This is quite a short book and I suspect it will also be a short review for that exact reason. And well for other reasons as well. I find myself within the turmoil of a global pandemic and the response to it. I’ve spent multiple days with too much anxiety to even care for myself. And now with the help of my friends, I’m slowly adjusting. So I want to display my gratitude as well, say thanks, to my friends and my family who keep me company albeit virtually. But I also want to thank the people out there who are first in line. All the doctors and nurses and hospital staff who risk their lives, and their and their family’s mental health to save others. Thank you.
Without much more ado, I’ll talk about Oliver Sacks’ little collection of essays, published posthumously, written shortly before or after his eventually lethal diagnosis with cancerous metastases from an earlier melanoma in his eye that had spread to his liver.
These essays have a special place in my heart. I’ve read the three essays within this book many times over, but they never fail to warm my heart. They are filled with the titular gratitude for a well-lived life and full of wisdom, fun, and a gripping curiosity that fills so much of Oliver Sacks’ writing.
If you can I would honestly recommend you to pick this little book up or at least search out the essays within. At this point, however, I don’t think there’s much to say. So thank you for bearing with me and this extraordinarily short review in extraordinary times.
My last book review was about a German crime novel:Der Freie Hund. And my next book review is The Blue of Distance about Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. If you like to, I would really appreciate your support on ko-fi. A few bucks help a long way and if you want to you can find some of my art on redbubble for sale as stickers and posters.
A Review of Wolfgang Schorlau & Claudio Caiolo’s Der Freie Hund
Again, this is a German book. And I don’t really know why I’m still doing these reviews of new German books in English, but apparently, this is what I’m doing now. As with my last review, I got this book as an advanced reader copy through vorablesen.de where you can find a short review of this book (German). This is a crime story coming out later this spring. Its authors are the quite prolific writer of political crime thrillers Wolfgang Schorlau and the relatively unknown Claudio Caiolo who seems to be an Italian actor, I’ve never heard about before. That, however, isn’t surprising because I’m not really knowledgeable in the world of the famous.
Now with the last book, there was in my opinion pretty solid hints that an English translation could at some point be available. For this book, however, I don’t think that is at all likely to happen. The primary author doesn’t even have a stump of a Wikipedia page in English, and as far as I can tell none of his books is available in English. So why am I writing this review in English? Well because I want to!
The Physical Book
This book as the last one was published by Kiepenheuer & Witsch as a paperback. This one a bit more sturdy, with thicker paper, and thicker cover, even with flaps folding out from the inside of the cover. God knows, what they are called. Maybe, one of you will enlighten me.
The cover is I think a pretty classic one for a crime story, a photo of Venice with a cruise ship beneath the dark looming clouds of a storm. Not un-striking, but also not particularly interesting in my opinion.
Venice is a beautiful city. Perhaps, it is too beautiful for its own good. Considering the torrential outpours of tourists it receives every day. Capturing a city so fundamentally torn apart in a crime novel is definitely an interesting idea, even though a famous one. After all, that’s what Donna Leon has been doing in by now almost 30 instalments of her Guido Brunetti series, that has found a wide TV audience in Germany by way of our public broadcasting’s thirst for crime shows.
As a setting now for Schorlau and Caiolo’s novel, Venice takes an interesting role. Especially the tourism and the political, environmental and structural problems it poses are integral to the setup of the quite political plot. That aside, however, Venice also lacks descriptive depth for me. At no point did I really feel at home, felt included within the city of the novel. We did get a tour through the city by the way of a somewhat shoe-horned in love affair of our protagonist, being an architectural student. Even the auditory experiences our protagonist experiences on a short trip to Cefalù on Sicily, let me feel more at home there than in Venice. And while that discrepancy actually fits in quite well with the emotional connections the protagonist is experiencing, it left me a bit too distant from the main location this book takes place in.
The plot of this book is relatively straightforward with a few twists that genuinely took me by surprise strewn in. At times, it gets quite violent, and the authors don’t shy away from describing splattering blood, death and crime scenes.
At the very least this plot manages to navigate within a very interesting field of topics between politics, corruption, and the Italian mafia. Repeatedly there are hints to past tragedy and a long history of the protagonist with the mafia, that work as an interesting subplot to the story of a murder. Little time is spent on forensics, more so on personal relations and a somewhat uncanny ability of our protagonist to unveil the lies of others.
The plot however definitely does take a while to pick up and really only captured me in the second third of this book. Especially the romantic encounters the protagonist Antonio Morello experiences took me out of it too much from time to time.
As with the plot, there’s not really much I have to say about the characters. Our protagonist Antonio Morello is reasonably well fleshed out, some minor characters lack a bit of depth and motivation beyond that what would generally be expected in a whodunit.
