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.

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.

The End We Start From – Megan Hunter (Book Review)

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A book recommend by a bookseller friend of mine, under the guise of “give it a go, I’m not sure, see what you think”:

In the midst of a mysterious environmental crisis, as London is submerged below flood waters, a woman gives birth to her first child, Z. Days later, the family are forced to leave their home in search of safety. As they move from place to place, shelter to shelter, their journey traces both fear and wonder as Z’s small fists grasp at the things he sees, as he grows and stretches, thriving and content against all the odds.

The book follows a small, new family evacuating London due to a freak flood, putting even their top floor flat under water. As they, along with many other cities, flee to higher ground in search of refuge, they develop and learn quickly how to deal with their new found parenthood in a desperate world.

Through the travels, challenges are met with dwindling food reserves and the turning of people on one another. Friends are met and made too; companions to suffer alongside.

The book focuses largely though on the relationship between the narrator and her newborn son, Z. All characters are referred to only by letters through the book: R, O, G, N etc. but I felt that this detracted little from the comprehension (though I know it has bothered some). Why just letters? I couldn’t claim to know. Perhaps the identification of the individuals, couple with the un-named narrator,  hints at the lack of need for personifying the individuals, but focus on their relationships instead – community and family above individuality. I don’t know.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve not face the trials and blessings of motherhood (rather difficult as a man) or the unique connection between child and the mother that bore him, but I couldn’t always sympathise entirely with the narrator’s feelings.

Ultimately I guess Z represents new beginning at the end of London as it currently is- taking baby-steps out onto the ruined landscape.

An interesting book, and I appreciate (as I’ve mentioned before) authors who are willing to take a risk in giving a unique writing style. I’d be interested to read more by the author…

Red Sister – Mark Lawrence (Book Review)

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My next step into fantasy:

At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. In a few the old bloods show, gifting talents rarely seen since the tribes beached their ships on Abeth. Sweet Mercy hones its novices’ skills to deadly effect: it takes ten years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist.

But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder: guilty of worse.

Stolen from the shadow of the noose, Nona is sought by powerful enemies, and for good reason. Despite the security and isolation of the convent her secret and violent past will find her out. Beneath a dying sun that shines upon a crumbling empire, Nona Grey must come to terms with her demons and learn to become a deadly assassin if she is to survive…

I bought this book for 3 main reasons: the cover caught my eye, the authors name is familiar, and it is the first in a new fantasy series! As I have mentioned before, fantasy isn’t really my go to genre (though most people assume so!) and so I’m venturing out. Joining a new series early on seems like a good idea to not be playing catch up!

The story follows a young girl called Nona as she is rescued from the death penalty by the abbess of a convent. Nona, a poor girl, joins the convent so often reserved for those whose parents can fund their unique education there. As time progresses and friends are made, enemies seek after control through a prophecy foretelling the coming of person with 4-bloods – having the unique ability of the 4 tribes who landed in Abeth.

The book has a twist on the typical prophecy trope which I really appreciated – it wasn’t as predictable as many are, and left me trying to work it out along the way. The characters are all very unique, and Nona is very likable and the type of character you just want to win.

Though at first I found it hard to get into (though I admit that may be my fault – as I said, I’m not used to reading things not set within the realms of reality), by about a quarter of the way through I was hooked and could not stop reading.

I felt at times that I wasn’t quite clear on the “rules” behind the use of magic in the book, but I didn’t too left out of it – I suspect this will become clearer in future sequels.

I pre-ordered the next in the series, Grey Sister, before even finishing this book. I am excited to continue the journey with Nona, Ara, and friends.

Audition – Ryu Murakami (Book Review)

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Continuing in my run this year of reading books by Ryu Murakami: Audition!

Documentary-maker Aoyama hasn’t dated anyone in the seven years since the death of his beloved wife, Ryoko. Now even his teenage son Shige has suggested he think about remarrying. So when his best friend Yoshikawa comes up with a plan to hold fake film auditions so that Aoyama can choose a new bride, he decides to go along with the idea. Of the thousands who apply, Aoyama only has eyes for Yamasaki Asami, a young, beautiful, delicate and talented ballerina with a turbulent past. But there is more to her than Aoyama, blinded by his infatuation, can see, and by the time he discovers the terrifying truth it may be too late. 

The third I have read by this Murakami (as opposed to the better known Haruki!) and perhaps his best known work.

The story follows Aoyama as he begins to date a young, unique, captivating girl who auditioned for the part in a film (set up intentionally by a friend of his in order for him to find a new partner). Despite warnings from friends and weird happenings, Aoyama, blinded by love, pursues Asami, with the typical Ryu Murakami thriller to follow.

I did find both Aoyama and Asami attractive characters throughout the book, and I did enjoy reading the develop of their relationship. It was interesting to see how Murakami approached the exchange in conversation between a widowed older man and a younger (rebellious?) woman. I did care to find out the outcome of the characters and read the book quite quickly.

I think the ending of the book disappointed me a little bit though in comparison to the rest. The build up was tense and I couldn’t put the book down as I approached the closing chapters, but once I finished, I was let feeling somewhat unfulfilled.

Of all the books I have read by Ryu Murakami, I enjoyed In the Miso Soup the most. I feel my current run of reading his books will end for now, but maybe I’ll pick up some of his other stuff again in the future.