in contrast to Huxley (see Brave New World and 1984 reviews), but nonetheless I feel that this is an important read. I’m not aware of any modern equivalents tackling our own political systems in the west.

Certainly a book to consider if you have no read already – it something I think everyone should read for the importance of the message within.

The Boy Who Belonged to the Sea – Denis Thériault (Book Review)

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I spotted this whilst browsing a small bookshop in a small village in the middle of the Peak District – a complete chance encounter! I’m a fan of Thériault’s work:

Set on the rugged north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada, The Boy Who Belonged to the Sea tells the touching story of an extraordinary friendship between two young boys who have both suffered the loss of a parent. Although they have little else in common, the boys come together in their grief and take refuge in a world of their own creation, a magical undersea realm inhabited by fantastical beings. Their imaginations take them on a wild adventure, but as the lines between reality and fantasy begin to blur, their search for belonging takes them on a perilous journey that threatens to end in tragedy.

The story follows a young boy whose parents are in a tragic accident who is then to live with his grandparents in a small village where his mother grew up. Upon joining the local school, Luc is introduced – a strange, insular boy who lives with his fisherman father.

As the story develops, we learn of Luc’s love for the sea – stemming from his Mother entering it one day to never be seen again; Luc believing her to be a mermaid, rather than facing up to the possibility of her suicide.

As the boys friendship develops, they begin fantasising of an underwater world of their own creation, but as for Luc, when the line between fantasy and reality become blurred, things begin to strain in their relationship, and indeed Luc’s control over his mind.

I read this book over the course of 2 days, eager as I was to continue with the story. The book has a bleak atmosphere to it, and it’s written well into it considering the story. The themes sought throughout are mostly concerning the relationship between mothers and sons. Luc having an absent mother and a present but abusive father, he is seeking examples of motherhood from the other characters in an effort to create a viable image of his own.

Much in the lines of The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman and The Postman’s Fiancee, the story is a little strange in comparison to most novels these days, and will likely be not to everyone’s taste. That been said, this is certainly one I think people should try. The author writes consistently interesting books and I hope he continues to do so in the future, not that his other two have began to receive the recognition they deserve.

Grey Sister – Mark Lawrence (Book Review)

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After finishing Red Sister not so long ago, I pre-ordered the sequel as I was interested enough previously to continue with the characters:

In Mystic Class Nona Grey begins to learn the secrets of the universe. But so often even the deepest truths just make our choices harder. Before she leaves the Convent of Sweet Mercy Nona must choose her path and take the red of a Martial Sister, the grey of a Sister of Discretion, the blue of a Mystic Sister or the simple black of a Bride of the Ancestor and a life of prayer and service.

All that stands between her and these choices are the pride of a thwarted assassin, the ambition of a would-be empress wielding the Inquisition like a blade, and the vengeance of the empire’s richest lord.

As the world narrows around her, and her enemies attack her through the system she has sworn to, Nona must find her own path despite the competing pull of friendship, revenge, ambition, and loyalty.

And in all this only one thing is certain.

There will be blood.

The novel continues where the previous in the series left off – Nona, now in the next year at Sweet Mercy convent, continues to struggle with coming to terms with a friend’s death, all the while training at the convent. Her new peers in Mystic Class are mostly unwelcoming, and one in particular wants to remove Nona from the convent completely.

To make things worse, the Inquisition has set up in Sweet Mercy to route out rumours of heresy. Eventually, driven from the convent, several of the novices and nuns seek to find out the plans of the Emperor’s sister, and stop the complete destruction of Sweet Mercy.

Though not as gripping as the first, I still enjoyed the continuance within the character’s story-lines. The new characters are all unique, and the development in the relationships between characters gradual. My only gripe so far with the series is the frequency with which Nona seems to be either near death or in the hospital wing of the convent – it’s just getting a little repetitive in that regard.

I will continue reading within the series, and hope for the story-line to answer many questions as it progresses. I do appreciate the twist on the typical “prophecy trope” however, and it seems it is being pieced together bit-by-bit by the characters, many of whom have conflicting views on the exact meaning of the prophecy.

Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore – Robin Sloan (Book Review)

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This book was recommended to me as it was compared to a book my I had previously enjoyed; The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry:

The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon away from life as a San Francisco web-design drone and into the aisles of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, but after a few days on the job, Clay discovers that the store is more curious than either its name or its gnomic owner might suggest. The customers are few, and they never seem to buy anything; instead, they “check out” large, obscure volumes from strange corners of the store. Suspicious, Clay engineers an analysis of the clientele’s behavior, seeking help from his variously talented friends, but when they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, they discover the bookstore’s secrets extend far beyond its walls.

I will start off by saying that I didn’t see the comparison: they are very different books. The only link I saw was the setting of a bookstore being a large feature of the narrative. That aside we have very different story-lines.

That being said, I really enjoyed this book regardless! The book follows the tale of Clay as he begins working the night-time shift at a mysterious, quiet bookstore. Clay has learned a degree of programming, and so begins to try and modernise the store, through which he uncovers it’s hidden secret – a link to a cult set on translating a book rumoured to contain the key to eternal life.

The cult becomes torn between using traditional or modern methods to find the key to this work, as all involved pursue to solve the 500 year old puzzle.

The book is written in a very comedic way and many one-off lines were genuinely funny. It is all fairly light-hearted – even the villains are comic ultimately, and the story follows a tale which I got the impression had no intention of being taken seriously.

It was interesting trying to unpick what the author was attempting – perhaps a consideration between the traditional and the modern. Paper books vs. e-books. Either way, there was something unique about this book that caught my attention and I finished it fairly quickly as a result.

I wouldn’t recommend this to as many people as I do The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, but that is due to perhaps a more direcitonal story-line that not everyone will appreciate. I’m glad to have read it though and will certainly read more of Robin Sloan should he continue to write other novels.