Morello is an interesting character, between his relationship with the mafia in Sicily and his transfer to Venice, we learn a great deal about his history and the reason why he seems incredibly adept at picking up sensory clues beyond the visual. And while the trope of disability coming with extraordinary savant-style advantages is definitely tired, I don’t think this leans too heavily on the experience of Morello’s blindness in childhood.
As for representation, this book definitely venters around heterosexual men. There’s a gay character, but his homosexuality is framed more like an extension of his role as a villain than as something that adds anything to the plot. It’s not queer coding per se, just a weird addendum in an otherwise presumed to be a straight world of characters.
Especially in the way the authors describe women that only show up once or twice within the book, there’s an excellent example of what one could call the straight male gaze. Appearances are described with the underlying intent of explaining which woman seems worthy of sexual attraction. Now don’t get me wrong I’m not male and still attracted to women, but there’s a degree of objectification in describing the stockings of a maid, even if it furthers the characterisation of one of the police officers as a sexist, that gets resolved later.
And this sexism is not at all a problem of plot and characters alone, it manifests within the writing or at least diminished my enjoyment of it. I just don’t really want to read objectifying descriptions of women. What I found interesting, however, was unique stress on experiences outside the visual. Descriptions of auditory and olfactory sensation were incredibly immersive to me and went beyond what the average crime novel offers in my experience.
Other than that the writing seemed acceptable to me even if I especially at the start before I got used to it, sometimes the abrupt switches between scenes and characters made me think I had jumped a page accidentally.
I don’t think I would really recommend this book. It was an okay read, thoroughly captivating at points, but also somewhat flawed in its writing and treatment of women and LGBTQ characters. It brings an interesting mix of ideas to the table, but that didn’t suffice to convince me to want more of this book or more of this as a series.
If you’re really into political thrillers and crime stories involving the political this book may be worth picking up, but I wouldn’t be too disappointed if this book never gets a release in English. I’m not sure if I’m interested in picking up more books from the same writer, but I also wouldn’t frown at getting one for my birthday.
My last book review was about Qube by Tom Hillenbrand. And my next book review is about the very short collection of Essays Gratitude by Oliver Sacks. If you like to, I would really appreciate your support on ko-fi. A few bucks help a long way and if you want to you can find some of my art even some of the works I created for this book review on redbubble for sale as stickers and posters.
For a change, this is a review of a book I got as an advanced reader copy. It’s a German book by an author who has been translated into English before, so there is a realistic hope that this book will be translated into English at some point. Ostensibly I’m writing this review only in English because my audience i.e. at this point still almost exclusively my nerdfighter friends are mostly English-speaking and only in small parts speakers of German.
Though that probably isn’t the weirdest part of this review. No, crown probably goes to the fact that this is part two within a universe called Hologrammatica by Tom Hillenbrand. I have in fact not read part one yet, and I don’t know if I will, just for logistical reasons, so bear with me should that first part have substantial influences on your reading of this second instalment. But without much further ado, let’s get into this review of Qube.
Though I probably have to make the disclaimer here, that I received this book as an ARC, and didn’t pay for it. I’m trying to not let this really influence my review of it, but this is called transparency. Here’s my review on vorablesen.de (German).
Now, holding a book in your hand that’s only about to be released to the wider public has a special feel to it. This book is a pretty standard German paperback though. That means it’s nothing special, but it also isn’t crap. The cover design is simple yet intriguing, so basically the way I like my covers to be, even if I’m as of late a bit bored with red and black and white cover designs. Yes, yes those are striking colours, and easy to combine in ways that look good, but I just want something more daring.
The Setting & World-Building
Qube takes place in a future post-climate-change, after the advancement of computation into the realm of true artificial intelligence, or short AI. And while you might want to insinuate that this book might be a bit too much in love with technology, this nevertheless remains a world you can find yourself swallowed in without the immersion being broken by inconsistencies or other problems of world-building.
Sometimes however the technobabble masks too much of the plot and its really interesting themes though. Sure, there’s a plethora of technology to explain in this book from holograms, to mind-uploads and body swaps to the ins and out of information security and AI, that might be too much for a technologically non-interested reader, but sometimes I would have preferred to have more of that outsourced to the glossary, at the end.
I’m not going to dissect the world of this book in regards to its plausibility in regards to being a prediction of the world in 2091. That is a road I don’t want to travel on. There are definitely technologies in here that sound more like magic to me than like technology, but as Arthur C. Clarke’s famous adage states:
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Arthur C. Clarke
Beneath this splurge of technology hides a quite multi-faceted plot. Hillenbrand, especially in the first half manages to juggle multiple interlace threads of plots, separated by almost torturous cliff-hangers. Sometimes, of course, a particular thread was more interesting and cut short by an intermezzo of all the other plot-threads, but that is the price you have to pay for this interspersed way of telling a story with multiple main actors spread around the earth and at times the solar system. Yes, this novel contains space travel, though the main plot remains steadfastly on the earth.
