Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

keep the aspidistra flyingIt’s weird that I consider Orwell one of my favourite writers but I’ve only read three of his books. So I decided to pick up one of his lesser-known novels, and it’s a good one.

Gordon has a lot of problems with the concept of money, and the ‘money world’ he thinks everyone is trapped in. He leaves his ‘good job’ and becomes poor on purpose to have more time to write. But Gordon’s rejection of capitalism doesn’t really work when he lives in a society that is capitalist. His rejection actually just leads to an obsession with money, wealth and poverty, and a lot of blaming his lack of money for everything, from his girlfriend not sleeping with him to a misunderstanding over the date for a party. To Gordon, it’s never his attitude, it’s always other people and his lack of money to blame.

Gordon is a very unlikeable character, in an excellent way. At times his unlikeability is enjoyable, at others you mostly want to punch him in the face. He treats his girlfriend Rosemary terribly most of the time, making her feel everything is her fault and often trying to guilt her into having sex with him. He also has a sister that has sacrificed everything for him her whole life, but he just continues to take what little she has and never pays her back when he has the means.

It did bother me that Gordon’s second boss, Mr Cheeseman, was described in great detail as ugly and physically deformed, as a signifier that he was not a nice man. I know it’s something to do with the time it was written, but oh Orwell, you’re a better writer than this disability/deformity = bad human rubbish.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying is an interesting look at capitalism and poverty because Gordon is so unlikeable and his solutions are terrible, but you never get the impression that it means Orwell is saying the capitalist system is a good thing, or that those in poverty have a choice.

Absolutely recommended if you enjoy unlikeable narrators / protagonists. Orwell’s writing style means it’s surprisingly quick and easy to read, but still thought-provoking.

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Bird Box by Josh Malerman

bird boxIn Bird Box, a person only has to glimpse something, though nobody is quite sure what that something is, to suddenly lose their minds, kill anyone near them, and then kill themselves. The book switches between Malorie in the present, who is looking after two young children and hasn’t looked outside in four years, and what happened four years ago.

There is a point in the book where a load of birds suddenly go nuts, signally something really bad is about to happen. At exactly the same time as I read the sentence, a load of birds suddenly went nuts outside my window. It was dark outside, and I hadn’t closed the curtains, so anything, anyone, could have been peering in at me and I wouldn’t be able to see them. I should have been terrified, but I wasn’t. And that was my problem with Bird Box. The book is filled with tension, it’s a page-turner, but I just wasn’t scared.

Perhaps my imagination just isn’t good enough, but I think that a book is the wrong medium for this story. This would work so much better, and be much scarier, as a radio play or enhanced ebook with all the silence / creepy noises. The sound of a leaf suddenly crunching, a splash of water, a book falling from a shelf, become all the more terrifying when you, as the listener, are effectively blindfolded along with the characters. It could also work as a film, but only if the director in no way attempts to show the creatures, as the horror of the story relies on never quite knowing what’s out there.

The ending is the main thing that didn’t work for me. It was far too wrapped-up and so was disappointing after the rest book hinged on a constant sense of uncertainty. I do have a real thing about happy/neat-in-a-bow endings that just don’t fit the rest of the story, it always kind of ruins the book as a whole for me. If Bird Box had an ambiguous, terrifying, or just plain horrible ending I think I would have liked it as a book much more.

I think there is an ebook version, I’m not sure who narrates it, but I would definitely listen to this rather than read it. Listen to it on a windy, stormy night, when there are all sorts of noises outside to freak you out afterwards.

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October Reads

I didn’t blog much in October because my internet is broken (currently stealing coffee shop wifi!), but I did manage to get some reading in. I read a few good novels, one very average one, and a whole bunch of comics.

wytchesWytches #1 by Scott Snyder & Jock (Comic – fiction)

I loved this and I think it will be a great series. I really liked their take on the mythology of witches and I’m looking forward to where it goes next. Full review here.

midwich cuckoosThe Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham (Novel)

I didn’t enjoy this as much as The Day of the Triffids but it’s still an enjoyable enough old-school horrorish read. I do like horror from the 50s; it’s slow in the best way. I’m sure I’ve never read it before, or seen the film (renamed as Village of the Damned), but the first couple of chapters were so familiar to me it I felt like I knew it word for word. Weird.

the hoursThe Hours by Micheal Cunningham (Novel)

This book is incredible and easily the best thing I read all month. I liked Mrs Dalloway, but I definitely enjoyed this more. I think where Mrs D is subtext, this is text, if that makes sense, and it manages to pull off being both a reworking and an enhancement to Mrs D. It made me like Mrs D more and see more in it. If you read it, I would say read Mrs Dalloway first, and then read this soon after while it’s still relatively fresh to get the most out of it.

