Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Devouring Stephen King: Mr Mercedes

I had a lot of fun reading Mr Mercedes. Even though I (naturally) relate King to alllll of the supernatural goodness that he brings to us all, when he writes a 'straight' novel (with the teeniest hint of a slightly above average intuition) he still kills it. Mr Mercedes is more along the lines of his True Crime books, in that it is about, well, a true crime, only it's fictional... Ok I'm rambling.

HERE'S HOW IT GOES: The story begins with a horrifying crime when a Mercedes plows into a group of people who have (wait for the heartbreak) been waiting outside all night for the possibility of getting jobs. Many people are killed and the killer gets away scot free. Flash forward a few years later (don't ask me how many because I read this quite a while ago now) and the detective who worked on the case is retired and watches a lot of tv and is getting a little too friendly with his father's gun, if you know what I mean. He gets sucked out of his retirement blues by receiving a letter from the Mercedes killer, which drags him back onto a case and out of retirement, which is really exactly what he needed.

Here's a thing that I think is special about this book- we, the reader, knows who the killer is almost from the beginning. This is not a whodunnit, there's no straining the brain to try and figure out which minor character is a big murderer, because we already know that. The question with this book is really, 'what is he going to do next'? I really enjoyed this, because firstly, I find it really stressful to try and work out whodunnit, and it really makes me question my, like, intelligence skills, and secondly, doing it this way meant that we got to see into the fucked up brain of someone who murders for no reason. It was really a wild ride though the head of the murderer (I'm not being coy, I just genuinely can't remember his name...) and although the novel provides some tentative evidence for the growth of his psychopathy, it also doesn't use those reasons to let him off the hook, which I enjoy.

Let's also talk about the detective because he was pretty great. I'm sure the novel says how old he is, but I totally can't remember, so let's say... 60? And for a 60 year old, let me tell you, he's pretty foxy in my head. I'm not sure how, cause the book also says that he's totally gotten fat, but I guess his seeking out of justice just makes me super into him. Attractiveness aside, he's just a pretty good character- reckless and impulsive but generally good meaning, and with a couple of mismatched sidekicks who end up being very excellent. I think the novel holds back on explaining too much about any of the main three 'good' characters because- wait for it- there are two more books in this little series and I am VERY EXCITED about that (especially cause my next two King reads are those too books and yes I am behind in reviewing and yes those are basically the last two books omg I know right?)

But anyway. Yes. Mr Mercedes gets two thumbs up, I am a fan. I totally give you my permission to read it, and it'll even work for you if you get scared by horror, just not if you're scared of being senselessly and randomly murdered one day... And if you're not, then WHY not?! A topic for another time, I guess.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Devouring Books: On Beauty by Zadie Smith

What is this madness?! A book review that isn't Stephen King related? What a rare phenomenon!

I know I've kind of been doing the bare minimum of book reviewing lately (I only do every Stephen King because why break a 6 1/2 year habit?) but just as a quick example of how busy I am, I pay for a Japanese lesson every week that I have absolutely no time to study for because I have NO TIME hardly at all really. This isn't a complaint about my life, far from it, but more of an illustration of the busies that I have going on.

Having said that, Japanese class ends for the summer tomorrow, and I don't think I'll be doing year 2. Time regained? Perhaps.

Anyway. I guess I was here to talk about a book? Let's see... Yes. I have had On Beauty on my shelves for approximately eleventy billion years, which is slightly fewer years than I've had White Teeth on my shelf. I own 3 out of Smith's 5 novels, and yet, until this month, I have never been really inclined to pick one up. I can give you no rational reason for this, and now I am filled with regret that I didn't bring On Beauty into my life sooner.

