Monday, 21 May 2018

Review: 'Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places' by Rebecca Rego Barry

My love for books is both my family's pride and the bane of their existence. As a young child my parents would be thrilled to see me reading and infuriated to find my still reading at midnight. No matter where we are, no bookstore can be passed without a visit. And too often I turn pleading eyes onto my family members and beg for 'just 10 more minutes'. I can spend hours in bookstores, especially when they're the kind of bookstores you can get lost in, where the shelves reach to the ceiling, where old meets new, literary fiction meets art history and music theory settles in next to science fiction. So how could I resist Rare Books Uncovered? Thanks to Quatro, Voyageur Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 27/02/2018
Publisher: Quatro, Voyageur Press

Feed your inner bibliophile with this volume on unearthed rare and antiquarian books. 
Few collectors are as passionate or as dogged in the pursuit of their quarry as collectors of rare books. In Rare Books Uncovered, expert on rare and antiquarian books Rebecca Rego Barry recounts the stories of remarkable discoveries from the world of book collecting. 
Read about the family whose discovery in their attic of a copy of Action Comics No. 1--the first appearance of Superman-saved their home from foreclosure. Or the Salt Lake City bookseller who volunteered for a local fundraiser--and came across a 500-year-old copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle. Or the collector who, while browsing his local thrift shop, found a collectible copy of Calvary in China--inscribed by the author to the collector's grandfather. These tales and many others will entertain and inspire casual collectors and hardcore bibliomaniacs alike.
My obsession with antique books is really my family's fault. I think it started when my granddad one day decided that since I liked history I could help him riffle through a chest (I'm not kidding!) of old papers, photos and books that had been there for who knows how long. Not only did we discover we're related to George Friedrich Handel (again, I'M NOT KIDDING! It was an exciting day!), but we also unearthed a centuries old Latin copy of Julius Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico. We went to the local library the next day to have it assessed and almost 8 years later my grandfather gifted it to me. That day spent with him lit a fire in me for antique books because I began to appreciate how wonderful those old books are, how they have passed through countless hands and how imbued with history they are. So from then on my trips to bookstores included hunting down books that struck me with that sense of history, books whose plain covers hid fascinating content. It started a passion that hasn't abated and probably never will. I own 7 different editions of Wuthering Heights and have stacks of books waiting at my father's house for me to get my own apartment with actual bookshelves. I may have a problem...

Rare Books Uncovered is the perfect book for bibliophiles and collectors like myself. Barry fills the book with short chapters dedicated to extraordinary finds, whether it's superhero comics or Dali's Alice. For someone who delights in boxes of books and dusty bookstores, these chapters are a delight. I found myself excited by these finds, laughing at the sheer serendipity of most of them, and inspired by the collectors' clear passion for books of whatever kind. Not each find pulls at me equally. I'm much less interested in driving manuals than in Frankenstein, and yet each chapter held something of interest for me. The chapter that struck me most was 'Scarce Scottish Imprint Hiding in the Stacks' in which Barry describes a surprising find in the St. Andrews Rare Books library. The library began a program called 'Lighting the Past' in which they started working their way through their backlog. While doing my Master's Degree in Medieval English at St. Andrews I actually spent time myself helping dig through the Rare Books and cataloguing them, comparing them to other copies in WorldCat and other collections. The work done on 'Lighting the Past' happened in the room next door. I loved the mornings I spent there, surrounded by books, and I felt a surge of pride reading about it in Rare Books Uncovered.

Rare Books Uncovered could easily be a dry and boring book. After all, it is simply a collection of book titles, dates, names and prices. But Rebecca Rego Barry brings these stories to life. Each chapter feels like a mini mystery, and the interviews she has done with the collectors and discoverers brings a personal touch to their stories. There is a love for books in Rare Books Uncovered and it is a love that is shared by Barry, the people she interviews and us, the readers. One thing I especially adored were the little asides in the book that explained certain lingo like 'provenance', 'ephemera' or 'marginalia'. It makes the world of book collectors a little bit more accessible and, in my case, gives me the vocabulary to describe some of the things I have found in my years of book collecting. Rare Books Uncovered is probably not for every reader. If you love reading but don't feel the need to collect them then this book will perhaps not fill you with the same sense of recognition as it did for me. Some of the stories will be interesting and you'll enjoy leafing through it. But if you're like me then this book is close to inspirational. I will have to hunt down a physical copy of Rare Books Uncovered because reading it filled me with joy.

