Electric Library

I read everything, from Jane Austen to James Bond. These are reviews of what I'm reading. I'm a reader, writer, English major, so not an easy audience. If I can't say something nice, I might say something nasty. It's a cruel world.


Must love books.

The Rise of the eReader (and What It Means for Traditional Bookstores)

I want to tell you up front that I am not a technophobe. I’m a digital photographer, a videographer, a graphic designer, and frankly ahead of the curve on pretty much every element of Office you could ever want to use. I love FinalDraft and Timeline and even have a working knowledge of html and Dreamweaver CS5. So it might be surprising that I cannot get on the eReader bandwagon.



Honestly, I probably should. It would make a lot more sense for me. Here are some of the upsides of these slick little reading reading gadgets (be they Nook or Kindle or what have you):


  • Ultimately they make reading a cheaper hobby. You wouldn’t think so, since most eReaders come with at least a 200-dollar price tag, but I spend probably four times that on books in any given year. Electronic books are usually cheaper than physical copies (especially hardcovers).
  • It’s super easy to carry your library everywhere. I just moved from one house to another. Lugging my books is always a struggle. Not to mention I already have the spine problems of someone twice my age from carrying heavy bags full of books around.
  • They’s just nifty. We love gadgets. Who doesn’t want another one you can read on?


Well, me, actually. I have a lot of reasons but I’ve never really tried to articulate them. But it hit me sometime last week when I heard that Barnes & Noble was having some stock and money problems.


Of course, we can’t blame B&N’s trouble solely on the increasing popularity of the eReader. So let’s talk about the other issues first.


Voila. Another list.


Why I Will Probably Never Buy an eReader


  • I like real books. I love the way they feel, the way they smell, the way they get worn out when they’ve been loved too much. Curling up in bed with a piece of metal and plastic just isn’t the same as curling up with pages of paper and ink.
  • I want a real library. I’ve been building my personal library for years. I love having books on my shelves and out in the open where I can see them. To me, books make a house a home and that’s a lot to forfeit for a Kindle Fire.
  • I’m an easy person to buy for so long as books are an option. I’m super picky about clothing and that sort of thing, so my family pretty much gave up on that sort of thing and has been buying me books (and movies and music) for every birthday and Christmas for as long as I can remember. People never have a hard time finding something for me. I have a wishlist on Goodreads and Amazon. Simple as that.
  • Books appeal to my old soul. I’m a bit antiquarian in many ways. I like old language and old movies and history and was born in totally the wrong century. Books ground me and remind me of a good story’s permanence.
  • A book is a work of art. From the cover art to the binding to the texture of the raised title. Bookmaking is a craft, and the results are beautiful.


Is it rational? Not really. But that’s the way I like it.


This is not to say that eReaders are any less ‘valid’ than real books. To each his own. In some ways I wish I could do the eReader thing for the sake of practicality.


But then I stumble upon articles like this one and this one and this one and all I want to do is sit in my bed with my arms full of books and guard the precious things with my life.


We all remember when Borders went belly-up. At first it seemed kind of fun – the stores were all having enormous sales and many of us walked away with armfuls of books we bought for just a few dollars. But then we started to see the skeletons of empty bookstores, with signs in the windows like the one pictured at right. That’s when I started to worry.


In many ways, Borders was a victim of the digital revolution. Because we could buy books from Amazon with the click of a button, flesh-and-blood bookstores started to lose their appeal. Everything else has come sliding into the digital age; why not the act of reading? Still it didn’t seem so bad. Even if all the bookstores went out of business, we could still get books in the mail. Then came the eReader. 


The eReader made reading even more effortless. Now you don’t even have to pay for shipping! You just plug it in, download the next thing you want to read and get cracking. You don’t even have to turn the pages yourself or find a bookmark. All you need are eyeballs. The need for real books has been literally eliminated.


I can’t even begin to tell you how much this scares me. I often feel that while 90% of the reading community is jaunting about with their sleek little reading tablets, looking effortlessly chic and modern, I and a few of my stubbornly traditional bibliophiles are sitting dusty and forgotten in the corner of the Last Bookstore on Earth, holding onto our books and the past with long yellowing fingernails and last year’s glasses perched in front of our tired eyes.


But, gathering dust in a corner isn’t really my style. So I’m going to launch a last desperate battle to save the bookstores, because they’re worth saving. Real books and bookstores will always have a place in my heart, even when they invent an eReader that can upload the story directly to your brain by shoving a USB cable up your nose.



