Movement is the End Goal: Rachel Cusk’s Transit (Essay)

The lights blinked twice and went out. I strapped the safety belt on, conscious of the blinking lights, conscious, too, of the cry of the toddler several rows back. A long flight, with no end in sight.

Next to me on the plane sat my creative writing instructor, a woman roughly the age of my mother. She is a writer of some renown, owed in equal parts by the fame she has found for renovating notions of character, and by the infamy she had been subject to for her frank, uncensored—what some would call selfish—account of her messy divorce with the father of her children. This story she told in a well-known novel from 2012.

We kept our silence over the duration of the lift-off, for no other reason than for the fact that neither of us had much to say. Now she took a deep breath and addressed me. “These last few months have been a time of transition for me.” A time of change, she adds, makes you conscious of nothing so much as the process of transformation itself. Everywhere she looked, she saw men and women struggle through one transition or another. Old lovers, friends, odious neighbors, acquaintances – everyone is transitioning, either through periods defined visibly through outside factors; or through internalised ones, at work in everything we touch, everything that touches us.

What drives it? She considered, looking down the aisle at the air hostess awhirl with activity. Just when I thought to call her attention again, my teacher’s voice picked up once more. ”It’s motion, and it’s static, this constant of ours.” Like with so much else, she said, change is defined by how we embrace it; through acts of will or surrender. Viewing the act of change like this offers you a good stage to talk about evil and love and parenthood, she said, and loneliness, and of so much more that goes into the human condition. She stopped, gaze narrowing, as if she were fast forwarding through what she just said. “An acquaintance of mine told me recently, ‘Loneliness is when nothing will stick to you, when nothing will thrive around you, when you start to think that you kill things just by being there.’”

But how does that connect to change, I asked. It leaves a mark, she told me, the kind that doesn’t come out with a bit of soap and a long soak. It shapes your thoughts and changes your inner self, and creates distance that’s difficult to overcome.

I thought I knew what she meant, I told her. I’d been lonely, myself. Was lonely, still—now and again.

She said, “We don’t even realise it. It dawns on us only once we turn around and look back.   Something a friend told me struck a note with me. ‘It’s strange,’ he said, ‘that you always changed everything and I changed nothing and yet we’ve both ended up in the same place.’ That’s how this silent, all-encompassing process works. You might have only caught glimpses of it this far, you’re—what, twenty-five?”

“In August.”

“You have noticed then, how people enter your life seamlessly, without flaw—and exit in much the same vein. You won’t be surprised to learn that sometimes, they come back. And sometimes, you’ll pick up where you left off, as if no time has passed at all, and no matter how much either of you has changed, you’ll find…it doesn’t matter at all. Does that negate the transition in the first place? “

I nod.

She curved her lips upwards as she told me, “It’s the way of change.” It’s not a one-way street, she said, this transformation of ours. At the right time, with the right person, time flows backwards, and you again return to that twenty-something year old, or that little girl. or boy.

She spoke for a long time, and I listened to all she said, and lost myself. The words she said were rarely about herself, but rather about the world as she saw it, and the people whose words helped her see it the way she did. My teacher had an understanding of human nature like few others I’d known. To immerse myself in her words was to catch a glimpse of that understanding, take possession of it—however fleeting. I was envious and almost lustful of that knowledge; the more she spoke, the more I wished to hear.

After the plane landed but before the seatbelt lights went off, I turned to her. She’d grown silent for the duration of the landing, once more withdrawing into herself.

“Thank you, Faye,” I told her. “Your guidance is invaluable. I think…much of what you’ve told me today will leave its mark for a long time to come.”

She nodded, her face serious. “I’m glad of it. But I’m curious – what do you think?”

I attempted to mimic Cusk’s style in this mixture between a review and an essay – I hope you’ve enjoyed the results. Some of the words I inserted into her mouth are direct quotes from the novel – I’ll leave it to you to judge which ones!

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller—Book Review

I finished Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 many months ago — I’ve kept pushing the review further and further off because this is one of the classics, it’s loved by many, disliked by some, downright hated by a chosen few. I find myself decidedly in the camp of the first, as this novel illustrated the absurdism of war through examples that will have you either grasping at your sides with laughter or blinking slowly, trying to comprehend what the hell just happened.