I give this book...

5 Universes!

God I adored this book! Barry has written a book for book collectors, full of anecdotes, surprises and passion. Although book collecting has changed a lot in the last few decades, the spirit remains the same. It's about the joy of knowing anything could be anywhere and that maybe you'll find it. I'd recommend this to anyone who knows how addicting book collecting can be.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Review: 'Skin' by Ilka Tampke

I adore British history. There are so many different time periods, cultures and languages that came together to create the Britain we know now. One of the most mysterious cultures to have populated England were the Celts. An intensely secretive group, all their secrets and mysteries were passed along orally, yet authors and directors have never let that stand in their way of trying to reinvent the Celts. Ilka Tampke's Skin might be my favourite attempt every. Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 06/08/2015
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Imagine a world where everyone is born with a 'skin' name. Without skin you cannot learn, you are not permitted to marry, and you grow up an outsider amongst your own people. 
This is no future dystopia. This is Celtic Britain. 
It is AD 43. For the Caer Cad, 'skin' name determines lineage and identity. Ailia does not have skin; despite this, she is a remarkable young woman, intelligent, curious and brave. As a dark threat grows on the horizon - the aggressive expansion of the Roman Empire - Ailia must embark on an unsanctioned journey to attain the knowledge that will protect her people, and their pagan way of life, from the most terrifying invaders they have ever faced... and it is this unskinned girl who will come to hold the fate of her people in her hands. 
SKIN is a standout, full-blooded debut which invokes the mesmerizing, genre-transcending magic of novels such as Jean M. Auel's Clan of the Cavebear; it combines epic storytelling with a strikingly unique plot set during a fascinating period of Britain's history.
As I said above, many authors have tried to capture what they think the Celts were like. We see shades of them in old, wise, bearded men travelling the country side, for example. They are often tied to the Arthurian myths through Merlin, as well. Tampke does away with a lot of what has been done before and lets what we know of the Celts work for her concept of 'skin'. And perhaps that is why it works. Tampke gives the Celts a defined religion, a shared culture, and thereby makes them less vague. And before I go into reviewing the rest of the novel I want to spend some time discussing the idea of 'skin' in her novel. It is a mystical, mythical thing, and yet it is deeply tied to every single moment of her character's day. It's how you greet people, it is how you declare love, it is how you know you belong. It is deeply religious but it is also social. It divides people, and the exclusion of those without has almost racial undertones. Tampke lets Roman and Celtic culture clash in Skin, but she doesn't shy away from showing some of the progress of the Romans and the darker sides of the Celtic culture. All in all, Tampke creates a fascinating portrait of a long-lost culture which feels tangible and real.

Ailia is what centres this novel. Although Skin could spin out of control with its combination between historical fiction and fantasy, Tampke puts Ailia solidly in the middle, holding both the "real" and the "other" world together. She is a young girl, aware of her skin-less state yet burning for more. She is dedicated to her adoptive mother and sisters but she is also still looking for a home that is truly hers. What I found most recognisable about Ailia was her desire for more and her willingness to bend the rules for it, yet also her crushing fear that society is right and that she is nothing. Told her whole live she has no right to anything and she should be happy with what she has been given, her drive and desire are at the heart of this novel. She is surrounded for this by a plethora of fascinating characters, many of which are interesting female characters with their own motivations, fears and desires. As Ailia plunges further and further into the mysteries of the Mothers and discovers her power, the novel's quick but solid pace drives the reader forward, desperate to find out what will happen with Ailia and those she loves. Her mystical experiences were my favourite parts of the novel, elevating it above historical fiction into something mythical.