I will continue to buy real books in real bookstores as long as they exist. Books changed my life and I owe them that much.


This is where I make a desperate plea to you, fellow book lovers, to join in me on this foolish crusade. No hard feelings if you have an eReader and you love it – but if you could find room in your heart and your wallet to take a trip to the bookstore and buy a few real-life paperbacks once or twice a year, those of us who need paper and ink like we need oxygen will be forever in your debt.


We traditionalists might be fighting a losing battle here, but we’re not done fighting yet. Please spend money on books. Keep bookstores afloat. Because if you don’t, not only will something wonderful be lost forever, but I might have to spend the rest of my life in a padded cell. You don’t want that on your conscience, do you?


If I sound a little desperate it’s because I am. I’m not ready to let go of my bookstores yet. I’m going to keep them in business or go broke trying – and if you help me in this endeavor, I will be eternally in your debt. Buy books for you and your friends and family and anyone else you can think of. Buy them for birthdays and Christmas and no reason at all.


Someday, real books may be worth millions because the bookstore has gone extinct. I certainly hope that doesn’t happen, but if it does – well, you and I will have the last sad laugh.


Source: http://inkedoutloud.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/the-rise-of-the-ereader-and-what-it-means-for-traditional-bookstores
Reblogged from LitReactor :

Via Better Book Titles. This sh*t is brilliant.

Source: http://betterbooktitles.com/archive

The Ideal English Major

Too good not to share: http://chronicle.com/article/The-Ideal-English-Major/140553/


"The English major is, first of all, a reader. She's got a book pup-tented in front of her nose many hours a day; her Kindle glows softly late into the night. But there are readers and there are readers. There are people who read to anesthetize themselves—they read to induce a vivid, continuous, and risk-free daydream. They read for the same reason that people grab a glass of chardonnay—to put a light buzz on. The English major reads because, as rich as the one life he has may be, one life is not enough."

Source: http://chronicle.com/article/The-Ideal-English-Major/140553

Wise Words from Lemony Snicket

Reblogged from Book Goodies :


and mine

Abandoned Wal-Mart Becomes America's Largest Library

This is exactly what we need in the world. 

Source: http://weburbanist.com/2012/09/04/abandoned-walmart-is-now-americas-largest-library

Simon Pegg + drunk Ron Weasley + Harry Potter's birthday = Magic

Simon Pegg on Jimmy Fallon. You're welcome.

Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/01/ron-weasley-drunk-wishes-harry-potter-happy-birthday_n_3690633.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000003&ir=Books

5 Movies That Improved the Books They Were Based On

Fight Club - Chuck Palahniuk Interview with the Vampire  - Anne Rice The Mist - Stephen King And Then There Were None - Agatha Christie Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - Philip K. Dick, Robert Zelazny

Interesting read. I definitely agree about Fight Club, though not really for the reasons mentioned (and I still really liked the book). What I want to know is how the entire Bourne trilogy didn't end up on this list. 

Review | American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis | 3 Stars

American Psycho - Bret Easton Ellis

This was almost 3.5 stars. Then I got to the end. But let’s save that for last.


Bret Easton Ellis’ nightmarish American Pyscho is a lot of things all smashed together: satire, social commentary, cult classic, slasher psycho-thriller. It’s not an easy book to read (as I mentioned in another post, the first time I read this I was fifteen, and six years later I wonder what on Earth I was thinking). It is physically and emotionally brutal. That being said, I did find myself struggling to put it down – in part due to morbid curiosity and in part due to the fact that Ellis is, though definitely disturbed, an indisputably good writer.


American Psycho follows several years in the life of slick American prince Patrick Bateman: he’s rich, he’s handsome, he’s a psychopathic serial killer. Throughout the course of the book, Bateman tortures and murders probably fifty people (that he mentions, there are almost certainly more) including colleagues, cops, hookers, cab drivers, street performers, and in one particularly disturbing incident, a small child at the zoo. There are also a number of dogs and one exceptionally large rat that inexplicably crawls out of his toilet. The killings are described in intimate detail and casually inserted between scenes of Bateman’s dates with various women, trips to the gym, and many nights out with his colleagues which typically consist of 500-dollar dinner tabs, discussions of what everyone’s wearing, and trips to the bathroom to snort pinches of cocaine off his Platinum American Express card.