It is a difficult book to penetrate, at first. Heller thinks little of chronology, the structure of his chapters a mess that is at once brilliant and confounding; the opening begins in media res, with Yossarian pretending to be both sick and crazy for who-knows-which time. Unafraid to hop from one character’s circumstances to another, Heller uses an omniscient narrator to sketch out the daily life of the soldiers of the U.S. Air Army. He does so in a way that extends to far more than just these characters, encompassing the entirety of the army, of any army, even of every army. The objections to war, after all, should not be examined in a case-by-case basis.

Once you become acquainted with the military and its maddening mechanisms, Heller’s thesis statement begins to fall into place:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.

Ironic, isn’t it? This circularity is the bread and butter of so much of Heller’s seminal work, and though other examples of this never failed to garner a laugh, chortle or chuckle from me, these became ever more histeric as I continued my sixteen-hour journey across a text that is increasingly pessimistic about the nature of modern society in all its paradoxic, violent and capitalistic glory.

There is something of a postmodernist precursor to this book, something that so well captures the pulse of a movement that was just beginning to arise in the sixties (Catch-22 was published in 1961) that you can’t help but applaud Heller for taking the measure of so much of the postmodernist essence:

It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.

This codifies so much of my experience with postmodernism!…And the distance from this to Angela Carter isn’t that much of a stretch, is it?

I listened to Catch-22 as narrated by Trevor White whose reading brought the characters to life and made the dialogue jump off the page. I recommend you give that particular audiobook a listen — it’s well-worth the Audible credit!

And, before I close this review off, may I say that Milo Minderbinder is one of the most brilliant characters used to satirize capitalism and the notion of free market, ever? The Mess Officer of the Air Force base that most of the book is set up at, is the beating heart of a pyramid scheme that puts all others to shame; Milo is a hell of a guy, and he’s almost as funny as he is scary.

I could write about Catch-22‘s insane cast for days, but alas, I’ve got plenty of other reviews to write. This is one I’ll be coming back to, reading and rereading, and something tells me no two reads will be the same. Just writing this review is enough to fill me with excitement over the possibility of experiencing the narrative Joseph Heller constructed with such impeccable care. If you’ve heard that this is one of the finest novels of the 20th century…well, you’ve heard right.

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny – Book Review

This review was originally published over at booknest.eu.

Published by: HarperVoyager (2010 ed.)
Genre: Sci-Fi, Fantasy
Pages: 296
Format: paperback
Awards: Hugo Award for Best Novel (1968)
Copy: Picked up at my local library. Support your libraries, folks!   

His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god, but then he never claimed not to be a god.

Gods, I loved this one. My admiration for Roger Zelazny and his talents goes back to early adolescence when my father, may Krishna and Vishnu look at him favourably, granted me passage into a world that lies in intersection to our own (and yet far, far above it, the way real objects are above shadows), the world of Amber. It is a glorious place, and one I haven’t dared revisit for many years; but this review goes a little further back, before Zelazny himself ventured into the Chronicles of Amber.

Lord of Light is an epic contained in just under a three-hundred page novel. Its ideas are grand and ambitious, as much in the vein of fantasy as in science fiction, the basic structure of much of the novel borrowed from the creation myth of Buddhist lore (heavily based on reality but mythologised after two and a half millennia), the aforementioned Sam taking on the role of prince Siddhartha Gautama. But Sam is not a man to only wear a single hat – his identities throughout the seven chapters of the book are many and the role of destroyer comes as easy to him as that of ascetic philosopher. Whether he believes in what he preaches or not is besides the point.   

This book is fantastic to read if you don’t know much about Hinduism and Buddhism but are looking for something to enthuse you, make you curious about enlightenment and spirituality of these dual religions which many of us in the Western world are hardly ever in the position to interact with on a meaningful level.

But divorce it from any knowledge from Hinduism; no, divorce is the wrong word. Rather, give Zelazny the creative leeway he deserves, let him loose on the pantheon and watch as he creates something remarkable and original as well as traditional. Perhaps the most delight I took was in these scenes which centred around the interactions between Sam and Yama (also called Yama-Dharma) the death-god and most brilliant amongst all the gods.