There the plot starts rolling with a headshot that almost kills Calvary Doyle, an investigative reporter on track to solve a mystery around the last incident around AI in 2049. The police investigations into Calvary Doyle’s attempted killing prove to be more complicated than a simple case of attempted murder however and start to involve multi-billion-dollar companies, AI, death and a plethora of body-swaps.
And who carries out these body swaps? Mostly Commander Fran Bittner, sometimes Francesco or Francesca depending on the appearance of his current vessel. And that is probably one of the most interesting points in regards to the characters. We get to enjoy some form of non-binary, maybe genderfluid, maybe bigender representation. Of course, it might be stifled by German’s lack of gender-neutral pronouns and also might not be really concerned with much of what the LGBTQ community is concerned with, but the main character’s gender is explicitly discussed at least once as “outside of the binary”.
Other than that the book is just filled up with a normal amount of solid characters. To me, none of them feels overdrawn or like paper cut-outs to fill the story, but all of our main characters seem to have understandable motivation. The main characters are of diverse genders, though definitely lack in racial and ethnic diversity if not as Fran Bittner body swapped into a body of another race. Only side characters get to be of another background natively in this regard.
One last criticism of the characters I have to mention: their naming. And this criticism is somewhat in keeping with the aforementioned technobabble this book succumbs to. The names Hillenbrand throws around, are too stereotypically English. They are exactly what you think a German would make up when tasked with finding stereotypical names. They sometimes don’t read as names at all, and sometimes are just funny. Especially, in the first couple of chapters, these names really got to the point where they ripped a hole in the hologram of my immersion
Naming and technobabble are probably the points that hurt Qube‘s writing the most. There’s a little issue of pacing towards the end of the plot, though if that actually is an issue or just a plot-twist probably depends on your reading of the book, for me at least it was a hump I had to drag my ADHD brain over to then get back to enjoying the book quite a lot.
In terms of writing, this book seems to be a pretty standard sci-fi thriller. There’s nothing that sticks out like a sore thumb in here, but also nothing that is egregiously well written, except maybe for the plot interlacing.
And I think that is also a good summary for this book. It’s an interesting and solidly written sci-fi thriller. It’s genuinely gripping at points, but it’s no masterwork.
There are a whole lot of great thoughts and ideas here, from immortality via body swaps to artificial intelligence. There’s some non-binary representation, but a lack of racial and ethnical representation. I think a bit more focus on one of these ideas, a smaller scope wouldn’t have harmed this book, but as it is it’s still an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. And you definitely don’t need to have read part 1 of the Hologrammatica series to understand Qube. At least I didn’t even notice there was a part 1 to this.
A Review of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative?
This is a first for these book reviews. This time I’m reviewing a work of non-fiction instead of a fictional story. Of course, this doesn’t fit into my usual structure of book reviews, so please excuse if this get’s established as it goes and is maybe a bit rougher around the edges than usual. But let us get started: This is a very short book. It only contains roughly 80 densely packed pages, but these are ram-packed with insightful information and thought-provoking ideas. It describes our reality through an interesting philosophical lense and examines the influence capitalism has on the perspective and framing with which we view our world, our lives and our surroundings.
I first found this book through somewhat unusual circumstances. Well maybe, these circumstances aren’t too weird in a modern globally-connected world. I found them through a YouTube video by PhilosophyTube. Namely Olly’s first video on mental health and suicide, I put below. [Content Warning: light flashes, talk about suicide, self-harm and mental health]
But back to the book, which itself talks about mental health in a different light as Olly Thorne does.
This book is an exceedingly short book, it’s almost more of a collection of continued essays or maybe a lengthened scientific article. For my 2009 Zero Books paperback edition that comes packaged as a very thin book with wide pages more resembling the ways scientific articles are printed than how books in fiction are presented. As it’s thin it’s pretty flimsy but doesn’t suffer from the troubles of thick paperbacks with strong backs.
The main argument within this book is that there is a worldview, which Mark Fisher calls capitalist realism, that permeates society in late-stage capitalism and hinders efforts to leave capitalism behind by creating the illusion that there is indeed no alternative to capitalism.
Fisher generally sees one way to break down this veil behind which capital is hiding. Namely, he thinks. we need to find the real that destroys our preconceived capitalist reality. He sees a few big contenders for general topics that could manage to rip the curtain of capitalist realism down: the ecological crisis caused by capitalism and so inherently unsolvable by capital, for example, climate change, mental health and education.
There’s one particular point about the interface between education and mental health Fisher draws that almost made me stop reading this book. My gripe essentially is that while yes, I can see an inadequate blaming of mental health issues on individuals, I also think this book ignored the very real troubles of mental illness that would still persist even within a society where the systemic causes or external stressors of our current society were removed. Especially, his mention of ADHD, from which I personally “suffer”, elicited that reaction in me, because I genuinely feel problems arising from my mental health that are not caused or even exacerbated by society, but just are part of how my brain works.
