A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara“Life is so sad, he would think in those moments.  It’s so sad, and yet we all do it.  We all cling to it; we all search for something to give us solace.”

I have literally just set this book down and my heart feels sore.  A Little Life is, without a doubt, the best book that I have read this year, one of the best pieces of contemporary fiction that I have ever read, and I was saddened, and a little relieved I must admit, to have finished it.

Spanning over three decades (and 700 pages)  A Little Life follows four friends, former college roommates, as they move through their lives in New York City, attempting to navigate their relationships, careers and the trials and tribulations of human existence. There is a particular focus on Jude St Francis, the youngest and most impenetrable of the group, who refuses to discuss his childhood or how he managed to sustain an injury that frequently causes him pain and discomfort.  This is a book about love, about friendship and about the absolute necessity of both.

This is a beautifully written piece of fiction.  It is raw, painful and so very, very sad.  I spent almost a month with this book because there were moments when it felt too difficult to continue, moments when I could no longer see the words through my own tears and, mostly, because I did not want it to be over.    It felt like I was witnessing the most unbearably intimate moments in the lives of these four men and I found myself falling in love with each of them for very different reasons.

It is a testament to Yanagihara’s skill as an author that she has managed to craft, out of nothing more than words, four very real and very complex people, because this is what they feel like.  I find it difficult to imagine that there isn’t a New York City out there that hasn’t really been their home, that hasn’t witnessed their lives unfolding like I have and even when I wasn’t reading about these characters, about JB, Jude, Malcolm and Willem,  I would find myself thinking about them and worrying about them.  I am sad that I now have to leave them behind.  They are all complex, they are all flawed and it is difficult not to find yourself forming connections with them, even when their actions are less than admirable you will always be able to understand them.  Jude in particular has wormed his way into my heart and I found myself frequently returning to his story with sadness, unable to shake my own desire to help him in some way.  Reading his story, particularly his own thoughts about himself, is not easy going and I  felt like the fifth member of the group, watching Jude, knowing more than they ever could, and yet, like them, completely unable to do anything to help him.

Yet, despite my love for this book and these characters, it would be a lie to say that I enjoyed the reading experience.  It was emotionally taxing and difficult to get through at times, it was tiring and draining, and it is not a book that I would recommend to everyone.   While I don’t normally feel the need to put in warnings or disclaimers, I would feel remiss if I didn’t mention that this books does deal with  abuse (sexual, physical, mental, drug and self-inflicted) in a very raw and very graphic manner.  After the reviews I had had read of A Little Life I was expecting these issues to be dealt with almost gratuitously but I found that Yanagihara dealt with the topics sensitively and with respect, but there was no holding back and, despite not usually being affected by these topics in books, I did find the descriptions of self harm very triggering and difficult to read.


Dracula by Bram Stoker

“I am Dracula by Bram StokerDracula.  And I bid you welcome, Mr Harker, to my house.”

Dracula, both the character and the story, has been absorbed into our culture in such a way that, without ever even having picked up the book, I know this story like the back of my hand.  I have seen countless adaptations, some wonderful, some awful and some so awful that they were wonderful, and the vampire myth has been diluted to such an extent that they have most recently been portrayed as sparkly pseudo-teenagers who love school (and under-age girls) a whole bunch and I just struggle to find that frightening.  I wish that I could go back to 1897 and read Dracula as someone who hasn’t known that name forever but, unfortunately, I can only read it as someone living in the twenty-first century and that has definitely affected how much I could enjoy the story.

I don’t want to say that I didn’t like it, but I really didn’t.  I can appreciate how novel it was, and it is a great and campy horror story, but Dracula and I just did not click.  It took me two months, two torturous months, to read all 449 pages and by the end I was scheduling 50 pages into my day just to get it done.  I think the format may have been one of the main reasons that I just couldn’t sink my teeth into Dracula, as the story unfolds through a series of diary entries, letters, telegrams and newspaper clippings, and I found that it made for a very dry read which lacked any sense of urgency.  In fact this is the fourth time I have tried to read Dracula and each time I would find myself putting it down and lacking any desire to pick it up again.  Van Helsing didn’t help matters either because that man can talk and good god is he dull; at one point my mind was drawing parallels between his lectures and that tortuous speech made by John Galt in Atlas Shrugged. 

