First, as an explanation, I haven’t felt like reviewing a single book in more depth for quite a long time now, needless to say October hasn’t been a good month for me, very hectic, a bit disorganized and distressing. Quite an intense time, with my levels of anxiety going through the roof, making me feel totally unmotivated, almost depressed. That’s why I either haven’t had time to read or I’ve just haven’t felt like immersing myself in reading at all, finding it hard to focus… It also seems like it’s more and more difficult to find a book that would possess me entirely, but fortunately I’ve still managed to spend nice time one-to-one with some interesting titles this month, so allow me to present this short October recap.
Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton
Not so long ago, had you told me that I was going to drift towards the genre described as young adult fiction, I would probably have commented it with a polite smile… but what to do when reader’s block strikes and one does not feel like ploughing through ‘ambitious’ literature? How to overcome a temporary feeling of discouragement and not to feel like you have to force yourself to read? In my case, picking up something I wouldn’t usually go for and what seemed like a sheer entertainer has worked wonders (as reflected in my next picks this month). That ‘something’ happened to be The New York Times bestselling novel by the Goodreads Choice Awards Best Debut Author of 2016, Alwyn Hamilton, titled “Rebel of the Sands”. “Wild West meets Arabian Nights” seems like a perfect description in a nutshell of Hamilton’s debut novel and the book itself is like a breath of fresh air. Although not particularly innovative in terms of plot twists and the general idea behind the story, the unusual combination of an action set on a sultry desert, spiced up with the motives from classic western movies is what makes Rebel of the Sands unique. Not to mention the beautiful, eye-catching covers! The titular Rebel is a teenage Amani, who lives in a forgotten hamlet of Dustwalk, struggling to break free from her dull life and the perspective of becoming her uncle’s yet another wife. One night, the fierce heroine who happens to be a dexterous gunslinger, dresses as a boy and intents to enter a shooting competition in a disreputable bar called the Dusty Mouth. It is in fact the opening scene in which Amani wins the reader’s heart right away, with her tongue-in-cheek humour and an admirable resourcefulness. Determined to escape her miserable destiny, driven by the dreams about Izman, “city of a thousand golden domes” she knows from the tales told by her mother, the girl sets off on a journey in search of a new, better life. The accidental encounter with a handsome foreigner, Jin, prompts her to throw in her lot with him in order to escape. As a result, the two head off into the desert together. And the desert is full of mythical creatures, such as legendary Djins, mysteries, magic and of course, danger…
Whether it is due to the author’s extraordinary storytelling skills, the freshness in the way she entails apparently unrelated worlds and themes, or just my soft spot for Aladdin, Sheherazade and the likes, I caught myself almost immediately engrossed in this fantasy world of the Blue-Eyed Bandit and her companions. The action is fast-paced and the story livens up when the Jin’s real identity and his family secrets come to life, leading to Amani’s decision to join the rebellion against the vicious Sultan. The adventure begins, during which our protagonist will inevitably fall in love with her mysterious comrade and unlock the powerful truth of who she really is. The ending, although resembling the most popular works of YA fiction (not looking far to find an example, I’m sure the “Hunger Games” series rings a bell) keeps you on tenterhooks and the final cliffhanger is bound to make you hungry for more. Luckily, the second installment had been already released when I finished reading the first one, so I was spared the endless longing and, despite the fear it’d not live up to my expectations, right after finishing The Rebel of the Sands my hands took over control and grabbed the sequel.
Titled Traitor to the Throne, the second book in the series is generally thought to be even better than its predecessor, following Amani’s steps as she continues the fight to liberate the entire desert nation of Miraji even when thrust into the Sultan’s palace. In the epicenter of the regime, she’ll do what it takes to bring the tyrant down, spying on his court and uncovering more and more secrets… I’m not going to reveal any more of the plot, since it is quite complex and involving a lot of twists and sub-twists, for which I must praise the author. Alwyn Hamilton has visibly worked on her trade and she’s managed to craft an exciting, albeit not flawless story. With its 500+ pages, it often felt like the book could be shorter, especially at the end of the first half, which I found a bit difficult to plough through, waiting for the climax to come, humming “a little less conversation, a little more action please “… Concurrently, a lot was missing. Deprived of her powers and weapon, the gunslinger badass gave place to a harem slave girl, still wonderfully sassy and more mature, but not exactly the Amani I expected. And where did Jin go? Not that I have a particular fondness for him and I’m delighted that the relationship between the romantic leads is so subtle and nonintrusive, but his appearances in the first book were the drivers of the action, changing the course of events. Helpless as I am when it comes to my weekness for villains, I’d love to have more insight into the Sultan’s head. He is by far the most interesting character and the author successfully unfolds the narrative with the intention to make her readers wonder, whether the Sultan is as vicious as Amani believes and who’s the real traitor to her homeland.