The Writing & Style
Fisher draws upon tons of sources, especially Slavoj Žižek and finds a ton of analogies in pop culture, especially movies and books. His style is one I found very typical for philosophers of the late 20th and early 21st century. Somewhere between academic and free-flowing essay. What makes this book hard to read are its presumptions of prior knowledge. The expectation that you are familiar with the thoughts of a broad range of philosophers and jargon of anti-capitalism.
There’s at least to some extent a thread running through this book that kept me on line with reading it, but I struggle to put into words what that thread was. Maybe it was just the idea of having finished a book quickly soon. It was short enough to do that, even if the ableism around page 24 irked me enough to slather a “Fuck You” into this book.
In the end, I wonder why so often I’m drawn to books on philosophy when reading them so often leaves me dissatisfied or angry, and exhausted at the lengthy sentences.
I don’t think I really would recommend this book to a general audience. A broad and deep knowledge of philosophy, which I do not possess, is probably required to get the full extent of insight this short book provides. It draws references to other philosophers and pop culture again and again, and it does a disservice to not understand those references.
For a general audience, this book remains too conceptual to be of much value, and it stays too much in the description of the de facto world we live in instead of actually pointing to a liveable alternative except in the last few pages where Fisher points to actionable strategies in the fight against capital, but those are somewhat removed from the main thesis of this book.
Now I would cringe at the idea that a book needs to be actionable to be of value, but I think together with this and the hints of ableism and anxiety about change dispersed within, this book isn’t ready to be read by a general audience, it is more a working paper, for others to expand upon. Being well versed in anti-capitalist theory definitely improves this read.
A Review of Gabriel García Márquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera
I think, this, for the first time in the admittedly short history of my book reviews, is a review of a book I didn’t particularly enjoy. With writing about something that I didn’t enjoy outright, there come some difficulties and hurdles. These hurdles are especially pressing, as I didn’t hate this book – it just bored me quite often. Boring things always are particularly hard for my ADHD-brain, and I’m surprised I still managed to read this book so quickly despite the fact I often only managed to press on with a feeling of obligation.
Why did I feel obligated to read this book? Well, it’s lauded as one of the big works of Gabriel García Márquez who incidentally is a Nobel laureate in literature. This should give some indication to the importance this book assumes, and nevertheless, I did not enjoy it as much as I had expected. So this review will be tasked with the job of figuring out why this book disappointed my expectations, and maybe if this is an outlier in Gabriel García Márquez’ work.
As should be noted here, I don’t speak or read Spanish, I can cobble together a few words here and there with my Latin and French, but for this, I relied on a hopefully faithful translation into German by Dagmar Ploetz. To be exact I read El amor en los tiempos del cólera in its German translation as Liebe in den Zeiten der Cholera.
The Physical Book
My edition of Love in the Time of Cholera is the 14th German paperback edition published by Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag in April of 2014, originally published as a paperback in Germany in February of 2004, 10 years earlier, and as a hardcover in 1987. The original Spanish edition was published in 1985.
The book itself is a paperback of middling sturdiness, its cover kept in dark red and purple with a flaming parrot painted by Brad Holland on the front. It’s an understated book despite the saturated colours on its cover. Fitting with the heat this book contains on so many levels.
Never is the city in which the plot primarily unfolds named, and that’s not to a detriment. Through some research and collection of geographical hints dropped within the book, the city could be identified as Cartagena in the north of Colombia, but as a reader, I’m not as much interested in the reality of a place as much as I’m interested in how much I feel like I can become a part of it. García Márquez manages exactly that with his descriptions of city through the lifetime of two adults some time from the latter half of the 19th to the earlier half of the 20th century. Through a changing environment and very much changing story, the city retains its own character.
This place is not, strictly speaking, beautiful. The city is not luring me to a visit (at least not a time-travelling one), but it is nevertheless a fascinating place, that came vividly into my mind with every single one of the 509 pages of this book I turned.
This plot is an outlier in the things I usually like to read, to some extent at least. It is centred around love. The title doesn’t hide it, but the love is not just a side story in a cholera epidemic, no it’s the main point and arguably the only “cholera” this story has to offer. This metaphor might be a bit blunt in English or in German but becomes a play on words in Spanish, or so I’ve heard.
The plot revolves around three main characters and their play around love and marriage. Florentino Ariza plays an extravagant play of courtship when he deeply falls in love with the young Fermina Daza, only to be booted out by her father and the successful and more privileged Dr Juvenal Urbino, who just returned from his studies in Europe. Still, Florentina Ariza vows eternal fidelity to Fermina and never marries. He sets out to wait for Dr Juvenal Urbino’s death in the hope to then get back together with the love of his youth.