What I did enjoy was the unexpected reversal of traditional gender roles.  While Mina, and to a lesser extent Lucy, have the strength of character to hold themselves and everyone else together rather stoically, the men are huddling together fretting, crying and fainting.  At one point Mina literally holds Johnathan up and while she is keeping her shit together for the sake of the menfolk, Harker’s hair is turning white and Quincey is busy shooting in windows (where his friends are sitting) because he is now afraid of bats.

As for Dracula? Well, he is barely in the book and described as having a “child-brain” instead of a “man-brain”, so I found it difficult to be too afraid of him.  Also he is not the sexy vampire that modern audiences have come to expect; I wanted Gary Oldman’s young Dracula but instead I got a hairy palmed old man with pointed ears and rank breath.

I do still think Dracula is worth reading, even if I feel that the story has been unfortunately overshadowed but it’s own adaptations, and I am glad that I have finally conquered it after having it sitting on my bookshelves for over a decade, but this is one of the very few occasions where I have enjoyed the film(s) much more than the original text.

Instrumental by James Rhodes

Instrumental by James Rhodes“So I looked for distractions.  I looked for a way out that didn’t involve homicide or suicide.  And all roads led to music.  They always do.”

Two years ago, just a couple of months after being discharged from a mental health unit, I sat in front of the TV and watched a man take a Steinway into a psychiatric hospital.  I listened as he talked about his own experiences of mental illness, about how classical music saved his life and then he played a piece by Rachmaninov (his Prelude in c sharp minor, if you are interested) and my brain stopped for the first time  in months.  I had been unable to read a book or follow a TV show, I couldn’t breathe without an overwhelming sense of anxiety and then suddenly I experienced this moment of peace and that’s when I fell into the world of classical music.

Here’s the thing about classical music though, it can feel complicated and, at the beginning, difficult to relate to and the thing that I found so wonderful about James Rhodes is that he can take a huge piece of music, something complex and filled with emotion and history, and take it apart from the inside and, using his own experiences, explain it in such a way that the pieces all fall back into place and suddenly you get it.  When I was reading Instrumental this is how I felt again; he took his own life, some experiences that I could relate to and some that I would never have been able to comprehend before, and lay it all out, only this time he uses Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and their works to help us understand him instead of the other way around.

This book fell through my letterbox on Saturday afternoon and I had finished it that evening but it was not easy going, it is the story of child rape, drug addiction and mental illness, and it can be brutal and heart breaking at times.  Rhodes is unflinchingly honest and this is powerful reading.  When child abuse is discussed these days it tends to be about the act itself, there seems to be mass outrage at the perpetrator and then the story is soon forgotten, which is why I think that this book is so important.  People don’t discuss the effects that these things will have on someone, not only throughout their childhood but for the rest of their lives, physically, mentally and socially, and nobody wants to talk about that because we live in world that likes happy endings and that doesn’t want to deal with anything that might make us feel uncomfortable.  That this book was almost banned makes it even more important, it is essential that these stories get told, that people can know that they are not alone and that they can speak out.

Despite the subject matter, despite the loss of innocence and childhood and peace of mind, this story is ultimately one of hope.  It is about second chances and how, even if the future looks uncertain and even if we will never truly be OK, there is still beauty and love and music, and that is why it feels like more than a memoir; it is a love letter to classical music, it is a testament to the tenacity of the human spirit, it will make you laugh, it will make you cry and it will also make it very hard for you not to fall a little bit in love with James Rhodes, who comes across as vulnerable, potty-mouthed, mischievous and utterly likeable.

If you do read this (and I really hope that you do) I definitely recommend that you listen to the soundtrack as you read, each piece was obviously chosen with great care and it definitely made the experience.