Tampke's writing style is almost dreamlike and yet she manages to capture everyday life in the Iron age in great detail. Tampke did a great amount of research into Iron Age Britain and it really shows, whether it's in the descriptions of the clothes, the houses or the stark contrast with the Roman Empire, it all strikes true. And on top of that she adds the fantasy element of her novel, the skins, the Mothers, the Journeymen who can travel between our world and the other. That fantasy is as rooted in detail as the "historical fiction" part of the novel, yet these details feel oddly familiar, as if you've read them before in a myth or legend. The winding rivers that lead girls astray in the woods, the handsome strangers who seem only half of this world, and the rituals of fire and stars. Tampke doesn't fall into the trap of trying to mimic old time-y English, but her modern English serves her plot well, still creating that magical feel Skin thrives off. One thing Tampke deserves major props for is her ending. I don't want to spoil anything but it is a brave ending that both closes of Skin and sets up a number of potential stories for the second novel Songwoman. I personally cannot wait!

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I utterly adored Skin! I read it voraciously and thought about it when I couldn't read, wondering where Ailia would go next, what she would do. Tampke creates a magical world in her novel, bringing to live Iron Age Britain in an engrossing way. I'd recommend this to fans of Historical Fiction and Fantasy.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Review: ‘The Lost Word of Byzantium’ by Jonathan Harris

I spent much of my childhood watching television programs about ancient cities, fallen empires and imposing emperors. It instilled me with a lifelong love for and fascination with history and everything it encompasses. One empire that has always mystified me a little was the Byzantine Empire. Although I had learned about the Roman Empire in school, its Eastern part, which became Byzantium, was never truly covered. And yet, bridging East and West, it must have been a fascinating place. Thankfully Jonathan Harris’ The Lost World of Byzantium gave me a brilliant overview. Thanks to Yale University Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 15/08/2015
Publisher: Yale University Press
For more than a millennium, the Byzantine Empire presided over the juncture between East and West, as well as the transition from the classical to the modern world. Jonathan Harris, a leading scholar of Byzantium, eschews the usual run-through of emperors and battles and instead recounts the empire's extraordinary history by focusing each chronological chapter on an archetypal figure, family, place, or event. Harris's action-packed introduction presents a civilization rich in contrasts, combining orthodox Christianity with paganism, and classical Greek learning with Roman power. Frequently assailed by numerous armies-including those of Islam-Byzantium nonetheless survived and even flourished by dint of its somewhat unorthodox foreign policy and its sumptuous art and architecture, which helped to embed a deep sense of Byzantine identity in its people. Enormously engaging and utilizing a wealth of sources to cover all major aspects of the empire's social, political, military, religious, cultural, and artistic history, Harris's study illuminates the very heart of Byzantine civilization and explores its remarkable and lasting influence on its neighbors and on the modern world.
In The Lost Word of Byzantium Jonathan Harris has quite a challenge in front of him, trying to pack hundreds of years into not quite 300 pages. As such, Harris’ book isn’t a comprehensive, everything included, kind of history. As he described it, it is more of a ‘personal journey through the long history of Byzantium’. While some may prefer more factual ad “historical” history books, and I often do, I actually loved Harris’ take on writing Byzantium’s history. The Lost World of Byzantium is written with a lot of insight, Harris often interjecting the historical account to bring in his own thoughts or to consider how history has judged the person he is describing. In a sense, The Lost World of Byzantium feels quite intimate, despite describing over a 1000 years of history and countless emperors, empresses, heroes and saints.

The most important thing  a history book needs to do is give the reader a basic grounding in the history it’s describing, whether that is a single event or, as is the case with The Lost World of Byzantium, countless of events over hundreds of years. There has to be a sense of connection, allowing the reader to trace trends, philosophies and families across the pages and generations. On the one had The Lost World of Byzantium does provide the full picture, describing ruler after ruler, war following war, and victory following defeat. On the other hand, however, it might be beneficial to already have a basic understanding of Byzantine history before beginning The Lost World of Byzantium. Harris fills his book with a great amount of detail, occasionally jumping backwards or forwards to explain a certain event or decision. In a sense Harris is telling a story, which the title of his book kind of suggests. In a sense the whole of the book attempts to answer the question of why Byzantium managed to last so long and why, then, it did eventually, fall. Harris provides many suggestions throughout the book but a definite answer will, most likely, never be found.

