What it’s about…

Welcome along to the Fiction of Relationships, my blog for commenting on, or – just about – reviewing, books I’ve read. I’ve been doing this on and off in Amazon for a long time but the comments kind of disappear there and when I want to look back to see what I thought about a book, perhaps because someone else is reading it, it is often hard to find them.

Increasingly, I’m getting books for pre-publication review from the kind people at NetGalley. If a book is marked as NEW it isn’t published yet but when it is I mark it as ‘Just Published’. Books without either are published and available!

I’m interested in the nuts and bolts of popular literary criticism and I think it’s interesting to share different readings of texts in trying to understand what the writer thinks they’re about, and what they might be also about, while putting into words where they might add to what I’m about.

I’m not precious about literary criticism. I have previously got into trouble for casually describing Manon Lescaut as porn for priests and suggesting that Jane Eyre might be related to chick lit but I was only trying to stir things up a bit and move beyond the literary voice.

My view is that you can read most of what you like into texts which is why they are so enjoyable. You should not have to take on received messages or recite ‘literary’ observations to get your grade or make your point. Being totally heretical, because you are talking to a group of collaborative readers, I’m not convinced that you have to evidence with quotation and reference every assertion that you make and there are certain disciplinary practices at work in the formal practice of literary criticism which Foucault would have a laugh about.

It might also be worth remembering that literary criticism has not been going on that long, has constantly been owned by a middle-class and allegedly educated elite, and is subject to constant internal arguments about what it actually is. It also easily leads to sloppy lists of conclusions about books which are simply assumed to be true. That doesn’t of course detract from the enjoyment of talking about books you’ve read!

Finally, one of the nice things about a blog like this is the element of social construction. The reality of any book can be built by readers contributing to blogs and forums, writing fan fiction or whatever and perhaps being informed by expert voices but not necessarily led. Comments are very welcome on any of these reviews!

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JUST PUBLISHED! Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

Wow, this is a read and a half from an incredible talent! The story slithers and bubbles, sometimes with prolonged periods of calm and then the sluice gates are opened. Water is at the heart of this story. The canal where the plot is set is viscerally physical, muddied water, and then the plot slips and slides away. As a reader, it is easiest to let it wash over you!

At one level this is a retelling of the Odysseus story but it sprawls out to draw in lives lived on the margins of civilisation, gender issues and dementia as well as the odd fairytale. It’s more of a palimpsest really overwriting the myth, playing with the characters and taking its own liberties.

I’m not convinced by the canal folk with their own ways of living and running their lives or by the slummy side of the canal network which might offend British Waterways! I can’t help but think that any canal within fifteen miles of Oxford will be colonised by old hippies and millennials by now and will have had the odd makeover courtesy of lottery funding!

The characters in the parallel stories need a bit of sorting out as well and a sympathetic read early on but it’s hard not to be sucked into their world and drawn down into the primaeval ooze at its heart.

There is a lot about language pulled out in the early isolated lives of the mother and daughter, their private language, the daughter working on dictionaries and the confusion caused by dementia. Words are slippery, they run through our hands like water as we try to attribute meanings, they run off into different channels and tributaries of meaning.

That’s why it is sometimes hard to hold on but it’s worth it. This is a most impressive novel and a read that will stay with you.

(The novel was published in July 2018. I received a copy through NetGalley from the publishers Penguin Random House in return for an honest review.)

JUST PUBLISHED! The Wives by Lauren Weisberger

When I started reading this I didn’t know much about Lauren Weisberger except that she wrote The Devil Wears Prada but she appears to be something of an industry writing in the interstices between culture, media and fashion as operated by the super rich in Los Angeles and New York. The book revolves around the lives of three women: Emily, Miriam and Karolina as they maintain their positions on the greasy poles of employment and influence. Emily is a sort of PR consultant, Miriam is just busy being rich with children and Karolina is an ex supermodel with an ambitious husband who is trying to dump her for a new model.