Sex Criminals Vol. 1 & 2 by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

Sex Criminals Vol. 1 by Matt Fraction & Chip ZdarskyVolume 1: One Weird Trick
“Jon … is your dick glowing”

This was such a weird and wonderful graphic novel (and it really is a graphic novel) about two people, Suzie and Jon, who find that time stops when they orgasm.  Literally.  After a lifetime of believing they were alone with their gift, discovering that they could exist in this place-without-time together, Suzie and Jon do what any sane person would – they decide to rob a bank.

The story jumps back and forth in time meaning that we get to watch their relationship develop while simultaneously finding out what is happening in the near future.  The relationship between the Suzie and Jon was what I really loved about this novel and it did such an excellent job of capturing that intoxicating feeling so unique to new love.  These two get completely wrapped up in each other and find themselves caught up in their own little world, which I imagine we can all relate to (except maybe not so literally).  I really liked these characters and I kind of fell a little in love with Jon when he first meets Suzie and quotes the opening passage (yeah, I laughed at myself for using this phrase in a review of a book called Sex Criminals) of Lolita, which I personally think is one of the most beautiful things ever written in the English language.

I was surprised by the fact that this book wasn’t really about sex, I mean it was, but it was also about two people who are looking for more than sex, who are searching for intimacy and a connection with something outside of themselves.  Of course it is bawdy, it is called Sex Criminals and there is a glowing penis, but it is done in such a fun, positive way and it manages to do so without containing any of the usual hang-ups.

As for the art, it is absolutely beautiful, the colours are vibrant and when they are in The Quiet (or Cumworld …) everthing is hazy and just … beautiful.  Each panel is chock full of detail and when Suzie and Jon visit Cumworld (the sex shop) there are so many things going on in the background that could you spend a lot of time just on each panel.

Highly recommended.

Sex Criminals Vol. 2 by Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky

Volume 2: Two Worlds, One Cop

“Around this giant ball of fire this rock we stand on spins, and while we are here we will like and love one another with vim and vigour.  Through cruelty, violence, neglect or sheer fucking chance.  Life is awful.  The first time you feel real pain it hurts more than anything you’ll ever feel again.  Understand that as an entitled boomer narcissist what I’m about to tell you is heresy, but one day we all die.  What the fuck kind of deal is that?”

Firstly, that title.  Two Worlds, One Cop.  Brilliant.

Secondly, I actually thought this was much better than the first volume and I swear it’s just a coincidence that every 5* book that I have read this year has had a blue cover.

So the shine has worn off of their new relationship, the Sex Police are on their trail and real life has started to catch up with Suzie and Jon.

The tone of this volume is much more sombre than the first and it deals with some heavier topics such as mental illness, which is something that I am always more sensitive to because I struggle with it personally, and I honestly thought that the authors did such a great job here.  Jon has stopped taking his medication and as a result has fallen into depression.  The way that the authors deal with medication and the horrible side effects of taking it, but also the ramifications of not taking it, was done really well and with great care.  We also see the potential pitfalls of bad therapy and what a great therapist looks like, and there is some great advice like get some exercise and maybe hang out with some people.  Jon’s therapist is a great addition and I’ve been lucky to meet someone very similar in my own life.

Speaking of advice, the section about birth control was wonderful, important and well done.  The first volume talks about the sex education, or more accurately the complete lack of sex-education, that kids get from their school and parents, and in volume two they give a run-down of the different types of contraception available.  This information is delivered by a gynaecologist doing a strip-tease, so it’s funny and educational, and it makes me hope that a lot of teenagers are reading this book (which I am sure that they are).

There are also a few new characters, the authors talk about the sex industry a little and despite the plot moving forward at a much slower pace this was such a worthwhile read.  While the themes are much heavier and this volumes wasn’t as laugh-out-loud funny as the first, there were still plenty of funny moments (keep an eye out for the dildo throne).  My only complaint is that I am going to have to wait until volume three is released in order to find out how the story continues.

Legion and The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson

Legion and The Emperor's Soul by Brandon Sanderson

“There is rarely an obvious branching point in a person’s life.  People changed slowly, over time.  You didn’t take one step, then find yourself in a completely new location.  You first took a little step off a path to avoid some rocks.  For a while, you walked alongside the path, but then you wandered out a little way to step on softer soil.  Then you stopped paying attention as you drifted farther and farther away.  Finally, you found yourself in the wrong city, wondering why the signs on the roadway hadn’t led you better.”