This book is GREAT.  In many ways, it's the perfect book for English students, in that Smith gives you just enough information for you to fill in the gaps around what we actually see. The parts in between that I imagine may be completely different from the parts in between that someone else would imagine, but that's one of my favourite things about reading, about interpretation, and about fiction in general. Whilst this style also means that there are things you WISH were expanded on (I wanted to know more about this budding rap artist/poet, Carl, for instance), the fact that you are given such scope to explore it yourself feels kind of like a priceless gift.*

There is so much in this book that I'm slightly stuck about how to begin explaining it to you. It's sort of about this one family, the Belseys, who have a wonderful black mother and a terrible white father (their respective races are not what make them wonderful and terrible, but I'm sure it's related) but it's also about art and education and adolescence and making horrible decisions and having to live with them, and having to, or deciding to, live with the horrible decisions of others. I say it's about the Belseys, but it's also about their 'rival'** family, the Kippses, and it's about the college town they live in and also, sometimes its about facing ones own mortality.

I mean, seriously, this book gets through a lot in 443 pages!

There are some pretty deplorable characters in this book, and hardly anyone that I liked uncomplicatedly. My greatest hatred, however, was reserved for Howard Belsey, the patriarch of the Belsey family and also a pretty terrible human. The book makes it pretty clear that he's going through a midlife crisis (almost the very beginning reveals that he has cheated on his wife which NO YOU DO NOT KIKI IS AWESOME) but for me that wasn't even what made him the most deplorable so much as his style of teaching. Here's a thing about me: when I went to do my MA in Shakespeare, I figured that my return to academia was probably/hopefully a permanent one and one day I'd have that elusive PhD. When I got there, however, I remembered all the things I don't like about it- the fact that, to get the highest grades, you have to go for the most obscure part of a text and tease out something that you want to be there because it sounds cool. Belsey's teaching style reminds me of this- he is an Art History professor, and instead of encouraging his students to talk about a painting, he more or less encourages them to talk around it, never really getting to anything like (what I consider) interesting discussion. Also, he's a pretty routinely terrible human, I don't really wanna talk about it.

Basically, to sum it up, this book was awesome enough for me to actually write a review of it. I KNOW, what more do you need to know?! I am filled with regret for leaving Zadie on my shelves for so many years, and I suspect I shall very shortly be reading (and also acquiring) her other books. I really can't recommend this enough, so if you get the chance to read this, you totally should. Also HAVE you read it? DID you like it? Please say yes.


*Interestingly, a priceless gift is also sort-of given in this novel. And also MANY OTHER THINGS HAPPEN.
**Meaning that the patriarchs are rivals. Because of course they are.


Sunday, 2 July 2017

Things I Read In June

Ohhh boy, June was a tough month for me, you guys. Two of my housemates left (trust me, this was not a bad thing) which meant that, because apparently everyone else I live with is incapable, I had to find two new housemates, one which I had a month to find and one I had to find in TWO WEEKS because, again, everyone else is FUCKING INCAPABLE. On top of that, I applied for the job that's the stage up from my job and had to deal with the stress of that and the interview and everything (AGH!) and I had no bathroom for the last week of the month. To say it was just one thing after another would be quite the understatement.

But there were some good things too! I celebrated 6 months with my fella and we went to the zoo which was GREAT and in general weekends have been a pleasure whilst the weeks have been eh. I also worked about 12 hours more than I needed to which doesn't sound like a good thing because work but is actually excellent because I get to play with those extra hours by having flexi days off and just generally shorter hours on some days, which I will sorely need this month when my boyfriend starts working all the weekends (seriously, like all the weekends...) but has days off, so yes. Forward planning, folks.

Anyway. Somehow, through all the stress and horrors, I managed to read SO MUCH in June. I got through 9 books, and even though two were comic books, that still makes 7 novels devoured in June. I guess we should put it down to extra daylight hours or something? Definitely or something...