“Call themselves?” asked Yama. “You are wrong, Sam, Godhood is more than a name. It is a condition of being. One does not achieve it merely by being immortal, for even the lowliest laborer in the fields may achieve continuity of existence. … Being a god is the quality of being able to be yourself to such an extent that your passions correspond with the forces of the universe, so that those who look upon you know this without hearing your name spoken. Some ancient poet said that the world is full of echoes and correspondences. Another wrote a long poem of an inferno, wherein each man suffered a torture which coincided in nature with those forces which had ruled his life. Being a god is being able to recognize within one’s self these things that are important, and then to strike the single note that brings them into alignment with everything else that exists. Then, beyond morals or logic or esthetics, one is wind or fire, the sea, the mountains, rain, the sun or the stars, the flight of an arrow, the end of a day, the clasp of love. One rules through one’s ruling passions. Those who look upon gods then say, without even knowing their names, ‘He is Fire. She is Dance. He is Destruction. She is Love.’ So, to reply to your statement, they do not call themselves gods. Everyone else does, though, everyone who beholds them.”
“So they play that on their fascist banjos, eh?”
“You choose the wrong adjective.”
“You’ve already used up all the others.”

This is the kind of dialogue that got me into literature, made me want to dig as deep into it as can be, and make the study of it my life’s work. It sparkles, it crackles, and it captures perfectly who these two characters are; Yama, who is avatar and representation of the end of all things, as severe as the silence of the grave; and Sam, who cuts through all the bullshit and calls things as he sees them, and fights for a cause not wholly his own to the last. Fine – I’m projecting beyond the conversation above but you can’t blame me for the enthusiasm. 

See, the intertextuality is something Lord of Light thrives on and is shaped by. The paragraph above makes a passing nod to Dante’s Inferno, and perhaps to some of Zelazny’s other work itself – a quick google search revealed the following quote, penned by none other than him: “All of these things considered, it is not surprising that one can detect echoes, correspondences and even an eternal return or two within the work of a single author. The passage of time does bring changes, yea and alas; but still, I would recognize myself anywhere.” What this intertextuality allows Zelazny to do is weave his unique vision while using Hindu and Buddhist cannon as a vehicle to enrichen an imaginative world which takes on themes of oppression and the dangers of technological advancement, touches on colonialism and, most formidably, seeks to divorce religious preaching from spirituality, while arduously studying the bonds between the two. What does that last point stand for? As mentioned before – and I don’t mark this as spoiler, for it is established early on – Sam hardly believes what he preaches. Does that lessen his teachings? To discover the answer, multi-faceted as it is, you might want to pick this one up.

I am in awe of Zelazny, yet another of the SFF masters of old whose works will always hold relevance to our present. Lord of Light is a quintessential classic, and one you will be well-served by taking the time to read it. It will not always be easy…but it will be rewarding. This is my Sci-Fi read of the month, and I give it full marks, 5 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.

I rarely add a song to my reviews, but there is one that encapsulates the book and its protagonist in particular, in such an excellent way as to warrant it. The song in question is called “The Lord of Lightning” by King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami – Book Review

I keep returning to Murakami’s works, captivated by the prism through which he sees the world. His protagonists are a consistent type – alienated men, most often in their thirties. Something is missing in the lives they live, often to do with some personal tragedy in their late teenage years – in Norwegian Wood, it was the death of the protagonist’s best friend; in here, it is the fact that Tsukuru Tazaki is expelled from his group of friends soon after he graduates highschool and moves to study in Tokyo.

Tsukuru interested me – he sees himself as an empty container, a man with hardly any personality; that’s where the adjective in the title, “colorless” comes in. This is a lonely man, friendless, single, without kids. He hasn’t had a close confidant since university, when he befriended a younger man by the name of Haida…who is but one of the novel’s many mysteries without answer.

Sure, he’s had a few girlfriends but Tsukuru never truly connected with any of them – and nor did they connect with him. This changes when he meets Sara, a woman two years older than he, who penetrates his exterior and helps him realise he needs to work through the issues hanging over his head ever since his expulsion from the group.

This is a novel about reconnecting with the past and letting go of that which leaves the deepest marks; it’s about learning to overcome the shackles of past trauma not for someone else but for yourself.

I’ve lost friends. I’ve lost lovers. Precious, wonderful connections, which meant the world to me but for one reason or another, came undone. Those most intimately close to us have the ability to wound us the deepest, to leave a mark that might never heal – unless we seek help. Unless we find it for ourselves, whatever the form. For Tsukuru, it’s reconnecting with his friends, asking them the one question he couldn’t, sixteen years ago – Why? For you and me… Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage is a cautionary tale of what might happen if we let the wounds fester and turn gangrenous.

