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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PUBLISHED! So Much Life Left Over by Louis de Bernières

When I started reading this book I didn’t realise that it was actually a sequel to an earlier book called The Dust that Falls from Dreams. It didn’t stop me reading it as an independent entity but finding that out explained why some odd characters surfaced without much relevance to the plot.

That is pretty simple. Daniel Pitt, fresh from the First World War, tries to find things to do before the outbreak of the second. He starts off in Ceylon, in love with his wife and everything looks idyllic but then they lose a child and she’s never the same again. She’s called Rosie and she should really have married his brother Archie who nurses a lifetime passion for her but that’s another thing that goes wrong and Archie’s life is destroyed as a consequence. Meanwhile Rosie has two sisters, with whom Daniel gets involved and that story gets complicated too. Around the edges, some old ladies go mad and the working class diversion, Oily Wragge, just gets on with life.

It should be quite a miserable book since Daniel starts off with everything hunky-dory and ends up looking forward to being killed on special operations in the Second World War. Things haven’t gone that well. Actually, they have gone disastrously and, perhaps, that is the theme of the book. Things never work out as you hope and it’s mostly downhill!

Having said that, it is an entertaining read and I think that is because there’s an authenticity about this life and the way that it is described which draws you in. I don’t know if it’s intentional but Daniel is a pretty hopeless character happy to stride about waving his gun but struggling to cope with his own emotional state and needs. You feel sympathy for him. Rosie is unsympathetically drawn, plain nasty at times and overly religious. I thought this portrayal was a bit cruel and Daniel’s stiff upper lip was as big a problem in their relationship as her state of mind. It’s these uncertainties and what ifs which give a story like this its strength and Louis de Bernières can certainly tell a good one. Recommended!

JUST PUBLISHED! Transcription by Kate Atkinson

I enjoyed this book but I also found it vaguely unsatisfying. Perhaps that was because I was bowled over by the previous two but I don’t think that’s entirely the case. Transcription is the theme of this story because the central character, Juliet Armstrong who works for MI5 during the Second World War, is employed in transcribing conversations which German sympathisers have with Godfrey Toby, who they think is a Nazi agent. He isn’t but then no one in this book is quite what they seem.

That’s the other element of transcription and its major flaw. There are gaps in the typed record created by Juliet and there are also gaps in the story. Transcription is not perfect and overlooks elements of purpose and motivation. It gets worse when the gaps may be deliberately incorporated. So, most of the characters work for MI5 and none of them are quite what they seem. Godfrey Toby is talking to a man in an Astrakhan coat, Peregrine Gibbons, call me Perry, could be anyone but is certainly self-deceiving when it comes to his sexuality. Oliver Alleyne might be working for anybody as well and Juliet doesn’t trust him but that might be because she’s working for somebody else too. At least the German fifth columnists are fairly straightforward and there’s a dog which is loyal to whoever owns it at the time.

Juliet moves from transcription to infiltration because it seems to be part of the job and becomes involved with joining and exposing a right-wing group. It ends badly with the group under arrest but that may have been the plan all along. Who knows?

The story jumps about between wartime, the early 1950s and 1981. In the 1950s, Juliet is working for the BBC in schools broadcasting. I liked this side of the novel which is well observed with rather odd people doing things which they think are appropriate for children without very much idea of what that might be but, then, the old wartime loyalties and events start to intrude. It turns out that Juliet is still working for MI5, running a safe house and then someone with secrets who is passing through the safe house gets lost and everything comes apart. Juliet is lucky to escape with her life.

It was this last section I wasn’t entirely satisfied with. The dénouement baldly tells you that everything you thought so far is just a transcription and the truth lies somewhere else or in between. Maybe I needed a few more clues along the way!

One thing to note about the book is how authentic it is  – well researched and reflecting the state of British intelligence, both in wartime and afterwards where everyone was spying on everybody and there were many divided loyalties. Kate Atkinson has rooted around in some interesting sources to create this story so the narrative itself becomes a kind of transcription, a palimpsest, an overheard conversation about what was really happening. And, maybe, that’s all we get – even today – and that’s one of the lessons of the book.

It’s well written. It reminded me in some ways of William Boyd’s ‘Waiting for Sunrise’ which also has deception written into the core and it’s an enjoyable read. Perhaps, if you knew the ending was going to be different you might spot the clues on the way but there would still be a lot of red herrings – mostly working for MI5!