History books can be hard to read. They are often dry and boring, or so highly academic that it’s a miracle even the author knew what he was talking about. The Lost World of Byzantium is neither of these. It is the perfect history book in that Harris’ writing makes the pages fly by. You get invested in the Byzantium he describes and his passion for the Byzantine Empire becomes infectious. Although he stays objective for most of the book, as he should as an academic, he can’t help but let a fondness for certain characters shine through. In The Lost World of Byzantium Harris is giving us both historical fact as well as one hell of a story. Despite Harris’ engrossing writing, however, it might still be best to take it easy with The Lost World of Byzantium. There are a lot of dates, a lot of stories, a lot of battles happening in the same place at different times; it is a lot and it can get confusing. History can be repetitive and as names and treaties and cities repeat themselves, it is best to occasionally take a break from The Lost World of Byzantium. The great thing is, you’ll definitely come back because Harris as you invested after the first chapter.

I give this book…
4 Universes!

I greatly enjoyed The Lost World of Byzantium. It’s the kind of history book that fills your head with images rather than dates, without losing its base in history and fact. Jonathan Harris is a great writer and I’m definitely keen to read more of his books on the Byzantine Empire.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Short Review: 'The Atrocities' by Jeremy C. Shipp

Nightmare maze? Parents not accepting their child's death? A governess with something to hide? Sign me up!! The Atrocities has an amazing premise and despite its brevity I was entirely ready to be amazed and scared by Jeremy C. Shipp. And to a certain extent he did dazzle me, while also leaving me wanting towards the end. Thanks to Macmillan-Tor/Forge and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 17/4/2018
Publisher: Macmillan-Tor/Forge

Jeremy Shipp brings you THE ATROCITIES, a haunting gothic fantasy of a young ghost's education 
When Isabella died, her parents were determined to ensure her education wouldn't suffer. 
But Isabella's parents had not informed her new governess of Isabella's... condition, and when Ms Valdez arrives at the estate, having forced herself through a surreal nightmare maze of twisted human-like statues, she discovers that there is no girl to tutor. 
Or is there...?
Coming in at a little more than 100 pages, Shipp manages to pack quite a punch into The Atrocities. From the very beginning I loved his imagery and the spookyway in which he described it. Just look at the opening lines:
Turn left at the screaming woman with a collapsing face. Turn right at the kneeling man with bleeding sore the size of teacups.
Those lines betray a knack for the spooky as well as a sense of humour. There were many scenes in this novella where I could see what he was describing. As the new governess, Ms Valdez, arrives at the mansion she encounters a hellscape of odd statues and a disturbed family. Nothing is quite as it seems here, and neither is everything right with Ms Valdez either. Shipp gives us something of an insight into her character and history, but sadly this didn't entirely fit into the Gotthic vibe of the rest of the novella but felt more like a 21st century horror movie.

Shipp creates a stunning atmosphere in the first half of The Atrocities.There is such a foreboding feel to everything,  so many questions are raised and in such an interesting way that I was incredibly gripped by this novella. There are a lot of things which aren't resolved towards the end of the novella. Although I enjoy an author that trusts their reader to do some sleuthing of their own to figure out the details The Atrocities left too much in the dark meaning that a lot of details seemed more like random embellishments rather than part of the plot. At a certain point in the novella Shipp lost me for a moment. It was almost like I missed a page or two and now wasn't entirely sure of how the characters had gotten to where they were, why they were doing what they were doing. In the end the finale of The Atrocities fell a little bit flat for me and I would've loved to see this worked out into something more substantial. Add another hundred pages and you'd have yourself a stunning Gothic thriller that satisfies completely.

I give this novella...

3 Universes!

I really enjoyed the first half or so of The Atrocities and completely sank into the esoteric and dark world Shipp creates. However, when it came to tying up all the loose ends and delivering as brilliant an ending as his opening, Shipp left me hanging a bit. I will definitely keep an eye out for his next book however. I'd recommend this to fans of Gothic and Thriller novels.