He keeps his vows at first completely, but then only superficially as he discovers sex and tries to forget his aching love, that his mother at first compared to cholera, through sex. He becomes an outright sex-addict and his adventures cascade into more and more morally questionable behaviour as the plot progresses. Meanwhile, Fermina Daza experiences the heights and lows of her married life with Dr Juvenal Urbino.
This recounting of their adult lives is framed by the first and last chapter. The first chapter describes the last days of Dr Juvenal Urbino’s life and his death, with a parrot and a mango tree. The last chapter describes life after his death and a fateful voyage on one of Florentino Ariza’s company’s river steamers.
The plot keeps a surprising amount of elegance even if for me the constant love and sex of this story fell somewhat flat. I’m just not too interested in who fucks whom and loves whom with eternal faithfulness, I would have rather have the suicide with which this book opens explored more, but you can’t always get what you wish for.
The two characters this story centres around are two very different humans, at least on a surface level. After closer inspection, they exhibit striking similarities, however. Both Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza are societal upstarts, moving into the upper society of their city throughout their life. One through marriage, the other through work in anticipation of the end of said marriage.
The main characters are fully fleshed out over their lives. Our narrative point of view jumps back between Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza, with interludes of Fermina Daza’s husband Dr Juvenal Urbino being the focus of this story. And we follow these characters basically through their entire life from their adolescence to their death or their last years of life. No character is without their moral flaws. At least Florentino Ariza engages in outright gross behaviour at points in this story. Nevertheless, he remains one of the most constant identification points for the reader and to some degree, their flaws make them more human, even if they are still all members of privileged society, and to a striking extent cishet white and male.
Being gay is used as an element of social derision at many points in this book, but that’s probably in keeping with the time this book is set in, but nobody is actually gay. Black characters are mostly only introduced as potential love interests and with a weird racialising tone in their descriptions, to a point they are objectified. At several points, I was left wondering how much of these descriptions had to find their way into this book to capture the racialised tone of the time, or if it could have been framed better. At least a counterbalance to the racialising inner monologue of our main characters would have been a welcome refreshment.
Florentino Arizo appears definitely as a love-stricken sex addict, who doesn’t even recoil from morally questionable affairs with people way younger than him. Fermina Daza appears as a somewhat unwilling wife and victim of cultural expectations of womanhood and Dr Juvenal Urbino seems to be basking in his glory and privilege without being conscious of said privilege.
The Writing & Themes
So neither the characters nor the plot managed to grasp my attention. What kept me from throwing this book aside. Well, aside from the weird feeling of obligation I felt to read this book, there was the writing. I really enjoyed many of the descriptions this book had to offer, ad I felt engrossed by the general mood this book managed to set.
This might just be a case, of “this is not the best book to start with for Gabriel García Márquez”, but it was disappointing to me that a well-written book like this fell down in the plot department. The writing manages to incorporate its themes so well, and the structure is thought out excellently, it feels just like a world you can dive into without trouble.
Thematically, this book sets out multiple different points. There’s the comparison of love as an illness, that is masterfully incorporated in the wordplay around cholera and the physical heat. This oppressive heat was almost recognisable on my skin as I turned the pages of this book.
There are a few other themes that struck me while reading. One of them is the environment. This probably fits in with the theme of illness, at least they are closely connected. The destruction of the natural beauty of the woodlands and mangroves, the dead fish swimming in the overfished lagoon and the sewage of the city itself go hand in hand with the dangers of the cholera epidemic that stays in the background for the entirety of the whole plot. Though there are probably even more themes in this book that a reader could find, and that I could talk about after closer inspection and maybe a second read.
I struggle to recommend this book. If you’re interested so far, you should definitely be okay with reading detailed descriptions of sex and even sex in, in my opinion, abusive situations. This is not an easy read, and it definitely isn’t a book that hides its gruesome elements, be they death or promiscuity and rape.
Other than that, if you enjoy love stories and stories that follow through the lives of others, this is definitely a book for you. Though if you’re just starting out with Gabriel García Márquez, I would maybe recommend starting with another book or even better with his short stories. I myself am not terribly familiar with Latin American culture and writing and I’ve been told there are better things out there, but I also have to concede that in all of Latin American Writing there will be parts lost on me, just because I’m generally not familiar with it.
Maybe these losses hurt my general view on this book, but still for me this was a so-so experience. I enjoyed the writing, themes and descriptions. I missed some nuance to the characters sometimes, but enjoyed how relatable if morally questionable they appear, but I could not give much praise to the plot and story of this book, which just was too much of a privileged love story, that reminded me a bit too much of the somewhat cliché German institution of Rosamunde Pilcher movies.
My last book review was Four Gods of Nature about Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower. Up next probably a review of a non-fiction book: Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative?. If you like to, I would really appreciate your support on ko-fi. A few bucks help a long way.