JUST PUBLISHED! The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

There have been a few books written about women in the Trojan wars and Briseis, the Queen of King Mynes of Lyrnessus, features prominently in others but Pat Barker puts a different gloss on the story.

First, the role of the gods is downplayed. Homer, in The Iliad, puts them centre stage  but, here, they seem to be more of an excuse for events than the driving force. The Trojan War in this novel is a nasty dispute between men over a woman which turns into a protracted and pointless conflict. The map is deliberately small with two armies lined up against each other outside the walls of Troy and a battleground between them. Every day, the armies and their hero leaders go out to fight because, well, that is what they do, while the women work on looms.

Second, there is a brutal frankness about how the women are described. They are in the novel but neither romanticised nor at the centre. After the fall of Lyrnessus and the death of the King and his family in the conflict, Briseis is taken as a slave and trophy. She ends up with Achilles which is probably not the worst end she could have faced at that venture. There’s no drama about this. The men and the boys are murdered and the women are raped and enslaved. That’s just what happens when you conquer a city. And, once you’re a slave, you’re just an object to be transacted as and when.

Third, when that happens it is at the whim of your hero owner. These famous names are pompous and petulant as well as being soaked in blood, and a stupid argument between Agamemnon and Achilles causes more death and destruction than required and ends with Briseis being transferred to Agamemnon. Jostling for position and status, taking easy offence and needing constant reassurance, the heroes are deranged. Pat Barker manages to give the impression that they are all suffering from traumatic stress disorders. They sleep badly, kill people on whims, make bad decisions and so on. It’s not surprising. They’ve been on this pointless killing spree for any number of years and they’ve ended up with these two front lines and a mucky mess of no man’s land in between. Sounds familiar?

Briseis strikes up some kind of connection with Patroclus, the close friend of Achilles. After Achilles is instrumental in his death, really only because of his arrogance in letting him take his place in the battle, and after Achilles has killed Hector and, finally, let his (Hector’s) father King Priam have the body, Achilles realises that in some way he needs her support. In some novels this might be played quite sentimentally but not here. Achilles is simply falling apart and needs a bit of sticking plaster before he dies too.

Then, Troy falls and, understandably, there is more murder and rape and then the besieging army sets off home. Just to make sure they get there and just to rub in what this story is really all about, they brutally sacrifice King Priam’s young daughter, Polyxena, in the hope that the weather will be good for the journey, yes really.

She’s gagged before being killed for trying to speak. It’s not good in this world for the chaps to be cursed by someone who is being sacrificed especially an innocent girl so, like all the other women in the narrative, she is silenced. Even Briseis who, to all intents and purposes, is a heroine knows when to keep her mouth shut – because ‘silence becomes a woman’ especially a disempowered slave.

The strength of the novel is that this is a brutish narrative about stupid men having even more stupid arguments. It’s not heroic to die like cattle but lots do and there’s nothing the women can do about it except survive, help the wounded, dress the corpses and keep quiet. That’s when you realise that Pat Barker isn’t just writing about the Trojan wars but about all of them in all of their grand futility. It’s a powerful read.

(Thanks to the publishers, Penguin Books, for a review copy of this novel through NetGalley in return for a fair review.)

NEW! Alice in Pornoland:  Close Encounters with the Victorian Gothic by Laura Helen Marks

This book could do with a severe edit (it reads like a PhD thesis) but once you get past the jargon and repetition it starts to get interesting. It’s a monumental, academic and detailed account of the way that pornography makes use of what is broadly termed Victorian Gothic. That starts with the concept of the neo-Victorian which is an umbrella term for the way that modern culture reuses or reworks widespread cultural understandings about Victorian life. As an example, anything that works its way round the notion of ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ with pompous aristocrats, poor working domestics and a bit of interplay between the two is a good example.

However, this book is about porn and the way that pornography plays around with some specific cultural understandings of what the Victorians were like. That means a lot of exploitation of prostitutes and maids, wives on pedestals lusting after the gardeners, vampires, innocent and hysterical young girls, spanking, colonial relations with the natives, a furtive secrecy about sex, the sense of a bubbling set of passions underneath a refined surface and quite a lot of ignorance. You can add your own topics but you can see how it is attractive material for pornographers as well as for storytellers.