It’s this juxtaposition that makes the book powerful. One one page, Bateman and his cronies will be sipping J&Bs at the newest, hippest neo-Japanese restaurant, and on the next he’ll be torturing a hooker with a coat hanger and discussing it in the same straightforward way. American Psycho is a book about the dishonesty of the American dream, the corruption of corporate America, and one privileged man’s complete inability to deal with any of it rationally. The exact source of Batemen’s psychosis is never mentioned (his first violent crime is casually mentioned as happening on Christmas the year he turned fourteen), but it doesn’t need to be. His life is a living hell, though it might not look that way from the outside. He’s working a job he doesn’t like, to make money he doesn’t need, in order to impress a bunch of people he really can’t stand. Nothing makes him happy, and he has no outlet for his apparently unjustified rage – and so he turns to senseless violence.



This book is certainly culturally significant, but simply as a book, the story is compelling. There are single passages which are tragic, hilarious, and disturbing at the very same time, which is something I haven’t seen many other writers achieve. Where Ellis truly excels is in capturing the extremity of Bateman’s neuroses – whether he’s literally approaching a panic attack over the fact that one of his ‘friends’ has a better business card or he’s calmly dismembering the ex-girlfriend he recently ran into. Ellis succeeds, without ever directly stating it, in making the reader understand Bateman’s simultaneously pitiful and revolting desperation. That being said, Ellis’ stream-of-consciousness writing can become tiresome – for instance, in the chapter where he does nothing but discuss the entire discography of Genesis from Bateman’s perspective (I still can’t figure out how this is meant to move the story forward). American Psycho also doesn’t pay any homage to the traditional idea of ‘plot.’ Bateman is both the protagonist and the antagonist, and though there’s plenty of conflict, there isn’t a central conflict – or much of a resolution.


In his own very subtle way Ellis pushes Bateman closer and closer to the figurative ‘brink,’ and as the book draws to a close the reader is waiting with baited breath to find out what happens. But nothing does. Instead of some definitive end event, Ellis leaves Bateman – and the reader – with the feeling that things can’t carry on the way they are, and that something must change, but he never says what. He leaves Bateman in a restaurant with his friends, sharing the same dinner scene they’ve shared half a hundred times before, and the only real indication that something new must happen next is the (honestly quite brilliant) final line: ‘THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.


However, I as a reader must admit that the ambiguity bothered me. I would have accepted almost anything from Ellis – Bateman getting caught, turning himself in, or deciding to marry his secretary, have a few kids and quietly carry on killing. But this non-ending, I feel, doesn’t do the rest of the book justice. It seems weak by comparison.


My only other point of concern is this: How in the hell does Bateman get away with all this? He doesn’t even bother wearing gloves. Maybe the New York police are in over their heads, but I don’t quite buy that he could kill several dozen people without them at least getting a whiff of him. Anyway. That’s a whole other problem.


I won’t deny that American Psycho is a disturbing book. But that’s the point. And if it doesn’t disturb you, something’s wrong. But it’s also an important piece of work, and if you can handle reading it, you should (though not while eating, before going to sleep or in a public place where anyone might happen to glance over your shoulder).


Not for the faint of heart. 3 stars.

Source: http://inkedoutloud.wordpress.com/2013/07/31/review-american-psycho-3-stars

Review | From Russia with Love, Ian Fleming | 4.5 Stars

From Russia with Love (James Bond) - Ian Fleming

I love Ian Fleming. I really do. He’s got a gift for storytelling, he has the English language wrapped around his little finger, and perhaps most importantly, the man has an impeccable sense of style.


That being said, From Russia with Love had a love to live up to. This book is undoubtedly a modern classic. It’s probably the most famous in the James Bond series (possibly because JFK once mentioned it was one of his favorite novels; looking back on it JFK’s love of 007 probably makes more sense than the public originally realized). I have to admit, when I cracked it open I was a little afraid of being disappointed by it.

Thank God, I was so many levels of wrong.


From Russia with Love is undoubtedly the best in the series so far. It takes the finesse of the four previous novels, kicks it up a notch and delivers one of the most smashing spy thrillers I’ve ever read.


Time for me to gush about how riotously spectacular this book is.


First off, the title is an absolute home run. No discussion.


After that, the first 100 pages take the reader deep inside the sinister planning cabinet of SMERSH, and it’s clear from Fleming’s knowledge and confidence as a writer that he’s got experience to support the kind of detail that from any other writer would feel speculative at best. Interestingly, Bond himself doesn’t even appear until about a third of the way through the book. As a reader, you feel his absence acutely – not because the story’s boring, but because you have a growing sense of dread as the trap being laid out for him begins to take shape.