Anyway, look at them!
The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro
I went through a phase of buying Alice Munro books whenever I saw them and never actually reading any of them. I figured it was a good time to figure out if I actually liked her writing style or not (cause, you know, if not I could get rid of some books!) but it turns out, yep, she's pretty great. This collection of short stories was grittier than I expected, which also made them more interesting than I expected, and even though I couldn't tell you what happened in most of the stories (I read NINE books this month, guys) I know there are parts that will stay with me for a while, which is all I can really ask for at my advanced age.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
This was good, but maybe not as good as I was expecting. A really long time ago I read an extract from this in The New Yorker and I thought it was super interesting so I bought the book when I saw it. A million and one years later I actually read it, and it's a pretty good dystopia set in the not too distant future where the dollar is worthless and young people literally can't connect with anyone and can only consume and consume and consume because that is what technology does to us if you're a total pessimist. This was a decent dystopia, but for me not such a great love story because I just didn't get it... The guy is literally THE WORST and the girl is kind of great but also kind of not, but shallow  enough that she would never go out with this guy so in that sense I just didn't really believe it. But still, it was decent enough to keep me entertained and to prevent me from having to watch cricket so what more can you ask for?

Mr Mercedes by Stephen King
It's a Stephen King so OBVIOUSLY I'm going to review this in long form, but let's just say I enjoyed this a lot and I'm really glad that it's part of a series and I get to hear more from these characters. It's twisted and upsetting and so good I can't even.

Torch by Cheryl Strayed
I bought this book a long time ago but about a month afterwards my nan died and the thought of reading a book that is centred around the death of a mother was too upsetting and I put it back down every time I picked it up. I'm glad I finally read it because this book was actually excellent- I'm not sure I even cried at it because it doesn't go straight for the emotions but tries to seriously and insightfully look at all the different ways of grieving- it's not always about sadness, but about resentment and guilt and, especially in this book, doing whatever you want because nothing seems to matter any more. This book has done nothing to damage my love of Strayed's writing, and really just makes me want more fiction from her, please please please.

The Age of License by Lucy Knisley
Ah, Lucy Knisley. I bought this and the next book as treats for myself for being a brave girl when I had to have a medical thing done last month, and although I tried to save at least one of them for later, I just... can't do such things. This one is a chronicle of a month Knisley spent travelling through Europe and having a beautiful love affair and I enjoyed it ever so much- especially her reunion with French milk because damn that girl loves the milk in France. It is, as ever, excellent work and you should almost definitely read this.

Displacement by Lucy Knisley
Similarly... Displacement was actually a little harder to read than The Age of License, in that it's about a cruise Knisley took with her elderly grandparents, and how difficult it was to deal with their various ailments and whatnot, and it hit me right in the feels. It's still excellent, but it's more like a harsh reality check when compared to the dreaminess of An Age of License.

Revival by Stephen King
After a really good run of Stephen Kings I've loved, I've finally come to one that just kind of bored me. Full review to come, but this one had a good (horrifying) ending but that was kind of it, in my opinion. Mehhhhhh so hard.

It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis 
I bought this because it's been everywhere this year as some kind of fortune telling book about the Trump presidency. Although there are some similarities between the moron President/dictator Buzz Windrip in this book and the moron President currently running America, this book was slightly more terrifying since a dictatorship is declared literally just after inauguration, concentration camps are established and basically this is Lewis's answer to people saying that America could never become like Nazi Germany (it was written in 1936). I wasn't sure exactly what to expect from this book, and although I found it hard to become motivated to read it, once I was into it I couldn't put it down. It helps that it was told from the perspective of a member of the resistance (viva la resistance!) and that it is essentially a dystopian novel, and yeah, it's pretty good, if not as prophetic as, say, Waterstones, would have you believe.

Miss Buncle's Book by D E Stevenson
Another month, another Persephone novel. This book was adorable- sharp and witty and romantic and lovey and I am running out of adjectives but basically it was just GREAT! Miss Buncle writes a book about her neighbours and the worst of them hate it (because it shows them as they are) and try to out the writer as the writer (Miss Buncle) is busy writing another book about how ridiculous they all are. I can't even express the pure joy this book brought me (especially after It Can't Happen Here) and you should definitely read it if you can get your hands on a copy.

