A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James — New Review

Cover: bookshop.org

At some point, I must have read a review of A Brief History of Seven Killings which intrigued me enough to buy the book, but I no longer remember it. A brief look online didn’t provide much in the way of clues as to why I thought this would be enjoyable. The historical context of an assassination attempt on Bob Marley was completely unfamiliar, and the phrase ‘crack wars in New York City’ not exactly promising for an entertaining read.

When a father turn away from him son, he can’t act shock when the son don’t know him no more.

A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James

Marlon James’ style feels intentional; each character has a different voice, using ‘the Singer’ instead of Bob Marley’s name elevates him to a mythic figure and the stream-of-consciousness changes to reflect the emotional and mental states of his characters. Unfortunately, going in with no prior knowledge of events combined with vast array of narrators and the overload of detail made it difficult to pick out which people and events would prove to be important. The narrative is hard work for an uninformed reader, especially the middle section where the chapters are long enough to feel exhausting.

A Brief History of Seven Killings is also, as is to be expected, incredibly violent. As well as the advertised assassination and drug wars, there’s a lot of background violence, both sexual and otherwise, which certainly didn’t lighten the emotional load any. The Gallows Pole was similarly violent, but A Brief History of Seven Killings had none of that poetic prose to ease the relentlessly miserable experience almost all of the characters were having.

He’ll talk about it all the time but sideways like an Aesop fable, or a riddle and rhyme. He can shape and mold it and make it Greek, his word, not mine. I don’t know what the fuck he’s talking about with that Greek shit. But that don’t mean he want anybody to say it back to him. Something happen when somebody tell you something about yourself even if you already know.

A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James

What Marlon James did well was ratchet up the tension, especially just prior to the assassination attempt, but also before other explosive events. Even with no knowledge of what was coming, it was obvious that something was about to go down, which was emotionally engaging.

A reader who picked up A Brief History of Seven Killings because the blurb or real-life history sounded intriguing would probably enjoy it, this book just wasn’t for me, and I blame that more on whatever I read that interested me in it more than I blame it on the book itself.

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Letters from my Windmill by Alphonse Daudet — Revisit Review

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According to the back of my copy of Letters from My Windmill, Alphonse Daudet was ‘the most successful writer in France by the end of the nineteenth century’, and yet, before coming across this edition in a second-hand book shop, I’d never heard of him. The introduction promised an author who prioritised story over character development which ought to be, if nothing else, an interesting change of pace from the books I usually review.

Yet it is said that at Christmas every year a supernatural light hovers among these ruins, and that peasants, going to Mass and the midnight supper in the church since built below, see this ghost of a chapel lit with invisible candles which burn in the open air even in wind and snow.

The Three Low Masses, Letters from My Windmill, Alphonse Daudet

Looking down the list of chapters, Letters from My Windmill presents a real mix of different types of stories which are effective in different ways. The Three Low Masses has a really evocative ending, which can be so difficult to pull off in short fiction, while The Fable of the Man with the Golden Brain is almost disturbing once the implications of the metaphor sink in. In contrast, The Lighthouse of Les Sanguinaires didn’t really go anywhere, and was one of the least successful stories in the collection.

And how good it was, after one of these lyrical escapades, to come back to the windmill, to lie full-length on the grass of the platform, and dream of the book I would write one day, telling about it all, a book into which I would put all those songs, still singing in my head, all that bright laughter, all those enchanting legends; and in it I would reflect the light of that vibrant sun and the scent of those sun-parched hills, and I would write it as if it had been written in my ruin with its dead sails.

Letters from My Windmill, Alphonse Daudet

Despite the introduction, what really stood out were Daudet’s descriptions, whether they were of Provence or the Balearic Islands. Monsier Senguin’s Goat and The Oranges really showcased Daudet’s ability to paint a picture of the natural world, while The Agony of La Sémillante demonstrated that he could turn the same skill toward stories of human interest. Though Letters from My Windmill deals with both triumph and tragedy, the overall feeling is one of whimsical satisfaction.