And it is plenty more.

Tsukuru isn’t just a sum of his trauma or his past unhappiness – he’s also a creator, his name holding the meaning of “to build, to make, to create”. His work as a railway station engineer is important, it’s beneficial to society and most significantly, he’s doing what he’s always dreamed of doing. Murakami’s protagonists are far from one-note – they’re personalities, and Tsukuru, much as he does not see it, is one too.

My score for this one is 4/5 stars.

“Never let fear and stupid pride make you lose someone who’s precious to you.”

The audiobook for this one was narrated by Michael Fenton Stevens, who does an excellent job.

Outline by Rachel Cusk – Book Review

I would like to take a few minutes and talk about one of the most interesting novels I’ve come across as of yet. Through its title, Cusk makes a thesis statement – the myth of characters, she might as well say, is holding the novel back.

Faye, the novel’s main character, is strangely absent from it. Though we see events – or conversations, rather – transpire through her eyes, Faye is silent, echoing the characters she engages with but offering little of her own. Each of the ten chapters within Outline takes the form of a conversation, allowing Cusk to penetrate deep within

Faye listens to each of the men and women who speak in these chapters; she does so intently, deflecting questions about herself, choosing instead to ask questions of her own, to dig further in search of understanding of the other, through a mixture of skepticism and insight. In doing so, Faye exposes many of those she speaks as clueless, wilfully blind to their own shortcomings – a stranger she meets in the plane, for example, a Greek businessman who smugly believes he holds no fault in the falling apart of his many romantic relationships; a Greek writer Faye has met before, Angeliki, who has recently come into a great degree of fame in her home country and abroad, and in doing so has detached herself from the woman she used to be previously: ““That was another Angeliki…an Angeliki who no longer exists and has been written out of the history books. Angeliki the famous writer, the feminist of international renown, has never met you before in her life” (Chapter V); and more, and more.

“Faye herself is missing,” writes Clair Wills for the New York Review of Books. “We are being encouraged to think of the trilogy as an experiment in autobiography in which the self is missing, or is there only in outline.” It’s an interesting notion – the idea that we are “a shape, an outline, with all the detail filledin around it while the shape itself remained blank.” (Chapter X)

Wills offers another reading:

…in the ingenious parallels with the myth of Echo and Narcissus. People mirror one another, or repeat one another’s noises, like the animals that Faye sets as a topic for a creative writing assignment in Outline. “They watch us living; they prove that we are real; through them, we access the story of ourselves…the most important thing about an animal, he
said, is that it can’t speak.” The novelist Anne, who is an echo of the novelist Faye, is even described as a parrot: her voice makes “quite a distinctive squawking sound,” and she has green, unblinking eyes.

The Truth Alone by Clair Wills; you can find part of the article here. It’s behind a paywall, sorry!

The novel closes on just such an echo; Faye, correcting the Greek businessman I mentioned earlier, delivers a blow which spells out the truth of this tiny man in enormous letters in the reader’s mind.

What are we, then? Characters, outlines, echoes of that which surrounds us? Perhaps reading Outline will offer you some answer.

Me? I read Outline for my Researching Literature course over three weeks ago; I still can’t stop thinking about it. Two more books await – I’m excited to dive in and mull them over for months and years to come.

Remarkable.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

I’m happy with the progress I’ve made with Haruki Murakami’s books over these last few months. Kafka on the Shore in May, Norwegian Wood in September and just this last week, What I Talk About when I talk About Running. The last is freshest in my mind but I’ll contain myself and instead turn to Norwegian Wood, the title inspired by the Beatles song of the same name. It also happens to be the work that really shot Haruki Murakami to fame first in Japan and later internationally.

Norwegian Wood is a love story and it’s about overcoming grief, and it’s about those first coming of age years after you leave home, quite uncertain about what comes next, the direction you’re supposed to take as the world begins to mold and pressure you in ways outside of your control. It’s easy to lose yourself — something that main character Watanabe manages at one point in this novel.

Let’s look at it as a love story first, shall we? It’s sweet and sexy and tragic enough that you might just tear up by the end of it. Bittersweet but hopeful – that’s how I’d describe it in three words, were I forced to do so.

As a side-note, I would ride on the bus, listening to the audiobook more than once, when a ridiculous, steamy sex scene started up. You know, these are the moments when you’re not quite certain whether you should be grinning or blushing or pressing ‘Pause’. Say one thing about that, say it was funny.