From the very beginning of Bond’s part of the story, there’s a sense of inevitable doom, and as each page turns the SMERSH plot seems to slowly close around him, like a venus flytrap. He doesn’t stumble blindly into it, of course, but nor does he fully understand what he’s walking into. For those of us who already know and love Bond, those who are meeting him for the first time and especially, I would imagine, those who were reading it when it was first published without the comforting knowledge that there would be a sequel, ‘tension’ doesn’t even begin to cover it.


But that alone isn’t what makes this book wonderful. It’s also perhaps the most geographically rich book in the series (so far). Bond is no stranger to exotic locales, but his adventures in Istanbul are almost more akin to the hi-jinks of an Indiana Jones movie than the city-slicker, money-to-burn explorations of the first four books. From rat-infested tunnels below the city to a naked wrestling death-match in a nearby gypsy camp, From Russia with Love is a story stepped in rich cultural detail.


And then there’s the train. Oh, the train. I may be a little biased here, because I LOVE trains, but all the action on board the Orient Express is made much more exciting by the sheer forward momentum of the journey. I could go on about this for ages, but I won’t.



Once Bond is off the train and ostensibly out of danger, it’s still almost impossible to relax, and with good reason – it all seems a little too easy. SMERSH isn’t quite so easily duped, and to the very last page, Bond and the reader are both waiting for the other shoe to drop – which it finally does, with (possibly) fatal results. The ending is a cliffhanger of the highest degree. The only reason I’m not already reading Dr. No is because I left it on the mainland and won’t be back there for another two weeks.


Really, I could stop here, but I think it would be remiss to write a Bond review without mentioning the girl. Tatiana Romanova is not, at first, too terribly different from the other women who have come and gone in James Bond’s life (Fleming clearly had a penchant for women with blue eyes). But unlike the other girls, the reader gets a much more intimate idea of what’s going on her head. She appears before Bond does, and you can’t help but wonder when she’s going to realize that she’s being lured into a trap as much as Bond is. Unfortunately, she doesn’t get to see much action. This is really a shame, because Fleming goes out of his way to explain how intelligent she is. I for one would have liked to have seen her take a more active role in the story, considering she’s unconscious or absent for the most crucial scenes in the book (this is honestly all that’s keeping me from giving this one a five-star rating). I liked her, though, and in the end the story really isn’t about her – she’s just another one of SMERSH’s pawns.


So. From Russia with Love is unquestionably worth a read, whether you pick it up as part of the series or if it’s the only Bond book you ever crack open. There’s a little something for everyone – and even if sweeping international espionage  isn’t your style, prepare to be sucked in by the inimitable style of Fleming’s prose. Here’s one of my favorite passages, just to whet your appetite:


It should have been the Arabian Nights, but to Bond, seeing it first above the tops of trams and above the great scars of modern advertising along the river frontage, it seemed a once beautiful theatre-set that modern Turkey had thrown aside in favour of the steel and concrete flat-iron of the Istanbul-Hilton Hotel, blankly glittering behind him on the heights of Pera.


From Russia with Love, Ian Fleming


4.5 stars.

Source: http://inkedoutloud.wordpress.com/2013/07/28/review-from-russia-with-love-4-5-stars

19 Book Cover Cliches

Hilarious to me because I mentioned the disappointing cover art of The Cold Cold Ground in my last review.

Source: http://www.buzzfeed.com/lukelewis/19-book-cover-cliches

Review | The Cold Cold Ground, Adrian McKinty | 4 Stars

The first thing I have to say is this: It is a shame my copy of this book has crap cover art (different from the edition pictured), for two reasons. First, I like my books to be pretty and not look cheap. Shallow but true. Second, I almost didn’t buy it because the cover art seriously put me off.


The next thing I have to say is this: I am so glad I bought this book in spite of off-putting cover art. I don’t really know what made me do it. It might have been the dustjacket summary. It might have been the first page. But it was a good decision.


The Cold Cold Ground chronicles a triple murder investigation conducted by Sergeant Sean Duffy of the RUC in tumultuous 1980s Northern Ireland. Someone starts killing suspected homosexuals, which is a dubious start to the whole thing because homosexual acts were illegal in Northern Ireland at the time. Add to that the conflict of Duffy being a good Catholic boy in intolerant Protestant country and you’ve got a pile of gunpowder to work with.


Adrian McKinty’s prose is elegant, efficient, and refreshingly funny. Duffy is impulsive and prone to rule-breaking, but overwhelmingly likable. An Irish homicide detective who likes Dusty in Memphis and trots about in Deep Purple concert t-shirts? Sean Duffy, you are my personal dreamboat.