The leading thread in the story is that Karolina has been done for drunk driving and needs an image job which Emily can provide. Along the way it transpires that her husband is more of a villain than anyone might imagine but, in the end, he gets his comeuppance. There are a fair few other villainous husbands scattered throughout the text and there is a long subplot about Miriam’s husband who could be having an affair but turns out to be a sort of good guy. A sort of good guy because good guys are measured by the financial rewards they dish out to wives and partners. There’s a lot of lusting after other people in between, in a city where all of the waiters have unbelievably tight butts and that’s just the men! Emily, married to Miles, has a thing with a chap called Alistair who weaves in and out of her life. There is also a ready supply of available, super attractive, women for the men. Super attractive seems to be partly measured by the amount of silicone in your body and the quality of your fashion accessories. There’s a whiff of product placement here!

Just to locate this in the real world, children are central. What Karolina is really worried about is access to a child called Harry whom she has been pivotal in raising and Emily is pregnant at the end though I’m not sure by whom while Miriam is set up to be a mum with a posh office. It is clear that a lot of nannies will be required!

In the end, if you like this sort of ride then you’ll enjoy it. It is Jackie Collins on MDMA. If you have some kind of moral perspective then you will have to overlook the quite criminal immorality of Karolina’s husband and the slightly dodgy behaviour of Emily and, personally, I wouldn’t trust Miriam’s husband for a minute! There again, if you can overlook all that you might enjoy it as a holiday read but it is also possible that if you buy your clothes in TK Maxx and a night out is a few drinks down the pub this might all seem a little bit alien!

(The book was published in July 2018. I received a free copy through NetGalley from the publishers, HarperCollins, in return for an honest review.)

JUST PUBLISHED! Voices of the Foreign Legion by Adrian Gilbert

This was an interesting read, well researched and presented. Adrian Gilbert has taken a huge range of sources (clearly referenced) and describes life in the French Foreign Legion from recruitment to campaigning since its first notorious campaigns in the 1860s.

The Foreign Legion has always had a special kind of appeal to adventurers, people who have messed up their lives elsewhere, criminals on the run and anyone who simply wants to walk through a door and disappear for five years while becoming a mercenary soldier for France. There’s a certain glamour in all of that but the writer certainly doesn’t overplay it!

First off, once you’ve joined the whole business of induction seems fairly pointless, brutally physical and cruel. The intention is to break the recruit and then create a soldier willing to obey any order and absurdly loyal to the Legion. A permissive attitude towards cruelty and brutality seems to continue but is coupled to a kind of loyalty to your comrades as well. The end product has always been a physically powerful force with enormous reserves of stamina and energy and a willingness to physically engage with any enemy force plus a refusal be defeated.

So far, then, good comic book stuff but the history goes a little awry. The Legion has been involved in the long term decline and collapse of the French Empire and must take some responsibility for the violence of this event. In North Africa and Indochina, in particular, the use of the Legion as a brutal force for suppression must have fuelled a hatred of the colonial nation which the British Empire generally avoided.

It is actually striking how many of the Legion’s military activities seem to have ended badly even if the campaign along the way might be called successful. The force also seemed to have a fairly cavalier attitude towards casualties and you’re left with the feeling that it tolerated greater losses in its mercenary numbers than a regular army would be comfortable with.

However, despite those reservations those who did the initial five years and survived seem to have been positive. A few claimed that the experience changed their lives or put them back on the right track and some joined up for even longer attracted by a pension, if they survived, and the offer of French nationality.

The Legion isn’t romanticised by this account which, although anecdotal, seems fair. If you like military history, it gives what I would reckon to be a fairly accurate picture of life in the biggest mercenary army history has ever seen but it is unlikely you will want to sign up!

(I received a copy of this book from the publishers, Thistle Publishing, and NetGalley in return for an honest review. It was published in August 2018.)

JUST PUBLISHED! Why Mummy Swears by Gill Sims

This book is a follow-up to a previous novel, Why Mummy Drinks, and is essentially in a similar format featuring the trials and tribulations of mummy coping with two nasty yet normal children, Peter and Jane, and a typical (lazy, comfortable, insensitive, unobservant) husband, Simon. The previous novel gets a mention as the app which has made the family a little more financially comfortable.