Pornography works at the boundaries of culture, challenging or transgressing our (normative) understandings of what can be properly be said and, here, transforming the past to produce something arousing for the present. There is an interesting circularity there because the arousal links back to an understanding of Victorian culture which in many ways is not as far distanced from 21st-century life as we sometimes like to pretend. In other words, we like this porn (or upstairs, downstairs type material for that matter) because it connects meaningfully to the present. So, maybe, if you went to a more prestigious school you might be into spanking!

Laura Helen Marks points out how there have been efforts in the past few years  to control pornography and to control the spaces, from the Internet to red light districts, where it flourishes, just as Victorian legislators attempted and for similar prurient reasons. In a sense, there’s a constant battle between pornography and censorship but the author also makes the point that the battle ground is also a playground – people enjoy these marginal spaces as porn, mostly on video these days but as prose and graphics in the past.

The focus of the book revolves around some key Victorian starting points including ‘Alice through the Looking Glass’, ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, ‘Dracula’ and ‘Dorian Gray’. There’s lots of material there to work with for pornographers! Some of this kicks off in the domain of respectability so there has been academic and literary interest in Lewis Carroll’s dodgy enthusiasm for young girls, Dracula’s taste for maidens and the question of just how far Dr Jekyll enjoys being Mr Hyde. The trick with neo-Victorian pornography is to take the extra step so that, while providing some arousing titillation in the present, it lifts the lid on an alternative viewing of the past. As just one example, a more feminised reading of ‘Dracula’ makes these extremely voracious fluid extracting women more frightening than the original hero!

The field is slightly complicated by the fact that porn is quite happy to slip over into pastiche so the target of the pornography is something that already represents Victorianism without necessarily providing a ‘real’ picture of life in those times. As an example, there is a short film pastiche of the serious TV series based on Alex Haley’s novel ‘Roots’ called ‘Can’t be Roots’ where everyone, except the cuckolded, daft colonial plantation owners, is at it constantly. At one point, you can imagine the scenario, one of the slaves exclaims, ‘It ain’t so bad being a slave…’. The film, of course, is underlining the opposite point through this pornographic monstrous exaggeration.

Whatever you think about porn and however good you are at concealing and controlling the Mr Hyde which lurks inside you this is a fascinating book. It provides an alternative view of the Victorians as well as of porn, offers an interesting counter to all those genteel accounts of life in those days and provides a gentle warning against well, or unpleasantly, motivated censorship and oppression.

Will you be shocked? Probably not as everyone knows about these sorts of things even if they don’t talk about them. If you follow some of the references – and ‘Can’t be Roots’ is widely available on the Internet – you might be, but blame it on Mr Hyde!

 

(Alice in Pornoland will be published in October 2018 by the University of Illinois Press. Thanks for an advance copy provided by NetGalley in return for an honest review.)

NEW! Sugar by Monique X

This book is written by Monique and recounts her experiences as a ‘sugar baby’, a rather classy sort of escort serving the super rich (sugar daddies) with companionship as well as sex. The story travels from a range of clients to a range of locations and an equally wide range of sexual equipment, positions and peccadilloes. It also includes a large number of restaurants and exotic menus, as well as the odd swinger club for good measure.

Monique is a separated mum with two daughters so, clearly, has a heart of gold and only does this, at least from the start, to support her family. At the end of the novel, she has written a story about her life and and her writing will now support her so she can give up her rich clients.

Hard to know what to say about this book. You might think it was a bit of a turn on but since each episode involved the exchange of large sums of money you might have thought these rich men were mugs. The accounts of what Monique has to eat are an education in themselves in terms of the details she provides so you could end up quite hungry if not aroused.

What else? She seems to find something good to say about all of the sugar daddies. I wasn’t altogether convinced by this and we have no sense of the unsavoury end of prostitution rearing its ugly head. And, despite her wonderful motives, her moral code is suspect. Most of these sugar daddies seem to have wives and families already.