June! Reading really did its job of taking me away from real, horrible life, so nice job books. I'm hoping for a July that's much less stressful, but with just as much book joy.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Devouring Books: Dietland by Sarai Walker

I read Dietland in great big gulps. If the main character has a dysfunctional relationship with food (which, not even a spoiler, she doesssss) then reading this was like me having a dysfunctional relationship with reading. Binge reading, if you like. The kind of reading where you don't want to do anything else (even stuff you need to do) except read this book.

I liked it a lot, is what I'm saying.

The story is Plum's. She is a woman, living in Brooklyn, working for an evil media conglomerate where she tries to respond to the problems of teenage girls, who believe they are writing to the editor of the magazine (who is a real dick, btdubs). Plum also weighs 300lb, barely leaves the house except to write at her (only) friend's cafe, is on a low dose of anti-depressants and also hates herself so desperately that it hurts. Well, it hurt me, anyway.

One of the soundbites on the back of the book calls it 'a manifesto disguised as a beach read' and I think that's just such a spot on description of it that I'm totally stealing it. This book is very well written, and so easy to just fly through, but once you get to the end, you have read a book where (finally!) a fat woman has learnt to love herself without losing weight. I know, I know, the concept is completely unthinkable (*eyeroll*) except I honestly believe (or maybe just hope) that as a society we're getting to a stage where people are learning to love and embrace what makes them different rather than literally hurting themselves trying to fit into some mould that the media has told them to fit into so that they can make a shit-ton of money. What I'm saying is, I think this book is very timely indeed.

Even though I flew through it, in one sense Dietland was hard to read in places. It became incredibly frustrating to hear Plum's thought cycle of 'once I'm thin I'll do this' 'I can't do that cause I'm still fat' and essentially stopping herself from participating in the world because of her physical appearance. I understood it, and I know that it happens with real people, it was just so upsetting and frustrating to be a part of via Plum as proxy. I guess for me, this is mainly because I am already a pretty comfortable chubby person- in fact, I recently lost weight because my doctor told me to and I'm pretty obedient/don't want to get cancer, and it made me more uncomfortable that people were commenting on how good I looked than I felt uncomfortable being that bit fatter, as if I was somehow worth more because I now have a slightly smaller BMI. I guess what this means is, although I loved this book, I didn't exactly need it, whereas I think there are probably women out there who desperately need a book like this- they just don't know it yet.

And so, feminism. This book is so feminist it's unreal- Plum learns that, by not buying into the idea she has to be thin, she sidesteps so many uncomfortable realities that women who do buy into that are really buying into- the idea that women should take up less space than men, the idea that 'fuckability' is the most important aspect to a woman, the idea that looking like what a man wants you to look like (and again, this is only the media's idea of a man who only wants the media's idea of a woman!) is the only thing that matters. This book manages to explore many important and uncomfortable issues with the lightest of touches. There is also a subplot that involves what is essentially a group of feminist guerillas, and whilst I didn't necessarily agree with their methods, I couldn't argue with their results- half naked women on buses are replaced with half naked men, The Sun has male Page 3 models instead of female ones, the world becomes, just for a little bit, not all about the fucking male gaze.

So yeah, seriously, this book is so great.

So, do it. Buy it. It might change your whole worldview, or it might be the book about your whole worldview that you've been waiting for for so long. Both options are pretty great, don't you think?

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Devouring Books: If This Is A Woman by Sarah Helm

When I think about things I've read about the Holocaust, I come up with Maus, The Diary of Anne Frank, and that's kind of it. I honestly couldn't tell you if I've been intentionally trying to shield myself from reading about horrible things, or if I've just been a lazy scholar in this area. I learnt about the Holocaust at Secondary School (but that's it) and I've also been to a Concentration Camp and even the place where the final solution (uck) was decided upon*, but I've still remained pretty ignorant about most of the horrifying things that happened in the camps during the war.