Gill Sims’ targets are fairly straightforward; school, summer camp and other activities, trying to have a job, being shown up by other mums, getting a job, agonising about it, trying to get hubby to help, being 42, coping with dog crises and, eventually, fighting a way through to a slightly better place.

The book is based on a calendar year so Gill has to cope with all of those regular events that happen to children while surviving on drink and swearing. Jane is thirteen years old and wants an Instagram account while Peter is turning into his dad! The PTA and its activities are something of a running joke.

There is not too much swearing if you are a sensitive soul and while some of the targets are obvious the book is funny and every parent will find something familiar in there. If you wanted to dig a little deeper you might wonder if the book was slightly misogynistic since other wives seem to get a hard time. I did wonder cynically at one time if it could have been written by a man but I think he would have to be fairly insightful into the female condition. The book is also extremely middle-class, possibly slightly wealthy middle-class, and that probably provides easier targets so there’s not a lot about female emancipation or whatever. In the end it’s a comfortable, reassuring read to tell you that it’s all right not to have to compete with everyone else at the school gate and beyond and it’s also okay because things will come right in the end.

I’m looking forward to the sequel, Why Mummy Smokes Crack, where Jane has a teenage pregnancy, Peter has joined a gang and Simon has run-off with the au-pair! I can see some possibilities there!

(This book was published by HarperCollins in 2018 and I received a review copy through NetGalley)

JUST PUBLISHED! Gigolo by Ben Foster and Clifford Thurlow

This is the rags to riches story of a self trained masseur who becomes a gigolo obliging an expanding coterie of rich and influential ladies. It starts in 2006 when one chance contact leads to another, and ends with the financial crash and disaster.

At the start, Ben Foster has a going nowhere job in a unit, maybe a special school, for disturbed young adolescent boys. It’s tough but he likes it. He has a nice wife and kids but all very working class and bumping along just above the poverty line.

It takes a big leap of faith for the reader to go from there to this secret world of the super rich where long legged and elegant ladies groom him as a gigolo and pass him round among their clique. He is just vaguely amazed at all this and goes along with it accepting their gifts of cars and flash clothing as well as the payments for his services. It needs a bigger leap of faith to actually find this story credible, despite a lot of detail about his massage techniques (which has a touch of Wikipedia about it all) and the view of the idle super rich which was a bit Jilly Cooper with extras for me! If any of it is true, we need to feel some sympathy for his poor wife who, we are led to believe, likes her lovemaking so simple that she doesn’t notice how one of his lovers has given him an all over shave and who puts up with his fatuous excuses in return for the odd amount of cash. In the end, I decided she was a bit smarter than him, knew exactly what was going on from the start and took the money.

It was a shame, however, that if she did this then she didn’t invest it. As the financial storm clouds gather, Ben loses his dream job and his developing property portfolio and, suddenly, finds himself back on his beam ends. Ultimately, he takes up his old job again which may earn little money but is based on sound values. I think we are meant to see a touch of redemption here.

The story rolls along and is fairly readable taken with a good helping of a willing suspension of disbelief and you will learn something about massage to try out on your partner! You could do worse on a boring journey but it won’t win any prizes although I’m sorry to say I can imagine it as a film … and then Ben Foster will be rich again!

(Gigolo is just published by Thistle Publishing who kindly sent me a review copy via NetGalley.)

JUST PUBLISHED! Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

This documentary novel provides an oblique means of revisiting a series of events where the realities are so obscured you can have fun recreating them! The starting point is the novelist, Truman Capote, in later life – and arguably lacking self-censorship and good judgement – writing a thinly veiled account of the lives of the rich and famous in the wealthy circles he had access to.