The story is layered but surprisingly easy to follow. Duffy has to hunt down Northern Ireland’s first sociopath serial killer while trying to defuse local riots and avoid getting blown off the road by a car bomb. The backdrop of the Belfast riots adds a sense of urgency to this book that I rarely find in thrillers/mysteries, and the whole issue of homophobia in Northern Ireland adds a level of social awareness that most books in this genre lack. McKinty doesn’t shy away from the issue, either. The characters are politically incorrect without apologizing (truth of the times), and the homosexual characters are neither presented as villains or martyrs, but as real, complex people (imagine that!) Perhaps the most interesting (and slightly mind-boggling) passage in the book details a brief but intimate encounter with a gay man in a public bathroom that leaves Duffy (and the reader) feeling conflicted, guilty and enormously confused. This is addressed again in the story, but never with any sense of finality. I’m curious to see if it comes up again in the other two books.


I can’t decide if the lack of closure on that particular issue bothers me; but I can say that it didn’t bother me enough to keep me from enjoying the book and wanting to read more. My other complaints were relatively minor: Duffy seems to be grasping at straws for most of his investigation, and the villain gives us a massive info-dump at the end containing a bunch of information that I would have liked to have seen Duffy work out on his own. I also feel like this book deserved a better title. The Cold Cold Ground feels a little too much like it was spat out by a crime fiction title generator.


Still, the style of the prose and strength of the characters kept me reading fast. I finished this thing in three days.


So if you like a good crime novel (and I do mean a good crime novel) or you just want to get your Irish on, I’d give this one a whirl.


Four stars. Buy it on Amazon here or click here and add it to your Goodreads shelf.

Source: http://inkedoutloud.wordpress.com/2013/07/20/book-review-the-cold-cold-ground-4-stars

Review | Filth, Irvine Welsh | 3 Stars

Filth - Irvine Welsh

Filth is a book best read in small doses.


Anybody who’s read Irvine Welsh’s literary flagship, Trainspotting, will have some idea what to expect when picking this up. Personally, I think it’s actually a better book.

I mentioned in an old post that I never finished Trainspotting. I’d like to some day, but back in December when I was trying to read it there were just too many characters to keep track off and I was struggling to find a reason to continue. Halfway through, I felt like I’d pretty much gotten the point and while it was fascinating stuff, there was no overarching plot to keep me intrigued.


Not so with Filth. 


Filth is narrated by two different characters – Detective Inspector Bruce Robertson, a more-than-slightly-crooked Scottish cop with a shady past and crippling cocaine and pornography addictions, and D. I. Bruce Robertson’s friendly tapeworm. If you want a study in weird POVs, look no further. It’s bizarrely and brilliantly done – the tapeworm will suddenly interrupt whatever scene Robertson’s narrating and the words are simply written right over top of one another – which is confusing at first, but once you catch on, it’s simultaneously revolting, twisted and hilarious.


And the tapeworm is necessary, because he’s honest about all the horrible things Robertson’s clearly been repressing since his deeply  demented childhood. Robertson’s a highly unreliable narrator.


The story itself follows Robertson’s half-assed investigation of the violent murder of a black man in an Edinburgh alleyway – and Robertson spends more time jockeying for a promotion, manipulating a handful of different women, scratching a rash and sneakily derailing the lives of everyone around him than doing any actual investigating. That’s not where the story is.


Robertson is the story, and he’s a man you can simultaneously despise for his wickedness and admire for his evil (and unapologetic) genius. This isn’t a book you read for fun. This is a book you read to understand how a man can be the villain in his very own story.


Be warned – this book is saturated with sex, drugs, racism and R-rated dialogue, but it’s actually not done for the shock value. It doesn’t glorify these things. It shows how they all contribute to the disintegration of a man’s lonely, desperate and despicable life.

There are obvious downsides, of course. Not everyone will be able to read this without feeling sick (on more levels than one). But that’s kind of the point. Bruce Robertson is a man you simply can’t stomach, and Filth boldly endeavors to discover just when and where everything went wrong.


It’s upsetting, unsettling, disturbing, and in places disgusting – but it’s also a hell of a piece of work.


I have only a few small points of critique: Sometimes it can be difficult to find the actual story, but in a book like this it’s almost understandable. In places the difference between dialogue and narration is difficult to find. In the last few chapters, the tapeworm delivers an epic info-dump which, despite being a little too much at once, will have you flying through the last twenty pages.