black holeBlack Hole by Charles Burns (Graphic novel – fiction)

I was a bit disappointed by this, but perhaps my expectations were too high. I think my main problem was that it felt over-long for what it was and could have been worked into a much tighter, shorter story.

chewChew Vols 1 & 2 by John Layman & Rob Guillory (comics – fiction)

I loved this. It’s kind of gross and funny and weird and very enjoyable. When I (eventually) finish the series I’ll do a full review. But I do recommend you check it out.

sandmanSandman Vol 1 by Neil Gaiman (Comics – fiction)

I liked this, but it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. I think, as a whole, it’s a bit uneven and feels like Gaiman was finding his feet as not all the stories work as well as others. But the final issue in the volume / story arc did make me want to read more as it opened up some interesting possibilities (and I love Death), so I’ll give the second volume a go before I decide what I think of Sandman.

pretty deadlyPretty Deadly Vol 1 by Kelly Sue DeConnick & Emma Rios (Comics – fiction)

The artwork is really great with an interesting use of panels, but the writing is a little messy, which is a shame as it’s an interesting concept. It was hard to follow at times and some of the characters were a bit thin, or would get a lot of back story and then disappear forever. I don’t think I’ll be reading volume 2.

limestone wallLimestone Wall by Marlene Lee (Novel)

This was a pretty ‘average-to-meh’ novel because the writing just wasn’t good enough. It was a review copy so I’ve done a full review here.

State of the TBR: 53 books. Seriously, what?

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Limestone Wall by Marlene Lee

limestone wallLimestone Wall is about living in the past and trying to reconcile it with your present, and about grief for lives never lived and people never really known. It follows recently widowed Evelyn, as she returns to her childhood home across the road from an old prison, where her mother is serving a life sentence.

This book could have been great, but the writing lacked the kind of quiet power a story like this needs. The second half was better than the first as it was less overwritten and didn’t seem to be trying as hard. Though, it’s also possible that the first half didn’t work because any tension it might have had is taken away by the spoilery blurb on the back of the book. At times there’s a seamlessness between Evelyn’s fantasies of what could (but would never) happen and the present, but at others it doesn’t flow very well. I also found the way the end was written a bit odd. I kept thinking I’d accidentally missed a chapter or something because it just jumps from nothing being resolved to things being resolved (in Evelyn’s mind) without any in between. I like ambiguity, but it felt like the ambiguity was in the wrong place. I think Lee was going for something a bit more experimental in this book, and just didn’t pull it off.

The publisher also sent me a copy of Lee’s debut novel, The Absent Woman, which I’ve also read. It’s less uneven and overwritten than Limestone Wall so I enjoyed it more. The writing is nothing special, but better than the, again, terrible blurb would suggest – “…Virginia encounters Twilah Chan, an inspiring teacher and disturbing presence. Twilah’s son, Greg, an exciting but also disturbing presence, re-awakens Virginia’s romantic life.” Someone else really needs to start writing the blurbs for Lee, or she needs to do it herself if it’s the publisher doing it because the writing in the book is better than that (also ‘disturbing’ is completely the wrong word for those characters, and makes it sound like a creepier, more sinister book than it is).

Not a book I’d particularly recommend, but if you come across Lee’s writing I’d go for The Absent Woman over Limestone Wall.

I was sent a free copy by Holland House Books in exchange for an honest review

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Wytches #1 by Scott Snyder & Jock

wytchesI don’t normally like single issue comics, and prefer to wait for the trades (a collection of 4-6 issues in one volume), but I wanted to give Wytches a go, and now, goddammit, I need to get it in singles because I can’t wait for the trades. This is a creepy and beautifully drawn and coloured comic and I’m really glad I picked it up.

One of the reasons I don’t like singles is there’s just not enough, but I thought this set up the story to come really well. The first couple of pages are confusing at first (in a good, horror-claustrophobic way) but then they very quickly become very creepy. I absolutely love the colour work on these pages (colouring done by Matt Hollingsworth). This short, sharp set-up means the story can slow down a little, introduce the main characters and the creep to come, while retaining momentum.

Without being spoilery, the story focuses on Sailor, a teenage girl who has just moved with her parents because something bad happened in her old town. Something she thinks she caused (you find out in a flashback what happened). She’s nervous about starting a new school, and if the people here ‘know about her’. And all the while there seems to be something out there, watching. As Synder writes in an essay at the back, the wytches in Wytches aren’t pointy hats and broomsticks, but are “huge and ancient and primal and deeply evil’ and are waiting in the woods. Though you do get to know Sailor’s dad, you find out very little about her mum, but I suspect she’ll have a bigger part to play in what’s happening in the future.

wytches

First page

I love the artwork. The splashy first pages give way to a more traditional comic book style that has a really good use of overlapping panels, and mostly deep, dark colour.