Fittingly, If This Is A Woman is a really comprehensive book about the activities of the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, a camp that nobody ever really knows or talks about. I can't tell if this is because 1) it wasn't a death camp (as in it didn't have gas chambers until right at the end of the war, not that many many didn't die there because of the awful conditions) 2) it wasn't strictly a Jewish camp because the agenda for Jews was obviously death and so they didn't tend to stay at Ravensbruck long, or 3) because it was a camp, in fact the only camp, that was exclusively for women. I don't want to be cynical and say that because women are the only ones that suffered and died there it has been viewed as less important and not as worthy to discuss, but I guess I am saying that so please have some of my cynicism, it's free!

Ok, so. As I've already said, I have nothing really to compare this book to, but in my opinion, it was a really really good chronicles of the experiences of women in the camp. I can't say that I exactly enjoyed reading it because, come on, but there were times when I couldn't quite put it down just because I was filled with horror, and, quite frankly, I wanted to get to the end where, at least, some of the women would survive.** This book, however, is packed with information and research, and although there were points where I just wanted to not know anymore, I also felt like reading it was an important thing to do- not even for me, really, but for everyone to know how horrifying things were so that we don't let this shit happen again.

I think for me, the best thing about this book is that it's all about the women's stories. I think Helm interjects as the narrator only in the introduction and epilogue, and only to describe her feelings upon visiting the camp and also explaining how she tracked down some of the survivors. Other than that, it is only the women's voices we hear, describing the things they lived through and also describing the women they loved who didn't live through them. I still don't know if I've remained ignorant through choice or because, y'know, I've been reading other things, but I know for a fact that I've always tried to not hear about the medical experiments Nazis carried out on prisoners (if I go through my whole life not knowing what they were doing with twins, for example, I think I'll be good). This book, however, did not allow me to look away, and now I know about some horrifying experiments that I suspect don't even scratch the surface of the evil shit the Nazis were doing to people. It's not like I didn't know they were bad, but shit, dude. They were doubleplus bad, you know?

I think this review has mostly revealed my ignorance of the Holocaust before reading this book, but i guess that's ok. I read to entertain myself, mostly, but this was absolutely an instance of reading to educate myself. I feel as though it has opened a door to probably more Holocaust reading, but in a little while so that I have a chance to recover somewhat (I realise this makes me a total pansy compared to people who fought, hard, for their lives every single day, but hey, I gotta do self care). In my completely uninformed opinion, this is a really good example of a Holocaust chronicle, and if you want to look specifically at the women who suffered, then this is, I think, a really good place to start.




*It's this gorgeous house in the Berlin suburbs and it just does not deserve to be that beautiful. But it is. Sorry.
**Alas, the end is pretty grim- many women were killed in air raids just outside Ravensbruck after they'd been freed, and many many more were raped by soviet soldiers who were there to liberate them. Yay, men!

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Devouring Stephen King: Doctor Sleep

Of all the King books that have been released after starting my long voyage, Doctor Sleep is the one I was most apprehensive about. The Shining is a pretty iconic book (don't talk to me about the movie, but the book, yes) and if there was something I didn't think I needed, it was a sequel to it. I'm not sure that this book exactly convinced me that I needed a sequel, but I still really enjoyed it all the same.

Let's see. This book starts by taking us to Danny about 3 years after the events in The Overlook, where he is being haunted again by some of the gross things he saw there. Dick Halloran tells him how to get rid of them, and we are then transported through time (that happens a lot in this book which is one of its strengths- we'll get onto that later) to see Danny- now Dan- as an adult alcoholic, drinking almost all the time to try and dull the memories and the shining- less intense as an adult than as a child, but still irreducibly there. We actually get to see him hit rock bottom, stealing from a woman who quite clearly has nothing, and leaving a child in a dangerous situation.

It was at this point that I was worried about this book. I didn't want to see the destruction of Danny from The Shining, and I didn't know enough about the book to be sure that he wasn't going to go down a Jack Torrence path of destruction rather than going to AA. Spoiler, but reassurance- he goes to AA rather than on a killing spree so you are totally going to be able to read this book, don't panic.