It’s worth mentioning that one story, At Milianah, contained some really ugly antisemitism which detracted from the otherwise pleasant mood of the entire collection. Despite that, I’m definitely curious to check out what Daudet does with a longer narrative, especially since the introduction made it seem like the themes would be ones that particularly resonate with me.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern — New Review, Bookclub Edition

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The Starless Sea reads like a book for book-lovers. Erin Morgenstern presents a secondary fantasy world, accessed through magical doors, full of stories and the people who protect them. More than one character explicitly references going through the wardrobe to reach Narnia, and the early sections of The Starless Sea filled me with that same longing to escape into a magical idyll. Of course, these other worlds are rarely perfectly peaceful, otherwise there’d be no conflict and no story. Erin Morgenstern does a good job of balancing the appeal with the danger. The Starless Sea has more bite than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but doesn’t tip over into brutal cynicism like The Magicians.

Endings are what give stories meaning.
I don’t know if I believe that. I think the whole story has meaning but I also think to have a whole story-shaped story it needs some sort of resolution. Not even a resolution, she appropriate place to leave it. A goodbye.
I think the best stories feel like they’re still going, somewhere, on in story space.

The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern

As befits a book about a magical world full of books, The Starless Sea also delves interestingly into metafictional discussions about what makes a story, and what makes a good story. The characters of The Starless Sea would make an interesting book club. Within Erin Morgenstern’s narrative, there are smaller stories-within-stories, none of which were recognisable as retellings, but most of which had an effective archetypal fairytale vibe. Unfortunately, the overarching plot doesn’t hang together quite as well. The story was hazy, never quite coming into focus, which made it difficult to build up (or understand) the stakes. Erin Morgenstern’s prose is so lovely that The Starless Sea was still enjoyable, but it didn’t have as much impact as it might have done if the narrative had set things up on a slightly firmer ground.

The guard sits in a chair by the door and reads crime serials on faded paper, wishing he were an idealised, fictional version of himself. Wondering if the true difference between pirates and thieves is a matter of boats and hats.

The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern

A reread of The Starless Sea would be interesting, to see whether the stories-within-stories knit together with the main narrative to make the whole thing feel more grounded and immediate. If you like reading about reading (presumably you do, since you’ve read this…) it’s definitely one to add to your TBR!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen — Reread Review, Bookclub Too

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Despite taking a Jane Austen module at university, I was certain I hadn’t read Northanger Abbey. Imagine my surprise when I opened the book and found notes, in my own handwriting, all the way through! It’s never happened to me before that I have absolutely no memory of previously reading a book (though, I suppose the question is: how would I know? Spooky!). I can only assume that reading books for six modules, and reading several other Austens, Northanger Abbey didn’t have time to make much impression.

At length, however, having slipped one arm into her gown, her toilette seemed so nearly finished, that the impatience of her curiosity might safely be indulged.

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

Catherine Morland feels incredibly different from Jane Austen’s other heroines. She’s neither in total possession of herself like Elizabeth, Emma and Elinor nor giddily irresponsible like Marianne or Lydia. Instead, she’s guileless and a little socially awkward. Watching her thrown into Society in Bath will little in the way of helpful guidance from anyone on how to pick her friends and acquaintances was very relatable, despite the wealth of years since Jane Austen was writing.

Speaking of characters, General Tilney is an amazing villain. Not, as Catherine thinks, because he might have murdered his wife, but because the ways he breaches etiquette feel as outrageous today as they presumably did over two hundred years ago. Contrasted against her father and Isabella, Eleanor shines as friend worth making. As the romantic lead, Henry is… fine. He’s certainly no Mr Darcy. There are moments where his teasing of Catherine seems based in intelligence and affection, but then Austen also explicitly states that he only fell for her because she was interested in him, which is hardly the stuff of a great love story.

From that point on, it has been the novel’s fate to be read by successive generations who have not read the books to which its author and its characters make reference.

Introduction to Northanger Abbey, David Blair

Of all Jane Austen’s novels, Northanger Abbey particularly needs a good introduction, and David Blair does a decent job. Some sentences are a little wordy, but the main points are interesting and illuminate the text. The point he makes about Catherine’s taste for novels giving her a vocabulary to express her discomfort with General Tilney made a nice contrast to the usual perspective that Catherine is a young woman carried into foolishness by her overactive imagination.

Northanger Abbey‘s ending is a little abrupt. Austen never really dwells on what happens between the proposal and the wedding, but in this case, her quick summary and dismissal of Eleanor’s contribution to proceedings felt unearned. If that plot line had been brought up earlier, it would have been more satisfying, and it’s not as if the book is overlong as it is!

Despite enjoying Northanger Abbey more than I expected to, it doesn’t quite displace Emma as my current favourite Jane Austen novel.

Rating: 3 out of 5.