What about dealing with grief?

Toru Watanabe, the protagonist from whose PoV the novel is told, loses his best friend Kizuki. Kizuki kills himself on his 17th birthday and this marks Watanabe for life — as it would most of us. Another, Kizuki’s girlfriend, Naoko, is as affected by his suicide as Watanabe; perhaps more. Years later, Naoko and Watanabe reconnect and fall for each other but Kizuki’s shadow never fully clears between the two. Unable to cope, Naoko eventually ends up in a sanatorium, doing her finest to piece herself back together.

Some of the characters are unforgettable. Maybe not their names – I forget names easy enough – but the personalities will stay with me. Nagasawa is Watanabe’s exact opposite — driven and ambitious, and far more cynical than our protagonist, Nagasawa is in many ways Toru’s foil. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, the two become close friends…although Watanabe never allows Nagasawa into his heart the way he let Kizuki in.

I was partial to Midori, an older woman in the same sanatorium as Naoko. As Nagasawa is to Watanabe, Midori is a foil to Naoko — though burdened by her own demons (her story is perhaps the highlight of Norwegian Wood for me) Midori has strength, the presence of character necessary to survive and perhaps overcome all that placed her in the sanatorium. Midori’s a guitar player, a concert pianist and totally the coolest, yo! Very flirty, too, which gives rise to some hilarious exchanges between her, Watanabe and Naoko, who also happens to be her roommate and dear friend.

This isn’t the best Murakami book I’ve read, nor is it my favourite. I’d live these honours to Kafka on the Shore and Dance, Dance, Dance, respectively. But it has a certain appeal to those who know a little of loss and pain and love, and I am certain some of you will be well-served by reading it.

I straightened up and looked out the plane window at the dark clouds hanging over the North Sea, thinking of what I had lost in the course of my life: times gone forever, friends who had died or disappeared, feelings I would never know again.

The opening paragraph of Norwegian Wood.

My score for this novel is 4 stars. There’s plenty you can get out of it — but it’s not a book for everyone. Stay away if you can’t handle suicide and depression in your fiction – leave me a comment down below with your preferences, and I’ll point you to another one of Murakami’s novels, instead. If you’ve read any of his previous novels, there’s a chance this one’ll surprise you — it lacks many of the eery, magical realism and even surrealism that’s typical for most of his other works.

The audiobook narration by John Chancer was enjoyable – no complaints there, he distinguished between the characters and delivered an excellent performance.

The Enemy by Lee Child – Book Review (Jack Reacher #08)

Child rarely goes back all the way to Reacher’s military career but this one tackles a pair of decisive moments for everyone’s favourite army policeman, one personal and the other one professional, both coinciding and intertwining in ways that change Reacher forever.

The Enemy sees Major Jack Reacher of the US Army welcoming the New Year posted in a military point in the middle of some rural state in the vastness of the States. A call comes through notifying him of the death of a two-star general at a motel nearby. Reacher has never seen a dead two-star before, he’s curious. Besides, you got a general dead thirty minutes away from a military base, you want to make sure nothing’s rotten.

But it’s a Jack Reacher novel, isn’t it, which means of course something isn’t right. Two-star looks like he had himself a bit of fun before the old ticker blew up. Seems a likely enough explanation – a general is as virtuous as the next soldier and often enough he’s plenty worse. Only, this general was heading to a conference and his briefcase is missing. In that briefcase? The agenda of the conference. Only, none of the other would-be attendants admit to this document’s existence. That’s when Reacher knows something is fishy…because if there’s one thing the army loves, it’s tightly-planned agendas.

What follows is an investigation that disillusions Reacher and changes his views on the one organisation that’s always been home to him – the U.S. army. The way this case develops, I’d be disillusioned too in his place – and I ain’t nowhere near as tough as that tall bastard.

On the personal front, we’ve got Reacher and his brother facing down a life without their mother, one hell of a tough French lady dying from late-stage cancer that’s eating I loved everything about this part of the plot – some fantastic revelations which shake the character of Reacher to the core at the worst possible time. Makes for great drama.

Lee Child’s unique brand of noir prose, solid supporting characters, fine antagonists and one hell of a mistery — what more can you want from a Reacher novel?

And do I even have to get into the narrator? When I read Reacher, I hear Jeff Harding’s voice in my head – his voice embodies the tough as nails military cop, if that makes any sense. He is brilliant! 5/5! 10/10! A hundred percent badassery!