Review; 'A Winter's Love' by Madeleine L'Engle

It is always interesting to read different types of books from the same author. I first encountered Madeleine l'Engle in, of course, A Wrinkle in Time, a book that grapples with adult themes but is aimed towards children. So how does she do in a book with adult themes for adults? I never should have wondered, of course L'Engle would deliver  a stunning novel. Thanks to Netgalley and Open Road Integrated Media for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 2/05/2017
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media
A lonely woman is torn between the bonds of family and the potential of new love in this moving novel from the author of A Wrinkle in Time.
Caught somewhere between love, hate, and indifference, Emily Bowen’s marriage is hanging on by a thread. After being let go from his job, her husband pulled away from her, and the distance continues to grow during their family’s sabbatical in Switzerland. With their relationship as cold as the wind baying outside, Emily finds unexpected warmth in a man from her past. As she contemplates seizing the connection she’s been craving, Emily must decide if she’s willing to sacrifice the life she’s built for an unseen future. Poignant and powerful, this is a timeless tale of the turmoil that comes with falling in—and out—of love, and “a convincing story of mixed loyalties and divided affections” (Kirkus Reviews).
Ah, family, the source of so much happiness and so much despair. Many novels focus on the family, almost all novels I'd say. LEngle's novel, however, isn't a flippant take on family life but rather a study on marriage, parenthood and teenhood. A Winter's Love is full of love and anger, sadness and joy, all surrounded by the stunning Swiss landscape. Initially I was worried this would be one of those soppy novels, in which there are grand speeches, tragic inner monologues, moonlit nights full of forbidden passion, etc. All those things are in A Winter's Love and yet it never once feels melodramatic or over the top. L'Engle's moonlit night is one we have all experienced once upon a time, the depth of her characters' emotions are recognisable in their almost sad ordinariness. There is a sense of reality to A Winter's Love I hadn't expected but that was much appreciated.

In many ways the plot of A Winter's Love is very straightforward and quite simple. A family in something of a crisis reunites for winter in the Swiss mountains, only for all the crises that had been brewing under the surface to erupt. The magic of A Winter's Love, in my opinion, is how gently and softly L'Engle explores these crises. The pace and tone of the novel are quite restrained, but purposefully so. The plot moves slowly, almost as if every second, every decision no matter how small, counts. It is this tension that also gives the novel its beauty since despite the relative normality of the plot I still found myself holding my breath at the turn of a page. What will Emily Bowen do about the distance between her and her husband, and what about her sudden feelings for this other man? Will Courtney Bowen overcome the crippling issues holding him back from embracing his current life? Will Virginia, the Bowen's oldest daughter, cope with the sudden changes in herself and her life as she enters her teenage years?And what about the host of side-characters, each with their own internal life just begging to be explored?

Madeline L'Engle is a master at crafting characters and that is exactly what she does in A Winter's Love. It is not the plot that keeps you hooked to the pages, but rather it is the way in which L'Engle brings all her characters to such immediate life. L'Engle shows that there is something happening behind each closed door, on every face turned away at the end of a sentence, inside every head. There is some tension within the book as L'Engle seems conflicted between making Emily's love affair passionate while also not too much of a temptation. After all, it was written in the 50s. But on the other hand, the ordinariness of it all works in its own way, since the grand passion we sometimes read of in novels is often overly dramatic. The emotions of the novel are also balanced out by L'Engle placing her story in a distinct time period, just after the Second World War. There are other tensions at play in this small Swiss village, remnants of anti-Semitism and Nazi collaboration. In the shadow of the mountains and the Second World War, L'Engle's characters battle with their inner demons and their desire for love and happiness. Although not a happy book, it does feel like a true one.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

A Winter's Love was a novel I took my time with. I loved lingering on it, languidly reading on as L'Engle's characters plod through the snow and through their lives. L'Engle writes beautifully, elevating what could otherwise be quite a dull book. I'd definitely recommend this to those interested in Family Dramas and fans of L'Engle.