Irvine Welsh is certainly crazy, but he might just also be brilliant.


You’ve been warned.


PS. They were filming parts of the movie while I was living in Edinburgh. It’s due out in 2013 and James McAvoy is playing Robertson, which seems like an odd choice to me, but I’m just an avid reader with an extensive theatre background, so what do I know? Needless to say I’m curious to see this one.

Source: http://inkedoutloud.wordpress.com/2013/07/16/book-review-filth-3-stars

Review | North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell | 3.5 Stars

North and South - Elizabeth Gaskell

This was one of the rare occasions on which I saw the movie (in this case miniseries) before I read the book. And though it’s always a different experience to read a story when you already mostly sort of know the ending, this book’s value wasn’t much diminished by an advance knowledge of the plot.


What does that mean, exactly? I think it means that the prose is worth reading, even if you already have some idea of what’s going to happen next. Not every novel can say that of itself, so good on Elizabeth Gaskell.


North and South is, in a nutshell, a street-smart Pride and Prejudice. Like Austen’s whole volume of work, North and South captures the delicacy and intricacy of family and social life in Regency England. However, unlike Austen’s six novels, North and South also has the nerve to address the rampant social inequality of the time. Imagine what would happen if you dropped one of Austen’s heroines in the midst of a Dickens novel, and you’ll have a pretty solid idea of what Margaret Hale’s few years in Milton are like.


If that premise doesn’t intrigue you, we probably shouldn’t be friends.


So, yes, there is of course the draw of that sweeping, romantic style that we all know and love (which somehow, never gets tiresome). But let’s talk about the prose and the plot. Gaskell’s writing is formal, as was the habit of the time, but in that formality she has a truly remarkable way of conveying feeling without being overly presentational about it (if Austen or Regency authors in general had a fault, that was it). Her narration is real and honest, occasionally profound, and in places simply striking.


The plot, of course, is not without its small inconsistencies and peculiarities. The most curious point of misalignment, I found, was in the narration of two different characters [spoiler alert] falling love. While Mr. Thornton’s infatuation with Margaret hits him all at once, like a ton of bricks, her feelings for him emerge much more slowly, and in much more obtuse manner. While Thornton declares his love immediately after realizing it, never does she use the word ‘love’ in reference to him; rather, the reader gradually begins to assume she does love him, based on her greatly heightened awareness of his presence, her sense of distress at his disapproval, and so on and so forth. While the former realization feels almost clumsy in its suddenness, the latter is more convincing but never, it seems, fully realized. It is an interesting paradox, to be sure, and perhaps intended to give greater insight to the difference in their characters.


There are smaller quarrels to be had with the author, to be sure; for instance, descriptions of Margaret’s physical appearance vary greatly. It is interesting to note that the other women in the novel quickly dismiss her as ‘plain,’ while the men unanimously find her beautiful. Whether this is an error on Gaskell’s part or something unclear but deliberate is difficult to say. Another small point of contention lies in the ending, which is strangely abrupt. After over a year of circling around one another at a distance, Thornton and Margaret’s whole turbulent relationship is resolved (which remarkably little actual conversation) in less than three pages, and finalized with only “some time of delicious silence.” Entrancing and intriguing as the apparent simplicity of that line is, the ending feels strangely incomplete – and there are undoubtedly a few loose ends which are never tied up.


More than all of these things, however, is Gaskell’s uncanny ability to capture the quivering ferocity of human emotion – we are paralyzed by uncertainty one moment, hot with indignation the next. Here is where her command of language most excels, and rather than attempt to describe it, I will let it speak for itself.


The most striking passage to me of the entire novel is that which follows Thornton’s declaration of love, and Margaret’s tumultuous feelings about it. Gaskell’s explanation was perfect, complete, real – it captured the shock, the anger, the sting of a vulnerable nerve exposed, that might follow such an encounter:


“Yet, even before he left the room, – and certainly, not five minutes after, the clear conviction dawned upon her, shined bright upon her, that he did love her; that he had loved her; that he would love her. And she shrank and shuddered as under the fascination of some great power, repugnant to her whole previous life. She crept away, and hid from his idea. But it was of no use. To parody a line out of Fairfax’s Tasso -


‘His strong idea wandered through her thought.’


She disliked him more for having mastered her inner will. How dared he say that he would love her still, even though she shook him off with contempt? She wished she had spoken more – stronger. Sharp, decisive speeches came thronging to her mind, now that it was too late to utter them. The deep impression made by the interview was like that of a horror in a dream; that will not leave the room although we waken up, and rub our eyes, and force a stiff rigid smile upon our lips. It is there – there, cowering and gibbering, with fixed ghastly eyes, in some corner of the chamber, listening to hear whether we dare to breathe of its presence to anyone. And we dare not; poor cowards that we are!”