It’s been a while since I did one of these, but now with much further ado my next review of a song from early Eurovision. We’re still in 1956.
So let’s get started with this review of Le Plus Beau Jour De Ma Vie sung by Mony Marc of Belgium properly. Le Plus Beau Jour De Ma Vie was the 10th song performed during the Grandprix Eurovision de la Chanson Européenne in 1956 and was the second entry for Belgium that night.
Despite the weird touch reminiscent of Chinese music the imitations of church bells, this melody starts out with, this song honestly tickles my fancy more than the winning song we talked about the last time. It at least feels more unique in this field of all too similar songs.
This song is obviously about the most beautiful day in the life of the singer. Talking about her wedding in the most cliched way possible. There’s not much that interests me beyond that face-value description, but I think I just enjoy the mood the melody sets out. Sadly this song is maybe a bit too straight for my liking. That’s why the art to the right rightfully ignores the talk about “lui” and “Prince Charmant”, and finds a way to make this into a lesbian wedding.
Maybe I’m just getting used to chanson-style songs over the course of this project. Maybe I’ve always enjoyed this genre, but I’m definitely not opposed to listening to it. And with this particular Belgian song, I’m just transported into a kitschy but beautifully nostalgic world – accompanied by a very clear voice.
There’s not much else to say about this song, nor is there much to say about its singer who has apparently kept herself out of the limelight of public attention.
As always I’ll leave you with the playlist of reviewed songs:
This is the first book I read within 2020 (this year) in its entirety, and it’s a very different book to those I usually read. I don’t tend to read much fantasy. As a child, I categorically avoided anything even remotely fantastical out of a lack of understanding for anything mystical. I lacked the ability to even think about what could lie beyond a very straightforward reading of nature as a system of physics. Over the years I’ve gained more and more of said ability, but still to this day, I prefer my books to be grounded in a physical reality I experience every day. And still, I find myself uninterested in what could be called “big picture stuff”. I don’t care for troops sent out to do this, Kings set to do that. Not unless I can establish a relationship with them beforehand. That just usually is easier if there isn’t a mountain of exposition and world-building in the way. This preference of mine is probably one to keep in mind while you read this review of The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie.
I first heard about Ann Leckie when she won the HUGO award for her book Ancillary Justice in 2015. And I’ve heard much good about the trilogy Ancillary Justice started since, but I have to admit, I have not read any one of those books. This, The Raven Tower, is the first book by Ann Leckie I came to read.
The Physical Book
The paperback of The Raven Tower I own is a big one, probably among the biggest paperbacks I own and it’s of the floppy kind, I’ve always somewhat disliked. This 2019 edition by orbit has 416 pages, but all of them are set fairly large and with spacious margins. Margins perhaps, that could have contained Fermat’s marvellous proof. And while its pages are floppy and it’s pages besmirched with a repeating dollop of misplaced ink, the dark cover brooding like a seal and lock on the book captures the essence of this book so well.
To any uninvolved onlooker, the cover might look reserved and uninviting, but to anyone, who has read more than the first few pages, this cover is a merciless siren of mystery and hidden darkness. This luring is only increased by the beautiful illustration on the first pages of the book and the ravens that lurk ever so often on the pages at breaks in narration.
The Setting & Worldbuilding
The Raven Tower‘s plot is for the most part centred around the fictional country of Iraden and its de-facto capital Vastai, but the reader does learn about a lot of the surrounding terrain though especially the area to the north of Iraden. I’m not usually interested in big picture stuff like countries and wars and often would prefer to read about intricate details of small locations than to know the borders and landscapes of a fictional country. Much of that is founded in my aforementioned dislike of fantasy settings, but there was definitely an exposition hump to overcome with this book for me. Only after that hump, I truly came to appreciate the world as a setting for the story’s characters.
Even if descriptions of single places and objects are rarely exhaustive, over time they build a gripping picture of a world in which multiple gods and humans coexist and interact based on rules and on the limitations of godly power.
In this world that becomes the reader’s home over the 400 odd pages of this book, you learn to know a few characters really well. There’s Eolo probably our main identification point within the story, except for the narrator The Patience of the Hill. Now, this feels almost like a mild spoiler already, because it is something that is only hinted at, at first, and only later revealed in its full consequence, but Eolo is trans. And oh boy is it good representation. Now I’m not a trans man, only a trans woman, but this felt like a genuinely beautiful example of good trans representation to me. Eolo is smart, resourceful and quick to act nevertheless. Serving his Lord Matwat, The Lease’s Heir, who is more often viewed as a petulant child than a good commander they form an interesting team to unravel the mysteries of the story surrounding the Raven’s Lease, Matwat’s father, and his succession.