The book goes out of the way to suggest that it is real with acknowledgements to the sugar daddies but I had my nagging doubts. As a piece of writing I’m quite envious because all these trips to Japan and Dubai and elsewhere could probably all be charged up to expenses and I began to think there was some product placement when she went back to the same exotic Japanese restaurant near Liverpool Street. At times, I felt the whole thing was a concoction of Wikipedia and Trip Advisor but maybe I’m just cynical! I suppose it’s all harmless fun but you could imagine some misguided and foolish women thinking that this was the life and getting into some very nasty places as a consequence and that’s slightly worrying.

Anyway, Monique will probably be interviewed on TV soon and turn out to be an absolute charmer and all my doubts will have to be dispelled. In the meantime, if you catch flu or are laid up with a bad back this will keep you occupied and distracted for a while and, in spite of everything, she does keep the story rolling along.

(Sugar will published by Thistle Publishing in November 2018. The publishers provided me with an advance copy in return for a fair review.)

JUST PUBLISHED! Love is Blind by William Boyd

William Boyd knows how to tell a good story; well researched, historical detail and good characterisation. I liked this story about Brodie Moncur and his hopeless pursuit of the beautiful Russian love of his life. Like a lot of his recent novels the book sprawls across time, in this case from late Victorian to just before the First World War and the narrative travels from Edinburgh to Paris, the south of France, Geneva and Trieste. Considering that Brodie Moncur is just a piano tuner that’s a pretty amazing life story!

The story is blighted by the illness which eventually will kill him and his relationship with the lovely Lika and the evil Killbarron brothers who also make an effort in that direction. Along the way, we encounter Brodie’s shellshocked Victorian family and their horrible father and a range of people who help or hinder him. It is the detail in the relationships which William Boyd develops for his characters which make them come to life. What it is like to live with the diagnosis of tuberculosis before antibiotics is also well explored and you can also learn something about piano tuning and music.

When you say that a writer tells a good story what you must mean is that they have this control of the narrative in time and place and they create realism and an authenticity which the reader can engage with. The way this story unravels reminds me of a John Buchan novel – a sequence of events sometimes rooted in normality and at others quite extraordinary but all held together by narrative skill.

If you wanted to carp, you might think that the lovers could really have disappeared quite effectively in Europe at that time let alone in Russia. There are times when Lika comes over as a bit Greta Garbo and when Malachi Killbarron is almost too Machiavellian and devilish in his pursuit of Brodie but hey ho it’s a great story and it will one day make a film with a super soundtrack.

( I received a copy of this book from the publishers, Penguin Books through NetGalley in return for an honest review. It will be published in September 2018).

JUST PUBLISHED! Practical Sexuality Laugh & Learn by Noah Holder, Ana Maria Parisi, Hedda Lamb and Gotta Penn

I’m afraid that this is a simply awful book. I was going to blame the publishers but I see that it is an EPUB edition only. It is flagged up as a witty account of how to survive the battle of the sexes but that’s being very generous at a lot of levels. It is subtitled The Battle of the Sexes: How to Survive and Win and I think that’s really a gross misrepresentation.

First off, the book is horribly out of date in its notion of humour. It’s like reading the joke pages from an old edition of Men Only or that slightly raunchy page from the Readers Digest. Its misogynistic although it probably doesn’t think it is. Guys, well guys, hey, leave their stuff about, could be cleaner, will shag anything anytime and are a bit vague on which bits of a woman elicit the best response. Women are conniving, devious manipulators determined to get what they want driven by a desire for material things and seeking total obedience from men in return for very occasional sex. Can you see the difference?

Second, the book jumps all over the place with lists, quotations, limericks and amateurish drawings. If it was your Pinterest page dragged from bad webpages you’d be apologetic rather than self publishing. A lot of it looks as if the authors couldn’t even be bothered to retype it.

And, third, a lot of this jokey stuff is familiar if not rather tired. There’s a whole vein of recent comedy and comment about how the sexes relate to each other but this book is stuck in a time when men went out to work and earned the real money, women were fair game for sexual comment in offices where they had trivial jobs and people thought jokes about Irish people, and thick people generally, were really funny. There’s also rather a lot of stuff about poo for a book on sex. I think the world has moved on.

I wasn’t looking for profundities. I just fancied a light, easy, funny summer read. Maybe this wasn’t the book to choose.

(I have to admit that I received a copy of this book from NetGalley and the publishers in return for an honest review. I’m sorry it turned out like this!)