The full book, to be known as Answered Prayers, was never published but part of it appeared in Esquire magazine as La Cote Basque. Swan Song focuses on this but also moves around, exploring Capote’s early life and his appalling relationship with his mother together with the ease with which he found success as a writer. His most successful novel, In Cold Blood, was written in a documentary form and, over the years, there have been plenty of allegations that he was happy to embellish the reality of that story so, in that sense, he had something of a track record as someone who could tell a good story without necessarily too much regard for the truth. He was also someone whose fame allowed him to infiltrate these wealthier socialite levels of society where he was a confidante of many of the women he went on to write about. He was a drunk who played with drugs and was largely, but not exclusively, homosexual but he was also a good listener, often in the public eye and a gossip. It is fair to say that the women he knew best, a group which became known as the Swans, courted him as much as he courted them.

It all went sour when he started writing about them. As the book unravels this period of his life in the 1960s, the women are almost complicit in the stories, enjoying the bitchiness about others, gossiping about what might be in there and feeling offended if excluded. Some of the women are easily recognisable. Jackie Kennedy is in there and Capote has a love hate relationship with her sister Lee Radziwill. American readers will know many of the others – new American money, the wives of politicians and a Guinness heiress.

The story in the novel is told from the perspective of one of this group and the publication of the extract led to Capote being vilified and excluded from it. However, the real consequences went further. There is a character called Ann Hopkins who is clearly a thinly veiled version of Ann Woodward, an aspiring model and showgirl from a country background who wanted to be famous and would do almost anything to get there using her looks and her body. She succeeded and eventually married a rich socialite called William Woodward. The official story then is that, as the relationship came under strain, a burglar came into the house. Confusing her husband for the intruder she accidentally shot him. In Capote’s version she murdered him and escaped conviction because of her connections. Hearing that the story was to be published Ann Woodward committed suicide. Whatever really happened – and it is likely that Capote’s version was closer to the truth – that added to the outrage.

The book unravels all of these things. It is well researched but is also clearly a work of fiction although written in the same documentary style as Capote enjoyed. It catalogues Capote’s very public slide into drugs and alcoholism encouraged by talk show hosts where he made a constant fool of himself while falling out with people who tried to help him. He comes over in the novel as unpleasant but with a superficial easy charm.

It is an interesting read. It encouraged me to find out more about the main characters without liking any of them. The whole thing is a bit of a circus parade but, even today, we all like to get a peep into the lives of the rich and famous and we’re rarely sorry when they crash and burn!

(Swan Song was published in June 2018. I received a review copy courtesy of NetGalley and the publishers, Hutchinson.)

NEW! The Warehouse Industry by William Macbeth

This is a strange book but it also has a compelling pull on the reader. You need to try to work it out! At the start of the novel, we find a young man (I don’t think we ever learn his name) seeking out a job in a warehouse. He isn’t particularly good at this job, doesn’t appear to enjoy it and wouldn’t mind being somewhere else. He is, to be frank, a loser. If you are kind, you might assume he was suffering from some kind of depression.

He has a girlfriend who he robs so he has to leave town. He finds another job in another town and the manager’s daughter takes a shine to him. Neither of these potential relationships appears to be of any interest to our anti-hero and they simply lead him into further problems.

Then, gradually, through a series of flashbacks we begin to find out what has happened. Essentially, two of his brother’s friends decided it would be fun to persuade him that while in an extremely drunken state, where he got involved in a fight, he had killed his opponent. The book now becomes clearer. The young man believes himself to be on the run and is consumed by guilt. It is only much later in his life, after a chance overheard conversation at a wedding that he finds out the truth.

Does his life then get better? Possibly? However an awful lot of it has been wasted. He also takes a fairly brutal revenge on the men who deceived him so it might be the case that he is still a hunted man!

It is not a long book. The style is deliberately flat and, at times, repetitive to convey the mundane quality of his existence. He is beaten up by various people but is quite unable to develop any kind of social existence to counter this violence. Some might say he brings it upon himself. All in all, it is a weird story redeemed by the realisation that there probably are many people living at subsistence level and doomed by guilt and mental illness. In a way, he is a little like Eleanor Oliphant but there appears to be no one around to help him get better.

(This book was published in June 2018 by Thistle Publishing. I received a review copy from the publishers through NetGalley.)