My only thought upon reading this passage was, “Yes.”


Pages like these are half the reason to read this entire book. Gaskell possessed a deep understanding of humanity itself and was able, as only a handful of authors really are, to convey that troubled reality perfectly and beautifully. This is a book that anyone who has been or ever hopes to be in love should read, a book that should be read by anyone who has ever struggled to love an imperfect parent or a sibling, a book that should be studied by anyone who has ever endeavoured to understand or justify their particular lot in life.


As far as I can tell, that’s pretty much everyone.

Source: http://inkedoutloud.wordpress.com/2013/05/18/book-review-north-and-south-3-5-stars

Review | The English Monster, Lloyd Shepherd | 2 Stars

The English Monster: or, The Melancholy Transactions of William Ablass - Lloyd Shepherd

I have extremely mixed feelings about this book. While the concept was intriguing and the story itself was peppered with instances of truly brilliant prose, I struggled to get through it.


The story jumps back and forth between the appropriately long saga of ‘Long Billy’ Ablass’ life and the surprisingly dull investigation of the Ratcliffe Highway murders. Ablass’ story is certainly more engaging, but it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. It also jumps from first person to third and back again, and resorts to zeroing in on utterly random characters in order to get the story told – which leaves the whole thing feeling disjointed and slightly schizophrenic.


The parallel plotline of the Wapping murder investigation is more consistent (though the whole thing is written in a different tense, for God knows what reason), but, frankly, boring. I found myself dreading the switch from Ablass back to Harriott and Constable Horton, because I felt like their side of the story wasn’t progressing at all and I was reading the same scene over and over again.


It feels like the bulk of the book’s action happens in the last thirty pages, which is a problem for two reasons – (a) a book shouldn’t be 400 pages long if all the significant action can be condensed into 50 pages or less and (b) trying to squash the whole plot into the last tenth of the book is bound to leave some loose ends untied. I still don’t fully understand how Harriot, Horton and company figured out who the bad guy was, but by the time I finished this I was so sick of it I didn’t bother going back to sort it out.

Other small complaints include the author’s tendency towards repetition and redundancy, and the utter ridiculousness of a three-part title (The English Monster. Or, the Melancholy Transactions of Willam Ablass. A Novel. For God’s sake, just call it The English Monster and stop being a pretentious prig). Shepherd’s also prone to using the same word multiple times in the same sentence, or penning phrases that are simply foolish (example, on page 231 he mentions a “little flotilla of boats.” A flotilla is, by definition, a group of boats).


All that being said, Shepherd does have a few surprisingly lucid moments. I’ve posted one of my favorites below, for the sake of ending on a good note.


“Dark tales girdled the tall young man:how he’d tortured women in the service of the dread L’Ollonais; how he’d thrown babies from ramparts; how he and L’Ollonais had lived together in the woods above Tortuga, joined in some Satanic blasphemy of marriage, sacrificing children and sheep and smearing themselves in blood beneath a red Caribbean moon.”
–p. 228

Source: http://inkedoutloud.wordpress.com/2013/03/29/review-the-english-monster-2-5-stars

Review | Jamrach's Menagerie, Carol Birch | 4 Stars

Jamrach's Menagerie: A Novel (Vintage) - Carol Birch

Warning: Minor spoilers ahead. Nothing major, but if you like to read a novel with ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA what comes next… well, you’ve been warned. 


This is an unusually high rating for me to give out (if it sometimes seems like all my ratings are three or above, it’s generally because I [a] don’t bother finishing books I don’t like and [b] know myself pretty well and tend to be a good picker of books), so let me begin by saying that this book actually affected me. I don’t think I’m a callous person, but I generally read a book, enjoy the story, delight in the language, take sides with the characters I like, and then put it down when I’m done and move on to the next one. I finished Jamrach’s Menagerie several days ago (and I’ve read two other books in the meantime), but I’m still thinking about it.


That’s power right there.


I mentioned in my last review that Casino Royale had one of the most peculiar narrative arcs I’d ever seen. Ian Fleming just lost that title to Carol Birch. Jamrach’s Menagerie is in possession of a narrative arc so utterly bizarre that at first I had no idea what to make of it – but now I’m starting to see that the strangeness of the storyline contributed more than I originally realized to the freight train impact of the plot.