 – The Emperor’s Soul

The Emperor’s Soul, a novella set in the same world as Elantris, is the second book scheduled for this month’s #yearofcosmere readalong.  I bought the edition that also contained the short story Legion and, in all honesty, I wasn’t expecting too much after my disappointing experience with Elantris.

Legion is the first Sanderson story that I have read which takes place outside of the Cosmere.  Set on Earth it is the tale of Stephen Leeds, aka Legion, who lives his life surrounded by hallucinations, or aspects, each skilled or knowledgeable in their own particular area and who tend to come in very handy when solving cases.  I won’t go into any plot details because this is a very short little story but there is an abundance of interesting themes such as science versus religion, the relationship between religion and politics, the potential ramifications of technological advances, and truth versus faith.  I actually really enjoyed this, admittedly the characters and ideas more than the story or writing, but I would love to see Sanderson expand on this in the future.

The Emperor’s Soul was such a beautiful story and, despite my expectations being so low, it absolutely blew me away.  The story follows Shai, a forger caught trying to steal the Moon Sceptre, who has only two options: face execution or undertake the impossible task of forging a new soul for the Emperor Ashraven, who has been left without conciousness after the assassination attempt which took his wife, in only 100 days.  There is a very small cast of characters and very little action, instead Sanderson focusses on Shai’s attempt to understand what made Ashraven who he was in order to rebuild him, and on the growing and shifting intimacy which develops between her and a man named Gaotona.  I read this as an homage to the complexities of the human spirit and how we are built upon each small detail of our history, Ashraven’s salvation and his destiny both lie in the study of his past, but that we are also what we perceive ourselves to be.  There is a lovely moment when Shai is able to turn a plain and cracked window into a beautiful stained glass piece only because it remembered itself as something beautiful.  I can’t recommend this novella enough.

Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

Elantris by Brandon Sanderson“Remember, the past need not become our future as well.

I have a tendency to feel terrible when I dislike a book, particularly when it feels like it was given thought and time and effort, but I was thoroughly disappointed with Elantris.

Elantris, the rotting fallen city of the Gods.  The gift that once saw them rise, the Shaod, has become a curse which visits unsuspecting citizens in the night without warning.  Arriving at the neighbouring city Kae, capital city of Arelon, Princess Serene of Teod is to marry Prince Raoden in hopes of solidifying their respective nations against the threat of the Fjordell Empire, but the Prince is dead and the city is in mourning.  Bereft of a husband Serene throws herself into the politics of Arelon and finds herself at odds with the Fjordell Derethi priest, Hrathen.  If Hrathen succeeds in converting the populace to Shu-Dereth, then the Fjordell Empire will finally be ready to take what little remains of the globe.

The problem with Elantris is that it is a wonderful concept but that it was just so poorly excuted.  I know that this was Sanderson’s first novel but it felt utterly lacklustre and, I hate to say it, boring.  It took me two weeks to get through this, I actually had to stop and read another book because I would rather not read than have to pick this book up.  When I read the Mistborn trilogy, I mentioned that Sanderson has a very simplistic writing style which worked really well when the characters and plot were strong enough to carry the story forward but in Elantris there was nothing to make up for the dull as dishwater prose, and the pacing was also painfully slow.  I liked that there wasn’t a heavy emphasis on the magic system and I was looking forward to the heavy emphasis on political manoeuvring, but there was nothing engaging here at all.

Serene and Raoden are terribly written characters and there is zero development, of any kind.  Raoden seemingly popped out of the womb a perfect leader who is charming, handsome, intelligent, kind, basically an all round wonderful guy and yet he still manages to be incredibly boring.  What is worse is that this description fits Raoden at both the beginning and the end of the novel, and I find it hard to believe that despite everything that happens to him he manages to have no emotional conflict and no emotional change.  At all.  As for Serene, she is just … UGH! I am losing words now.  This woman is upset because men, men she is not even attracted to, respect her opinion and trust her as a leader but are not sexually attracted to her.  I just cannot.  I know Serene is smart, fierce, talented, strong and (like Raoden) perfect because I am told that she is, however all I see her do is whine about how tall and gangly and single she is, successfully pretend to be stupid and interrupt a speech.