All in all, I do not regret spending time with these wonderfully enchanting novels, it felt like a sought-after vacation amidst the sands, under a scorching sun, with each page sucking me more and more into the magical atmosphere of Arabian Nights. I’d rate Rebel of the Sands almost 4/5 stars and Traitor to the Throne 3,5/5 stars, very much looking forward to the third volume in the series, Hero at the Fall, due for release in March, 2018!
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Reader’s block gone, my next pick was meant to be one of the classics, patiently waiting on my endless ‘to read’ shelf. And it was high time to familiarize myself with the acclaimed Virginia Woolf. Her probably best-known novel, Mrs Dalloway, is a detailed account of a single day in the life of of Clarissa Dalloway, a fictional 52-year-old high-society woman, as she’s preparing for a party she will host that evening. Set in the post-First World War England, the novel is a faithful portrayal of the social life and customs, with the aftermath of “Great War” still living on in people’s minds. Virginia Woolf depicts the subjective experiences and memories of the protagonist and a handful of other central characters, tracing back to the times of their youth, evoking the seemingly forgotten story of unfulfilled love between Clarissa and Peter Walsh, who has now returned to England from India and is one of her party guests, scrutinizing the protagonist’s feelings towards her husband, Richard Dalloway, as well the relationship with their teenage daughter, questioning her sense of fulfillment and happiness. There’s also an in-depth analysis of a post-war deferred traumatic stress, observed in Septimus Warren Smith, a First World War veteran, whose story is intertwined with other the threads, which do not cross, though, leaving the characters isolated and alone.
As an example of stream of consciousness storytelling, Mrs Dalloway may be often found hard to follow and requires absolute peace of mind and concentration to make the best of the read and truly savour it. The way Woolf captures each thought, each fleeting moment, each seemingly prosaic activity as the hours pass before the evening party and the streets of London bustle with people coming and going, their day-to-day routine observed through the eyes of the party guests, it’s all described so beautifully, elegantly even and evokes the feeling of being physically present that day, in those places, shoulder to shoulder with Clarissa and the others. The very opening line “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” will suffice to make you want to know her better and then find the author’s real message, somehow hidden between the lines of Woolf’s stream of thoughts that flows like a river, inviting you to swim with the tide, up the estuary, where your own interpretation awaits to be discovered. Do not miss this very faithful portrayal of human nature in all its possible manifestations, still so up-to-date even if it’s been almost 100 years since the first publication. 4/5 stars and definitely to be re-read soon!
Memoirs from the House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
I’m not sure if it’s the gloomy atmosphere and dreadful weather, but after the very “light” beginning of the month, every next book I chose was heavier – not in volume, but content-wise. And Dostoyevsky is no joke, such as any other Russian author whose works I’ve dared to approach thus far… As one of the shortest novels of the Russian literary genius, Memoirs from the House of the Dead seemed more comprehensible than his classic titles, but I wouldn’t call it an ‘easy’ read by no means. This semi-autobiographical novel is a vivid account of the years spent by Dostoyevsky in a Siberian prison camp and portrays the life of his fellow convicts observed from the point of view of the narrator, Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov, probably the author’s alter-ego. The book collects loosely-knit glimpses from individuals’ lives, various events, scattered thoughts, all linked by the common motif of a ‘philosophical’ discussion about the nature of evil that leads to heinous crime acts, delving into the deepest recesses of human soul and providing a comprehensive study of what’s hidden deep within in every one of us in its most horrendous form, waiting to be unleashed.
These are all the typical themes you’ll find, in the majority of the author’s most known works, say, Crime and Punishment, but Dostoyevsky excels in it, so one could never get bored with his prose (unless you’re more into action-packed stories rather than something meant to provide food for thought). A bit depressing, maybe, making you ponder the horror of war and its repercussions, but definitely a valuable and worthwhile book. And there’s still Brothers Karamazow waiting for my mercy… but I’m so afraid of this magnum opus that I feel it’ll be really difficult to find just the right time to take a whack at it!