Review: 'Everything Is Lies' by Helen Callaghan

Aaah give me all the family drama thrillers! I heard a lot about Everything is Lies and Helen Callaghan before I even started reading this novel, and usually that makes me quite nervous. There is something about major anticipation that alters a reading experience. The expectations are set high, sometimes so high it is almost impossible for an author to meet them. I'm glad to say Callaghan, however, didn't let me down. Thanks to Penguin UK, Micheal Joseph and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 22/02/2018
Publisher: Penguin UK, Michael Joseph
No-one is who you think they are 
Sophia's parents lead quiet, unremarkable lives. At least that is what she's always believed. 
Everyone has secrets 
Until the day she arrives at her childhood home to find a house ringing with silence. Her mother is hanging from a tree. Her father is lying in a pool of his own blood, near to death. 
Especially those closest to you 
The police are convinced it is an attempted murder-suicide. But Sophia is sure that the woman who brought her up isn't a killer. As her father is too ill to talk it is up to Sophia to clear her mother's name. 
And to do this she needs to delve deep into her family's past - a past full of dark secrets she never suspected were there . . . 
What if your parents had been lying to you since the day you were born?
Aren't we all afraid to find out that everything we believe to be true actually isn't? It's always there, that fear, when someone tells us something that we can't quite believe, when a certain look steals into people's eyes, when a movement in the corner of our eye makes us twitch. It is this slight discomfort that some thriller novels pick up on excellently. Everything is Lies is one of those novels that explores our fears that we never really knew the truth, that the people we love aren't what they seem. Family is both a source of comfort and fear since it is what shapes us and yet we also end up moving away from it as we grow older. And this leads us to one of the key questions of Everything is Lies: who are you and how much control do you have over yourself, over your own life? I think this is what most fears come down to, the fear someone will be able to manipulate us to do whatever they want and we'll do so gratefully, not even realizing what is happening or worse, allowing it happily. Without giving too much away, Everything is Lies really digs into this question in an interesting way that has made me curious to read much more.

At the heart of Everything is Lies is Sophia's discovery that everything she thought she knew is perhaps not what it seemed. At the very beginning of the novel she finds herself in a sticky situation with a senior colleague, which sets her on a path of nervous anticipation of disaster. When she discovers her parents, one dead and the other dying, she refuses to believe the police's story that it was her mother. Sophia sets out to prove her mother's innocence and so discovers secrets buried under years of guilt and denial. The pace of Everything is Lies is at times slow but this allows Callaghan to truly set a scene and let her characters get used to the spaces they find themselves in. Throughout the novel Callaghan manages to address a number of themes but the one that stood out to me most was the theme of power (im)balance, especially how easy it is for men in power to take advantage of or threaten young women. It is a very timely theme and it was fascinating to see Callaghan address this in different time periods, both Sophia's present and her mother's past.

Helen Callaghan takes her readers on a journey through Sophia's mind as she begins to unravel her own life and that of her parents. Everything is Lies is split between Sophia's narrative and that of her mother, Nina, as the former starts digging and the latter offers up spare glimpses and explanations. Callaghan strikes a masterful balance between the two, allowing her readers to identify and sympathise with both characters while keeping them on Sophia's side by only giving them the same bare insights as her. There are a number of high intensity scenes in the novel in which Callaghan very successfully keeps the reader on edge, even after the scene has ended. Just like Sophia, the reader finds themselves constantly questioning what people are saying, wondering if they are who they are or if, indeed, everything is lies. In the end I saw some of the plot twists coming, with just enough hints having been dropped that I had terrible realizations before Callaghan revealed them to be truth. But this is part of the fun, figuring things out as or before they happen, and Everything is Lies provides the reader with plenty of twists and turns to make it a real page turner.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I really enjoyed Everything is Lies. It is quite a quick read, a novel that will make you turn the pages without you even being aware of it. Each chapter brings something new to the table and the interplay between mother and daughter, past and present, is very well done. I'd definitely recommend this to those interested in Psychological Thrillers and Family Dramas.