The most redeeming thing about this book was, without a doubt, Hrathen.  Essentially Hrathen is introduced very early on as the villain and he is the only complex character in this story.  He is a Derethi Gyorn, sent to convert the people of Arelon and, while his actions are questionable, he is motivated by the desire to save them and we get to see this internal struggle.  I wish this story was about Hrathen, I would have loved a story that detailed his conflict against what he felt to be right and what he was told was right.  I didn’t care about Serene, Raoden or any of the other, interchangeable, character but I did care about Hrathen because he felt real.  However, Sanderson manages to cheapen even this character by throwing in some stuff (sorry, I am being deliberately vague to avoid spoilers) that comes completely out of the blue.

I will admit that the last part of the book was much easier to read (or maybe I was just excited to finish) but it still lead to the most anti-climactic ending.  There were so many interesting topics and themes that could have been explored with this book, there was so much possibility with the mystery of the Elantrians, the Dor, the politics and the various religions, all of which were glossed over in favour of whatever it was Sanderson was trying to do.

Vicious by V.E. Schwab

Vicious by V.E. Schwab

  “I want to believe that there’s more.  That we could be more.  Hell, we could be heroes.”

So, I have been reading Elantris by Brandon Sanderson this month and I’m struggling with it.  It isn’t bad but it just isn’t doing it for me right now, so I set it down, took a break, and picked up Vicious, looking for something fun to get me over my slump.  If I am being completely honest I mostly bought this book because it has a really great cover and  I had only a very vague idea about the plot before I started, however this was one occasion where judging a book by it’s cover turned out to be a good idea.  I only started this just before bed (you know, that old “just one chapter” chestnut), and ended up finishing it at about four o’clock in the morning.  It has pulled me out of my reading slump and it was definitely entertaining.

I think most people will be aware of this book, or at least the author, as V.E. Schwab seems to have been everywhere in the book community since the release of her most recent novel, A Darker Shade of Magic.  Vicious, Schwab’s first adult novel, is the tale of Victor and his best friend and rival, Eli.   Both are exceptionally bright and ambitious students at Lockland University, working on a theory that under just the right conditions it could be possible to create an EO, or ExtraOrdinary, a person with supernatural abilities.  It doesn’t take long before they move from the theoretical to the experimental, and before things start to fall apart.  Ten years later, having broken out of prison,  Victor is on the lookout for his old friend  who has spent the last decade meticulously seeking seek out and removing every EO that he can get his hands on.

I was hooked from the opening chapter.  Right from the first page I felt like Schwab was drip feeding me just enough information to keep me interested, before stalling, checking to see if I was listening, and then continuing on with her story.   The way that the book is structured, switching between the present and the past, really worked for me,  it gave a sense of inevitability to the events, and when she would peel back to the past there was a constant undercurrent of wrongness.

I was actually really surprised when I realised that the world was ours, essentially, with the only difference being the presence of EOs.  As I was reading it I kept picturing it being something like Lyra’s Oxford in the His Dark Materials series, it felt slightly anachronistic and it was a little jarring to see laptops and hear people talking about Spiderman at first.  I haven’t seen anyone else mention this, so it might just have been me, but I really liked it,  that kind of here but not quite feeling added a sense of unease to the whole thing.

Every single character was kind of a horrible person, they all lived in this strange grey area, and neither they nor the reader is ever really sure who is the hero and who is the villain because, of course, it all depends on perspective.  There is a fine line, when writing morally ambiguous characters, between writing an unlikeable character and a character that the reader cannot like, and Schwab nails it.  Victor in particular is someone that I would not like to meet; he is ruthless, dishonest and unfeeling, yet I still found myself rooting for him.

It is definitely a superhero tale with a difference, the heroes are villains and the villains are heroes and nobody cares about saving anybody but themselves, which of course makes a much more realistic superhuman because of most of us live our lives in the grey area.