My final rating would be 4/5 stars, although I do realize some would call it a sin not to give Fyodor 5 stars for just being himself 😉
Death Note (Black Edition), part 1 by Tsugumi Ōba, Taskeshi Obata
As a child I used to watch a lot of Japanese animations, such as “Sailor Moon” or the most popular back then, “Dragon Ball”. I still recall how I could spend several hours a day following the adventures of Usagi, waiting impatiently for new episodes or just re-watching the ones I already knew by heart. Dear lord, the 90s were such a beautiful time! The childhood nostalgia I’ve been feeling prompted me this year to catch up with some of the animes I’ve always wanted to see and the first choice was the ultimate classic, Death Note, and I couldn’t have chosen better. While I’ve always been fond of the Japanese culture and their unique drawing style, which was developed in Japan in the late 19th century and evolved into comics known as manga, I realized that I’d never actually read any of their graphic novels. This year’s October happened to bring a lot of changes in my life, so the natural course of events was to go with the flow and continue exploring new genres – in terms of literature and not only.
The ultimate classic is one of the best, if not the best, anime I’ve seen so far, so the choice of manga with which to loose my virginity was unanimous. What is “Death Note” actually about and what makes it so perfect in my eyes? To quote the plot description from the cover:
“Light Yagami is an ace student with great prospects–and he’s bored out of his mind. But all that changes when he finds the Death Note, a notebook dropped by a rogue Shinigami death god. Any human whose name is written in the notebook dies, and now Light has vowed to use the power of the Death Note to rid the world of evil. Will Light’s noble goal succeed, or will the Death Note turn him into the very thing he fights against? “
I guess it’s enough to convince all the manga-sceptics that this is not a simple fairy-tale for children, neither is it stupid and devoid of value. It’s sad, but I’ve seen most people perceive manga and anime exactly this way. “Death Note” is all the contrary: here we have an example of a seemingly flawless hero who aims at using his intellect to “save the world”, but the abilities he gains with power bestowed on him as a godsend (pun intended!) in a form of an inconspicuous, black notebook, turn out to have disastrous consequences, revealing Light’s inner, dark instincts he hadn’t been aware of… Then, there is “L” as his main opponent. A neurotic genius, able to solve virtually any criminal case and determined to stop Light from creating and ruling a world “cleansed of evil”. You can’t help but love “L”. Period. Needless to say, you’re bound to marvel at deep character development, all of which is truly compelling and not put without a purpose, as a mere filler. You’re bound to adore Ryuk, a Shinigami addicted to apples and many a times the authors will surprise you with plot twists and the neatness, bordering on perfection, with which the entire intrigue is crafted. Who’s going to win? Who’s good and who’s bad? What are the consequences of playing God? These and other questions are addressed in “Death Note” and I dare say that it’s a really profound study of the destructive force of power. It’s been a wonderful, refreshing – albeit rather quick! – read, thanks to which I’m back into the twisted world of “Death Note”, definitely going to read all the installments and enjoy the story yet again. By the way, the Black Edition consisting of 6 volumes, each containing 2 books, is so gorgeous that it makes the manga even more unputdownable. Hands down, 5/5 stars, a masterpiece of its genre.
Idiot Brain by Dean Burnett
I haven’t finished this one yet, but it falls into the category of October reads, as I’ve been reading it ‘in chunks’ as a nice treat and distraction in between the above-mentioned titles. I enjoy a good pop-science read every once in a while, especially when I need a break from fiction and this one, interestingly enough, caught my attention thanks to the Polish translation of the title. Finished or not, I can already rate it as a 4-star read, very informative and quite entertaining at the same time. Reassuring as well, for it’s nice to have an acclaimed neuroscientist explain to you why the human brains act in such a quirky way, assuring that the pitiable, yet downright laughable things your mind do to you is a common phenomenon. Have you ever went to the kitchen and forgot what you had been looking for, asking yourself: “Hey, what am I actually doing here”? Or struggled to remember a person’s name even if you’ve seen their face a couple of time? You’re not alone! And it’s scientifically proved. At least Dean Burnett says so.
In his book, he invites the readers for a journey inside this powerful, fascinating, albeit very flawed organ, showing its immense complexity and the impact it has on each of our thoughts, actions and decisions taken every second of every single day.
“What have we learned so far about the human brain? It messes with memories, it jumps at shadows, it’s terrified of harmless things, it screws with our diet, our sleeping, our movement, it convinces us we’re brilliant when we’re not, it makes up half the stuff we perceive, it gets us to do irrational things when emotional, it causes us to make friends incredibly quickly and turn on them in an instant. A worrying list. What’s even more worrying, it does all of this when it’s working properly.”
Dean Burnett managed to make Idiot Brain a truly compelling scientific book, skillfully mixing humour into his writing and providing easily digestible description of complicated bodily functions instead of overwhelming the reader with baffling terminology. My stupid brain really enjoyed reading about how stupid it is and why. Highly recommended.
How about your October wrap-up, any interesting titles you’d like to share? Also, as a reference to the books I described, are you a fan of any of the particular genres or authors mentioned? YA, British classics, Russian literature, manga? I invite you all to a discussion, as always!