Sharp Ends by Joe Abercrombie – Book Review Excerpt

This review is posted in full over at booknest.eu! It’s my longest ever review, and I’m wondering whether to publish each of the short stories as a separate blog post over here at the Reliquary. What do you think?

Anyway, here goes:

Abercrombie’s prose is exceptional. His First Law novels are as successful as they are not only because of the unforgettable characters and the breathtaking twists, or because of the brutal world he’s created, one of the sheerest bloody realistic depictions of a world I’ve ever encountered. He’s one of my favourite authors, and for good reason – I’m not pledging to be impartial, but I will do my best to contain my enthusiasm over the next few paragraphs! Okay, lots of paragraphs. Lots and lots of paragraphs.

I’ll say a few words about each of the short stories in the collection, starting off with whether it’s recommended or downright necessary to have read any of the First Law stand-alone novels to get what’s going on.

A Beautiful Bastard

Colonel Sand dan Glokta is a bastard. To anyone who’s read the First Law trilogy, that’ll come as no surprise. He’s a damn likable bastard too, owing to the fact that he tends to wax poetical about life and it’s many and terrible injustices, which Glokta goes on to perpetrate in the course of one of the finest fantasy trilogies. A Beautiful Bastard is before all that, before the Gurkish got their hands on the finest fencer of the Union and ruined his body. Hours, if not minutes before, to be exact – this story takes place on the day when Glokta’s self-aggrandizement leads him to lead a doomed defense on a bridge being overrun by the Gurkish.

The story draws you in quickly enough, and then it thrashes you around with one of the finest descriptions I’ve ever read:

But Glokta was an utter bastard. A beautiful, spiteful, masterful, horrible bastard, simultaneously the best and worst man in the Union. He was a tower of self-centred self-obsession. An impenetrable fortress of arrogance. His ability was exceeded only by his belief in his own ability… Glokta was a veritable tornado of bastardy, leaving a trail of flattened friendship, crushed careers and mangled reputations in his heedless wake. 
His ego was so powerful it shone from him like a strange light, distorting the personalities of everyone around him at least halfway into being bastards themselves. …most committed followers of the Gurkish religion were expected to make the pilgrimage to Sarkant. In the same way, the most committed bastards might be expected to make a pilgrimage to Glokta. …He had acquired a constantly shifting coteries of bastards streaming after him like the tail after a comet.  (5-6)

This is exactly the kind of Abercrombie prose that shines and glitters on the page. The ironic undertone, the sheer emotional charge of it; and at the end of the day, it encapsulates his character at this point in time so well.           

And of course, if the description wasn’t enough, Glokta finds a perfect way to show how much of a spiteful bastard he is to the only true friend he’s had, Goleem West, who just so happens to be one of the finest side characters Abercrombie wrote in the original First Law trilogy. Oh, and there’s Corporal Tunny who will be known to anyone and everyone familiar with The Heroes. He’s the best. And the worst.

This story was the perfect kick-off to an anthology filled with Abercrombie. My score for A Beautiful Bastard is 4.5/5 – because it’s the perfect comfort food of First Law stories, because the style and voice and prose are as sharp as the pointy end of Glokta’s steels but it doesn’t add any new, unknown dimensions to the tried-and-tested Glokta mix.

Small Kindnesses 

Do I need to read any of the standalone First Law novels to get what’s going on? Nope, this one is quite alright with First Law trilogy knowledge, or even without it!

“Small Kindnesses” introduces us to Shev, a thief of great skill and some renown, and to Javre, The Lioness of Hoskopp. A young Severard (one of Sand dan Glokta’s right-hand men) makes an appearance too, though it’s hardly something more than a cameo. Shev’ though barely entering her twenties, is already tired of the thieving life and is actively trying to get out of it when, of course, the local crime lord’s son has to drag her back into it. So Shev does a job – and she does it fairly well, top marks for the way the action scene is written and for Shev’s crabby luck – but some people just aren’t happy at all with what they get, and our thief ends up in a tight spot. There’s a lot going on in here, and Javre and Shev have incredible chemistry as soon as both are on the page together and conscious. 

What’s even more excellent is, the story of Shev and Javre doesn’t end here – no, this is just the beginning of some of the wackiest adventures in the First Law universe! We’ll get back to them when we get back to them. 4.5/5 – because I know how much more hilarious the pair’s adventuring is about to get.