Wytches

Some lighter pages before the fearing-for-their-lives

It gorgeous to look at, creepy, and ends on a really annoying cliff-hanger. I definitely recommend this one for fans of horror.

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September Reads

A mixed bag this month, including the first book in a long time I decided not to finish.

we need new namesWe Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (Novel)

This is sort of a novel, sort of a series of interlinked short stories. I’m not sure about this one; I feel a bit ambivalent and I’m not really sure why. There are a couple of real punch in the gut moments, and there’s a lot in the book to think about, both in content and the way it’s written, but it didn’t quite work for me. I found myself comparing it unfavourably to Americanah by Adiche, which shares a number of similar themes but I thought was better written.

dear committe membersDear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher (Novel)

I really enjoyed the snarky narrator of this novel, but it’s a bit repetitive if you read it all in one go. It’s a light, funny, little-bit-sad, read – particularly recommended if you’ve ever worked in academia. Full review here.

mrs dallowayMrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (Novel)

I have no idea how to review this. Virginia Woolf is a genius. The prose shifts from one character’s viewpoint to another mid-paragraph, or even mid-sentence sometimes, but it just flows and doesn’t feel like a gimmick or too difficult to follow. There’s so much in this seemingly simple story that I could talk about (which I suppose is why it’s studied academically), but all I’ll say is that it’s actually quite a sad book, with nearly every character unhappy with the way their lives have turned out and with the choices they have made. I’m reading The Hours in October, which I’m really looking forward to, particularly so soon after this, but I also need more Woolf in my life.

bad feministBad Feminist by Roxane Gay (Non-fiction)

I loved this collection of essays. None of the ideas felt particularly new to me, but they were so well articulated and nuanced that I still got a lot from them. Roxane Gay is super smart and funny and angry and I’d definitely recommend this collection. Full review here.

diaryDiary by Chuck Palahniuk (Novel)

This is bleakly funny and weird and dark and a bit horrifying, which is basically perfect for me. I wasn’t a fan of the very last page, but I’d still recommend it. I’d like to read some more Palahniuk, particularly Fight Club, just to see how it works as a book and how he manages the dual identity thing at the end. Full review here.

 

Didn’t finish:

For the first time in a long while, I didn’t finish a book. I used to always finish everything I started, even if I hated it and it was just a slog. But then I realised there are far more books I want to read and re-read than is physically possible in my lifetime, and there are no prizes for finishing books you hate. It still feels a bit wrong to decide to leave a book unfinished, but as soon as I actually put it down it feels hugely liberating. (Pro tip: definitely don’t tweet you’ve left a book club book unfinished; you’ll be spammed by loads of spambot authors trying to get you to read theirs, even though it has the opposite effect. Twitter is annoying sometimes.)

labyrinthLabyrinth by Kate Mosse (Novel)

I managed 350 pages (roughly half) before I put it down, though if it wasn’t a book club book I would have put it down much sooner. I just couldn’t get along with it at all. I found the story kind of ‘meh’ (the worst of all the book reactions), and felt Mosse badly needed an editor, or a better one, due to the sheer amount of pointless description and repetition. It felt like one of those books where the author has done a lot of research about a particular time period and has to crowbar all of that detail in. Harsh maybe, but wouldn’t recommend at all.

State of the TBR: 53 books (I’d like to crack the 40 barrier before Christmas, so I’ve got some serious reading to do!)

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Diary by Chuck Palahniuk

diaryI think my favourite genre is weird-dark, so it’s strange that it’s taken me so long to read any Palahniuk (who also wrote Fight Club). Diary is a ‘coma diary’ written by Misty Wilmot as her husband, Peter, is in a coma after a suicide attempt. Misty hates Peter and is brilliantly snarky and angry. They live on a once affluent island which is now filled with tourists and second homes. It turns out Peter, who had been refurbishing some of the houses, has been plastering in and hiding whole rooms, leaving horrible messages scrawled all over the walls and furnishings. But that isn’t really the story. It gets weirder. And darker.

I really enjoyed this. It’s bleakly funny and weird and dark and a bit horrifying, which is basically perfect for me. It reminded me of Shirley Jackson, but more graphic because it’s Chuck Palahniuk. I thought the very last page was unnecessary and a little cheesy, though I can see why it’s there. Without that final page, I think it has a better, creepier ending as it’s a little more ambiguous and there’s more of a sense of the story repeating forever.

I’m not sure what the correct term is, but I really liked the production on the cover (I have a Vintage books UK paperback). It’s kind of soft and floppy, which would be annoying for a long book but for a short one it just had a really nice feel to it when reading.

An enjoyable creepy read that I definitely recommend to fans of slow horror and Shirley Jackson.

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