With the Raven, we are now at the other big group of characters: the gods of Iraden and its surrounding countries. The Raven is ruler over Iraden, in a power-share agreement with the god of the silent forest. But more interesting are the two gods of the north with which we make intimate acquaintance. There’s one the Myriad come as a meteor often represented as a swarm of mosquitos, and even more important, The Patience of the Hill, who is the narrator of our story and plays a decisive role in the unfolding of the plot.
The Patience of the Hill is an interesting narrator. As a god, they are bound by the rules of their own power. In the world of the Raven, a god may only speak that what is true, or what they know to be within their power to make true. If they stray from this rule, they run the risk of draining their power either indefinitely or even dying. This leads to a very careful story-telling often hedging bets over things The Patience of the Hill has no immediate knowledge about or has only heard about.
With that prudence comes another quirk about this narration. Huge parts of this novel are told in second-person-narration. Namely, any bit that talks about Eolo is told from the perspective of The Patience of the Hill recounting the plot and feelings of Eolo to Eolo himself. That takes a bit to get used to but seems very effective at conveying the character of this story and world to the reader.
From the start this plot centres around human sacrifice and worship. These are the things that can feed a god’s power and this nourishment might be vital especially in times of need and war. The Raven has a peculiar arrangement for a human sacrifice. The god inhabits a raven, but every so often this instrument dies and with its death and the birth of a new instrument the Raven’s Lease is obligated to kill himself. The Lease’s Heir takes the position on the bench of the Raven. As Matwat, Heir to the Lease arrives in Vastai with his companion Eolo, the Lease, Matwat’s Father has disappeared, without fulfilling his obligation. In his place, Matwat’s Uncle Hibal has taken the role of the new Lease, but that opens just even more questions.
At the same time, there’s a much longer plot unfolding. An outright war of the gods is taking place over centuries, somewhat in secret to the humans inhabiting the world around Vastai, only breaking out into outright war every so often.
All this comes to a culmination within the Raven Tower and it’s full of intrigue, traps and brooding and intelligent actors on multiple levels of power. Only after I had finished this book, someone mentioned the idea that this is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. And I might agree if not for the fact, that I’ve never in my life seen or read a Shakespeare play, not less Hamlet.
This is very much a book worth picking up. It’s, and I say this not casually, definitely the best book I’ve read within the last couple of years. It might not be the most “valuable” or the most adult and earnest literature, but it was honestly gripping, well written, and interesting. This is a world worth diving in.
Now there’s definitely an exposition hump to get over and an unusual second-person-narration to get used to, but that effort is without question worth it. I often, like with my last review, qualify to whom I recommend this book. For this book, however, I don’t feel the need to add any more qualifications. Thus, I’ll just say it plainly: Do read this book! It’s great. I don’t have this feeling often, but I truly didn’t want this world to end, just because I wanted to remain enthralled in its story.
It took me quite a while to finish this one. It’s probably the book I read in the longest without giving up. Well, excluding reference works naturally. I bought this in a Waterstones on my first trip to London in July 2018. And it’s always had a bookmark in it somewhere. However, for the longest time, it remained my secondary read. Only after I had finished Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon, I picked it up again and found it to be an actually enjoyable read, even though I had long since forgotten the introductory pages. Nevertheless, after that long hiatus this book grabbed me, and enthralled me into a world I’ve never once before considered.
The Physical Book
This is definitely not an especially well-crafted physical book, but it’s also not sloppy. The most striking thing about this relatively sturdy paperback is the striking colour palette of its cover design. One with which I really enjoyed working with for the artwork accompanying this review.
The Gallows Pole is set in the last years of the 1760s around Halifax in the West Riding of Yorkshire, mostly in Cragg Vale and Mytholmyord in the Upper Calder Valley. And Benjamin Myers manages to paint a thoroughly engulfing picture of the Yorkshire moors and the villages, farmsteads, and towns within it. Without ever having been there, my mind could form a picture of the surrounding landscape and feel myself into a striking description balancing between the broad strokes and the little details.
The world Myers paints is a gritty and unforgiving one, but also one filled with glorious detail and thoroughly enticing descriptions especially of food, but also of the seasonal changes rolling over the moor. It’s the writing of a writer who is fundamentally familiar with the landscape they are describing and has done their research to form a vivid picture of life in a long-ago time, right before the onset of the industrial revolution finding its way into the small valleys of northern England.
In The Gallows Pole, Myers tells, as the epigraph reminds us, The True Story of King David Hartley and the Cragg Vale Coiners. The story told centres around two groups of people, one one hand the Coiners i.e. farmers and workers in the Upper Calder Valley, on the other hand, the exciseman William Deighton and the Solicitor Robert Parker of Halifax working to bring the coiners to justice for defacing the currency of the land.