Book Review: Gifts by Ursula Le Guin

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I’ve been meaning to explore the great Ursula Le Guin’s writing for a few years, now. I always thought I’d start with Earthsea if not for a serendipitous occasion in my new university library thanks to which I stumbled upon this, a short 280-page first part of a trilogy by the name of ‘Annals of the Western Shore.’

The pages ran out all too quickly, almost as if the ink itself flowed within me as I consumed this tiny tome in a single morning. It took me…four, maybe five hours to finish from start to end. Time well spent, I assure you.

Gifts tells the deeply personal story of a young boy called Orrec, and his coming to terms with the deadly gift that runs in his bloodline, as well as his’ and his family’s place in the Uplander society. The Uplanders are a tough lot — different gifts run in the different bloodlines, and some of them are thoroughly horrific, like Orrec’s own family gift of ‘unmaking,’ which allows the gifted in the family to unmake creatures with a look, a gesture, a whispered word.

What Le Guin does with our protagonist (the story is told in the first-person view) is, she goes really in-depth inside the mind of a boy–a young man–who possesses such a dark and final power, and what the ability to kill with such ease does to him.

Loss and grief also play a great part in the plot, and in writing about them, Ursula shows uncanny skill and her own deep understanding of these complex themes.

No surprise there.

This work also examines the relationships between parents and children, between cultural gaps, and more. All the character work is nothing short of excellent, truly, and I am beyond excited to read more for that reason alone.

What I did dislike was a climax that felt somewhat rushed. The ending was all too sudden, and the resolution wasn’t as satisfying as I hoped it would be.

My score? 3.75 out of 5.

I didn’t know this was the first book in a trilogy until well after the mid-point, so maybe it’s my expectation that has played a trick on me, but there was enough I did not enjoy the handling of that I feel certain of my 4 star score on Goodreads.

You should read this book. Just don’t come into it expecting too powerful a climax, and you’ll find a lot to love.

Final Verdict: Journey before destination!

 

Small Gods: A Discworld Review

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Oh, lawks, I read another Discworld novel.

Small Gods was Terry Pratchett’s most intricate examination of organised religion and faith yet. Where do the gods come from? How many masks do they wear? Are they just a big lot of buggers sitting on their arses, pulling the limbs off mortals for the giggles?

That’s what the god Om used to be. Om is the sole deity of Omnia, a country that has it all — a state ran by the church, an (In)Quisition known for its efficiency, and the bloodthirsty appetite necessary to devour any small country Omnia neighbours on. The Omnians have some bizarre ideas — namely, that the world is round, and that it encircles the sun on a yearly basis. Nonsense, ladies and gentlemen, utter nonsense.

It surprises Om, when he takes to an earthly form, that of a majestic beast, only to end up in the form of a tortoise, his mind crippled and his vast power gone.  What brought this on? Three years on, and it’s only when Om is gripped by an eagle, flying three hundred feet in the ground, that he recalls who he is, and what has befallen him.

Turns out, Om has only one true believer left, a boy called Brutha. Brutha is a bit slow on the uptake but makes up for it with an eidetic memory, and a good heart. This ‘great dumb ox,’ as Brutha’s fellow acolytes call him, is not dumb at all, however, as the latter half of Small Gods illustrates. Once exposed to knowledge and ideas other than the fanatic doctrines of Omnism, Brutha’s development does in fact sky-rocket.

It took me a hell of a lot of time to get into. Some of the Pratchett books I most appreciate start ever-so-slow, only to explode in a storm of brilliant humour, ideas worth contemplation, and so much more. Moving Pictures was one such book, and Small Gods is another. Regardless of the time it took me to get into it, once I did, I devoured it with reckless abandon.

My favourite part of the book has to be the bit in Ephebe, where thousands of toga-wearing, wine-drinking philosophers have a lark on each other’s expense, argue, even come to blows. I showed my uncle (a philosophy professor) a good few pages about the philosophers’ stance on gods, and we shared a good laugh, too!

I have to bow down to Sir Terry once again. His sharp skewering of organised religion was both thought-provoking and funny to no end. And Even as my smile fades, the ideas take root, and they flourish.

This a solid 5/5 on Goodreads!

Coming soon, a review of Lords and Ladies, which I loved from start to finish, and read in no time flat!