Review: 'The Beauties: Essential Stories' by Anton Chekhov, trans. Nicholas Pasternak Slater

Over the years I have developed a bit of a soft spot for Russian Literature. It started with seeing the opera Onegin, then reading Pushkin's Onegin, before moving on to Bulgakov's The Master & Margarita, which immediately became one of my favourite books. I battled by way through War & Piece for Tolstoy's sake and have now finally found my way to Anton Chekhov. It took longer than it should have, but it was definitely worth the wait. Thanks to Pushkin Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 20/02/2018
Publisher: Pushkin Press
Without doubt one of the greatest observers of human nature in all its messy complexity, Chekhov's short stories are exquisite masterpieces in miniature. His work ranged from the light-hearted comic tales of his early years to some of the most achingly profound stories ever composed, and this variety of tone and temper is collected in this essential new collection.  

Chekhov wrote stories throughout his writing career, and this selection has been chosen from amongst his life's work, including many of his greatest works, alongside unfamiliar discoveries, all newly translated. From the masterpiece of minimalism 'The Beauties', to the beloved classic 'The Lady with the Little Dog', and from 'Rothschild's Fiddle' to bitterly funny 'A Living Chronicle', the stories collected here are the essential collection of Chekhov's greatest tales.
I had never read Chekhov before but he is one of those giants you can't help but know off if you have any interest in literature or drama. I actually mainly knew Chekhov for the latter, his plays which I also hadn't read and his influence on the plays that came after. The principle of 'Chekhov's gun' was, in fact, the only real thing I knew about his writing style and it was that very thing that made me curious to read his fiction, rather than his plays, first. In a play, where you have less time and space, less means to bring meaning across, it is important to make sure every thing that happens or exists on stage matters. To paraphrase the man himself, if you put a loaded rifle on stage, make sure it goes off at some point in the play. But is the same true for fiction? How do you translate that principle to prose? I guess short stories suit themselves well to this principle since you only have limited space, but before going into The Beauties I was still worried that what I would find would be sparse and to the point. Shame on me for not trusting more in the author who has been dubbed the greatest short story writer of all times.

 I have loved short stories for a long time, because I feel that in a way they show more personality than many books do. A short story only has so many pages, which means the author only has so many words at their disposal to entertain you. Maybe they take an absurd concept and elevate it to something magical. Maybe they bowl you over with how beautifully written they are. I didn't know what to expect from Chekhov, whether it would be the absurd or the beautiful. What amazed me about all the stories in The Beauties was how varied they were, yet how real each of them felt. For example, 'A Day in the Country' in which two homeless orphans and a drunk cobbler wander around the countryside, seeing and noticing. The language in this story is beautiful and the final sentence almost had me in tears. Meanwhile 'A Blunder' is genuinely hilarious and made me laugh out loud in a Shanghai Starbucks. 'The Man in a Box' had me feeling slightly odd, while 'Grief' and 'The Kiss' are very different but equally upsetting explorations of love, hope, and desperation. The Beauties holds so many different stories and yet they all come together to paint a portrait of 1800s Russia where beauty exists but also heartbreak, where love exists but hardly ever lasts, where people do the best with what they have.

Anton Chekhov's writing needs no praise from me, but I will give it anyway. In The Beauties the stories range from the most basic tales to the most absurd premises, and yet Chekhov makes each of them work. Take the eponymous 'The Beauties' which is utterly minimalist and has no actual plot that one would recognize. Nothing happens, twice, and yet the story leaves behind a sense of mystery, makes one think on the joy and sadness of beauty. Chekhov managed to get to the very essence of humanity with just a few words, highlighting exactly the moments in life that make us feel something without adorning them unnecessarily. But this doesn't mean Chekhov doesn't play with language. Below is perhaps my favourite quote from the collection, it's taken from 'The Bet':
He read like a man afloat on the sea, surrounded by the wreckage of his ship, trying to save his life by desperately clutching first to one fragment and then another.'
Throughout his stories, whether they require quiet observation, a sense of humour, a touch of tragedy or a breath of the uncanny, Chekhov seems to know exactly what is needed. Nicholas Pasternak Slater does a beautiful job at translating these short stories, retaining both their freshness and their gravitas, elevating the ridiculous as well as the tragic.

I give this collection...

5 Universes!

The Beauties is the perfect proof as to why Chekhov is called the greatest short story writer ever. His stories are so well-balanced, saying exactly what it is they want to say, surprising the reader but also enchanting them. I'd recommend this to anyone with an interest in either Russian Literature or short stories.