These two groups are a great contrast, both morally questionable at times, both morally upright in other times. As a reader, my sympathy often changed sides. Sometimes fevering with the Coiners or Clippers and their families, sometimes with those coiners around James Broadbent, who chose to become turncoats, and sometimes with the exciseman William Deighton himself. Myers really did a great job of moving the narrative focus from one to the other.
The most striking downfall of the characters of this book is their lack of diversity. And yes I know, especially with writing based on historical sources, getting a picture of for example women’s lives is often a hard task, fraught with its own trappings, but I don’t think this book would really pass the Bechdel Test.
Several years and seasons elapse during the unfolding of the story of the Turvin clippers, as the Cragg Vale Coiners are also called. As such the book is divided into seven parts each detailing the happenings within a season from spring 1767 to 1770, with the epilogue jumping forward to 1775. It’s a varied plot, with turns and climaxes, with sexual abuse and murder, but also with harvest feasts and drinking bouts. Detailed descriptions of food follow similarly detailed descriptions of death.
The book is slow to start and even with a year to forget the first few pages of this book, I didn’t really miss them, nor can I in hindsight really figure out how they fit into the general plot except possibly as setting the mood. After that slow start, however, I found the plot thoroughly captivating and felt the cold of the night giving me cover as I travelled through the moor in the hope of securing a better future for myself as James Broadbent did.
I think the writing of The Gallows Pole is its most striking asset. Rarely, have I felt as drawn in into an environment, rarely have I felt my mouth watering as much at the descriptions of food and drink, and rarely have I felt the cold wind of the night so intensely on my skin as when I read this book. I could go on, but suffice it to say, the descriptions are just very enthralling.
Noteworthy is how the narration of the book is interspersed with King David Hartley’s own account of events, often disagreeing with the narration on details of his nefarious dealings. I don’t exactly know how much of these accounts is fiction. I presume most of them are, but they are held in a very different style to the rest of the narration, imitating the local dialect and sociolect of the Cragg Vale Coiners. Sometimes that makes them challenging to decipher, but especially if you’ve found your way into them, they offer a great contrast to the normal narration of this book.
Additionally, ever so often especially as the noose tightens around the neck of the Turvin Clippers, Myers adds a quotation or an excerpt of source material into his writing, even more so, breaking up the flow of narration with contrasts.
I don’t know to whom I should recommend this book. It’s definitely a captivating read, well at least after the first few pages, but it’s also a heavy read, and dark at times. If you’re interested, be warned. This book isn’t always easy to stomach, but it rewards the reader with a lush landscape of fascinating descriptions and at least I am a sucker for detail. I just love the power with which the details of this story enveloped me, but I understand that such a level of detail might not be for everyone, and is often a point of contention if I discuss books with other readers.
I think if I had to finish this review with a sentence, I would just repeat the advice of the bookseller I bought this book from almost two years ago in London, “It’s a good choice.”
On that note, Lys Assia was very much part of the future of the Grandprix Eurovision de la Chanson the Européenne, at least in part due to this song. May I present to you the winner of 1956 Eurovision song contest: Lys Assia with Refrain.
It’s a song that fits exceedingly well in the general field of its chanson-style competitors, maybe too much so. It’s not an uncontroversial winner, not because it was considered a bad song at the time, but because there are rumours about rigging the jury process in its favour. The 1956 Grandprix Eurovision de la Chanson Européenne, 1956 had a voting procedure that would never again be repeated in Eurovision history and had some weird provision for replacing the jury from Luxembourg that couldn’t be present at the time of voting. The voting itself was secret, and except for the winner, there were no results published, which probably didn’t help to disperse the rumours that the swiss jury had used the votes from Luxembourg to let the Swiss entry win.
These allegations, however, shouldn’t influence an honest judgement of the song. I already mentioned that it fits well into the general field of its competitors and I think that’s the best I can say about this song. To be frank, I’m kinda done with chanson-style songs, but I guess this is the shitty endeavour I chose to go on. And now I have to live with it.
So, let’s get on with it. After a flare-up of the winds, the song starts with harmonising background vocals that set it apart from many other songs of the ESC 1956 and do in fact provide a good intro to the song. Lys Assia’s voice sets in after that and provides tonal contrast. and from there the song meanders in typical chanson-fashion, slowly curving between highs and lows.
Lyrically again this song hits on standard themes of the love songs of this competition. Allusions to nature and the description of a luscious garden lend themselves to metaphors for love and a call to the wasting years reminds the listener of how undying heartache can be. All that, is a pretty standard love song, without much flourish in narration nor much musical deviation from the norm.
Why did it win? Well, it is pleasing enough, but honestly, I can’t really shake the allegations that concern the voting process away. It seems too standard a song to win on its own, but then the competition was a competition amongst artists then more than between songs and indeed Lys Assia does hit her notes quite well and has an outright beautiful voice.
I don’t really have more to say, I’ll leave you with the continuing playlist and hope you have a good start to your year. Farewell!