Danny (Dan) is not even really the main point of this book, however. This is his story, but it's also the story of a long-living group of almost vampires, who live not off blood but off of whatever is produced by children who shine. It's also also the story of Abra, a little girl who does shine, and who shines extremely bright. These three elements combine together over time gaps and physical distances to make a story that's really intriguing and exciting and oddly road trip-ish, but you know. In a bad way.

In a lot of ways, I think the best thing about this book is the time gaps. What it allows is for us to see large cross sections of Danny's life, from rock bottom, to finally finding help, to then being able to help others. As much as The Shining was incredibly insular and takes place over a few weeks/months, Doctor Sleep takes place over decades, making it much more roaming and a whole overview of a person's life, rather than giving us a small snapshot of what Dan's life is like afterwards. King pretty much says that he wrote this book cause people always asked him what happened to the kid from The Shining, and so he got to wondering that himself. Here he answers the question not with a single event but with many, and you know what? It ain't such a bad life at all.

And so. The completely unnecessary sequel turned out to be pretty great, and definitely worth your time and attention. I like and root for Dan as much as I liked and rooted for him as a child, and I'm really glad that this book didn't do anything bad to the legacy of The Shining, even though I feared it would. It's good book, people. Good book indeed.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Devouring Stephen King: Joyland

Joyland was, quite genuinely, a joy to read (groaaaaaan). It's another one of King's Hard Case Crime books (the last being The Colorado Kid) and it's just so great. Although, because it's King, there are a couple of supernatural elements to proceedings (a fortune teller! A psychic child! A ghost!) at it's core this is really just a good old fashioned whodunnit and, well, I can hardly resist one of those.

I'm finding it hard to think coherently about Joyland, because my brain just keeps going 'God, that book was GREAT!' and that's about all I can handle. So let's try and do some plot. Devin is a college student who has just been dumped by his girlfriend and has found a summer job at a carnival. Firstly, the carnival seems like an awesome place to work, and don't think for one second that I didn't want to run off and be a carny for most of this book because shit, those parts seemed like so much fun. This particular theme park, however, has a grisly past as a woman was murdered in (of course) the haunted house a number of years before, and it is solving this crime that is the basis of the book.

Except that, it also kind of isn't. I know I said this is a good old fashioned whodunnit, and certainly I got that rush of satisfaction when I found out who the killer was because, you know, it's very pleasing to have solved the mystery.* In many ways though, the mystery, just like the supernatural elements, are secondary to the main story, which is basically just the story of Devin himself. That's right, King has done it again, and made you believe you're reading a scary book, when actually you're really just reading a character piece. This book is all about getting over heartbreak, making grown up choices, and finding out who you are and who you want to be in life. All of these things are things I can get behind, and shit, I really loved this book.

Don't get me wrong though, it is still pretty scary. There were definite moments of peril where I couldn't quite breathe right, and I was also so engrossed by it that I made my boyfriend and I miss a train because shit, I just wanted to finish it, ok?! I gulped this book down in a couple of days, not only because it's short and I had some travelling time to read (both true) but also because, fuck, I really did  not want to put it down (see above re: missing train).

So to conclude. This book was aces and frankly I could read it again right now without any complaints. I don't even just recommend this book to you, I URGE you to read it, especially if you like crime fiction in any sense. I don't know what it is about these later King books, but to me it seems like he's gotten really really good over the last few I've read. All killer, no filler, all that kind of stuff. This makes me really excited for whatever comes next, and also slightly mournful that in just a few books, I'll have to wait for the next King book to be published like a total sucker. Alas, alas, woe is me etc. But also, not really cause I get to read more Stephen King!

*For the record, I did not solve the mystery, and definitely allowed myself to be led down the wrong path just as King intended. I like detective/crime stories, I would just be really bad if I lived in one.