Jamrach’s Menagerie (based in part on the true story of the whaleship Essex) tells most of the life story of Jaffy Brown, a poor boy living in the Victorian hell-hole of Bermondsey until he inexplicably finds himself trapped in the mouth of an escaped tiger, belonging to one Mr. Charles Jamrach (who was a real person, and did once rescue a small boy from a tiger), the keeper of an exotic animal emporium on the colorful Ratcliffe Highway. Jamrach’s titular menagerie (though it has surprisingly little to do with the real meat of the story) takes the tale from the drab shite-brown backdrop of Bermondsey and thrusts its into a technicolor world of tropical birds, gators, wildcats and Tasmanian devils. There’s certainly an element of the fantastic present, though it’s never overtly discussed. A giraffe, in the eyes of a young boy from the mud beneath the London docks, is more than exotic enough to feel like magic.


This taste of the ‘stuff of legends’ grows a little sharper when Jaff and his new friend Tim Linver (another boy in Jamrach’s employment) are swept out to sea on the Lysander in search of a ‘dragon’ – which, if they can catch it, will be by far the most ambitious addition to Jamrach’s emporium. As they hop from one tropical island to the next the boys learn how to be sailors – and whalers – and hatch a plan to catch the ‘dragon’ once they reach the Azores.


I won’t ruin the story for you, but Tim, Jaff, and Dan (a surrogate father to both of them aboard the Lysander) do eventually encounter and catch a dragon. It’s thrillingly exciting, but never quite clear whether the dragon is meant to a truly fantastical creature, or simply a Komodo dragon or some other large lizard fancifully misinterpreted by the minds of the nineteenth century. Either way, with the monster aboard, life on the Lysander takes a turn for the worst, and eventually, disaster strikes.

I won’t give too much away. But here is where the meat of the story lies. And this is what I mean about a peculiar narrative arc – up until this point in the novel (just a little over halfway), the capture of the dragon has been the main focus of the story, gilded with fanciful, whimsical accounts of the islands and life at sea. At the start of Chapter 10, the remaining crew is adrift, dragonless, and facing the all too real prospect of being indefinitely stranded on the open ocean.


The following hundred pages are slowly, quietly devastating.


The peculiar stillness of the open ocean is a harsh contrast to the previous pages’ bright, colorful sense of adventure, and that stark, sudden contrast is in part what makes what happens out in the whaleboats so unsettling. After the swashbuckling fantasy of the first 170 pages, the misery of the last 120 is crushingly real. And here is where Carol Birch truly excels – in chronicling the slowly increasing desperation of twelve men lost at sea, succumbing one by one to hunger, thirst, disease and madness, and forced to do unspeakable things in order to survive. Birch somehow manages, in the simple delivery of details – sometimes gross, but never gratuitous – to help the reader understand how Jaff and Tim and Dan all arrive at the climax of the story, which is bound to leave both the characters and reader heartbroken and permanently scarred.


The falling action is quiet and detached, and makes a cautious foray back into Jamrach’s colorful domain, but with a new-found sense of respect for the natural world.

This is the kind of book that leaves you feeling traumatized. It’s a brutal story gently written – which makes it ten times more tragic than it would have been had Birch been foolish enough to sensationalize it.


It’s not perfect, of course, but the catalog of flaws is short. Sometimes the story drags a little bit, generally when the Lysander is moving from one island to the next. A few incidents early in the story (Jaff’s being trapped in Jamrach’s shop for the night, for example) seem very important but are never addressed again. Despite being called ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie,’ Jamrach isn’t actually present for 90% of the book.

These are all minor complaints in the greater scheme of things. I can’t remember finishing a book and wanting to hug it so tightly in a long time. Jamrach’s Menagerie deserves to be read, but not by the faint of heart. I’ve said about all I should say, so I’ll just leave you with the following taste:


“It was then I truly realised the whale is no more a fish than I am. So much blood. This was not like the fish on the quay, fresh caught, lying flipping and flopping, death on a simmer. This was a fierce, boiling death. She died thrashing blindly in a slick of gore, full of pain and fury, gnashing her jaws, beating her tail, spewing lumps of slime and half-digested fish that fell stinking about us. It was vile. So much strength dies slowly.”

–Carol Birch, Jamrach’s Menagerie


To buy Jamrach’s Menagerie on Amazon click here.


To find it on Goodreads, click here.

Source: http://inkedoutloud.wordpress.com/2013/03/14/review-jamrachs-menagerie-4-5-stars